On Game Preparation

Games are static documents. No matter what supplements or errata are released after the fact, the text of a game is just words on a page once it leaves the designer’s head. What makes a role-playing game more than that, though, is the act of play. Role-playing games are different from board games or card games because unlike those, where there are procedures and set-up and specific things to do, role-playing games in their text form merely template the play experience. In traditional role-playing games, it’s up to the game master, or GM, to actually produce the play experience.

I haven’t discussed much in the way of procedures for running a game, and this oversight became more clear as I was attempting to write about how specifically to run a long-duration game in the conclusion of Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom. Also, and surprisingly, there’s been some discourse about game prep recently? I was under the mistaken impression that understanding how best to prep for a campaign or session was essentially a solved issue at this point, that writing about prep would mean giving advice, not taking a position.

That all said, there is better and worse prep technique, and there are better and worse games to prep for. One reason that so much of what constitutes ‘GM Advice’ in the broader RPG discussion world is merely advice on how to prep for and run a gaming session is that the monopoly game, Dungeons & Dragons, is a poor tool for GMs. When it comes to running the game D&D has been getting worse by the edition, really, and players who were raised on earlier editions, versions of the game that were much more specific about how to prep and play them, are only getting older. So if you are struggling with running your game, my first piece of advice is to stop playing Fifth Edition D&D.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can get to the meat of the discussion. Running a role-playing game is daunting because you are taking on more responsibility than the other players. You are playing all the NPCs, adjudicating the rules, and also using your sense of drama to construct the session into a sensible chunk of narrative. The key ways to make GMing easier are first to not do more than you have to (either in prep or ingame) and second to make use of all the tools available to you. Once you figure those two things out, you’ll find that running a game is both a lot less stressful and a lot more fun.

Don’t Do More Than You Have To

Game Master, like Dungeon Master before it, is a term which serves to make GMs believe that the game is their domain over which they have some degree of control. It’s not, and you don’t. While I’m going to use the popular term ‘GM’ throughout this article, I personally prefer the term referee to refer to the person running a game. It’s less loaded and more accurate. It also explains one big way in which most GMs are doing way more than they have to or frankly should when running their games.

When you are running a game, your responsibilities are to present elements of the ingame world to players and to use the rules to adjudicate what happens when the players interact with said world. You’re likely presenting a world with conflict in it for the players to interact with, which means you will then adjudicate the results of that conflict and how the world reacts to that. Notice how at no point did I state that a GM is writing a story. GMs shouldn’t write stories; at the very least, GMs shouldn’t unilaterally write stories. The story of the game is jointly created between all players (GM included) and their dice, and the exact split of that responsibility depends on the system and the group. Trying to force your will on the story is not only less fun for the players, it’s also a lot more work for the GM, whether you do it through hamfisted railroading or more subtle illusionism.

I don’t believe anyone tries to make work for themselves, least of all in their hobbies, so it stands to reason that one of the main reasons GMs try to exert so much influence and tell ‘their’ story is control. While I’m at least three decades late to rail at the “GM is God” syndrome (and anyone who thinks otherwise should really know better), there is still the constant perception that it’s up to the GM to keep the game ‘on track’ and ‘going in the right direction’, that a GM in control of the story is a good GM. Disabuse yourself of these notions. If you’re not prepared to use every result of a die, don’t have someone roll. If you’re not prepared for the three to five possible outcomes of a typical combat, don’t put it in.

This is one reason why gamers broadly dislike the D&D ‘adventuring day’. The adventuring day consists of 6-8 combats whose only purpose is to increase the XP total of the session. It’s useless, it’s bad design. Better to have one combat that the players spend the entire four hour session sweating through, because if they don’t execute their plan well enough then it’s curtains for all of them. This broadly ties into ‘Don’t do more than you have to’ because systems that attempt to impose order on in-game events for out-of-game reasons won’t make the game more fun, and you should generally avoid using them. This includes, well, essentially the entirety of the sparing toolkit that D&D 5e tosses to their GMs.

When you abandon non-diegetic pablum like “is this encounter balanced for the party level” then the only thing left to design for is sense and context. If it makes sense to put a dragon at the bottom of the cave, do it, level 1 party be damned. This in turn encourages your players to make decisions that make sense within the context of the world, which in turn keeps all of you immersed. This does mean that you need to be open to all outcomes; if you’re not putting in encounters just to be beaten you must no longer be surprised when the encounter doesn’t end in victory, or doesn’t even end in combat. But this is part of the job. You play the environment, and when the party makes friends with the dragon instead of killing it, that’s one of the things you need to react to. On the plus side, all of the NPCs are going to be just as surprised as you when this happens so you don’t really need to overthink it.

