This article was written for the first annual New Year, New Game blog carnival hosted by Gnome Stew as part of the 2012 NYNG challenge.
This past weekend I wrapped up a 16-month Star Trek campaign, and ending it (always a tricky affair) made me think about how I started it — which in turn seemed like a pretty good topic to cover for NYNG.
I’m going to talk specifics because this stuff all worked for me, and for this particular game, but the trick to starting a new game right is learning what works for you as a GM and for the specific game you’re going to run. It’s a fuzzy process, and both GMing experience and time spent as a player watching what other GMs do help make it go more smoothly.
Basically, I prepared for my first session of Star Trek by stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down.
Steal What Works
Three Things: I stole fellow gnome Don Mappin’s Three Things technique to get my players to come up with usable ideas for the game, increasing their buy-in in the process. Over the course of the campaign, I hit every one of their three things in the game.
First session structure: I also stole Don’s approach of running a fairly “character-neutral” first session — one that showcases the game’s highlights, but which isn’t deeply connected to any of the PCs. That doesn’t mean a session where the PCs are just color, or don’t have anything to do, just one where another group of PCs could have been slotted in without any problems (IE, more like a published scenario).
Templates: From the excellent Star Trek Narrator’s Guide (sadly OOP, but well worth tracking down; it’s full of excellent GMing advice and tools), I stole templates for the series profile (a quick summary of the tone and focus of the campaign), episode structure (the three-act model, which was a great way to get sessions to feel like Star Trek), planetary profiles (to provide pertinent info on the worlds featured in the game), and more. I can’t praise this book highly enough as a GMing aid. The Stew’s own DNAphil has also written some excellent material about using templates in your game, notably Prep-Lite Manifesto: The Template.
My own advice from years past: I also ate my own dog food (which I guess counts as stealing from myself?), sticking closely to GMing advice I wrote back in 2005 and 2007, respectively: Lead with the Cool Stuff (don’t save your best ideas — use them!) and PC Backgrounds: Pressure Doesn’t Make Diamonds (if you ask for backgrounds, ask the right way and use what you get). And, of course, I used my three playlist system for background music.
Antogonists: And finally, I stole from my players again by asking them what enemy group/race they’d like to see be the focus of season one. They chose Romulans, which drew a box in which I could play to one of my biggest strengths as a GM: creativity with constraints. I used a Romulan NPC from one player’s background as the central villain for the whole season, and made every other episode about Romulans to a greater or lesser degree.
Try New Things, Too
Running a new game is a great excused to step outside your comfort zone, and I always like to try a couple of new things when I start a new game. Not too many, because that tends to overwhelm me, but a couple.
Going digital: The biggest new thing I tried was going almost entirely digitial for this campaign. I used Obsidian Portal to do that, and it worked beautifully as a repository and tool for collaboration. I also used Google Docs to take notes during sessions.
No screen: Despite being a screen fanatic, over the past few years I’ve warmed up to the idea of not using one at all. This was the first game where my screen stayed folded up in front of me with its most useful tables showing, not set up to shield things from my players’ view. With a laptop and minimal paper, there’s nothing to shield!
One hour of prep per session: I made it a goal to prep in an hour or less for each session, and generally hit 30 minutes of “semi-prep” — brainstorming in the car and writing down a brief bulleted outline of the episode — followed by one hour (sometimes 90 minutes) of actual prep. Given that I used to spend 4-8 hours per session in past games, hitting 60-90 minutes was a huge shift — and one that worked really well, forcing me to pack in only the important stuff and rely on one of my strengths as a GM: improvisation.
Next time I start a new game, I’ll do many — though likely not all — of the same things. This is my current groove, and it works well for me; I hope that some of this advice resonates with you, as well.
How do you prepare to run a new game?