Thoughts on Game Planning

There’s a new initiative over on Mook’s GURPS Discord for blogging about a common topic – we settled on game prep as the first theme. Every GM prepares their games differently though, so what works for me may not work for you. With that out of the way, here are some thoughts about my own process.

Session Prep

I would describe my game prep as “just in time” and “lean”. I don’t have much time to prepare for games, so I must make the most of it. I can’t afford for anything I’ve prepared to go to waste, and since there’s no way to anticipate player actions, I only prepare the material that is likely to be needed during the very next session. It helps that I improvise easily, so even if I didn’t prepare something I have little trouble running it.

I do prefer to prepare the adversaries if possible, because even if I can improvise their stats easily, I’m not good at coming up with special and cool abilities on the fly. This is not a problem in campaigns where there are no such abilities – modern games without supernatural elements, for example, but can really rear its ugly head in fantasy games (magic, monsters etc.) and is a major problem in supers games.

For some games, “set piece” scenes can provide a lot of fun and be very memorable. The most recognizable of these are boss fights in combat heavy games, but they can also be chases, infiltration sequences and so on. The more sandboxy and player-driven your campaign is the less such scenes you will likely have, but they can still provide a lot of value. You should devote comparatively lots of time to prep them, but don’t try to thing of every single way your players will be able to interact with it – they’ll do something else entirely. So focus on the most important elements and mechanics. Speaking of the latter, it’s good to have the most important game rules used in the scene reproduced in your notes, if they are a key element of generating fun in the scene, and you’re liable to overlook them because you don’t use them often etc. You can also use “special” mechanics to abstract scenes that would otherwise be too tedious to play out on a round by round basis, or to provide additional fun. For example, in a siege I ran I had the players run over a field while under archery fire – everyone got attacked by three arrow attacks, and if they used dodge and drop for any of those defenses, they needed more time to reach the “finishing line” and got attacked once more. They could also pay more attention to the incoming arrows, which would give them a bonus to defend, but then they would need to make a DX roll not to trip up while running over the uneven terrain and “earn” another attack.

Campaign Prep

Minimal prep doesn’t mean I don’t have a plan for the campaign. I do tend to run more sandboxy campaigns, which on one hand works well with just in time preparation because you can’t possibly prepare everything and there is no intricate plot or sequence of events the players are expected to follow, but on the other hand you need to be good at predicting what your players are going to do next. Or just talking with them between sessions and committing on what to do next together.

The very minimum I prepare for any campaign is a short paragraph about each of the most important plot points, be they locations, events or people/factions. I try hard not to have more than 5 for each of those. Then I jot down the connections between them: how they relate to each other, their conflicts or alliances, why are they interested in one another, etc. This helps make the world alive and helps you provide clues and events during the game when you don’t have something prepared specifically. You can also do this visually using drawing, diagramming or mind map software. Then as the campaign unfolds, I introduce additional such elements, or elaborate the already established ones.

A Word on Maps

These days I run games exclusively online using VTTs, specifically Foundry, both voiced and text-only. With VTTs becoming widespread the pressure has grown in gaming circles to use maps, especially for combat heavy games. This is likely less of a factor if you only play in few groups or with close friends, but for someone like me who often starts new games recruiting through public channels the pressure can be felt as players’ expectations have grown. While maps can help with visualizing both the action and the environment, making them can be quite time consuming if done as more than sketches.

There is a variety of software for mapping, but each has its flaws. For example, I can make maps very quickly in Dungeondraft, but it’s missing a feature to copy/paste and move “rooms” or sections of terrain, which limits its usefulness for me to only small wilderness maps as I tend to copy/paste and rework my maps a lot. Dungeon Painter Studio has exactly what Dungeondraft is missing, but is notably clunkier to use which is why it takes me longer to make maps with it.

Different genres of games have different mapping needs. Running a dungeon crawl? You’ll need to map out the entire dungeon, or at the very least the locations where any action may happen. On the plus side, you can ensure that the entirety of the dungeon you prepared gets used by limiting “optional” areas and requiring investigative skill rolls only for “bonus” loot (this is good advice for all games in general – only require skill rolls for things that will not block the progress of the game if failed). For modern games, you will often need much less mapping since there are rarely dungeons, and when you do need it it is often easier to come up with map features because you can just pull from everyday life.

Conclusion

Ultimately, you can’t prep every single detail of a campaign, even if you have copious free time, invest a lot of it into prep, and enjoy it. You need to know your weaknesses and your players’ preferences and invest more prep time into things you can’t improvise easily and which will be of greatest interest to your players.