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Loose Prep, Detailed Play

When I run my D&D 4e game I use a random encounter generator. I look at the stats for the various monsters, and I then put those monsters into the game. This might result in a zombie, some lizard people, a classic magical beast, and a handful of human minions being the encounter. If the PCs decide to travel into the woods that evening these monsters are suddenly re-skinned as various wild elves with a strange fey creature that acts as a watch dog. If the PCs head into the city this encounter becomes a group of bandits, a necromancer who has hired them, and the enchanted beast that serves at his side.

I do not care what the monster’s name is. I am not going to spend hours designing the perfect encounter for the woods, and then even more time on an encounter for the city. The only thing I care about is if the encounter is correct for the party’s level.

I even generate random treasure and just come up with a plausible reason for why it is there (wherever there is). I do throw in one custom chosen magic item per session for a particular PC, but as long as the treasure is appropriate for the party’s level I am happy.

This is how I prep for a highly structured game like D&D. For a more subjective game like Fudge I prep by practicing several different accents and mannerisms to generate an NPC on the fly with. I read essays on the classic works from the genre that we will most likely be playing that session (with Fudge you never know), and I analyze what are the common story elements used within those works.

I do not plan the details for my games. I have a general idea of where the plot will most likely go, but there is really very little that I nail down as absolutes before the session begins.

That is not to say that details do not matter. My games have a lot of details. I just do not plan them. I improvise them and add them to my notes so as not to forget them as the game progresses. So while my prep notes might say “treasure: artwork, 350 gold pieces”, my in game notes say “PCs found a portrait of the murdered Baron’s wife. Artist’s signature is that of the suspected villain.”

I started GMing like this when I realized that my strength as a GM was reacting to the players, and not in world building. Some people can create very detailed worlds and adventures easily. I cannot. It is difficult for me to write up even a few pages of material for my games. Where I am strong as a GM is in deciphering what is going to be the most fun for the players based on the moment.

My plots are never set in stone. My encounters are merely the frameworks of the opponents until the very last minute when I suddenly apply the outer layer right before the PCs “stumble” across them. The words “Clue found.” in my prep notes become “The stable boy is dying in your arms, but with his dying breath he whispers the name Elandra.” Who is Elandra? I usually have no idea until the next session.

You may not be comfortable with trying to GM like I do. I am not suggesting that anyone else use my style. What I am suggesting is that you might find it useful to not include all of the details when you are preparing for your next session as the GM.

Players have a way of negating a GM’s highly detailed plans with unexpected tactics and approaches. GMs sometimes miss chances to enhance a game based on the players’ input at the table because the GM has a plan already laid out. Yet GMing is a form of performance art, and that means you have to react to your audience. Like a great jazz musician you need to practice your art, but you cannot know for sure what the music will sound like when you go to jam with others. You just have to roll with it.

My advice to you is pretty simple: try to prepare your next session with a little less detail than  what you need during the actual game. Do not try to plan every description, scene, or even the encounters. Instead leave a few gaps for you to fill in on the fly. When the time comes to fill in those details ask “What details will make this more fun for my players right now?” Then roll with whatever pops into your head at that moment and right that down in your notes immediately.

You will probably make a few mistakes, but I am confident you will make less mistakes the next time. You will eventually find the right balance between planning and improvising for your style of GMing, and that is just one more tool you will have developed for many game sessions to come.

In other words, forget the details of the plan and pay attention to the details of the game being played.

What about your GMing style? How much detail do you prepare for your games? Leave your comments below to share with myself and others, and remember that the GM is a player too. Have fun with it!

