Epic Station RPG Advice: Prepping for the Game
Ah, game prep; it is both the bane and the blessing of the conscientious Game Master. You want to run a game for your friends and, importantly, you want to do a good job at it. Naturally, you want your players to have a rollicking adventure with memorable encounters and unpredictable thrills, so, a few days before gameday, you sit down with a few books and a notepad, or maybe a computer instead, and spend hours preparing for the session. You plan out combat encounters, complete with interesting terrain and a variety of monsters. You write up stat blocks for important NPCs, giving them realistic back-stories and motivations; you draw maps of dungeons, cities, and even countries, naming locations and developing geo-political relationships that make sense. You know the adventure inside out. All this so that you can immerse your players’ characters in a real, living world and present them with a fascinating adventure that includes a beginning, middle, and end. By the end of your prep time, whether you have done it in one sit-down or broken it up over several sessions, you know exactly how this is adventure is going to go-and you are even prepared to improvise in the face of inevitable player hi-jinx. Well done!
Unfortunately, game day comes around, and you are wishing you could do just about anything other than run your carefully-crafted game. You would rather read that book, or watch a football game, or wash your car. You are tired of thinking about the adventure and the characters and the world, and writing fatigue has made you eager to do something, anything else. But you pull yourself off your couch and drive to the game location, or open the door when everyone shows up at your house, and you sit down and play (because the other curse of GMing is this: if you don’t play, nobody plays, which is a lot of pressure. But we can save that for another article.).
You play though, and, to your dismay, the characters head in directions you could not have predicted. Your carefully-planned story teeters on the brink of destruction, and you do one of two things: 1) you watch in dismay and with resentment as your carefully planned plot sinks like Artax in the Swamp of Sadness. You find yourself having to improvise huge chunks of story and several mediocre encounters, which is exactly what you were trying to avoid by planning which, it turns out, was a waste of time. Or 2) try as your players might, you do. not. let. them. change the story you spent so much time working on. They turn left, only to encounter a brick wall that forces them to turn right and stay on “The Path.” They come up with a clever solution to a puzzle or trap that you hadn’t considered, and you declare that it simply does not work. In other words, everyone gets on the train and, by god, enjoys the ride, or else. The tracks lead to a fun session, but it is not really roleplaying anymore. You might as well be reading a book aloud and asking your players to provide voice-acting.
Neither of these options is particularly fulfilling, for you OR the players, and both lead to a campaign’s premature heat-death. This scenario doesn’t necessarily play out at every session, of course, but gaming is supposed to be fun, and let’s all agree that Roleplaying is the MOST fun. So we should do everything we can to avoid feeling resentful, stressed, railroaded, bullied, or coerced during play. I am here to offer a few suggestions for avoiding the consequences of over- and under-preparing and, specifically, my thoughts on how a GM can successfully prepare for games without burning out or having to make up the whole thing on the spot.
Prepping Time Varies
First, let me say that some game systems significantly alter what should be considered the “right” amount of prep. If you’re playing a completely improvised game, like Fiasco, or one with a great degree of player input and narrative control, like Blades in the Dark or Mouseguard, you won’t want to do much prep at all. Truly, for these games, a simple opening adventure prompt should be about all you need before the session starts, though you may want to do some between-session thinking about the ramifications of the previous adventure’s ending or important background events that add flavor and/or tie the setting to the adventurers.
On the other hand, if you’re running a pre-written adventure module, you’ve got to do a fair bit more prep than that. Make sure you’ve read the whole adventure! You must know the background of the story so that you can improvise when the players go off script, without contradicting a story element that comes later. I’ve found that it’s much harder to improvise when I’m restricted by another writer’s ideas, and it’s much too easy to get to the point where the players are asking, “But wait. I thought the Gem of Thrakzeen raised the dead. And now it shoots magic lasers?” if you’re not clear on the background of the story.
Most games, though, need just a little bit of pre-game set-up, whether it is deciding what the BBEG’s nefarious objective is, and the plan for how he’s going to accomplish it, or making sure the mystery has an actual solution to be worked out. With that in mind, we will focus on the middle range, with D&D being something of a default choice. Again, in general, you want to make sure you do SOME game prep. Unless you are a master of improvisation, you will find it very handy to have a general sense of when/where the game is set, an understanding of around who and what the principal conflict revolves, and have a handful of challenges for players to overcome.
But that all goes without saying, I suspect. Most GMs know that some basic preparation before a session comes with the job title.The folks I’m really trying to reach here are those go overboard on the preparation and do too much. Why, you ask, is this a bad thing? Well, here we go:
As I’ve already mentioned, burnout is a real thing. It’s enough to spend 3-6 hours once a week (or every other week or whatever your schedule is) actually playing the game. Adding hours and hours to that total, preparing for the game, is too much. It’s too much to ask one person to spend that much time setting up a game for his/her players so those slackers can just show up on game day and say “Entertain me!!” It’s also asking too much of the GM’s family and friends to give that person up for long periods of time, when he could be doing other things with them.
Of course, some people have the time to devote to that amount of preparation and/or find it to be really fun! Which leads to the REALLY important reason to avoid too much game prep: it leads to railroading. When the GM has spent a lot of time and effort in preparing a particular path for the PCs, then that path becomes the ONE TRUE WAY. Anything the players suggest that leads them off the path will be disregarded or negated, no matter how epic, thematic, or fun the new plan may be. Instead, the GM makes sure that the party follows the steps through the planned adventure, an approach which flies in the face of the real meaning of roleplaying games. We all know that RPGs are supposed to be unpredictable, freeform, and, above all, open to all approaches and avenues. The railroad must not be.
