Running the World-Machine: Preparing for a Session

This week on Running the World-Machine, we talk about preparing for a gaming session. How much time you should prepare for, what kind of encounters to use, and more!

(Also, sorry this one was a little late and that last week got skipped. I must admit I’m still getting used to the whole “weekly column” thing.)

How much time should you prep for? How should you prep? The answer varies for every GM, honestly, but I felt it would be worthwhile for me to share some thoughts on it here. Hopefully you find them useful.

A few things I tend to do when preparing for a session:

Try not to spend too much time on it. One of the worst things you can do is spend ten hours prepping for a three hour game. At least for me, at that point prep stops being fun or interesting and just becomes a slog. It also tends to lead you to prepare in far too much detail, which brings me to my next point:

  • Don’t prepare in too much detail. Players will never stick to the exact plan you have in your notes, so you shouldn’t prepare for a session like it’s going to be a tightly-scripted movie. Plan general plot points, characters, etc, but don’t plan an exact path. This has the added benefit of making it easier for you to be flexible in your GMing and respond to the players’ actions instead of feeling the need to shut them down so they stick to your master plan.
  • Keep your notes organized. This may seem like an obvious one, but I’ve had moments in my game where I’m digging through several identical pieces of paper trying to find the name of an NPC that I know I wrote down somewhere. Doing some free-form writing is fine for getting your brain going, but try to organize onto separate, easy-to-read sheets (or digital documents) after that. I’d recommend at least separating location notes, NPC descriptions, and session notes/plans from each other. Also, as a side note, make sure your notes are easily legible, at least to yourself. I’ve definitely caused games to stumble to an awkward halt as I squint down at some of my worse handwriting.
  • Keep your players and their characters in mind. When you’re planning plots and adventures and characters, keep your players and their characters in mind. If you have players who love combat, you should probably include some good combat. If there’s a roleplayer or three in your group, be sure your session prep addresses that. You want to give everyone a time to shine. Also using the player characters for inspiration is a good idea. Your players will be far more into a plot that centers around their personal character than they would be about an adventure that could star any interchangeable party of 4-6 characters. Make it special for them. They’ll love you for it.
  • Use a format that keeps your notes accessible during play. This goes along with being organized, but be sure you can actually use your notes during your game. For example, keeping NPCs essential stats on index cards or your plot notes in an easy-to-access binder will make your game run much smoother than if you need to wrestle out your laptop and get it set up every time a new character comes on the scene or the players progress to a new area. Use what works for you, and try to keep it small and streamlined enough that you can use it at the table with minimal transition time.
  • Don’t be afraid of using already-written monsters or other encounters. Unless your players have the books memorized forward and backwards, they’re not going to remember exactly how much strength your monsters have or how hard they hit. Using pre-prepared monsters (and other encounters, like traps) can save you a ton of time that can be spent on other things that make the game more fun for the players. Of course, custom monsters are always welcome and especially make for interesting big (boss) fights or as plot elements, but you don’t need custom enemies for every single encounter.

I hope these tips help you out. How do you prep for your game sessions? How long do you take? Have any other tips? I’d love to get a discussion started and hear what you all think about prep. Everyone does it differently, and I’m sure we all have a lot we could learn from each other.

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