Game Preparation

Today’s focus on GMing will be looking at something that largely comes down to style and personal choice in the GM.  There are loads of different ways to prepare for a game and there are few GM books out there that says you must prepare in this way.  That reason is, believe it or not, that we each have a different way of preparing for our games.  So know now that this post is largely a look into the way that I prepare my games but I do try to talk about other styles.

Read, watch and involve yourself in things
similar to the genre of game you play!

Just one more note before we dip into detail, this is the third and last of my GM advice columns for the week but I want to again thank +Desiree Kaleopaa for giving me the push to do them.  I think we should all congratulate her because she is only new to the hobby been playing seven months) and her only games that she has GMed (three so far) have all been in a public forum!  That is her local library decided to run some RPG sessions and to enable this she stepped up and runs a game (of Dungeon World I think but could be DnD) for teenagers in her area.  I am full of admiration for that sort of commitment and she is so enamoured by the hobby she wants to learn more about GMing and ask me to specifically target some things to give her a varied perspective.  Well done Desiree!

Preparation for a game (and in this case I am talking about the stuff I do on the day) is a wild and varied thing.  I think I have at one stage or another gone through all the different stages of what could be done from turning up to a game with books and dice in hand with no preparation at all through to having a notebook full of detail and NPC’s ready to rock the game.  I have had success in every one of these styles too.  I once ran one of the most memorable games I had ever had with a game of Shadowrun in a haunted house adventure right off the top of my head.  Players loved it and I remember it to this day it was around 20 years ago now).  The weekend after I decided to run the same game with different players and prepared a bit for it but it fell flat.  So preparation is no guarantee of a classic game.

Art books can get you inspired also!

What do I do now?  Well, I run three games.  Two are Pathfinder games and they both use Adventure Paths (Reign of Winter and Skull and Shackles) which means they are module based games.  One of these is online (Reign of Winter) and the other in-person so there are differences to what needs to be done in regards to that.  The final game that I run is an online game of Classic Traveller that is a free form adventure, the players soaring through the Big Black seeking adventure and profit wherever they go.  As this is not module based there are differences in the way that I prepare for it also.  Let me start with the generic stuff I do for all three games, background stuff that may not necessarily happen on the day.

The first thing I do, and this may seem like a no-brainer but sometimes saying things out loud or typing them, helps.  I make sure I read and watch and listen to anything that fits the genre I am working with!  I buy a huge amount of fictional and RPG books that help me expand my own horizons in regard to the games that I am playing.  I read sci-fi stuff like Peter F Hamilton novels and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Aasimov to keep my head in Traveller.  There is stuff in these I have stolen direct and other stuff that has influenced our game no end.  I rarely walk past a bookstore without picking up the latest in a fantasy series or something like the Pirate novel by Michael Crighton I bought a few weeks back.  I play video games that fit the genre to get a feeling of being immersed in a like environment and how I can help create the setting for the players.

Make sure you have the things you need for the game you
are planning like the right number of miniatures etc.

The other thing I do is try and make sure I have a source for all rules in one easy location.  For me that location is my iPad.  I have every Pathfinder rule in an app and as I am a subscriber to the adventure paths I get every module in PDF format which means I have everything where I need it.  I actually use the real modules when playing so I don’t need to switch between too many apps but I find it an awesome tool.  For Traveller I have a good number of the little black books purchased from RPGDriveThru on the iPad as well.  More than enough to keep the game going anyway.  I do know that some people feel a technological device like an iPad has no place on the tabletop but I have to tell you I think this is the reason they were invented.  Steve Jobs was a closet gamer and created the iPad so he could have as many RPG books with him at any time without having to break his back carrying them everywhere.

Apps can be quite helpful in prepping for
games like this story cube App is cool

Now, to what I do on the day.  It varies a little with in-person to my Google Hangout games but this is what I do for the Pathfinder games.  I reread the module again and determine what sections we are likely to cover in the game and read up to that point.  I make a note of any specific rules I need to look at like Skull and Shackles may require underwater combat etc) and I look over the relevant sections of the rules.  I also pay close attention to stat blocks and read any spells that opponents have.  I don’t attempt to read stat blocks when I first read a module as there is little point.  Statistics make me glaze over so it is on the day that I pay close attention.  Of all the general monster stat blocks I find them in my app and bookmark them so when I need them I have quick access.

I then take a close look at maps.  For my in person game this is just to be familiar but for my hangout game this is likely a bit of work as I make the maps appear in roll20.net and set them up for dynamic lighting, make sure I have correct tokens and that those tokens have some statistics applied to them to save the need for my own book keeping at the time.  I will spend up to an hour in roll20 on game day working with it and sometimes longer if I need to make some custom tokens from the PDF (I like to have representative tokens for main characters so make my own from the images in the PDF).  My in person game will require me noting down what is to be encountered and if I have a chance to get the miniatures or tokens ready for any major combats I decide to use a map for.  As a large portion of our in person game is on the boat I made I make sure the correct number of miniatures are in and onboard for the game to come.  So by the time the hangout starts or I sit down to game I am familiar with what should happen and have considered where the players may branch out and worked a little on dealing with these circumstances as well.

