This past Saturday, I ended my Airship Privateers campaign for good. This is never a decision I make lightly, but it’s also not a decision I’m afraid to make once I’m sure it’s the right course.
I knew it was the right thing to do when it hit me that I’d rather rake the yard than do prep for the game. At the moment, I’d rather do just about anything than prep, including things — like raking leaves — that aren’t generally at the top of anyone’s list!
To try and make prep more fun (or at least easier), I’ve compiled a list of GM prep resources for RPGs for day 26 of the Blogging for GMs project.
But first, a question: why isn’t prepping for a game more fun?
The first answer, of course, is that for some (many? most?) GMs, it is fun. Maybe not as fun as running the game, but still fun.
The second answer is that sometimes it’s fun for me, too — there’s bad prep, and then there’s good prep.
For me, good prep is more like brainstorming, very freeform and with no real deadline attached. This is why I love coming up with new campaigns — because it doesn’t feel like work, and the boundaries haven’t been established yet. (Conversely, that sometimes means I over-develop for an upcoming game, which I talked about a bit in “Lead With the Cool Stuff.”)
Bad prep is more like homework: the ultimate goal is a good one (running a fun game/learning the most from a class), but the path to that goal isn’t very enjoyable. Unfortunately, much like school, there’s really no getting around that homework — most games won’t go very well without it (although there are exceptions).
To be fair, part of the reason I stopped running my ex-current game is unrelated to my general distaste for prep: my girlfriend and I just moved, and I’ve got two freelance projects on my plate. Even though I took special steps to make this a low-prep game (see “The Bones in the Soup” for details), I still have too much going on to run a game right now. (And since I write a blog about GMing, that feels a little bit weird!)
I’ve been GMing for a long time (17 years, at present) so you’d think I’d have figured out how to have fun doing prep by now — but I haven’t, and it remains one of my biggest weaknesses as a GM. I’m not in the habit of posting here on TT just to grouse, though, so with that in mind I did something constructive: I compiled a list of links to preparation-related resources for game masters.
This list is as comprehensive as I can make it, but I know there’ll be things that I missed. My goal with this post is to create a one-stop shop of links to resources that will help GMs prep for their games — if you know of a resource that should be on this list, let me know!
(It’s also worth noting that I’ve erred on the side of being too inclusive with this list. I’ve left off a few things that were too short to be useful, or only marginally relevant, but I’ve left on some resources that — in my opinion — are dated, flawed or otherwise less than ideal. You might disagree with my assessment, and I’d rather give you that opportunity!)
GM Prep Resources for RPGs – Online
Campaign Preparation – An Eight Month Journey
The Color of Adventure III: Preparation for a Roleplaying Adventure
Effective Game Mastering
The Fine Art of Winging It
5 Principles: Preparation
5 Tips For Sci-Fi Campaign Preparation
Gaming in the Modern World
Improvisation Tricks for Game Masters
I Was a Teenage Game Master, or the ABCs of Convention Gming
The Lazy GM
Player complexity vs GM complexity
Preparing for a Game
Preparing To Run A Commercial Module
Preparation of Material for a Roleplaying Adventure
The Proper Preparation of the Dungeon Master
Running Adventures with Little Preparation
Run Random Run Rampant
What do you do to prepare for a game?
GM Prep Resources for RPGs – Books
These books all have sections on or related to prep, alongside other GMing topics. The prep info in the DMG II and Advanced GMG is fairly system-neutral, so you might find them useful even if you’re not running D&D.
Advanced Gamemaster’s Guide, Green Ronin
Dungeon Master’s Guide II, Wizards of the Coast
Gamemastering Secrets Second Edition, Grey Ghost Press
There are some good resources on this list, but what surprises me is that there aren’t more of them. So either a) there just isn’t that much material online aimed at making GM prep easier or more fun, or b) I’ve missed one or more obvious things.
Do you see something missing? Let me know in the comments (and thanks in advance!).
Martin, I sympathise with you. Unfun prep is definitely a significant factor in what’s killing my interest in my Arcana Evolved campaign. It was a real struggle to force myself to sit down and do the prep.
But there are other sorts of prep I really enjoy, and it’s not like I don’t enjoy AE prep at all, it is fun to work up characters in D20. But it can take as long or longer to write up a good encounter as it will take to run that encounter. And with the PCs levelling so fast, it’s not like the prep has a high re-useability.
Contrast that to how I prep monsters in Cold Iron. In Cold Iron, it takes me 10-20 minutes to write up the stats for a monster, and in doing so, I’ve written up a progression of the monster for 4-8 levels. Lots of re-useability.
Another thing is that in Cold Iron I don’t run long dungeons. I may use a small dungeon-like module, but it will only have a handfull of encounters at most.
So my prep time for encounters/adventure is mostly spending an hour or three looking through my Dungeon magazines and modules looking for something inspiring. And sometimes, it’s just deciding on a handfull of creatures the PCs are likely to encounter in their travels.
But there’s also a fair bit of other prep time for Cold Iron I spend, which is very different and lots of fun. I have a program that I use to generate magic item price lists (and a few other things). This program is always getting tweaks and new abilities (eventually I’ll probably get around to setting it up so it generates the level expansion). Two Cold Iron campaigns ago, I was dusting off Cold Iron after last having run it in college. The program assumed output was to an Epson dot matrix printer (and ran under DOS). It just plain wasn’t going to work with my HP ink jet (it didn’t bump into Windows 95 at least). So it was obvious I needed a new way to print. Not wanting to get into the intricacies of producing direct printer output, and not feeling like turning it into a Windows program, I settled on a new way of doing things. The program would generate an RTF document which I could print out from MS Word. That was lots of fun, and the program acquired some new capabilities (like some formatting markup).
