Rutskarn’s GMinars CH3: Find Your Swing

By Rutskarn
on May 7, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games

By now, three posts into my series of GMing tips, some of you may be tapping your feet and waiting anxiously for the “real” advice. It’s all well and good to talk theory and principles, but to a novice GM the real mysteries are more looming and practical. The questions I get are rarely along the lines of “how do you maintain the complex illusion of authority with a group of players?” Far more often, people want to know how you go about actually planning a game. How do you conjure up an adventure from nothing? What do you need to plan, research, write down, and what can you afford to fudge or make up? Do you use a template? Do you write stuff down? Where do you even begin?

There’s plenty of direct and practical advice to be given here, and I intend to give it–and soon. But before we move on to such practical matters, I’d like to address and hopefully allay the underlying tone of anxiety I often hear behind that question. The implication is sometimes clear: “I don’t know the answer to this, and therefore, I probably don’t have what it takes.”

But the thing is, you couldn’t know what the right way to plan a session is. There is no right or wrong way to plan a session. Consider the following GMs, all successful in their own way.

  • Abby doesn’t like planning adventures or dungeons, but she does fill up a notebook with nonplayer characters. In her notes she has a whos-who of kings, shopkeepers, assassins, thieves, spies, musicians, cooks, and assorted rogues. She doesn’t make any big plans, she just writes the characters down one after another. Occasionally she sees connections between characters and makes note of them. Very rarely she mixes things up and comes up with a location instead, a tavern or cave or mystical portal. All this just makes sense to her. When it comes time to run her game she lets her players figure out where they want to go and what they want to do and slots in interesting, relevant characters and locations from her notebook as the situation calls for them. As a result, her players feel like she’s got a cool well-thought-out world planned out and they’re always happy to meet the next kook, gladhander, villain, or victim she’s prepared for them.
  • Brian has his priorities nailed down: he comes up with his fantasy world first and foremost. He writes a history of the realm that spans from the dawn of civilization to the modern age, filling up dozens of pages of a binder in the process, and then he comes up with the names and goals of only the most important people in that world. For each leader he determines a major goal and outlines primary assets used to accomplish them. He comes up with a story hook that will get the players involved in these intrigues and sketches out rough “outlines,” like teasers for episodes of a television show, of the first three or four sessions. As long as his players don’t really surprise him, he’s got a pretty good idea of what they’ll do from session to session and he has plenty of time to dream up interesting problems for them to solve. As a result, his players feel like they’re part of a solid thoughtfully-planned and dramatic political intrigue.
  • Caroline doesn’t plan sessions or write characters, but in between games she thinks a lot about the player characters. What would this character do if the prince died? What would make that character angry? What would this character do if hit on by the queen? Upon watching a dramatic confrontation in a horror movie, she reflects that a similar confrontation would be very engaging for the players to get into with a crazy NPC and makes a mental note of it, along with a few dozen similar mental notes about scenes that’d be fun. She squirrels all these little scenarios away and, as she improvises her way through the bulk of her sessions, keeps an eye out for moments where she can push things into one of them. As a result, her players get a spontaneous game while still enjoying the occasional thought-through dramatic scene.
  • Derrick plans the arc of his game’s story ahead of time–the players are called to action, they journey here, they find this out, they explore this place, they defeat the evil villain. Before each session he finds some interesting monsters in his rulebooks and designs simple dungeons around them, ensuring that in addition to the broad strokes of the campaign’s story he has a precise idea of what’s going to happen in the next session of each adventure. As a result, his players get a classic fantasy story where they’re never at a loss for what to do and get plenty of exciting combats.
  • Emily has no time to think about or plan her game at all. She sits down and wings it every single time, and by now, she’s pretty good at it. She has to take notes to make sure she doesn’t straight-up forget what she did last week, but her players respect that they’re getting anything but a linear experience–they’re not locked to some prewritten path because there clearly isn’t one, and every course of action is permitted. She maintains the Illusion of authority mainly by having complete conviction in her world and running it in a way that makes observable sense, implying that her world, if not precreated, is at least competently simulated.
  • Felipe finds interesting prewritten adventures online. He reviews them carefully to make sure he understands them and can run them fairly and knowledgeably, and as a result, spends more time working on his game than any of the above GMs. His players feel like they’re getting a fair, balanced, and professionally designed experience–because they are.

It’s not even that different GMs do things differently. It’s that different GMs plan individual campaigns differently. At the time of this writing I’m running three games, and my process in preparing for each one is unique to that campaign.

