GM Preparation – What’s your story?
So how do you prepare for a game? Are you the stacks of books, color printed maps and tea stained ‘aged paper’ handouts? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants, relying on your ability to quickly respond to player moves while imagining and perfectly describing the appropriate scene or villain? It’s not necessarily a hotly debated issue but you can rest assured most of us have an opinion and it’s probably based on some experience either fantastic or fantastically awful.
I like to think of us all at the local high school gym or church basement, sitting in a circle of folded chairs, sipping bad coffee and eyeballing the tray of stale donuts while we confess our worst moments of under-preparation…or over-preparation.
“Felix, why don’t you go first…”
OK so I’ve had different player groups, and been on both sides of the GM preparation coin… and suffered either way. I get bored at the day job, I have access to design software and lots of oversized printers. Yes, I have totally geeked out and made an entire world, and a massive campaign story, and a host of villains and traps and magic items and… and the players just didn’t do what I expected, and I was pissed because most of that preparation was wasted because they just wanted to burn down the tavern and kill peasants.
So know your players, I guess, was my first lesson. If you game with a bunch of miscreants who show all the signs of using RPGs as a means of keeping themselves from becoming serial killers or politicians, then subtle intrigue and detailed maps with hidden clues might be lost on them. Maybe not. But know who you’re dealing with.
See I’ve under-prepared as well. I don’t want you to think I’m a terrible GM but there were weeks that I was just too busy and didn’t get around to setting aside some planning time. Hint: if you start off a session with the phrase, “OK so where did we leave off last time?” then you’re woefully unprepared – no lie. I mean you should at least know where everyone was. Notes are bad ass. It doesn’t have to be during a game but writing things down usually helps me commit to memory the main points I need to remember. Maybe you should try that.
I could probably improve my game with a bit more work. Handouts are fantastic. I try to have some pictures prepared but yeah, it’s pretty cool when you hand them a printed “email” or hand drawn “scroll”. I just don’t want to get carried away. Players can lose handouts and I don’t want to hold a grudge because someone spilled whiskey on my 3 hour map making endeavor. Knowing your players means keeping aware of potentially sloppy or drunk players if you allow that sort of thing and I do (we call it “playing in character”).
So what’s the takeaway? Well my current batch of players are a wild and imaginative bunch of misfit bastards and honestly I’m OK with that… when I’m a player I tend to fit right in, but it means I have to temper how much planning I do AND remain prepared enough for some unusual choices in their reactions, destinations, and problem solving. I just had to figure out how I roll with them. My name is Felix and I’m a GM.
Is there any coffee left?
So how about you? What is it about your players that changes how you build a game? Do you work with different groups and use different styles for each? What’s the worst that could happen, right? Well you probably know that too.
I make sure to review all the notes from the previous session or three; go over my relevant NPCs; I usually have a handout; I will give each player a breakdown of what occurred ‘off screen’ if the party was in town, etc.
Beyond any total plot preparation, I like to spend an hour or so the day of a game session thinking about the current storyline as it relates to each player – what can I do with the expected plot to make sure I involve each one that night? Maybe there’s an NPC who will relate more to a specific player or a way to tie a side plot back into the nights session.
The adventures I tend to run have several simultaneous plot lines, so I have to have some semblance of notes and timelines to go by. I also review my notes from the last session for continuity.
Sometimes I go so far as to make props, other times I have bullet points and maybe an encounter or to and see where the game takes us. It really depends on the game and the players each time.
It definitely depends on the game and players, Daniel. The one thing I’m always reminding myself now is what each player wanted at the start. Whether it was becoming a certain class or level, or accomplishing a certain plot goal…remembering that gives me just a touch of how to bend a session for them each night.