One thing I found personally useful in Arcana Evolved (and I’m sure it’s mentioned on the above sites) is to have the SRD and AE in electronic form. That makes it easy to cut and paste information directly into my stat block format (perhaps before running D20 again, I should write a program that searches the SRD for a specified creature and converts it’s stat block to my format, probably slowly enhanced to handle some of the creature advancement). Of course PCGen and it’s like would also be helpful (I haven’t gone this route yet mostly because I just have no confidence it’s output will really be useful to me, and concerns about customizing it for some of my slight rules variations).
Maybe I’m just lucky or weird, but most of my prep happens before a campaign, while between sessions it’s usually an hour at most for the crunchier games and as little as 10 minutes for non-crunchy games.
The biggest thing(s) I stopped doing was:
– Writing out scripts/plot trees/etc.
– Fully statting NPCs like PCs (for the crunchier games, I usually pull a pregen if possible, or else throw flat ratings for the non-crucial stats)
What is it that’s eating up most of your prep time?
Frank: Your program tweaking for Cold Iron sounds more like puttering than prep (and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way). That would be fun for me as well, partly because it doesn’t sound essential to the game, and partly because there’s no deadline or other real impetus to get it done, except that you enjoy getting it done. I’m a champion putterer. 😉
(Chris) What is it thatâ€™s eating up most of your prep time?
For this particular game, it’s basic stuff: choosing alternate monsters (from a cast of thousands) and trying to link published adventures. This stuff is cake — on the prep Richter scale, it barely registers, but it’s time consuming enough that I don’t want to do it at the moment.
Good point about puttering vs. prep, though I have been under deadline pressure with it (but I also have to say, now that we’ve settled on RQ for our next campaign, I’m really bummed I won’t get to put more work on the program).
For this particular game, itâ€™s basic stuff: choosing alternate monsters (from a cast of thousands)
Aha! The number one complain I have with D&D. We have this bogus position ultimately for one reason. When Gygax, Arneson, etal. came up with D&D from Chainmail, they made a fundamental mistake. Instead of extending the idea of “levels” (which chainmail did have for fighting men and wizards) to all creatures, we’re stuck with Hobgoblins because no-one considered making a level progression for goblins.
Of course once the ground was set, we started to see more monsters with different abilities. Since D&D, just about every new edition of the game has had more monsters in it’s core monster book than the previous game (the only exception would be the original Basic D&D – though I’d need to verify it actually has fewer monsters than Monsters and Treasure).
Cold Iron and Rune Quest both work excellently with a very small stable of monsters (though possibly more than Monsters and Treasure had). Sure, I stated up kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, ogres, trolls, giants, etc. for Cold Iron. The reality was that 90% of the humanoid encounters were goblins or trolls (Cold Iron trolls are more akin to ogres than traditional trolls), oh I also had less intelligent trolls that didn’t use weapons. For undead I had ghouls, skeletons, wights, and wraiths (where the difference between wights and wraith is that wights are the fighters and wraiths are the spell casters). I may have occaisionally tossed in an occaisional undead troll or somesuch.
The other areas D&D promoted proliferation that doesn’t really help the game:
Spells (Cold Iron has a fixed spell list, I added fewer than 10 spells to it, RQ did eventually double the spell list, but RQ may have fewer Spirit and Rune spells than D&D has 1st level spells).
Magic Items (all but a handfull of magic items in Cold Iron are simply ways to use the existing spells in potion form [supplies it’s own mana], charged items [4 variants that extend the targeting range from the item itself, to the user, to someone the user scores a hit on, to ranged], and permanent items [same 4 variants as charged], RQ has spell matrixes, power storage crystals, potions, a handfull of other items, and some artifacts [which I’ve never used]).
Character classes (while I added new skill classes to Cold Iron, fundamentally it works with 4 classes, fighter, mage, cleric, and passive magic [all characters are multi-classed fighter/magic, passive magic only helps saves and understanding of magic], RQ manages with a skill list smaller than GURPS 1st edition had).
Basically, D&D is about creating new things for every need rather than working from a few basic principles (RQ was the first game I’m aware of that put some basic principles in it’s magic so that many spells basically work the same), and recognizing that the reality is you don’t need tons of options. Chess is one of the most challenging games out there, and it uses six unique pieces (and in theory, you could prep for chess challenges by taking the pieces and trying out interesting board placements of them, and then presenting the puzzle to solve, of course you might accidentally create a board position that’s impossible, or one that would essentially never arise in real play – but it would still be fun to try and figure out how to achieve check-mate from various board positions).
I’m not even totally convinced characters need to be all that fundamentally different to have challenging tactical play (again, look at chess – everyone plays the same starting lineup).
Trying to link published adventures
Yea, I hear you on that one, it’s probably really similar to the process I go through trying to pick a module to fit into an RQ or Cold Iron campaign. In my favorite RQ campaign, it did present some pressure (some Saturdays I was still rummaging my module shelves as the players were arriving), but mostly it was fun (reading modules and imagining how one might use them is enjoyable).
I think it is harder when using the game system the modules are designed for because then I’m trying to find a module of the appropriate level. When I’m using a D&D module in RQ or Cold Iron, I’m just looking for a cool map with some plot elements and creature suggestions.