My first game is an old-school Dungeons and Dragons campaign with very high stakes and very brutal combats. I don’t exactly plan the individual sessions–the players are experienced and proactive and set their own goals. Instead I come up with villains aligned with the enemy faction and determine conclusively their personalities, goals, resources, and character builds. I plan out monsters and random encounter tables that I think will come up, but leave the manner and order in which they’re brought into play open. I do this to create the ultimate tense heroic fantasy experience.

My second game is about a party of opportunists and criminals in an alternate-universe Earth who’ve learned to hop between sympathetic dimensions of fantasy and magic. It’s about exploring surreal fantasyscapes, and as a result, I don’t plan anything in advance but come into each session ready to improvise my ass off. I do this because I’m reasonably good at it and because it adds to the anarchic feel, something that might be compromised by overpreparation.

My third game is about conspiracies and dark magic in 1980s Los Angeles. I run the game online and like to have tokens saved to represent certain characters and places; as a result, I’ve come up with dozens of people and locations and keep the rest of my planning very loose. I’m basically figuring out the conspiracy as I go along, alternately seeding intriguing clues (and listening to the interesting theories the players come up with) and taking note of any interesting coincidences.

For your first few adventures, before you’ve found the appropriate style, it’s probably a good idea to plan more–I’ll have a post about that soon. But if you find that you’re not using that planning, or that you don’t need it, you don’t need to keep it up. It all comes down to what you need to get the job done.

Round-table question for GMs: Has your planning style evolved over the years? If so, how?

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  1. SharpeRifle says:

    Ugh….personally I used to wing it every time for a long while. Then one session I got burned by another GM who seemed to have both designed a character who would have difficulty fitting in and who he would intentionally play as not having any reason to associate with the other characters. After spending an entire session just trying to get him in the same general area as the other players my winging died a slow death. From then on I have tended to generally plan the world out in advance and consult with the players who are designing their own characters so I don’t get a ringer. Once I learn the general thread of connections I can usually adapt where necessary to make the players fit into both the world and with each other…..or at the very least I’m gonna know if someone won’t leave their barstool for anything short of a vampire attack he’s getting paid to stop.

    • ehlijen says:

      That sounds like it wasn’t really your fault. Making a PC intent on not joining the party is what I consider one of the worst things that a player can do to a campaign.

      It’s true that some systems are based not around parties cooperating, but even in those systems player interaction is still vital to the game being fun. Characters who actively avoid associating with the other PCs are poison. (Related: Paladin code)

      Once it became somewhat clear that this character wasn’t easily joining the campaign, the player should have made an effort to help you make the fit. The unspoken premise of any campaign is that the players want to play together. While excluding character archetypes isn’t really ideal, some just don’t work with that assumption in place.

      • Chad says:

        Especially since he was a GM! he should have known better than to throw that monkey wrench in your game, and been willing to work with you to make it work if he really wanted to play that character.

        • evileeyore says:

          I long ago found that other GMs tend to make either the worst sort of Player, or the best.

          • Decus says:

            While I usually don’t like statements like that in this case I kind of have to agree. The GMs that revel in having authority over the story or who GM because they like to create multiple characters or shape the world tend to make for problem players whereas the GMs who focus on “how can I best ensure everybody is having fun with this” tend to, well, focus on that even as players which definitely makes them among the best.

            The list of usual “I became the GM because” motivations makes it kind of hard for the GM to be middling or average as a player. Even something like “I became the GM because nobody else would” has shades of “this is a guy who values the fun of the group”. That’s not to say that GMs with other motivations are horrible people to play with, but they can definitely be a lot more work to GM than otherwise; it requires more effort to GM anybody who isn’t putting the fun of the group first, even if they bring other cool things to the table at times.

            • SharpeRifle says:

              I don’t really blame myself for his actions….the blame I take (and what I learned really from this) is that I should have stopped trying earlier. My spending so much time trying to get him involved tanked the other players enjoyment. Sometimes you gotta amputate especially if everyone else is bending a bit to get it fun. The real thing that got me at the time….I was running the damn thing because he was our regular GM and he was complaining about getting tired of running the game (West End Star Wars) every week. So I offered to run an off campaign that would be intentionally not too serious. And I’m gonna stop there because this is gonna quickly turn into a rant if I let it continue. I was gonna say “if I let it go” but I hate that song and its a bit of a nasty realization to think I’m still that pissed about it after this long so I can’t say I’ve let it go can I.

