Getting ahead since we’re headed into a weekend soonish. Number 8 is deep in my wheelhouse. Pull up a chair, I have things to say.
#8: Talk about your typical approach to preparation for running an RPG. Is there a particular method you generally follow? What use do you make of published setting or adventure material, if any?
I fucking hate prep. I just have no interest at all any more in building and balancing and tactical second-guessing and writing aaaalll that material that might be nice for me but will never make an appearance at the table. Any game I can’t comfortably improvise gets serious side-eye.
That said, I do like thinking about my games between sessions – and if I can’t, like if I don’t have a game going, I feel off-center and unhappy. So I guess that’s a kind of prep.
When I’m noodling between sessions, I think about interesting questions, not interesting answers. Interesting answers is their job, not mine.
Regarding the second part of the question: I super-hate published adventures, usually because they cheat or are not representative of how the game actually works. They also exist entirely outside the context of the characters at my table. My games emerge from the needs and priorities of the characters, so being shoved through a prepackaged situation is just awful.
There are exceptions! Like, the big arcs of The Great Pendragon Campaign and The Darkening of Mirkwood are just great: big enough to fit the character-driven stuff inside. I love that stuff. Sometimes it feels constricting, like, if the characters do something that contradicts the arc. We had a major-ish NPC in Darkening die at the hands of the characters, and it took some hustling to make it make sense down the road. The good big-arc setups will be robust enough to work with those events, because nothing sucks more than plot immunity.
An interesting prep-intensive variant on the big arc was Space Wurm vs Moonicorn. There is legit a lot of prep before the first session of play, although the other players are heavily involved in the initial creation of the game’s five Fronts. Johnstone did a good job of asking interesting questions of the GM to answer throughout play, without demanding it all be worked out in advance. It mostly works. The temptation to go down the prep hole is strong, though. The result is similar to GPC or Darkening: you know events are headed toward the titular characters pursuing their goals, and the rest of the game happens inside that.
I have no use for published setting material any more. If it’s a big canonical download, ugh, no thank you. Very few things aggravate me more than canon fights with players. This is what kills me about Star Wars games, although there are ways around it if you’re not playing a technically detailed game. Gosh, it’s been years since I ran a game with an important setting. Probably good old Rogue Trader was the last time.
I do kind of miss the lonely pleasure of reading and dreaming about elaborate settings. I used to love mining out situations and ideas from, say, Exalted. That’s definitely a legit mode of play, and a provocatively incomplete text can be tons of fun. It’s just not my jam any more.
Really, the only prep I do any more is related to the nontrivial task of getting everyone up to speed on a new tabletop game as fast as possible. My methodology there is pretty well established:
1. Read the rules. All of them. Once.
2. Read them again, this time jumping around as questions occur to me.
3. Flowchart the game’s reward cycles to help me understand the whys of how the game works. (Far less important in freeforms and larps and whatever). I can dredge up old posts where I show this in action.
4. Read the rules again.
5. Write cheat sheets for the game’s primary procedures, if they’re not encapsulated in playbooks or moves or whatever. The process of reiterating stuff in your own voice is my #1 prime learning trick. Teaching is learning, as they say.
6. Make characters and develop a premise from that process, probably developing a relationship map as part of that (but not always – some games aren’t concerned about relationships). I can’t think of the last time I wanted to pitch a premise and have characters made in response. It’s a legit approach, and maybe I should sometime, but I’m so service-oriented that I greatly prefer to wait ‘til characters are done.
7. Run a first session. Try out all the primary procedures, if it’s that kind of game.
8. Reread the fucking rules and update the reward cycle flowchart and cheat sheets, because game designers almost never understand their own games.
9. Optional: start a fight with the game’s superfans, who are convinced they possess special insight into the game’s secrets. Maybe learn something. Probably not.
And that’s it!