This part was another incredible frustration with AE. I would look for a module at the right level, but I’d also have to consider how much could be used off the shelf, and how much I was going to have to rework because the module had D&D PC classes that would need conversion to AE (mostly spell casters, but fighters and barbarians and such need conversion also). In my Arcana Unearthed campaign, I was also using the Diamond Throne setting, so many D&D monsters had to be converted also (mostly the humanoids).
Ooh, did I let the flood gates open there. I really do think the prep issue is far more the problem for me than the spell caster dominance issue (that’s just the final straw that makes the play unfun on top of all the teeth grinding prep).
I could go with a simpler version of D&D type gaming, but that wouldn’t work for me. I’d still be trying to pull in all the extra crud. With RQ and Cold Iron, there just isn’t stuff to pull in. I have 95% of the published official RQ material and probably 50% of the fanzine material. Almost no new RQ material is being produced. Part of what made my favorite college Cold Iron campaign work is that I was using the Blackmoor setting, which when I started was finished and done with (though during play, TSR suddenly released 4 Blackmoor modules, but they didn’t change play all that much). My favorite RQ campaign fell apart partly due to the volume of new material Avalon Hill was publishing (I started it right about the time AH suddenly woke up and started doing Glorantha again for RQ).
Of course part of me is always bummed out when I can’t walk into the store and find some cool new product to purchase. The other half of me is relieved that I won’t be buying yet another D&D book that looks cool but ultimately is useless (I first hit that realization with the Wildernes Survival Guide and the Dungeon Survival Guide, though I continued buying most of the 1st ed. setting hardcovers, then 2nd ed. coincided with my realization I had all the D&D material I ever needed, and I had typed it all into the computer, by the end of my last 1st ed campaign, I didn’t need to bring a single D&D book with me to the session).
I’m sorry that your game folded so fast. If prep is “cake”, then does the time crunch explain it at all? It sounds more like a loss of interest– is that where your freelance projects interfere? After doing monsters (or whatever) for work, you don’t want to turn around and do them for fun?
Do you still have the time to be a player, if someone else steps up? Or is this looking like a longer hiatus?
Hope you find gaming fun again soon,
For this particular game, itâ€™s basic stuff: choosing alternate monsters (from a cast of thousands) and trying to link published adventures.
That’s so interesting to me- the number of monsters is what makes it so easy for me to prep D20- I flip through the two monster books I have for about 10 minutes, or look up a beastie on http://www.D20srd, check CR ratings and copy the basic stats.
But published adventures? I wonder if it really is just taking longer to study the adventure as written instead of scrawling up some notes for yourself session to session.
(Frank) Aha! The number one complain I have with D&D.
I have to admit, I’m my own worst enemy on this one: I love monster books, and I own about 75% of the ones out there for 3.x. 😉
(Scott) If prep is â€œcakeâ€, then does the time crunch explain it at all? It sounds more like a loss of interestâ€“ is that where your freelance projects interfere? After doing monsters (or whatever) for work, you donâ€™t want to turn around and do them for fun?
I think the prep I’m giving up on is cake in the sense that much harder, more time consuming prep could be involved (and it certainly exists). Most of my freelance work so far is more fluff than crunch, so apart the time constraint I don’t think that it’s a factor in the way that you described.
On the interest side of things, I have fun at every session, and I have a great group — but my heart’s not in the game, and that traces back to the prep. If no prep was needed, I’d still be going. 😉
Do you still have the time to be a player, if someone else steps up? Or is this looking like a longer hiatus?
Absolutely! We’re closing in on having two alternating games, and keeping our weekly gaming schedule. Actually, it’ll be really nice to play again, and I’m curious to see how that effects what I post about here on TT.
I can only think of one or two times since I started gaming that I’ve deliberately taken a break from it entirely. I hate not gaming. 😉
(Chris) But published adventures? I wonder if it really is just taking longer to study the adventure as written instead of scrawling up some notes for yourself session to session.
If by scrawling up notes from session to session you mean writing my own adventures, I’ve always found that that takes longer for me.
Actually, I meant to ask you about that: assuming that you’d qualify Iron Heroes as a crunchy game, how can you get by with an hour of prep for each session? That sounds awesome, I just don’t see how to do it!
(Chris) Oh yeah, and related: This thread on rpg.net just opened.
Thanks — it looks promising, and I’ve added it to the list. 🙂
I’ve been reading through your links. One comment I have so far is that about half of them talk from the perspective of what I call a “plotted campaign.” This campaign style is something I never got into, and I think is the greatest source of illusionist play (not that I’ve never been illusionist, I’ve just never bought into the “campaign story” that I must push forward, and when I have had “adventure stories” that I had to push forward, they almost always flopped, and I’d get away from them for a while).
I’ll hazard one guess on IH – Mastering Iron Heroes provides some stuff to quickly stat up “classed” type opposition, by picking a CR and a few abilities. This puts them back into the realm of monsters (look in the back of the MM through the list for the CR you want, pick one).
I’m considering taking a module off the web and prepping it for Cold Iron and posting that as an example of what my Cold Iron prep process is. Then I might point my players at it and see if I can’t yet sell them on Cold Iron (Rune Quest will be ok, and I do want to make use of all the RQ source material I’ve bought in the past three years, but I’m really affraid that this group of players isn’t invested in it – the only RQ campaign that I ran that went Really Well (TM) was one where the two primary players very very invested in the setting – one was an old RQ hack, who may have had more source material than I did at the time, the other bought into the setting quickly – plus I’m still struggling with how to get RQ chargen to work right for the gamist style of play we have, whereas I know Cold Iron will work just fine in that aspect).
