The Stuff First Officers Are Made Of

Written ByCalliope
Published On

What Makes For the Best aGMs?

Like most things, doing something well can just come naturally, or at least can come easily with practice. And also, being a good XO for a specific sim will likely require different things particular to the GM and the style of sim being hosted, making some of the advice on offer below irrelevant to your situation.

To those who are still reading, please note as you continue that I will swap aGM and XO as terms. I still heavily sim in Trekdom, although I have had forays into other IPs. I’ve been a GM who has experienced having XOs of various abilities and support styles. And I’ve been an aGM to varying degrees of success, since every sim is itself a kind of organism of which no single part accounts for the entirety of success or, sadly sometimes, failure. With all that in mind, I’m putting my thoughts together in a pot and stirring them, looking for some general principles and characteristics to outline, and here’s what’s come up. Take what helps to bolster you if you’re an aGM, and use these to identify what strengths you have and what other areas you want to self- cultivate. Or use this to have an idea of what kind of qualities and participation you might hope for from your aGMs. And if your aGM is making the difference for you in a game, whether you are the GM or a player, let him know you appreciate it.

The first and best hope for the success of a sim, is, of course, the GM. But the next best hope for the success of the sim is the GM’s support structure, often embodied as aGMs. This might be a GM leadership team. It might be staff or department heads. You might never fill the XO spot or even have one, relying on player support informally. But boiled down, I’m going to address this support structure as one person, just to make what kinds of things the aGM supplies to a sim more easily discussed.

CO’s Sounding Board & Big Vision Support

Some GMs are like batman. They work alone. At night. Wearing a mask and driving cool souped up motorcycles. But most GMs need a wingman to one degree or another. They need to flesh out their ideas OOC and have someone as a reliable IC responder as they set up the plot items for the whole crew.

While not all GMs and aGMs have to be BFFs, my best experiences as an aGM or having an aGM have always included the kind of trust building that stems from cultivating an OOC friendship. Is it necessary to be besties forever within the GM team? No. Is it potentially better for the special sauce of the sim atmosphere? Hella yeah.

To be clear, the GM team being tight should never exclude either of them from building other friendships. I think we all can agree, exclusionary friendships are not healthy. Part of the goal of the GM Team building trust together is to be able to extend that trust outward and to model healthy simming friendship throughout the reach of their influence.

Different games have different tones and scopes, and a powerful GM pair up will share a ‘philosophy’ or an approach to what they want to accomplish, and then demonstrate and maintain it, setting a precedent others can pattern their contributions after. That vision needs to proceed from the GM and be communicated with the aGM, and the aGM needs to also own it wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, if there is a schism in that vision, the schism will play out in the game for everyone. The aGM challenges and strengthens a GM privately if there’s a disagreement, and a wise GM knows how to take this constructive criticism in the right spirit. A good aGM is a dedicated ally, but not just a yes-man.

IC & OOC Proactive Tone Setting: Personability, Availability, & Attention

The XO has the special opportunity to be a tone setter. Taking a little extra care to consider how inviting the sim’s outward facing materials are worded, such as news articles and features, and being a little more interactive on average in discord or whatever ooc channels of communication the sim has, can help players to feel they can make a home with the sim. Minimizing the idea of punitive reaction and maximizing the idea of promotional encouragement creates an environment where people are more interested in spending their hobby time. While the GM and aGM are largely united and advance the sim as one, dividing up the job so that someone can handle hospitality more and someone else is generally the face of authority and maybe bad news should the need arise, can help the GM team to channel their energies best and both maintain order and hospitality. This division is not a hard rule and can cut either way on the GM team, but often the buck stops with the GM and the welcome mat is put out by the aGM. However I’ve been on teams where the opposite is true and is just as functional. And there are many cases where the team swaps based on the situation at hand and who happens to be the most familiar with the details or has the temperament suited to the need.

It also seems best when a hospitable member (or even just the more available member) of the leadership team is actively privately messaging with players, conversationally gathering specific player feedback, character development, and finer story thread details and helping those advance as the GM can focus on bigger plot arcs. Essentially, the aGM can make sure that based on the inside knowledge and trust he has with the GM, he can divine which parts of the supporting development fit best and how to play up both what the players are looking to do while supporting what the GM has coming down the pike.