Pre-reading modules is a must, but on the
day to ensure a smooth game rereading is
just as important.

My Traveller game is a whole different kettle of fish.  This game is completely unwritten and is totally player driven.  There are a couple of things I want to introduce in-game but it is a long term vision I have.  I am still learning the rules to Traveller too.  Pathfinder rules I am very familiar with but learning Classic Traveller is like reading a bunch of scientific papers back to back and you need to pay attention to detail.  It is a rewarding and surprisingly not too dated system but it does at times do my head in.  Plus there are so many of the little rulebooks and I don’t even own them all yet!  So pretty much preparation for this game means I am reading the black books on the day.  After that I pull out my notebook and make some plot hooks up, important names and connections.  I use a bit of a mind map structure for this game to cover possible eventualities and am nearly defeated by the players direction on the night every time!

The Traveller game is a hangout game and we sit in roll20 BUT we have not really gotten down to using map and tokens as yet.  I actually have a whole heap of sci-fi tile sets that I want to scan in and use but I feel that the game is not exactly at that point yet so there is little preparation I need to do before firing up the hangout.  One thing I do just before game time is open up a random name generation site (I use this one) and have a bunch of names ready.  the players always want to meet and maintain the minor characters in star ports.  In game when I use one of them I always note them down for later reference of who they were and where they were and am building an awesome little database of NPCs.

Use tools that inspire you.  I love my notebook and that I
have a quill to use when I need to!

I do note down some important NPC names and ship names I want to introduce.  These do not come from the generator.  Why are they important?  Well I don’t know yet but in a few games time, if the hook I attached them too is found interesting by the players I slip them back in to the game somehow.  the way I do this makes the players feel they are living in a dynamic universe that they can make connections with and the way I slot them in begins to tell me why they are important.  This is an old and easy trick to use in a game and it works exceptionally well in my experience.  You do not need to know all the answers up front, you just need to have a few things in place and call back on them and you have things that start to become memorable to the players as they begin to remember previous games.  it makes you as the GM appear to be the master planner when in fact you may be as surprised as they are where the important NPC turns up!  With an important NPC though make sure you develop them a little and know a bit about them other than just names.  Have an idea if they are beneficial, where they are from and perhaps some stats.

A snapshot of the notes I take during an
 evening of Traveller

So, that is my ideal presentation for these games.  But what if you don’t have the time to do all this?  Well, off the top of your head games can be some of the best games there are but you will need to be great at improvising.  I used to be great at it, then I got really bad at it and now I am working on my skills again for it because I am finding a lot of my Traveller game requires me to be good on my toes as the players tend to walk to the beat of their own drum.  All that is really required here is the ability to think of plot hooks quickly.  In fact as you are walking in to the game with dice in hand, think of the first hook you want to lead the game off with unless of course it is a follow on from a previous game.  Make the hook something nice and dramatic and see if the players go for it.  If not, hit them with another one after they do a bit of running around.  Put in an important NPC or location mentioned as an off the cuff comment.  Make sure you have paper so you can make notes about what you do and where you go.  I have included an image here of some of my notes as I go along throwing hooks at the players of Traveller.

So, there is a snap shot of a week of preparation from my perspective.  Of course there is no right and wrong in this.  I am not much of a “ham it up” actor so I do not prepare voices for individual NPC’s or mannerisms until the point that I play them and then I do what I feel is correct.  However some GMs love to have all this sort of detail practiced and down pat when they get to the game.  If that is you then make sure you invest in a mirror and perform in front of it or even better, a video camera and play it back so you can get the mannerisms and voices that you want.

Props are good, even if it is a chest for a dice box and a
chalice for your Coke!

Also there is the option of creating props!  I sometimes will paint an A4 sheet of paper in lemon juice and put it in the oven (it makes it look old) and then burn the edges, roll them up and make a scroll!  I have my quill and ink so I can do a nice realistic old scroll.  Players LOVE props so if you can whip something up as you are a bit crafty this will always make a great memory for your game.  Of course props over hangout are a little difficult but you could show a prop or have digital scrolls that they could open.  You could even start a community (on Google plus or similar) like I am soon to do with our Traveller game where you and the players can add material outside of sessions which keeps people in the game and offers them the opportunity to expand the world/universe and give you an idea of what they like.

Regardless of style, everyone prepares.  Be it hours of reading rules to thinking of your starting line as you sit down.  I hope this post has given some of you out there some ideas to help in your own games and you can see the value in them once you have tried them!

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