Given the decision of where to go with the AE campaign and Dark Tower, and the fact that I have to do some more prep for that, I might also post my prep for that as a contrast (hmm, now what might be interesting is to do the same prep for Cold Iron…but folks would have to spend $3 on DrivethruRPG.com if they don’t have a copy of the Dark Tower to see the source I’m prepping from).
Frank: I for one would be interested in seeing a sort of “roadmap” of your prep (an overview, as opposed to the full details). I think that has a pretty high potential to be useful to other GMs, myself included.
Ok, I’ll format it as an outline/roadmap with pointers to some of the details. The details will be most useful for selling people on Cold Iron, but I think reading at least some of the details will be valuable in understanding my design process.
For one thing, there’s a key process for my Cold Iron prep that depends on the fact that the stat block for a Cold Iron creature can pretty much fit on one or two lines of text. I did manage to duplicate this idea somewhat for Rune Quest. It would be neat to do so for D&D, but D&D is way too complex for it to work satisfyingly (actually, D&D DOES sort of do something similar in the NPC progressions in the DMG – but they don’t work for me).
Any other thoughts as to what people want to see will be welcome. I’ll probably work on this Thursday night, but it could end up over the weekend (I’d like to get it into the Blogging for GMs project).
(Frank) Iâ€™ll probably work on this Thursday night, but it could end up over the weekend (Iâ€™d like to get it into the Blogging for GMs project).
It’s worth noting that I’ll most likely be out of town for part of this weekend, and I don’t know if I’ll have net access or not. This may mean that contributions for the project received on Friday or Saturday won’t get posted until Sunday or Monday. (They will be posted, though!)
I have not looked over the links yet, though I will later. I too have a love/hate relationship with prep. I could still use some improvement, though I have some ideas. (Some of this was mentioned in earlier topics.)
1. The longer the campaign, the more tired I am of prep. The solution is shorter campaigns, with definite ends. For a long campaign, I break it down somewhat into “books”. For example, my current multi-year campaign has 5 “books”. We are finishing up the second (which was a lot of dungeon crawl, strange creatures) and going on to the “rebuild trade on the high seas” book.
I am starting to tire of the campaign a bit already, but this new “book” has given me a boost. (Since I am tiring faster than anticipated, I’ll contrive to make the last three books shorter.)
2. I’m of the firm opinion, for many reasons, that having lots of monsters to pick from is great. Using lots of different monsters in the same campaign is not. Simplified prep is a nice byproduct of restricting your monster list.
2B. Once you decide to use relatively few monsters, it means that you will vary slightly the ones that you do use. Your players need far less variance than you do! If they wipe out tough guy #1 on the first round of combat, no biggie. Use him again later, only this time give him a different weapon, +2 BAB and saves, and a different appearance. (That is, file off the serial numbers.)
3. A situation that a wise party will run from is a reusable situation, by definition. (Or a TPK, if the wisdom short circuits–but then, that either ends the campaign or has a certain amount of reuse, anyway.)
4. From object-oriented programming–An element can not be said to be reusable until one has actually reused it. That is, don’t put a lot of extra work into making a particular piece of prep reusable. Have a general strategy for reuse, so that you can find/rework the thing you want to reuse at the appropriate time. Actually reuse something once, however, and it will be a snap to reuse later.
Moreover, this often dovetails with good storytelling. A second use of “skilled goblin fighter” may look like a coincidence (or even lazy DMing) to the players. Three or more uses seems like a plot. 🙂 The same idea works with locations. Don’t spend 4 hours mapping out the market, because you know the party will revisit every adventure. Instead, add one or two small details to the market each time the party visits. We all know not to over develop when we start the campaign. It’s easy to forget this as the campaign progresses.
5. My biggest prep weakness, especially with my large group of players: I want relatively weak magic items that are still cool. There are only so many of these that you can come up with. I’ve gotten around it somewhat currently by running an item-poor campaign. But I still feel the pinch.
Actually, I meant to ask you about that: assuming that youâ€™d qualify Iron Heroes as a crunchy game, how can you get by with an hour of prep for each session? That sounds awesome, I just donâ€™t see how to do it!
Here’s how I do it…
1) I come up with a general theme for the session. Last time- it was “When animals attack”, based on some of the events in play.
2) Pick out any major encounters I’m going to have. I flip through the books I have (Monsternomicon, Creature Collection) unless I have something specific in mind. The theme idea from step one guides my choices, though I’m willing to throw in an extra beastie if I can work it in.
I typically choose threats from the party’s level in CR up to 3 higher.
3) Think of it like a movie- what would be a cool fight scene? Then I scratch up maps, nothing very clean or detailed, just enough so that I can properly draw up the maps on the vinyl map when it comes time to play.
For example, Creature Collection has “Lesser Gorgons” which are basically stoney lion creatures- I figured it would be cool to have them leaping from rooftops and pouncing people.
4) Add Action Zones, Conditional Zones, etc.
This is particular to Iron Heroes, though the concept can cross over to any game. Basically- if this was a Jackie Chan fight- where are all the cool things to swing from, push over, throw, or use as weapons?
