The internet is a wondrous place full of stories of unicorns, fantasy surrealism and loads of applications that can make my games a better experience for my players and I. How those applications have turned around my prep time for my games though. Of course, when I am running a game like Pathfinder online for a group of players then I have to do a good deal of prep to reduce time lag in game on my virtual tabletop. I was sitting at my computer last night, brushing up on the material for my Reign of Winter game tonight and fixing the virtual tabletop to be ready and I mused on how my preparation time has both become easier and more intensive over time.
I started as a GM with D&D basic set of rules in 1985. There was a neat little adventure in it that you could read through that was built like a choose your own adventure book and you pretty well got the hang of things. Keen to get my own game (as the D&D boxed set belonged to a friend) I got a game called Super Squadron (Super Hero game) to run at the school. It was a pretty fiddly game but looked fun. My preparation at the time I got this was to make up some groups of thugs and a super-villain or two and then just start running the game. I was (and have often been) a GM that improvises a lot of material and lets the players take a story where they would like to.
The first major difference to the way I altered my preparation was when I started to buy modules. By this stage I had moved through a lot of games where I primarily managed the game. When I was young I never invested in modules and it was not until I was around 19 to 20 (7-8 years after starting in the hobby) that I purchased and ran my first module. I was totally in love with Shadowrun at the time as the first edition was out and about and I bought Bottled Demon and Harlequin modules for the game. Not sure why but I did. This obviously altered the way that I needed to prepare for the game as I needed to read and understand the content of the game and then re-read the material that I expected to cover in a session (which often lasted entire weekends at that age!). this was a major change and it was because I had changed some of the media that I was using. Modules are a great thing to have BUT there is a cost to them and that is the amount of reading and understanding of the major story arc as well as being immediately familiar with the sections that you are dealing with at any one time.
Around about the same time computers were beginning to appear in everyone’s homes. I actually did not own my first computer until about 1997 (funny now seeing my professional life revolves around them) and I had to get used to the idea of doing a lot of the preparation on them. Suddenly the idea of cool props and the like were available with a printer and a word processor. I had largely moved on from Shadowrun and was now deeply involved with Earthdawn, which is at it’s heart a story based game (despite all the cool mechanics). I wanted to record everything of my campaigns and so I would sit at my computer and just work, typing up loads of material that I would use and other material that seemed cool to me but I never got around to using. I think the introduction of computerization to my games offered me a much more controlled way of preparing for a game, but because it took on a much more professional feel that I prepared way too much and got swamped with material.
In the early naughties (00’s) I largely only gamed by play by email and due to the fact that it was all on computer I took a step back and did all my prep by hand again. That way I could get everything in my head how I want it and then just pour it all into one email. This was the most like my starting era that I had ever achieved since turning to some modules for games. It was fluid and free-form, suiting me down to the ground. The problem with all of this is that it made my information storage needs grow. I think this is largely where the love of fancy notebooks came from. I would buy a notebook (fancy looking) and fill it with notes about the game at quiet times. Repeat that process several times and soon you have many notebooks full to overfull of information about locations, NPC’s Horrors and all sorts of stuff. This became a problem with my partner as my storage to notebook ratio was not good. In the end, all of my campaign material got sold on eBay.
Fast forward to now. There is an explosion of technological solutions for varying types of tools that make your game better. Hero Lab for characters, Apps for rule-sets and dice rollers, Realm Works, Tavern-Keeper and Obsidian Portal for campaign management. Mapping tools like Sketch Up with Neath and GiMP have begun to chew up a lot of my time. Then there is the virtual tabletop material like Roll20, MapTool, Fantasy Grounds, Tabletop Connect, 3D Virtual Tabletop and the list goes on. I have also been blogging now for over two years and I have reviewed and played with a lot of these tools. These tools are designed to make gaming easier over the internet, but conversely, some of these tools increase the load on a dedicated GM exponentially.
The media forms are good and they are all very good at making it easier to game online these days. But the fact is I now spend two to three times the amount of preparation time than I used to allow to make a game flow well. I am a person who is very much of the opinion that if you are going to do something then you must do it as well as you can. My players, I am sure, can tell when I am in a slump because there is little prepared for the weeks game and I am forever reading bits and pieces of the game as I go. Most of the time though I spend a large amount of my time when I am not gaming, doing something to improve the time when I do game, or helping others to do the same. I pride myself on running a game where the players walk away with a smile or a frown because I left it on a cliffhanger and they really wanted to continue with the game to find out what happens next.
The problem is that a lot of this new media and tools to assist an RPG to run well is time consuming. I love Realm Works by Lone Wolf Development and Tavern Keeper too. These two tools are for me held under the idea of campaign/adventure management software and they are brilliant. Realm Works is building every week into a more cohesive tool and will eventually offer up a store that you can buy adventures and campaigns from others that have created them. I want to be right among the mix of this and as I am running, and writing, new adventures I am busy at work turning that into a complete and comprehensive product for Realm Works. This tool has made me exponentially better at creating adventures as it offers prompts for what to write about certain objects, people, places that make sense and improve the end product remarkably.
The cost is time however. My prep work for a module campaign like the Reign of Winter game I am running runs to possibly five or six hours a week that I am reading and re-reading the module. Answering player questions in between games and managing the events and hangouts of this game is included in this. Setting up the Virtual Tabletop (Roll20 in this case but further down the track perhaps a shift to Fantasy Grounds?) takes up the lion’s share of the time. Customization of the module to my players also fits in here and that can be quite the challenge at times, especially seeing online games are more subject to last-minute cancellations from players than in-person games. Preparation of the Virtual Tabletop includes creation of tokens to be uploaded, manipulation and sometimes creation of maps and a lot of reading relevant rules that will become important in the game for the week.
When I am building a campaign, then my time goes into preparation of my world. I still hang on to a lot of improvisational material. I take a look at how the game ended last time, think about where it might head and possibly do some sketchy notes for the next session but on the whole I am thinking about what is in my campaign world and how it interacts. This is what I am doing with my in person D&D 5E campaign at the moment. I am spending a lot of time working in Realm Works to get the world settled and help it come alive for the players. As part of this I am doing loads of research on Greek Mythology and the like as the world has a Greek pantheon of Gods who often played a part in the day to day lives of the heroes. I want the players to feel this pressure and react to it over time as they build their own legends in this wild and primal world.
There you have it. This is in effect the story of how my preparation has developed over time. I know that my preparation is likely to be a little OTT (as my daughter would say over the top) but I love to give the best I can, when I can. I also can count myself lucky in that I am not scraping up dollars every day and so if something interesting presents itself I can pay the fee and give it a try. I know for a fact that this means that I am juggling about seventeen different tools I like to use in the air at any given point in time and that I really need to streamline things so the amount of work that I am doing reduces. What I am interested in though is finding out about your preparation time. How do you do it these days? What tools do you use and why do they make things better for you. Are you finding that you spend more or less time on preparation time as a GM. Then there is the players perspective; do you find that the preparation taken by your GM is really paying off? Are there games you prefer and are you aware of the amount of preparation that your GM puts into it? Do you prefer the GM just sits down and ad-libs or do you love a prop and carefully considered module? Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments and keep rolling!