That said, it’s not always hard to predict where the story will take the characters, based on the GM’s knowledge of the path so far, the villain’s presumed actions, and the characters themselves. Sometimes, in fact, I just ask the players at the end of a session what they’d like to do next time, which obviously narrows down the things I need to think about and/or plan for in the next chapter of the adventure. So, you ask, what DO I think about when planning for a game? Well, mostly, I try to prepare Sets and Moments.
Preparing Sets is a pretty easy concept. In essence, I think about cool places and situations. These are often stolen from movies, TV shows, books (comic and otherwise), and the internet. Basically, any cool concept for a lair, trap, battle scene or what have you that I come across in the course of my regularly-scheduled, geeky life, becomes a Set that I can pull into my game whenever coolness demands it. Rather than railroading my players toward a specific destination, I have several possible awesome location always ready to spring on them. Sure, I might have to make something up, if the players really pull something crazy out of their collective hat, but, for the most part, I can narrow down my options and predict a handful that can be carefully planned for. Then, the key is to make the Set really, really cool. OK, the dragon is likely holed up in his ice-cave lair, but what can I do to make that setting more than just another “room” in which the party fights a dragon?
Frozen stalactites that might fall on the party when the dragon roars? Yes, please. Cracks in the ice just big enough for a PC to fall into? I think so. Shiny ice-mirrors that reflect magic spells and confuse archers when targeting with ranged weapons? Now that’s what I really want. Don’t overdo it, but definitely plan at least one complication or cool characteristic for any non-wandering-monster Set that might pop up in your game. Heck, do it for wandering-monsters, too. Remember the battle between Aragorn and the Uruk-Hai in Fellowship? How much cooler was it with the ruined seat of Amon Hen in the background?
As you develop your Sets, be sure to really consider the mechanics of their elements as well. It’s not enough to know that shiny ice-mirrors reflect lightning and dampen fire effects. How much is each spell affected? Does the ice provide Resistance to fire damage? A boost to saving throws? Knowing these sorts of things in advance allows you to be consistent and to respond to the players’ questions and crazy plans. The great part about this kind of preparation is that it’s never wasted. Sure, the party may skip over the dragon this week and go after the wizard that’s really pulling the strings in your plot, but you will always have that Ice Cave Set ready to go whenever the PCs find themselves on an arctic expedition. Most really useful preparation should be for ideas and concepts that are generic enough to be used at any appropriate moment in the campaign, rather than those that are being shoved into the next session just because you planned for them to be there.
I also spend my valuable prep time coming up with Moments, which are similar to Sets, though they are usually focused more on characters than locations. I often find that, when I think of a particular bad guy or magic trap or legendary vehicle, there’s a particular THING that is essential to its “coolness.” It might be a power, action, or characteristic dialogue.
So… part of your job in prep is making sure that the bad guy gets to do his bad guy “thing.” If you expect your party to come across a villain in the next session, and this guy’s schtick is the ability to control minds, then make sure he gets to control some freakin’ minds, man. You don’t want to nullify player choices, and you don’t want to sucker-punch the PCs by GM fiat, but you DO want to set up a situation that allows the bad guy to pull off his trick, at least once, with a reasonable chance of success.
Thinking about how to pull this off … now THAT’S useful game prep. Making your bad guys cool and letting them use their powers in iconic ways makes the Player Characters seem even more cool when they defeat them. Make sure it happens by planning ahead. Put the bad guy in a smart tactical position, or use other effects to push things in his favor (Vampires get to automatically bite sleeping characters? Well, then a trap that casts sleep would be an awesome addition to his lair, right?). Also, consider an escape plan for every bad guy. Even in their lairs, smart enemies have thought about how to get when the getting’s good, so this is something you should consider, too. Things won’t always work out, and some bad guys get nuked before their evil plan or narrow escape can happen, but it’s better to have these things ready to go than to try to “wing” those iconic moments. As a side note, cool villains, magic weapons, and legendary treasure are all just as reusable as the Sets that I mentioned above, so feel free to save them up and use them later, if they don’t make sense now.
Reading IS Prep
Finally- and I can’t stress this enough- reading is good. If you only have time to put one thing on your game prep schedule, make it this one: read.
Read the rulebook(s) for your game (obviously) but also read sourcebooks, splat books, ancillary setting material, blogs, comics, whatever you can that gets you thinking about your game.
Reading about dragons, for example, will automatically lead you to consider cool dragon moves, actions, lairs, monologues, plans, and so on for your draconic villain. And even if you don’t plan to have a dragon pop up in your game anytime soon, you never know what those wacky players are gonna do next, and it might behoove you to have some dragon knowledge on hand and ready to go on the fly.
Pinterest is also a great resource for those who are text-averse and want inspiration to come in easily-digestible visual chunks. An hour spent wandering through the frenetic halls of the internet for images about dragons, liches, and hags is worth three hours plotting statistics, lines of succession, and NPC conversations, and reading is worth five.
OK, GM, now get out there and start doing LESS … prep, that is. Focus on ensuring that just a few really iconic and memorable moments happen every single session, and you will have the campaign that players will still be talking about years from now. AND you will be excited to get together, play, and see which of your cool ideas make it onto the screen each session. I wish you many hours of fun in your game until my next post and hope you will share your thoughts and suggestions below. Until then, keep fighting the good fight!