For one encounter- I more or less ripped off the set from Kung-Fu Hustle- a multi leveled slum- you have small stoves outside, food cooking, a chamberpot (full), a shelf of pottery, etc.
Then I add some small mechanics “Chamberpot, Ref save vs. ranged touch attack or blinded 1D3 rounds”…
Session ready to go.
It’s not like I can point to speed being a thing of “mastery of mechanics” for me or anything like that. The only major thing I can say I’m doing is not statting up NPCs like PCs. Or drawing up full maps of areas, or detailing shops or stuff like that. It’s not like I’m improvising stuff you don’t normally improvise…
Ok, I’ve browsed all of the links. After the first few, almost none of them talk about pre-plotted campaigns (though one of the later ones did mention making the players “think” they made a choice – that’s a big red illusionism flag).
CJ – on over prep for re-useablility: I agree this can be a problem. The tradeoff is how much time does it take. For Cold Iron, I usually stat out creatures at 1st through 6th level (big creatures in Cold Iron don’t get more levels, they get more hit points per level – lots more – so they don’t need huge amounts of levels to be challenging). After figuring out the 1st level stats, it usually takes me less additional time to stat out the other 5 levels. Then I decide which level to actually use (now I’ll admit, I actually rarely use 1st and 2nd level creatures, so there would be something to be said for shortcutting the system).
Now if I think a creature really will be a throwaway, I do just stat it up at the level I need it.
But it’s also important that in Cold Iron I use very few different monsters, so the probability of re-useability is high. Also, the general lack of special abilities etc. means that high challenge creatures aren’t totally different from low challenge creatures.
I think where overprep can come into play more is with locations, and your point about slowly adding detail to a location that is revisited is a good one. And it’s kind of realistic. The first time you visit someplace, you only note a few characteristics of the place. The more you visit it, the more things you remember. Also, avoiding overprep of this sort makes it easier to adapt the location as things change. If you know what every building in the city is, what do you do when you have the perfect module (or idea of your own), that requires a particular type of building in a particular quarter of the city, and the only such candidate has been visited by the players before and is well established.
I have a love-hate relationship with commercial supplements detailing a city. Most of the time, you never use even 1% of the city (look at any of the city anthologies such as Thieve’s World and see how many buildings ever appear in the stories). On the other hand, it’s really cool if a fight breaks out on a street that you can tell people exactly what buildings are there. Not to mention that these days, shopping is generally no longer played out.
After lunch with my Dad (and discussions about paths of prep, expectations and the like)– perhaps the next session just needed to be different. For example, if you normally have a fight or two (or ten) a week, you could have switched to politics for a week.
Say, the airship is trying to cross the border but they won’t let you through; it’s clearly a political thing. The session could have then spun off into figuring out who has the power & influence to stop you… which would get away from “the fight of the week” for a bit.
Anyway, glad to hear that you’ve got good substitute gaming going on. Let us know how it works from the player end– maybe you can have a “31 Days of being a good player” in January. 😉
I really do think the answer is finding a system of play that requires less prep.
I’m a huge advocate of the system Ron Edwards presents in Sorcerer and Sword. (I talk a bit about it over on my blog, under “Character Creation”, which morphed into a post about campaign creation in general.)
This technique involves coming up with the premise of the campaign (enough to sell it to the players, not much more), and having them do a great deal of the heavy lifting.
I’ve totally abandoned the idea of a central GM-provided plot, and focus on helping the players come up with compelling PCs with goals and potential conflcis aplenty. My experience over the last two years is that once you’ve got that, GM prep is reduced to coming up with ways to complicate and interweave those individual subplots.
That approach isn’t for everyone, but as someone who used to burn the midnight oil prepping D20 and now gets to relax and actually enjoy thinking up elements of future sessions, I have to recommend it.
Andrew, from my limited understanding of “premise” as detailed by Ron E., not sure it is the same thing, but there is a sense in which I run any game without a central GM-provided plot. And that includes d20.
Let me be clear. At the start of the campaign, or a major piece of it, I’ll think up a plot. I may or may not get lots of help from the players (directly, or via cues from earlier actions). Then I construct foes and locations that will work with that plot and the complications. The foes have proper motivation. Then this is the crucial step–I throw the plot out the window.
So you might say that the plot is only a brainstorming device. But past that, I’m just playing the NPCs as they want to act. If they have a certain amount of success, the resulting campaign may even bear some resemblance to the proto plot. 😀 If not, we may do something very different.
Most of my grudge prep work is done on locations. I’m getting gradually better at determing which *part* of a location is critical, versus the parts that should just have a couple of notes.
(CJ) The longer the campaign, the more tired I am of prep. The solution is shorter campaigns, with definite ends.
This is exactly what one of my group’s GMs is planning for his upcoming game, and I think it’s an excellent idea.
Session ready to go.
Reading through your prep list, it doesn’t look like you’re threading sessions together with a story, or including much in the way of a plot — is that accurate? Or is that assumed to be part of one of your prep steps?
(Frank) I have a love-hate relationship with commercial supplements detailing a city. Most of the time, you never use even 1% of the city (look at any of the city anthologies such as Thieveâ€™s World and see how many buildings ever appear in the stories).
This is why I look at city supplements (and the like) primarily as idea mines, and secondarily as sources to pull buildings/whatever from as needed. I like the level of detail because it gives me ideas, not because I’ll ever use even a fraction of it.
(David) Hereâ€™s an article I wrote a few years ago about running unprepared
Thanks, David — I’ve added it to the list.