Make Use of All Tools Available to You

It’s likely that being prepared for a fractal number of possible outcomes feels pretty daunting, and that’s where the tools of a good game system come in. What game mechanics do at a base level, and pretty much every game is able to do this, is create a ‘physics’ for the game where players should know, roughly, what is going to happen. Some games make this a lot more random with choices like using a d20 or d100 as the primary die. Some tighten this up by only imposing mechanics on a subset of ingame events. What makes certain games better for GMs, though, is how much they include to help the GM run the game.

As I mentioned above, D&D Fifth Edition has precious few GM-facing mechanics, and the ones it does have are either contrived (adventuring day), completely non-diegetic (challenge rating), or poorly written (forage and overland travel rules). Comparing this to the game I’m currently running, Twilight:2000, what you see is a game with grounded and specific travel rules, a clear, reactive set of random encounter rules, and enough situational mechanics (terrain types, weather, passage of time) that the GM can adapt from the existing random encounters or write their own very easily. 

What Twilight:2000’s mechanics do not do is write the game for me; just like with any other system if I was to run the random encounters straight out of the book it’d get boring (also it wouldn’t work as I’m not using one of the pre-published scenarios). Instead, these mechanics ground the events of the world to rules that the GM can use. This also means that as you’re crafting events and conflicts to form the main narrative of your game, you have more support to make these make sense. Twilight:2000 also provides worked examples of adventure sites which provide great starting points from which to write more robust conflicts than what come up in a random encounter.

Many games have interesting world creation tools, mechanics which sit higher than the session-by-session mechanics. When it comes to making use of all the tools available to you, though, I find that the best tool for driving the campaign over the long term is going to be the players. Even in highly mechanically delineated games, like Powered by the Apocalypse games which tell you exactly how you should structure antagonists and threats, it’s the motivation of the players which is going to guide where the game is going to go. This means that yes, every time I see a meme about a GM providing a conflict and having their players go in another direction, I see it as the GM’s fault. This is also why games like Apocalypse World have you generate multiple Threats, and games like Cyberpunk provide you with a rogue’s gallery of a dozen different corporations.

This also goes back to not doing more than you have to. If you come in with a grand, multi-session conflict in session 1, you’ve more likely than not wasted your prep. Your players are going to tell you where they want to go, and if your response is “but I want you to go this way”, it isn’t going to be a fun game. Instead, prep your world, make it fertile for conflict, and plant many, many seeds that your players can then choose to water.

In discussing prep, I haven’t talked much about how much prep to do, rather focusing on what prep to do. I find that running a good game requires good prep, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it requires any session prep at all. If you write your world from the top down in the context of the game, you should have all the material you need to run that game as the players go through it. If your world comes from the bottom up, you’re going to spend some time before each session working outwards to cover everything your players could encounter. Neither of these methods are better than the other, and both are going to occasionally fall back on improv when your players do something or go somewhere you weren’t anticipating. That said, as you become more immersed in your setting it will become less work and you will naturally do less prep. The same goes for your players. No matter what the memes say, players are not chaos beings and everything they do is in the service of making their fun. If you play with the same people for years, as I have, you won’t spend a lot of time being truly surprised. Indeed, if you GM consistently for years, even the surprises will feel like they’re in your wheelhouse.

The only thing a GM’s game prep needs to be is the same thing the process of running the game needs to be: Fun. You need to delight in being the builder and the director, setting up all the pins for the players to knock down. You need to enjoy your process. Kevin Crawford includes a couple of ‘Golden Rules of Prep’ in Worlds Without Number, but the most important one is ‘Am I Having Fun Building This?’ If you don’t actually like writing settings and NPCs and conflicts, you aren’t going to last as a GM. But even if you like the process as a whole, you need to tune your process to what you enjoy doing. If you like improv, give yourself the room to do that. If you like more careful, specific prep, do that, and find a system which supports doing that. If you like knowing exactly what’s going to happen…well, NaNoWriMo is coming up in November, you should probably check that out.

Prepping your game is equipping yourself with answers to the questions your players will ask but without any of the knowledge of what the questions are. The best way to do this is to prepare locations, people, and events which make sense and from which conflict can naturally flow. Good systems will set you up with procedures and assumptions but still give you enough freedom to make the actual game your own, and that freedom is where the work is. You can front-load your prep, writing your maps and dramatis personae ahead of time and just waiting for your players to encounter them, or you can do it session by session, filling out the world as your players walk into it. Either way, you will need to know what’s going on. The important thing there, though, is not confusing ‘what’s going on’ with ‘what’s going to happen’.

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