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Loose Prep, Detailed Play"

#1 Comment By ScottG On December 11, 2009 @ 7:25 am

That was exactly my style when I ran my campaign – I knew the ultimate goal and I know the goal for each stage on the way, but otherwise very little planning went on beyond having some encounters ready to go. It tended to go very well – I could react to players’ decisions and actions more smoothly without trying to excessively railroad them into a pre-set path. Only dungeon/lair encounters tended to be set in stone – I knew they would get to those locations eventually, so I could plan it more thoroughly without fear they’d miss out entirely.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 11, 2009 @ 8:01 am

[1] – Yeah, that is pretty much how my games play as well. The mechanics that cannot be improvised or looked up quickly on a screen or in a PDF I plan out. Dungeons I usually swipe the maps for from other random generators, and I’ll then try to decipher a reason for the layout. A few encounters will be planned out, and I’ll have the details for a couple of traps. Still, most of the time I’m just reacting to what the players are doing. It makes for a much more entertaining game for all IMO.

#3 Comment By Spitfire665 On December 11, 2009 @ 8:31 am

I LOVE the comparison of this style to jazz. Fantastic.
I’m one of those “planners” you talked about, but I’ve found that some of the most fun sessions I’ve run were the ones that were improvised. But they were a bit nerve-wracking for me at the time, the control-freak that I am.
I like the idea of reskinning. I think I might have to start utilizing that because my groups tend to be the ones who subconsciously TRY to ruin all my plans every session, anyway.
Thanks for the tips! Us “planners” tend to get into a rhythm and need to be reminded to have some fun every now and then. 🙂

#4 Comment By Lee Hanna On December 11, 2009 @ 9:02 am

Not me. At least, not when story is involved. If it’s a matter of random encounters, I tend to have a few left prepared from before, and those I can wing pretty easy.

But if it’s a Story Element that needs to be introduced, I have to micro-plan the setting, timing and so forth. Because if I don’t follow the checklist, it will disappear from my memory that there is even an Element to be done, and I feel like a doof for days.

Ask me how I know this.

#5 Comment By raistlin50201 On December 11, 2009 @ 9:30 am

I actually do both but in what might be a strange way. I will spend a lot of time making the world, areas to explore, and basic features I want the game to take place in. I will then make 2 or 3 checkpoints (the great beast is summoned, and the players kill it for instance as simple actions). After that, I tend to just do what I find keeps the players the most into the game, give the right amount of spotlight to each, and so on.

Most aspects of a game I can handle without preparation, encounters, plot, NPC’s (though I do have a list of random names now) ect/ The only thing I put any major work into outside the game sessions is how I get player x more involved and have more fun.

#6 Comment By DrSteve On December 11, 2009 @ 10:17 am

My prep consists of figuring out what I want My Villians to do and their goals, then feeding info to the players, and let them decide what to do.

many times Player actions realy inspire me to other ideas or just that the consiquences of those actions take everything in a differnt Direction

#7 Comment By drow On December 11, 2009 @ 11:23 am

i tend to put a fair bit of work into world creation, though not so much that there’s no room for player contributions. after that, its all on the fly. random plots most of the time, random dungeons uber alles, and random encounters unless whim leads me to beholder-hydra aberrations. but mostly just reacting to the PCs.

#8 Comment By rwenderlich On December 11, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

I like to use a combination of planning, and adapting to player’s choices. A useful trick is using end of session timing appropriately. For example, if I can see the players are going in a completely different way that I suspected in a manner I can’t easily adapt to on the fly and it’s pretty close to the end of the game session anyway, I let them do it and set up the session to end on a great cliffhanger…

And then that gives me another week to get the encounter stats, terrain, etc. generated :]

#9 Comment By BryanB On December 11, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

What about your GMing style? How much detail do you prepare for your games?

My GM style has changed greatly over the years. I used to be a stickler for detail. I would plan out every scene or encounter down to the pebbles on the road. It was a lot of work, too much work really. But my games were good and people were happy.

One day I realized that the extra detail was unnecessary. Over time I had experienced the players drifting from the story arc by leaps and bounds. Even when the course seemed obviously clear, the PCs would do something I least expected and didn’t plan for. Even when I planned for every possible contingency, the PCs would throw me for a loop. If I planned five different outcomes, the PCs would find number six at least half of the time. Why was I doing all of this extra work? Like an epiphany from the blue, my madness had to stop. I was burning out.