(Scott) Let us know how it works from the player endâ€“ maybe you can have a â€œ31 Days of being a good playerâ€ in January.
I think this would be fun, but it’d be a stretch to include it in a blog for GMs (at least in my mind). If I find that I’m learning interesting things by playing again, though, I’ll certainly post about them!
(Andrew) I really do think the answer is finding a system of play that requires less prep.
I think you’re right. No surprise, I’ve already put “What am I going to run next?” on a back burner in my brain, and “something low prep” is definitely part of the mix. My leaning is actually towards experimenting with several games, a few sessions each (along the lines of what Chris has mentioned doing) — that sounds like a lot of fun to me.
(CJ again) So you might say that the plot is only a brainstorming device. But past that, Iâ€™m just playing the NPCs as they want to act. If they have a certain amount of success, the resulting campaign may even bear some resemblance to the proto plot. 😀 If not, we may do something very different.
From what I’ve read, this sounds a lot like one approach to novel-writing, especially in the way you let the NPC’s actions — based on motivations, etc. — drive your end of things.
Reading through your prep list, it doesnâ€™t look like youâ€™re threading sessions together with a story, or including much in the way of a plot â€” is that accurate? Or is that assumed to be part of one of your prep steps?
Not much in the way of writing out plot scenes or dialogue- I usually jot down a few sentences that gives me enough to run the session – “Alchemist’s Guild makes an offer.” “Secret of the Liches revealed.” “Sir Kamal is a jerk.” etc. 4 or 5 of these is enough for me to work with.
Even for more “story oriented” games, I tend to do even less prep. Most of the prep I do comes before a campaign, where I set up the major characters and the conflict. If I know the NPCs motives- I can just play them like PCs and I don’t have to do much prep.
I mean, the players come to the table every session without “prepping”- they look at their character sheet, they know their character and his or her motivations, and they react. I set up my NPCs with motivations that will conflict in interesting ways, tangle the PCs all up in it, and then I just look down my list of NPCs and have them react. For those games, prep is half an hour to as little as 10 minutes before any given session.
For Iron Heroes, because we’re running high combat- it takes about an hour to do all the steps I listed. It’s the “high prep” game for me to deal with, but as you see, as long as you’re not:
A) statting NPCs like PCs (one of the most time consuming processes)
B) writing up plot trees, or detailed descriptions of every room, or what people are going to be saying
– then the time to prep is not bad at all.
Back in college, my Cold Iron prep often was very minimal. If I had in mind something more than wandering the wilderness, I would spend some time picking over my modules looking for something useable. Then I might spend a little bit of time statting up some NPCs for it. Otherwise, I would just come up with encounters as we went. At various times, I would have spent some non-specific prep time (possibly “puttering” time) statting up generic monsters for later use.
One thing that was really helpful in Cold Iron is that the combat stats are actually pretty simple, and lately I’ve made it easier for NPCs by having a chart with pre-computed progressions, so I just have to add the attribute modifiers and figure a few minor things. So the only complex thing is if I have to stat out an NPC spell caster, and there I might not figure out all his spells.
Rune Quest is also easy to stat up monsters, I just need the attributes (most of which get directly used, or figure into damage bonuses), then I just assign skill ratings for the skills I expect to come into play (usually combat, but possibly things like hide and spot).
Now back in college, I could probably have done with more prep and less figure as we go and the game would have run smoother.
This prep issue is why I am so frustrated with D20. Both Cold Iron and Rune Quest manage to have NPCs that technically work the same way as PCs without being so much work as D20 (of course part of the work in D20 is doing things in a way that you can still theoretically compute a challenge rating).
I’m doing essentially the same thing as Chris, I think–except that I really must put some time into prepping locations. To the extent that the party moves around a lot, this can easily be half my prep time.
For better or worse, I’m one of those people that need some detailed notes on a location. I don’t have to do a room by room guide for 25 caverns in a crawl, complete with lots of description. But I do need notes on possible skill use and monster tactics in the more interesting places. Otherwise, I’ll improv those in a very dull manner.
Which is to say I’m not really “writing a module” in the traditional sense. I’m writing a lot of notes to myself for things that will sail clear out of my mind when the adventure starts. 🙂 I don’t have the same problem with foes or magic items (once I have them roughly statted out). So that stuff needs minimal prep and then I carry it around in my head for months, with only a bit of notes to remind myself of pertinent details.
(CJ) I donâ€™t have to do a room by room guide for 25 caverns in a crawl, complete with lots of description.
I’m still trying to get my head around this one, because it’s one of the things I tend to need most! I like the challenge of winging monsters tactics in combat, but if I don’t have some pretty good notes on what’s in a room, I’m likely to forget things when details from that room become relevant later. Just different wiring, I suppose. 😉
What sorts of details of the rooms do you need? I tend to run pretty light on the details (when using a module, I won’t even necessarily use all the detail they provide). I find a lot of time, most of the detail is worthless. But part of that is I’m not very verbal. I can imagine a room in my mind, but I’m hopeless on communicating that. So I tend to stick to detail that can be represented visually (so Tomb of Horror’s style pictures are one thing that works for me – assuming I’m not writing part of the detail out of the game, changing creatures for example). If I have detail like the height of the door, or which way it opens, then I can use that, but I can wing that information also.
Just wanted to say- my players had been asking to go up against some NPCs using the PCs classes- my prep time tripled. I think the reason the various Monster Manual type books work for me is that all you have to do is select the monster and copy the stats. Building NPCs means having to consider a bucket of choices and calculate stats.
