Soft Prep for RPGS

New Campaign day is a very exciting day. Your group is ready to try something new, and everyone’s agreed on what it should be. Now you may be getting ready to run a Session Zero with something like Apocalypse World, where the feeling and the aesthetic of the game’s implied setting is broadcast to you, loud and clear, from the first page of the book. You may be getting ready for character creation in D&D, where the implied setting is strong but allows for a lot of variation within its fantasy tropes. Or, you might be walking into a game where the world has sprung from the mind of the GM, and you don’t know what to expect beyond maybe a few sentences that have been shared. Regardless of what situation your campaign will start with, now is the time you’ll most benefit from some soft prep.

Soft prep is every aspect of game preparation that doesn’t involve mechanics, story, or gameplay. It’s a process that’s alluded to or discussed in many game documents, but rarely in depth as it isn’t enforced with mechanics pretty much ever. Still, for some it is the most rewarding part of character and world development, and it’s the process by which good campaigns (and good Actual Plays) stand out from the merely OK ones. For some people, the discussion of soft prep will seem incredibly redundant; there are many players for whom the buildout of their character with art or music or pop culture comparisons is as automatic as breathing. For others, doing this sort of creative work will seem superfluous, especially as it must be supplemental to what already exists in terms of mechanics or official setting. Still, when it comes to making your group’s campaign their own and maintaining interest, soft prep is just as important as hard prep for both GMs and players.

Soft Prep versus Hard Prep

As noted above, hard prep is the work that must be done outside of a game session to ensure that the players all have the information necessary to play. For players, this typically means tracking dynamic attributes and completing any ability buys if such things are available. For GMs, this means all the things we associate with ‘prep’: designing encounters and writing, modifying, or harvesting stat blocks, considering the events of the previous session and writing the actions of any antagonists, choosing other events for the characters to encounter, and broadly writing or harvesting the events, items, and places that the characters may encounter. Soft prep includes any number of ancillary activities around this. Soft session prep includes but isn’t limited to turning session notes into a narrative Adventure Log, writing journals from the perspective of NPCs, picking music for a climactic conflict, designing a letterhead for the antagonist corporation in the game, writing a menu for the diner your characters start every session in, or finding images of the party’s home base or vehicle somewhere online. While these examples are definitively soft prep, much of the narrative and description developed during typical ‘prep’ can fall into this definition, and what’s important about this is that soft prep, while not mechanically required to play the game, is almost certainly required to make the game good and interesting.

Soft prep is important because it increases narrative investment and narrative payoff. Most heavily narrative games, as an example, pepper character creation with questions to help you begin to envision who the character is. The appearance options in Apocalypse World are another good example, as your appearance has no mechanical counterpart but is still very important to character creation. How a GM does soft prep can also have a profound impact on a game because it can help break players of mechanistic habits, as well as simply get them more invested.

The point here is not to tell you how to add soft prep to your game. I really enjoy making playlists for characters, some people might find that hokey or not be able to wrap their head around how it makes sense in, say, a fantasy game. On the flip side, I’m a terrible artist but someone who can draw really well may find it immensely gratifying to draw character portraits. The important thing is putting in some work to make the setting, the story, and the characters come to life outside of the mechanical events ingame.

Soft Prep for GMs

Soft prep should be broadly considered additive to any worldbuilding you do. Your game will necessitate the creation of NPCs, locations, and organizations, but once you start moving away from narrative elements into flavor, you’re moving away from strict worldbuilding. One thing I see in many setting books which makes me roll my eyes a bit is the insistence that every retail establishment have some sort of plot hook. It is OK to write your characters’ favorite sushi place and not have them installing illegal cyberware in the back room. Or maybe they are, but one of your characters goes there because they have real tobiko. That’s when you’re getting into soft prep: You’re no longer writing the next big plot event, you’re making the world feel lived in.

There are NPCs your characters will want to talk to again and again, and places they want to return to. While you can’t force your characters into these relationships with anything you create, neither can you wait for it to happen completely without your help. One of the things that makes the world feel interesting is the idea that there’s a lot of it that keeps going with or without the characters. I know this is likely old hat for many, but the fact that D&D is so locational in nature means that it’s not always intuitive to slow things down and make it less about wherever the game is going to go next.

When you’re prepping a new campaign, try to think about the setting and situation holistically. This is just as true for a city as it is for a spaceship and a dungeon. The inhabitants of your setting are there for a reason, and that reason shouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with your story or your characters. Your soft prep is going to be taking this worldbuilding and these questions that you’re answering, and using them as a springboard toward making the location feel real, feel lived in. If at all possible, do this before you know what your players are building in terms of characters. There’s a time and a place for writing plot hooks, but what you’re doing first is getting a feel for the setting.

This is where the stereotypical soft prep comes in. Make that playlist of songs that feel like the vibe you’re going for. Use Pinterest to collect images which evoke the sorts of locations you’re interested in. Make maps that aren’t for combats! I’ve made maps for pieces of fiction even, they’re great grounding tools that help make a location seem internally consistent and real. Most importantly, don’t worry about whether you’re going to ‘use’ what you create. Your setting should be broader than just what the characters touch, and not all of your prep will be for building plot.

Soft Prep for Players

The dysfunctional relationship between players, GMs, and character backgrounds must end. There’s been a long-running joke that all RPG characters are loners because if they had a family the GM would immediately put them in danger. Same goes for almost any friendly NPC in a character’s backstory, and this, even as a joke, really irks me. There is a first-order problem whereby players don’t write any friends or family into their character histories because many games don’t tell them to. The second order issue is when players do go above and beyond to make their characters more interesting (a positive behavior), GMs use that for their own purposes and entertainment (a negative reinforcement). It’s just not that hard to draw some lines around where the plot hooks are and where players would rather leave their characters be. When running Cyberpunk 2020, for example, my rule has always been that an NPC created through the Lifepath is on the table as far as the game goes, but if a player wants to write other supporting characters, they don’t have to get involved or even show up. This is not so much about soft prep as it is about enabling soft prep: GMs, let your player characters have social lives without turning them into kidnap-fodder. Players, tell your GMs where you want the plot hooks to be.

This is important because characters should have lives! Loners are boring. I’ve run half a dozen Cyberpunk campaigns and had maybe two characters who were dating someone ingame, and that’s wildly off from real life, especially in Cyberpunk 2020 where your characters are between the age of 16 and 28. Just have the character actually be someone. There’s something to be said about Chosen One plotlines where all that falls to the side, but even that falling to the side could be interesting.

Once again it’s not about *how* you do soft prep, it’s whether it’s done at all, whether you put thought into who your character is outside of their plot centrality. And this is where the neat division between what players should do and what GMs should do starts to end: While players can benefit from making their character more interesting outside of just ‘the plot’, GMs need to not only allow it but also give it time onscreen, let characters have opportunities to develop without racing to a plot point. I say this acknowledging it as a failing of mine, and one that is especially acute as I consider how to encourage player investment in my own campaigns.

Characters exist outside of the campaign’s plot, they hold more space in their player’s head than the mechanics imply. RPGs have known this too; even just having a blank spot for a portrait on the Cyberpunk 2020 character sheet is a step towards encouraging a player to bring their character ‘to life’ just a little bit more. Soft prep is the sum total of those things you can do to bring a character to life, and the more it can work into an ongoing campaign, the more engaged people can be. For GMs, the world is similarly more than a stage on which the plot occurs. The more that players feel like they’re somewhere real, somewhere living, the more engaged they will be. Most importantly of all, no game has a monopoly on this. While some may have more tools to stimulate this sort of development than others, no one tool is perfect for every player.

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