I decided to try an experiment. I would plan, in specificity, the opening scene of the campaign. I would have a general timeline of events or a blueprint for what course I expected the campaign or series to take. I had no set conclusions only broad ideas. I spent my time and energy on creating the NPCs and giving them distinct motivations and goals. I created (or borrowed) location maps or had general descriptions for areas I thought would pop up in the game. I might grab a picture online in order to spark my descriptions. The detail would come on the fly. I might note the key information needed to impart in a scene, but not in any specificity.

The game would be focused around the interaction of NPCs and PCs. The results of their teamwork or conflict would self-generate the story arc and prompt me for additional details. It took time to learn the ins and outs of spontaneous descriptions but with practice comes skill. As a result, my games are more PC driven and PC focused. The players have a great deal of input. Furthermore, I’ve found that the players don’t often realize that you’ve had to stray from what was expected and what actually happens. With practice, this becomes a seamless exercise and one that keeps me just as entertained as the players.

So I still do game prep. I just focus on what is important and worry less about fiddly details or plot arcs that are set in stone. I might have to toss a bone in the PC’s direction now and then, but with pro-active players, the details of the adventure just about write themselves.

#10 Comment By unwinder On December 11, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

In-session improvisation really helps me to surprise my players. I find that I’m decent at world building and planning and stuff, but when I’m planning, I’m always looking for the most logical way to piece things together, while when I’m running the game, I’m looking for the most surprising and fun thing I can do. Even if I try to be fun and surprising in my prep notes, I tend to telegraph too much beforehand.

Best session I ever had? I prepped it in about twenty minutes. I figured “Dang it. I only have twenty minutes to prepare, so I guess it’s going to be pretty railroaded today.”

When I got in there, I presented them with two options. Take a tunnel under a river that was known to contain an epic boss fight, or take the bridge half a mile downstream through enemy territory. All while every character was carrying a very heavy piece of machinery to bring back to a nearby town. I had scripted the tunnel. I mentioned the bridge just to avoid the appearance of railroading. Naturally, they went for the bridge.

On the way to the bridge, they met up with the games most terrifying monster. The kind where you just run away real fast when you see it. “This will get them to turn back,” I thought. Not so. Two players lured the monster away while the others forged on. They got to the bridge, and I put an entire regiment of enemy soldiers marching over it. “Surely this will get them to turn back!” I thought.

Not so! They got in touch with the other two players who had lured away the monster, and told them to lure it back! They lured the monster to the bridge, and it ate the entire regiment of enemy soldiers!

So really, the game that I prepped loosely, despite my attempts to keep it tightly on track, turned out to be way more fun than what I had anticipated when the players went off the rails. And of course, as per your suggestions in this article, I was easily able to reuse the cool boss fight that I had planned another time.

This really didn’t have much to do with the article I guess.


#11 Comment By Scott Martin On December 11, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

I need to dig into “follow the players” more– I enjoy it whenever I do it, but the lack of a net is always scary. I like improv, and firmly support following the players’ lead… but I find that details and grounding elements often start sliding when I’m looking at the PC footsteps.

Of course, it depends on system also– I know that I feel more comfortable throwing a dozen mooks at the PCs in Spirit of the Century than in 3e. (That’s probably because the threat of a mook drops so dramatically in 3e– a dozen goblins that can’t hit your teen level fighter isn’t very interesting at all– there’s no threat, so it’s just a time sink.)

#12 Comment By valadil On December 11, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

Interesting. I started out similar to what you describe, but recently found myself adding more details. Why? If I didn’t write them down I wouldn’t describe them. Sometimes I wouldn’t even tell the PCs what weapons the orcs were hitting them with. And that’s an important detail! Scenery was even less specific. The only way I’ve been able to get myself to add those details is to write them out ahead of time. I don’t like reading off my notes, but for description I’ve found it absolutely necessary. NPC chatter is still improvised of course. That’s something I can manage to do well with no forethought.

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 11, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

The comments are great, and I thank you all for sharing how you run your games with the rest of us. I’m only going to respond directly to the last comment though, because it struck me as a natural extension of this discussion.