If I HAD to use NPCs based on PC classes regularly, I’d probably knock out a couple of optimized builds (“The Tank”, “The Two Weapon Guy”, etc.) complete with Feat maps and stat them for, say, every 4 levels. (“Oh, here’s a Level 8 tank, that ought to work”)
Still that’s a lot of damn work, to save work. Though I like the crunch of IH in play, I don’t like the crunch in prep in that regard. Pregen’ed opposition is good, I think I’ll stick with mostly monsters.
Reading through this it seems rather obvious to me that the problem isn’t desire or knowledge on how to properly prep for a game, it’s the game itself: D&D.
I just thought I’d point out the elephant standing in the middle of the room.
Really good point Chris. Early in the campaign, I did use mostly creatures right out of the Monster Manual (in fact, I was often pressed for prep time, so I’d end up just running the encounter straight from the MM), or straight from the module as prepared. I had one encounter where I used classed NPCs (and I really dreaded the prep on that one – I actually steered the PCs away from it for one session so I’d have time to prep).
When I first glommed onto the idea of using the Dark Tower, I hadn’t realized so many of the encounters were classed opponents. Even some of the creatures needed work (ok, goblins aren’t going to work for an 8th level [at the time] party, need to make them something different…).
But of course the players do want to see some opposition that uses the features of the game, which means classed opponents. And I suspect they are most appreciated when they are somewhat customized. Which of course means work work work…
I suspect D&D isn’t so bad because you can pick up a variety of modules and use them straight, but AE or IH have totally different classes. IH’s idea of villain classes at least lets you stat up generic intelligent creatures quickly. AE fighters aren’t quite so bad since they don’t get that many bonus feats. There are also 25 level progressions for each class and variant on the CD provided in the Battle Box (though I only used those for a few Champions of Justice and Champions of Death).
I think I would also give serious consideration to a 25 or 28 point build. This campaign used a 32 point build which puts the PCs quite a step above the default NPCs.
I did some work on an example Cold Iron prep last night (I didn’t finish between futzing with my month old flat pannel display that just died and getting side tracked in some rules stuff, it also took me a couple hours to find a suitable adventure to stat up – ended up using just a map from the WOTC site). It really reminds me of one of the parts I like best about Cold Iron.
And I still wonder just how much D20 needs the additional detail. AD&D was pretty fun and the only NPCs that took any time to stat up were spell casters (and in the days of fire and forget, I didn’t spend a lot of time on their spells – just duplicating the most common attack spells and throwing in a few utility spells). Cold Iron has the same degree of prep.
Then GURPS and Champions came along and no longer is a character who can be represented on a file card (in normal size print) acceptable to players any more…
Abulia – I’m mostly with you on that (I think lower level D&D does work ok, but the game starts to get too complex starting somewhere around 7th level, though it doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks until a few levels later).
The problem I have had is finding players willing to try other systems. Back in high school and college it was easy with a big games club (and honestly more willingness to try different systems – though part of that was probably that it’s a lot easier to sit down and try something new when you’re at the meeting already – these days, playing out of my house, people have to exchange e-mail, then make an effort to come over after their busy day – I can see why people might not want to make that kind of investment for a game they might not like).
I’m really happy right now I havde a group that is interested in the same sort of play I am, and is willing to try something new. I had at one time considered running a D20 game soley as a recruiting tool. I’m thinking that would actually work. Anytime my group seems to be too small, start a D20 campaign (while possibly still continuing whatever else I play), play the campaign until I’m sick of it, in the meantime, inviting the players who I hit off the best with to my other game circle.
Of course I’m still not quite sure how to try out some narativist style gaming, though several of us have touched base via Find Play.
The thing that gets me- is that D&D solves this issue for it’s monsters- but doesn’t apply that same logic to dealing with NPCs.
I mean, sure the DMG gives you some prestatted NPCs using PC classes, but they sure as hell aren’t designed with “PC challenge in mind” like the monsters are, nor are they presented as nicely as the monsters.
(Frank) What sorts of details of the rooms do you need?
I’m happy to wing things like which way doors open (although if the adventure is a dungeon crawl, I do like that to be standardized and mentioned up front), but I like to be pretty precise about the room’s contents, both in terms of obvious things like secret doors as well as fluff and flavorful descriptions.
(Chris) The thing that gets me- is that D&D solves this issue for itâ€™s monsters- but doesnâ€™t apply that same logic to dealing with NPCs.
Posts 29-32 all touched on this, and I think it’s 100% correct. What I would most like to see in this regard is a sub-system that allows a D&D GM to quickly create NPCs with enough depth to be used in combat. To my mind, that means that while I don’t need to know about NPC X’s +6 in Craft (Basketweaving), I do want more info than just the combat portion of the stat block.
I’d prefer to see this as a part of the system itself, rather than a bolt-on — but if someone came up with a clever, workable bolt-on, they could have my money. 🙂
This is my first post/comment to your site. I thoroughly enjoy reading all the GM hints and tips, and felt like I’ve had nothing to add, until now.
There is a great website for random NPC generation for d20 NPCs. I have just started using it, and it is a godsend. I thought you might want to check it out. I included the website in the website section of the Comment. Feel free to edit this comment appropriately to include.