              But yeah it led to me doing actual world building for games and such and I gotta admit I really like that sooo…I got something right…8-P

          • Chad says:

            I guess I’ve been fortunate in that the GMs I’ve worked with have been of the latter sort. But I can see how they can fall into the former category as well.

        • Shoeboxjeddy says:

          A GM should know BETTER!

          /Treebeard

      • Joshua says:

        Paladins really aren’t that bad, but they won’t fit well with a group of neutral self-interested types in a Sword and Sorcery campaign. You’ll sometimes have the opposite problem, where the GM and/or other players try to harass a Paladin who made a deliberate point to try to fit into the game.

        In my current game, our Paladin is a Dwarven follower of Thor. Not too many problems with the rest of the CG group.

        • Pyrrhic Gades says:

          The trick to playing a paladin surrounded by neutrals is to make them “Lawful” in that they obey the laws of physics, and “Good” in that they are good at killing stuff.

        • ehlijen says:

          The issue is that the paladin code outright says (or used to say) ‘you can’t have these sorts of people as friends’, making it impossible for them to be in the same party as an outright thief for example.

          Of course good groups can work around this issue, but it does tend to create extra effort to make sure the party clicks together.

          Communication between all group members during party creation is key.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            A thief doesnt have to be evil,so a thief can pretend to be a weak fighter and still be with a paladin.They just need to keep their thievery secret.

            • Sleeping Dragon says:

              For that matter the “rogue” archetype does not have to be a thief in the literal sense.

              • King Marth says:

                Only recently. When the first paladins were around, they were just a special type of fighting-man, in a world with magic-users and thieves where the non-human races often weren’t allowed to go above a certain level. Besides, when the majority of your xp (or, as they used to call it, your “score”) was from the treasure you personally brought out of the dungeon, you have some other perverse incentives going on.

                • ehlijen says:

                  For clarity, I am referring to DnD 3.5 specifically, as that’s what I played.

                  In it, the paladin code forbade interaction with evil characters as well as absolute requirements to uphold the law and be good.
                  Enter the infamous ‘chaotic neutral’ rogue, who will want to steal and lie and cheat and murder because that’s what the character seems geared towards.

                  No, the rogue doesn’t have to be that way, but many rogues were. Meanwhile, the paladin had to be that way, the code wasn’t flexibile.

                  Yes, the rogues could lie and hide their activities from the paladin, but in my opinion, as soon as players start hiding their actions from each other, more often than not, it’s a visible symptom of the party not fitting together and player friction often follows.

                  • TMC_Sherpa says:

                    I feel that a lot of the problems with alignment in general (and Paladins specifically) is they are looked at with a modern lens. What is lawful could be very different depending on the location and era. You might think it hinges more heavily on good but that is also pretty subjective. History is full of individuals, organizations and countries that thought they were in the right.

                    • krellen says:

                      Obeying the law is only one bullet point on the many bullet points that make up Lawful, among which are other things like honesty, truthworthiness, and loyalty. Lawfuls also value society over individuals, equity over equality, and autocracy over democracy.

                      Thinking you are right doesn’t necessarily mean you’re Lawful, but Lawfuls are far more likely to stick to their guns in the face of popular pressure than Chaotics and Neutrals.

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    Read order of the stick,especially the interactions between hinjo and haley and ochul and monster in the dark.For contrast,read the pages with miko.Hinjo represents the sensible paladin,one with nuance and humanity,while miko is the literal by the book paladin,the one you would construct when you dont know anything about the class except what is written.

                    • ehlijen says:

                      I have read OOTS (great comic, got all but the latest book). And yeah, there is some latitude in how to play a paladin, but most notably: Hinjo never had to be in charge of unshackled belkar for extended periods of time. Had he been, and had he knowingly failed to punish or capture belkar for one of his many transgressions, that would have been a breach of the dnd3.5 paladin code (also, the comic only loosely follows any particular set of rules).

                      Again, my point isn’t that Paladins are unplayable or that playing a selfish asshole character is necessarily wrong, but that having both in the same party is a problem the group needs to sort out. The paladin code is just the icing on that cake (you’d always have that problem if you have a genuine goody two shoes and a belkar like troublemaker in the party).

    • HauntedAutomaton says:

      My group a couple games ago had a problem like this. I was running the game for two players, but they both accidentally created characters the expressly didn’t want to be there as part of their backstories. (A cursed merc and a miserly winter druid.) We learned pretty quick that at least most most, if not all of the players should probably invested and eager to work together.

