A few weeks ago, I got all ranty on Twitter about something I am calling Prep-Shaming. It is that thing when someone brags to you or just to the world about how little their prep for their game was. It always sounds something like this, “It took you four hours to prep that game, I prep my game in 5 min with six words I write on a Post-It ™ note.”
Here is a secret from the guy who wrote the book on Prep (seriously look over to the right, its right over there)…
It does not matter how much or how little you prep.*
What matters is did you run a great game for you and your players?
Why is there an asterisk? Well, there is one caveat, which I will get to in a little bit.
But first, let’s talk about prep.
What Is Prep?
Most people will say that prep contains your notes, monster stats, clues, etc that you need when you run your game. They are only partly right. Sure we put those things in there, sometimes we put too many things in, sometimes we put the wrong things in there. But all we have established is what prep IS. We need to understand what prep does, before we define what it is, to us.
Prep is what we need to feel confident enough to run a session of whatever game you are playing.
Prep is short for being prepared. If you are prepared to run your game, then it means you are confident enough to run your game. Does that mean the game will be good? No. Prep does not determine a good game. Your GMing and the players will determine that.
But if you are confident and relaxed because the Prep you did has you prepared to run your game, then the chances of a good game are much higher than if you are stressed and freezing up because you can’t find the Dragon Grappling rules.
The Size of Your Prep
Ok. So now that we know that prep is the thing that we use to make us confident to run a game, we can start fresh and figure out what should go into it.
Never Unprepared does a good job of talking about this, so I will sum it up. Put into your prep the things that as a GM you are not going to be able to do off the top of your head as the game is unfolding. That may be maps, or monster stats, clues, key dialog, rules for swimming in armor, etc. Don’t put things in your prep that you are good at, let your brain take care of those.
Also, different games need different prep. A Powered by the Apocalypse game requires a small amount of prep, but a complicated investigation in Gumshoe will likely require more.
So, in the end, your prep will be whatever size you need it to be. In the 36 years I have been gaming, my prep for a single 4-hour session has varied from 15-20 pages to 1, but one thing remained constant. No matter how big or how small, I was confident when I got to the table. That allowed me to focus on running good games.
So don’t let anyone prep-shame you about your prep, and don’t compare you prep to anyone else. Your prep is for you alone.
What about that asterisk?
Oh right. That asterisk, we should talk about the caveat about how big your prep is.
Your prep is only ever the wrong size if you can’t prep your game in the time between games, and that is causing you to not feel so confident at the table — or worse, causing you to cancel games because you are not ready.
So if you are playing weekly and writing 10 pages of prep, and you can do that every week, then you are doing fine. But if you are playing weekly and you can’t always get those 10 pages done, then you need to change something.
You have a few things you can change:
- The frequency of your game. You can move your game from weekly to bi-weekly and increase the time between sessions to get your prep done.
- Change games. You can change the game you are running to something that requires less prep.
- You can get supplemental material to aid your prep. You can buy maps, magic items, or other things on DriveThruRPG, and use them rather than make them yourself.
- You can reduce what you prep. You can figure out what other things you can eliminate from your prep, based on what you can handle in your head. I wrote a series of articles years ago called Prep-Lite that detail some of this, and it’s in Never Unprepared as well.
As your life changes, your free time to prep is going to grow and shrink. Additional responsibilities such as children, advanced degrees, gig work, etc are all going to shrink your free time each day, and your prep will get crunched.
How you solve that problem is up to you. Often its a combination of the things listed. For me, when my kids were born, I eventually did three of the four things. I started by changing my games from weekly to bi-weekly. Then I started to reduce my prep. Eventually, I changed to games that were more improv in nature and supported lower amounts of prep.
Keep On Prepping
Your prep is a personal thing. It is made by you, for you, to use to run awesome games. Do not fall for the trap that your prep has to be like anyone else’s. It needs to be what you need it to be. The most important thing is that you get to the game and behind the screen feeling confident and ready to have a great time with your players.
Over time our lives change and we often have to adapt in order to keep that confident feeling at the table. Sometimes that means that we have to change our prep and hone it to be more concise.
To paraphrase a popular saying, “you prep you.”
Tell me how your prep has changed over time. Share some details, but no prep-shaming.