Getting ahead since we’re headed into a weekend soonish. Number 8 is deep in my wheelhouse. Pull up a chair, I have…

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!


0 thoughts on “Getting ahead since we’re headed into a weekend soonish. Number 8 is deep in my wheelhouse. Pull up a chair, I have…”

  1. I’m with you nearly 100%. I can’t stand prep, not even the very little of it that PbtA games often ask for. I have problems with what it does to the game (pushing it toward railroading), and I have problems with having homework for my fun.

    The only prep I do is pre-first-game, like you. But a lot less of it.

  2. LOL! It turns out I do an abbreviated Beakley prep. Read once. Read again while preparing a cheat sheet, re-read the cheat sheet. Make a character. Run a session. Update the cheat sheet as needed.

    I’ll add an important step. Read the intro adventure in the rulebook (or track down a couple of published adventures, if any in the system).

    I honestly don’t know why I do this because, it seems like most of the time, the “official” adventure either ignores, or contradicts the actual game rules and rewards cycles.

    I can’t prove this. It’s purely anecdotal and I could be wrong.

    It might be that some game designers hire different people to write the adventures and those hired writers don’t really understand the game rules when they come up with the adventure. Or that Beakley’s#8 principle outlined above is in effect. 😉

    I’ll write a longer proper post tomorrow, most likely.

  3. Re-Reading the rules is my biggest prep phase. Even for games I’m sure I have down, I’ll constantly go back and re-read the rules. There’s almost always some new application of a rule or bit of clarity I take away.

  4. I prep by haunting communities and forums after reading the rules. I need to reread if I can’t follow what they’re arguing about. I consider myself ready to run the game if I no longer care what they’re arguing about, because I’ve internalized it enough to where I can say “NBD, I’d do it this way” and can fall back to that in play.

  5. Oh man, this is complicated for me. No-prep games are fabulous: I love how the only prep I need for Swords Without Master is to bring a deck of Magic cards or other source of inspiring art, and I love how PbtA games question the players to learn about the world. I love discovering things about the game world that I didn’t know, and yet…

    I once spent a half hour on the bus doing a character burn for an NPC in my Burning Wheel campaign. I built her from a briefly sketched relationship and some scant prior onscreen time. I learned unexpected things about her as I made the write-up, reconciling things and making everything add up right. And I really enjoyed that. It gave me a unique insight into that part of the world, and made it more real to me.

    One of the players killed her with an arrow through the head during the following session.

    They apologized when they found out how much time I’d spent on this one character, but…I didn’t mind. I wasn’t regretful. The whole moment made me reel briefly, like one of those gut punch plot twists. I realized that I loved seeing carefully-assembled imaginary worlds toppled by the chaos of players.

    And I think it’s probably a little selfish of me, because it’s not something that necessarily benefits my players. But I get a great deal of enjoyment out of seeing prep come into contact with the characters.

    (Another aside: canon arguments notwithstanding, I love the idea of playing in an established setting, because it gives unique consequence to many actions. I spent a lot of my early gaming career drinking in the world details for White Wolf games.)

  6. I’ll be posting my own replies to this (and, shamefully, all of Paul Mitchener​’s questions) but I just wanna highlight the best thing I found when I first encountered Exalted- “provocatively incomplete” is a lovely term for those just-enough-detailed-for-dreaming settings. That right there is my setting sweet spot.

  7. Would you like a “The overwhelming majority of published adventures are awful in such a way that it appears that the designers just don’t ‘get it’, but the few which aren’t show that good and useful published scenarios are possible.” rant?

  8. Also, figuring out how to get all the players clued into setting lore is a thorny problem. You’ve read the lore bible, but that doesn’t mean your players have.

    And sometimes you can pull off big things with that. Raxados the Betrayer may be a Big Deal, and fighting him can be the “dueling freaking Darth Vader” moment of a campaign, but you either need dozens of sessions in other campaigns in the same world or lore knowledge to understand how it’s a big deal.

    Neat example: a big part of Mythender’s appeal is the way it draws on IRL lore that all the players have some connection to.

  9. Paul Beakley
    ‘When I’m noodling between sessions, I think about interesting questions, not interesting answers. Interesting answers is their job, not mine. ‘

    Should be in every GM advice chapter. I dig the way you think about prep.

  10. Also, I’d add listening to others play the game on a podcast. I have a Looooong drive to work and I find that ‘pretend’ GMing whilst listening to a game session is a good way to wrap my head around the nuances of the system as it is played.

  11. Eloy Cintron In most cases for “mainstream” games, those intro scenarios are written before the rules are finished. That’s why they don’t match up. Often many of the supplementary adventures too.

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