Since Trek is still largely my standard of comparison, when I think about the best first officer characters, they tend to have personalities and backgrounds that are just as strong and meaningful as the CO. Spock, Riker and Kira are my benchmarks. They’re able to carry the story, should the CO be busy on a vision quest or romancing some alien. OR they become wonderful features for a branchline on their own away mission, romance, alien possession, secret investigations, or operation to rescue their captain. They are feature characters convincingly in their own right. When they aren’t, they have to be worked around and can barely carry the story more meaningfully than an npc, becoming just a default backup bridge officer. It’s vitally important to my mind that the XO character be one with some standalone gusto and possess qualities distinct enough for others to build their own character reactions and story and development interplay with.

XOs should be prepared to be kind of ring masters- always standing in the spotlight, but for the purpose of calling up the next act. And designing a character that can be used to that purpose can be a good way to handle it. An XO begging off of more active posting on account of not wanting too much attention and failing to make a story that others want to read and to interact with, will only succeed in making the circus a lot less exciting. It’s best when such lime light is owned with the right intentions in mind to be collaborative. So on the one hand, you can’t completely hog the spotlight and never call up the other acts, but on the other, you can’t just sit in the stands. Make an interesting character, fill out the character’s story, support the GM’s story goals, and ultimately leverage your key placement and activity to draw others in.

An aGM should be able to make themselves available to others. People with ideas and feelings and creative itches and feedback need an open line of communication so they can work on those with someone. This doesn’t have to mean you can’t have a life or always have to be at everyone’s instant beck and call, but it does mean that everyone should be able to rely on you to get back to them and to do so in a positive, conversational manner. That kind of tone and attention goes a long way in building trust and can become positively infectious. I know as an XO, I don’t always have that energy to give. But it is possible to fake it till you make it. If you front the energy to smile at someone, the smile they give back can bolster you too. Someone just has to scrape up some good feels to prime the pump and as XO, fronting that kind of positive energy can be something special you bring to everyone. I’d challenge every aGM to make that part of their personal gift to the sim they love.

People often seek out a sim in part based on the potential they have for connecting with the sim leadership, and it’s a big part of making a sim into a home where someone wants to come back and spend their free time regularly with the people there.

Creative Problem Solving & Proactive Communication

The GM has X in the plan. Three players have L, D, and T in mind for their characters. You are the one person that knows all this. The GM didn’t tell them X. They are happily writing L, D, and T for a long time, and you have been chatting with them about it for months where maybe they haven’t shared as much with the GM. They’re hyped, but you know everyone is about to run into major disconnect and disappointment and either flare hot or go cold about it. And you have two important goals, to support the GM plot on one hand and to help all of the players realize their goals on the other. All of a sudden you feel like Toby McGuire Spidy trying to stop a moving train running off a broken rail bridge ahead. Only you’re not allowed to stop the train. So this metaphor really breaks down. Except the pain is still real.

You are the designated negotiator. Everyone expects you to be the negotiator, in fact. You not only know the story parts to the degree everyone has shared with you, but you know the sim structure, player availability, and story pacing. There’s so many plates spinning and you are the one they are relying on to decide which ones stay and which ones fall. Because at some point, everyone can’t have it all. But everyone can have it most, if you’re clever and manage the interconnected details and timing with all the parties and they respect your authority to do so and trust you and communicate with you.

The XO gets to present the needs of the players to the GM and help collaborate and propose ways to interconnect the disparate and sometimes seemingly contradicting parts. Ultimately the GM has the final call, because someone has to, but a smart GM will flex his plans to the collaborative energies his players are presenting which, in a healthy and active sim, are almost always impossible to predict from the outset of the plan.

So after successful ongoing negotiation, in the end the story could become a variant of the GM’s X, with an L and a D branch that you found a way to integrate and the players gave a little and the GM gave a little, and then T gets a subplot that has some potential for a hook into the next story. Everyone is heard and understood, the story involves them to the degree that they like, and they get to have their own contributions without the whole thing freezing up or outright colliding at a crossroads. As an aGM I would have to say that this kind of successful story collaboration is one of my proudest contributions to a sim. There’s little more satisfying than looking back over a time in the game where you helped everyone to realize their stories together, advocating between friends to support everyone have something truly well made and transformative to enjoy and reflect back on positively.

Plus the Other Stuff

To me those are some of the most vital ways to be a wonderful support to a GM. There’s a lot of other ways an XO can contribute that I could get into. Like playing plot specific npcs or villains or other recurring pnpcs to help players interact. Helping with reporting and tracking. Settling player differences amicably before they become disputes. Recruitment, application review, and new player onboarding. Contributing to awards and news. Making sim resources and reference documents. Helping with practical things like website maintenance.

Oh, yeah, and if the GM goes on vacation, the aGM can cover for a while!

With a little determination and heart, we can all be the best support we can for our GMs and build up our favorite sims. So go forth and help someone else lead!