First Time GM is a series of articles dedicated to the newly-minted game master, making his or her first tentative die rolls behind the screen. Today’s article deals with techniques used to prepare for a game. A broader look at the process is here.

GMing is an art form; no two GMs will prepare in exactly the same manner. In addition, the list of techniques for game prep is massive and ever-changing. I’ll try to cover a few big topics, but each GM have to find what works best for them.

First Time Out

For truly first-time GMs, I strongly recommend a published adventure. Preferably one by the writers of the game, for low-level play, using pre-generated characters, and where player choices are somewhat limited (like a dungeon crawl).

Published adventures, especially ones by the writers of the system, are usually balanced, usually point out some of the cooler parts of the game system, and (most importantly) have been playtested to ensure that the players should enjoy it.

Low level play is much easier to manage than high level, especially for the GM. Encounters tend to take less time, which is good, because novice GMs should take their time learning the rules. Low level monsters, traps, and characters have less information to clog up your already full memory banks.

Unless your group is already comfortable with the rules system, pre-generated characters are the best way to go. Many systems will have character generation pitfalls that aren’t obvious until after the game has started (such as the broad but very limited abilities of generalists), and pre-gens will usually avoid these pitfalls. Also, you want to run a game, not sit there for an hour while the players argue over who has to play the cleric this time.

Limiting the players’ choices is somewhat ‘railroadish’, but getting behind the screen is confusing enough. For the first few times behind the screen, it’s best to keep the action somewhat predictable and well-defined. Save the free-form ‘sandbox’ style for later.

When using a published adventure, read it cover-to-cover twice. Highlight important passages. Make notes in the margin or on a notepad. Run a ‘test encounter’ to see the rules in play. Create a rough playbook for important NPCs — Which ability will they use first? Under what conditions will they retreat? How open to negotiations are they? Get comfortable enough with the adventure to know where to find the important points when the party gets to them. If it helps, use post-it notes or adhesive flags to mark important rules in the core books.

Rolling Your Own

Once the initial adventures are over, many GMs are eager to to take the reins and start their own campaigns. Some stick with published ‘adventure paths’, while others prefer to start entirely from scratch, either in an established setting, or in one of their own creation. I suggest sticking to the published material when possible, at least until you’re comfortable behind the screen.

Regardless, there are a few general techniques for game prep:

  • Define only what is necessary — The recurring shopkeeper’s combat stats are not important, but his personality and interests might be. On the other hand, City Guardsmen might need combat stats, but little more. Resist the urge to overdevelop.
  • How does each element add to the game? — An NPC might help move the story forward, might add some verisimilitude to the game world, might supply the PCs with resources, or might provide some brief opposition. An NPC who brings nothing to the game is superfluous.
  • Start small, grow organically — Address the immediate surroundings and questions first, then move on to more distant areas. For instance, in a classic D&D campaign, the party will need a place to stay, a place to buy and sell things, and somewhere to adventure. As the party moves on to bigger tasks, create those, but resist the temptation to work too far ahead. Many a beautifully crafted location or story has been skipped when the PCs became interested in something else.
  • NPCs, Locations, and Loot — You’ll need all three, and can often mix and match them when needed. NPCs include monsters, allies, contacts, etc. Locations are where they are encountered, and often impact the encounter with environmental modifiers. Loot is anything not in the above categories — treasure, transportation, information, etc. Create more than you need of each, and you’ll never lack for the building blocks of a good encounter.
  • NPC Creation — For NPCs the party will socially interact with, define at least three things about them: likes, dislikes, fears, goals, personality quirks, looks, mannerisms, accents, etc.
  • Sounding BoardsChando42, in a great comment, pointed out the value of a sounding board. Bounce your ideas off of someone else, and see if they stand up to someone else’s perspective.
  • Information Management — How do you organize your information? Computer (wiki, website, text files, etc)? Notebooks? Index cards? I’ll have more on this in a future article, but take some time to try out a few options before settling on one, and be very open to shifting gears if it isn’t working for you.

Before the Game

The day before the game, I like to review the rules for any new weapons, spells, critters, etc that I or the players will be using this session. Too many games have ground to a halt while the group looks up and argues about how the new ‘thing’ actually works.

The day of the game, I scan my notes, remind myself of the important points in each scene or for each NPC, and try to take a few minutes before the game to relax and ‘get into character’ as it were. A few minutes’ relaxation before a game can make all the difference between a mediocre session and a great one.

During and After the Game

Your prep may be over once the players arrive, but the acid test is just beginning. During the game, make notes to yourself about how your prep and notes worked, and especially what didn’t work. Did the structure work? Do you prefer the critters’ stats on the page of the room they’re in, or collected in an appendix in the back? Did your chosen ‘stat block’ format work for you? Did you prep everything you needed, and need everything you prepped?

Don’t be too harsh on yourself, but be aware of what didn’t work, and make an effort to change it up the next time around. Feel free to try out new techniques and see what works for you.

Do you have any favorite prep techniques or anything else to add? Sound off in the comments and let us know!