I’m a planner. It drives me crazy when I don’t know what is happening next (or for the next few months, for that matter). As a gamemaster (GM), you’ll have to decide how far ahead to plan your sessions. Roleplaying games (RPG’s) present a special challenge to your planning: players and the dice have an effect on what happens next.
In this article, we’ll look at three time frames from planning your sessions, their advantages and disadvantages. As always, there is no “One True Way”, and you may use all three time frames under different circumstances.
In some cases, GM’s will only plan for one session. For example, there’s no point in planning more than one session for a convention game. If you are starting with a new group, you may want your first session to be self-contained. This gives them the opportunity for a complete adventure right off the bat. Also, some GM’s only plan for one session to better respond to their players goals and interests. Sometimes something a player says or does provides clear direction for planning the next session.
Single session planning does have some drawbacks. If players burn through your adventure faster than you planned, you’ll have to scramble for “what comes next.” You may not be able to foreshadow the next session, It’s difficult to provide hooks for a future story if you don’t have one in mind.
TWO TO THREE SESSIONS
Planning a couple of sessions (or so) ahead has a lot of advantages. You’ll always have extra material if your players complete a major task early. You’ll be able to foreshadow the next session and provide story hooks early. Three sessions or so can form a nice mini-campaign. Planning a few sessions ahead still allows you to respond to player interest. While you may not address the very next session, your players still won’t have to wait long.
To avoid railroading when planning several sessions, you may want to consider Island Design Theory. This allows you to plan ahead (good for your own sanity), while still allowing the sessions to move around (good for player empowerment). If you don’t want to change the order of your sessions, you can also just change the goal. Instead of entering the Tomb of Possible Dismemberment to find the Sword of Eld, they can go in to capture the scoundrel Mr. Raeus instead. A final issue is that you may plan sessions and then not use them. Sometimes player actions take the campaign in a different direction. Be sure to save these unused gems for another time.
In this time-frame, you map out the campaign from beginning to end. The goal is to hit the major plot points and reach the finale. You may have side adventures along the way, but they are not the main focus. This allows you to use foreshadowing and recurring villains to craft a true epic. This sense of an over-arching story can help motivate players to return session after session.
This time-frame can be especially susceptible to railroading. Again, Island Design Theory can help keep the campaign more fluid and responsive to the player characters actions. It also requires a lot of foresight and planning on the GM’s part. Some GM’s may not want to feel so constrained. If you decide that you’d like to change the flavor of a campaign in midstream, players may still want a resolution to the main storyline. Lastly, you may plot out an epic campaign, only to have real life cut it short in the middle. Sadly, it happens.
Of course there are many other options. Some games support developing sessions collaboratively on the fly. No (or minimal) planning needed. Another option is to have a general campaign goal in mind, but to prepare sessions as you get to them. Ultimately, you’ll have to see what works best for you and your group.
How far ahead to you prepare? What other benefits and concerns can you suggest? Let us know below.