[2] – I can see how you benefit from prepping details in advance. I know that I describe attacks in detail even when I improvise them. I don’t prep those kinds of details, but I don’t skip them either.

Yet that is why it it so important to find the balance between improv and prep for your personal GMing style. I know GMs who run fabulous games from detailed notes, or by running modules after thorough readings. These GMs do not improvise, but they still run great games.

I like that you made the switch from low prep and high improv to detailed planning for the right reason: your style worked better with that approach. It is funny how I went in the opposite direction for the exact same reason, and it just goes to show how GMing is influenced by our personal strengths and styles.

#14 Comment By drow On December 12, 2009 @ 12:10 am

@scott; have you considered using 4e style minions for your mooks? pick an appropriate CR monster, but just give it 1hp. throw a six-pack of them at the PCs alongside the real monster(s).

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 12, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

I remember reading somewhere that Gary Gygax usually used one line to describe each room in a dungeon. Then again, he was probably pretty experienced at making it up on the fly…

I need to work on offering more hooks, and documenting what I’ve done, especially the latter…

#16 Comment By Spitfire665 On December 12, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

I’ve taken a queue from the Penny Arcade guys and started recording our sessions. It helps a lot in recapping.
Granted, this isn’t going to fly with every group. Everyone has to be comfortable being recorded. I also have a google group for every campaign so we can keep track of it all. We’ve tried Obsidian Portal, and it’s nice, but it’s tough to get on there all the time to recap. At least with Google Groups I’m already signed in via gmail and can just hop over and log the night before I forget.

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 13, 2009 @ 9:27 am

[3] – I use NBOS’s The Keep to prep for my games and to keep track of my notes. My PDFs are also in there, so I can link to a page with the rules for certain encounters. I like the software a lot for what I do. Documenting things is a lot easier using The Keep.


#18 Comment By LordVreeg On December 14, 2009 @ 11:08 am

I’ve done a certain amount of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ GMing, and a reasonably large enough amount of GMing in general.

I guess I am the opposite of a lot of people. I used to make up more as I went along, but I look at this more of a narrative than I used to, and believe the prep time and detail time is every bit ‘gming’ as the actual playing time.

I want my games to be ‘novel-quality’, or aspire to this now, as I get older and as gaming transforms from ‘hobby’ to ‘art’. I also freely admit that my particular vision as to what makes a fun game may be different than others. But especially with a long-term campaign and with the proper plotting of same, (Long-term, mid term, and short-term, and how they interrelate), I find the continual correspondence of detailed notation and better games to be an inescapable motivator.

Much in that line of thought is the creation of a setting wiki which continues to enrich the details of the campaigns. I believe that the 1/2 of the game that is spent at the game with the players (while probably far more than 1/2 the time taken) will always involve a large amount of reacting to the PC’s and improvising, and that it is a common mistake of GM’s to allow their plans to straightjacket the players.
But it is my belief (AND THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT IT IS THE TRUTH FOR EVERYONE)as long as this is controlled for, detail = versimilitude. And lack of details creates the opposite.

#19 Comment By troy812 On December 15, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

I agree with Patrick 100%. Less planning and more playing makes for a more fun and “free” game.
Also it seems the more I plan, the more players screw things up with getsme tense wich dampenens the “fun” value of the game.
I remember using a book called “Cities” (pre-Flying Buffalo) back in the day. It contained a bunch of random urban encounters. I don’t think we ever had more fun seeing what the players would encounter next. Of course there was an overarching storyline that bound things together. But yea … those were good days!
More random charts please.

#20 Comment By Burn_Boy On December 17, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

I usually have a page or two of notes prepped for the start of the campaign but as the game goes on, something will come into my head that I can include in the adventure. I also read a lot of fantasy and find something in a book I read that I toss into my campaign. For example, I’ve been watching Legend of the Seeker and I incorporated the Mord Sith torture device called the Agiel into my games. Had my players get captured and tortured and now the torturer is a recurring villain and if I want to motivate the PCs to do something, I just need to drop clues that she’s there and they’ll go like moths to a flame.