How Stacy Preps Sessions: The Philosophy
Getting better at session prep … my observations.
When I was 19 and running games, I seldom wrote down anything that I planned to have happen. Games would go like this: Get paid. Run to gaming store. Use rent money to buy new books. Run home. Crack open book. Play until dawn. This often resulted in tons of fun and lots of cacophony, but there was never anything as cogent as a theme or a plot.
I sort of just made shit up as it happened. Much fun was had.
Later, I’d start to get plot ideas, and I’d just run them from my memory. I’d get an idea for a snippet of a scene, or a plot formation idea, and I’d run with that little kernel of whatever. The details, I’d make up as we went along. This resulted in a little more theme and plot, but not a whole lot as I found that my memory is just as fallible as any human’s. Consistency? Meh, who needs consistency?!
Lots of making shit up, but still … much fun was had.
Then, for YEARS I determined that in order to run a game, I had to have everything prepped from start to finish before we sat down to even the first session. I went from doing things with very little prep to believing that if I didn’t have every NPC statted down to the last one and every scene determined ahead of time (in a flowchart kinda way in case the players made other decisions), then I wasn’t being an effective GM, and should stop doing that.
I still ran, and I was never that prepared, but I believed that I just wasn’t prepared. I was too lazy, and, thus, a mediocre GM at best.
Then, Steam & Crumpets came along and I thought I’d have the perfect chance to be more than just a mediocre GM.
The first couple of sessions were extremely well prepared. I had floorplans and discussions all planned out, orders of events, details to read aloud about how things looked and felt and smelled, flowchart-style bullet points on what to do if the players did X or Y. I finally got to the point where I honestly thought I had achieved this golden status of ‘game prep’ that I’d been reaching for for so long …
…and it frustrated the fuck out of me.
Players don’t pay attention to flowcharts. A series of if/then statements about scenes only works if the only options available are the if/then statements in the flowchart. When a player goes off the reservation and/or comes to a situation where they make a decision decidedly not in that if/then box, the resulting confusion on my part as I try to sort out what should happen next is a momentum halter. Not to mention, there were enormous blocks of text that I had to wade through to find the answers to rather simple questions.
The choices available to me on how to deal with out-of-the-box thinking were limited thanks to the enormous amount of prep that I’d already done. The ideas, thoughts, and decisions that the characters made in the game were creative and interesting, but I had a tough time imagining how to fit them into the story that I’d written. A lot of the time, even though I had more work done for my games than I ever had done before in the 20+ years I’ve been running games, I felt like I was being hobbled by my own prep.
After a few sessions, I ran out of content that I’d pre-generated and didn’t have time to make more. I found myself frustrated because the players were circling around parts of the plot that were unimportant as if they were the most important things in the world. They kept coming back with empty results with their searches, and I could tell that some were getting frustrated at the wild goose chase that they were on. *I* was getting frustrated, too, because here I was with all of this well-planned story, and the players weren’t able to actually FIND the story.
So, quite on accident, I went back to running a session or two the way I used to – with heavy improv. So, I took some mental inventory, and after prepping in this way for the last 6-8 game sessions, I’ve found a way that works for me incredibly well. Now, I’m not saying here that this is the one and only true way. This is my way. Try it out if you like, and then tailor it to suit how you like to run games.
Stacy’s Game Prep Rules
- Do prep with bullet points, not paragraphs. Each one should take up no more than 1-2 lines. If you find that a bullet point is longer than that, split it up. Bullet points are easier to read in the middle of a game session than paragraphs.
- Don’t decide how the PLOT will go, decide how the actors driving the plot will behave. In other words, spend more time prepping NPCs and really getting into their heads, especially of your major antagonists than you do on anything else.
- Do give the NPCs goals, however. I find that those goals go much further to writing a plot (the NPCs end up writing it for you) than anything else.
- Don’t decide what your NPCs are going to do until you’re prepping for that session. This one is pretty important to me. Once I abandoned the idea that I make the plot and just let the NPCs drive the plot, I also realized that I shouldn’t decide things for the NPCs until they’re actually reacting to something. Thinking about how the NPC would react to further his or her goal (or save his or her ass) makes for some deeper, more interesting NPCs than just using them as automatons to fulfill the GM’s goals. The distinction is subtle, but to me it makes all the difference in the world.
- Don’t prep too much too far in advance. Things change all the time. If you do that, you’re going to find yourself with material that you’ll never use. Have enough prepped for the next two sessions, but leave out a lot of the extreme details for the latter part until the former is completed.
- Do prep what you’re bad at improvising. For me, that’s mainly names of both things and places. I like to think I do a pretty good job naming my characters, but only when I get the chance to actually think about those names. So, when a new NPC is about to make an appearance or just starts to exist in the world, I name them right away. That’s usually the first bullet point.
I haven’t completely mastered my own rules, yet. For example, I’m still feeling around as to what makes up about two sessions worth of prep. I usually prep too much, thinking that the players will drive through more content in theory than they actually do in practice. That ends up being a waste of time as it can often change.
However, preparing for games has become much, MUCH simpler, and much, MUCH less time-consuming. Also, more enjoyable. The games have become more enjoyable, too. The worlds are becoming more and more an echo of the people who play them than they are my own vision, and as a Storyteller/GM, that’s like gamer’s crack. I still have players coming to me and apologizing for their zany ideas of off-the-wall requests, but honestly … I don’t mind them, I relish them and enjoy them for the creativity they represent … and I’m no longer prepping myself into corners where those ideas represent a threat to the chronicle/campaign/story/etc…
My NPCs are diligently going about their days and living their lives, even if my players don’t interact with them for weeks and months at a time. They’re not just robots there to give the players clues or new quests, they’re people they interact with on a regular basis. I want the players to connect with the NPCs so that if/when those NPCs die, they really feel something, even if that something is a grudging respect for an antagonist that’s been plaguing them for who knows how long. When I sit down to do game prep, the first thing I ask myself now is, “What have all the NPCs been doing in the meantime?” Then, THEY tell me what the next session is going to be like.
YMMV, of course. I don’t think there’s one perfect way to prep for a game. What each person needs in game prep tends to differ by quite a bit. I’ll detail the tools I use and maybe even share some game prep notes of mine for past games in a future post (if there’s interest).