A brief history: 20 years ago, I stopped playing DnD. Two years ago, a friend was starting up a game, and I really wanted to start playing again. Two years later, I’m DMing for the first time ever. As a “novice” DM, I use your site extensively for help in DMing. But I too, have experienced a sort of burnout, primarily because I’m new to DMing. The website has definitely helped with creating NPCs, and I feel more energized now that I don’t have to stat them up from scratch.
I hope this helps.
An NPC generator would be nice, though since I favor Arcana Evolved (or possibly Iron Heroes), I don’t forsee lots of tools. Perhaps that’s part of the problem, a system like D20 can have very complex prep that benefits from computer tools only if the particular system is well accepted. Variants to the system are unlikely to be covered by such tools (though I do understand PCGen does cover quite a few variant products). I think the real problem starts to come in if you want to mix and match bits (take a PrC from here, a feat from there). Another thing that might be hard is if you make NPCs follow certain traditions (Clerics of Foo always take Power Attack). Those traditions can even speed up creation (because certain feat and spell selections are given and you don’t have to think about them).
(Martin) Iâ€™m happy to wing things like which way doors open (although if the adventure is a dungeon crawl, I do like that to be standardized and mentioned up front), but I like to be pretty precise about the roomâ€™s contents, both in terms of obvious things like secret doors as well as fluff and flavorful descriptions.
I never get that much into the flavorful description. I guess that partly goes along with my combat oriented gamist play. But part of it also is that I can never really communicate my vision (I’m very visually oriented, and less so verbally oriented). I think I gave up trying to convey a lot of this information. I also noticed that it usually really didn’t matter.
(Mark) As a â€œnoviceâ€ DM, I use your site extensively for help in DMing.
That’s great, Mark — I hope this blog will continue to be useful to you as you get back into the GMing groove. 🙂
Jamis Buck’s generators (of which the NPC generator you mentioned is one) are a great D&D resource. I don’t think they’re quite general enough for the prep resources list, but thank you for the recommendation.
(Frank) But part of it also is that I can never really communicate my vision (Iâ€™m very visually oriented, and less so verbally oriented). I think I gave up trying to convey a lot of this information. I also noticed that it usually really didnâ€™t matter.
That’s funny: I have a very visual imagination as well, and part of what I shoot for when I GM is communicating the (usually) very clear picture in my head to the players — which, for me, requires detailed room descriptions and the like. 😉
Prep time hurts rules-heavy games like D&D, if you don’t take the time to do things by-the-book (creating NPCs, using monsters to their fullest, stocking rooms), you’re cheating your players out of really ‘playing’ the game. In some senses, playing D&D is like playing a computer game, and the referee gets to be the programmer and world creator (i.e. it’s a lot of work, and I’ve been both). I really don’t ‘wing it’ when I play D&D, for the same reasons I don’t ‘wing it’ when I play Monopoly – players play for the rules, their character builds, and getting treasure. Besides, there are other games better suited to free-form or relaxed play, such as the d6 System or other more ‘cinematic’ RPGs.
I helped write the game SBRPG, and tackled the prep-time issue head-on. The game uses Generic NPCs, where all you need is a level number, and the the NPC works just as well as a fully-generated character in the game (monsters work similarly). The game also has the concept of Factions in the world, and uses an abstract GM-run system to determine reactions to events based on the Faction’s ability scores. It’s a simple system, but it saves a referee a lot of work. I think we need games like this with tools to reduce referee prep-time, or put some fun back into it.
(Hak) I think we need games like this with tools to reduce referee prep-time, or put some fun back into it.
I couldn’t agree more. As far D&D goes, the first person who does this will definitely get my money. 😉
I took a look at SBRPG based on your link, and it looks interesting. 🙂
So, what, then, is the consensus on good ole AD&D, 2nd ed?
And have any of you played Silhouette-based games from DP9?
I ask this stuff because I’m GMed on and off for years, but I still feel like a novice GM. The prep time just hurts, and when the rules are too complex, like d20 3rd ed, I just get bogged down even in play.
(Brandon) So, what, then, is the consensus on good ole AD&D, 2nd ed?
Do you mean the consensus on AD&D 2e in terms of prep time/effort?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I found that some things took longer with 2e than 3.x. For instance, winging NPCs was a bit easier because there was less to keep track of (no feats, for example) — but the CR system really speeds up prep for monster encounters.
I imagine that the Skills & Powers titles for 2e would throw that balance off, but I never used them.
As for ways to cut down on prep time in 3.x, there are some good resources in the articles and books above. Leaning on published material and using NPC generators is a good start, but to give you more specific advice I’d have to know what’s bogging you down. 🙂
I’ve never played any DP9 games — is there something unique about their prep? (And if so, I’m certainly interested in hearing about it! :))
Well, I’ve read a lot of Dream Pod 9’s silhouette-based materials, but I’ve never actually run or even played in a game, because it’s apparently just obscure enough that trying to find a few players wherever you are can be a challenge.
The system is good about dropping hints as to how to plan games, however.
I guess what got me thinking was wondering if there’s any way to quantify the prep requirements of a game. Obviously the well-versed will have an easier time, but are there certain grunt tasks that make some games simply more work than others?
I’m sorry I missed your follow-up, Brandon!
There are definitely grunt tasks that make some games harder/more time consuming to prep for than others. Here are two that come to mind:
1. If you want to challenge the party with “full” NPCs in D&D 3.x, for example, creating NPCs can take a long time (even with a character generator to lean on).
2. Making maps for tactical combat can also be a sticker — especially if you make a map that never gets used (which I’ve done before!).