    • Richard MacDonald says:

      Had a player like that. Didn’t want to go on the same adventure as everyone else and seemed very much like he wouldn’t be happy until everyone was as miserable as he was. They wanted to go into the forest, he wanted to go into the desert, so off he went by himself. The group was fighting kobolds by the dozen in the forest, and the loner was wandering aimlessly in an empty desert with nothing to do. Once in a while, I’d roll a dice to determine how many tumbleweeds he’d see. “Roll for tumbleweeds,” became shorthand in our group for, “There’s nothing worthwhile to find here.”

      Wasn’t a total loss. Eventually figured out a way to bring him out of the desert and into the forest, except rather than joining the group he was now determined to stop them. He ended up really getting into the adventure and everyone wound up having a fun time, and the whole thing became much more interesting than what I had planned. I got really lucky as he turned out to be an excellent PC villain, something I never would have thought to even attempt if it weren’t for him coming into the game in a shitty mood.

  2. ehlijen says:

    It has very much changed for me.

    In the very beginning, I would make exact maps of every level of the dungeon/evil castle/spaceship, complete with placing individual guards where it’d make sense to post guards (though sadly not really conductive to cool fights).

    The guard thing I dropped very soon after finding that the party would get bored after fighting the fifth individual skeleton.
    The exact mapping of locations I tried to consciously drop when I ran my first scifi campaign (homebrew setting using a homebrew d20 hack) and realised that no, no one needs precise 5ft*5ft square deck plans for kilometre long spaceships.

    When we moved to map-less systems like word of darkness, things changed again. Instead of having locations drive my planning, I began to focus more on characters.

    Now my usual method is to set up a rough outline of the world in locations and then fill it with NPCs, each with their own plans and motives. Then I let the PCs loose on that world and just let the NPCs react to whatever happens.

    This has worked well for me until my most recent campaign (FFG star wars) where several player expectations didn’t really mesh (some wanted the direction of a carefully designed dungeon crawl, others preferred my fairly open world approach, and yet others were hoping for more higher level abstraction than my NPC, ie character face to face, focused approach really allowed for). I wasn’t really able to strike the balance needed :(

    Now I’m looking at Exalted third ed for my next campaign and I’m a little worried that my light planning approach to rules details is going to bite me. That game has some serious crunch for what is still ostensibly a derivative of the storyteller system (though WoD’s newer incarnations have also been dialling up the rules crunch more than I prefer).

    • Alderman says:

      I’m 20-ish sessions into an Ex3 campaign at the moment, something which has helped me a ton with the rules heft (though it admittedly takes some work up front) is to make charm cards for most enemy abilities. At this point I can generally pull an opponent out of my ass by picking 4-5 likely powers and making up some rough numbers for stats. Did take a few evenings making the cards, though!

      • ehlijen says:

        It’s not helped by the fact that I plan to not have any solar NPCs for the party to meet and no supplements for anyone else being out yet.

        But yeah, OPP should make and sell those cards as pdfs, that’s how useful they are. Especially since they removed the cascade trees from the book :(

        • Alderman says:

          I actually meant non-solar stuff – creature abilities, spirit charms, that sort of thing. I’ve also got a cheat sheet for stats and stuff which I could email you if you want, hit me up on twitter (@ErikRadman) or something :)

  3. Zaxares says:

    My planning style has not changed very much over the years. From start to finish, I pretty much plan out almost every aspect of the adventure down to the minutiae. Stuff that ends up being unused, I can usually recycle it into another adventure or campaign down the line, so nothing really ends up being “wasted”.

    As I got older and free time became more of an issue, I did start to use published adventures more often, because they do a lot of the groundwork for you and all you need to do is tweak and customise the adventures so it better suits your particular group. For instance, I might change a group of cultists so that they’re worshipping the Archdemon of Sloth, a recurring theme in the campaign where the players eventually realise that he’s trying to take over their city. Or I might change the loot found at the end of the adventure so it’s more appropriate for my group, giving the magic items specific histories and powers that I know will appeal to my players. (My rule of thumb is that you should never have magic items that your players “just sell for gold”. If that’s the case, you may as well have simply not put the item in at all and just given the players that amount in coin to begin with.)

    Finally, I might also weave in additional sideplots that help advance individual player’s stories and allow them to grow as a character. That City Guardswoman who helped them bring down the cultist cell as low-levels might end up becoming the Captain of the Guard, and is willing to bend the law (just a little) as a favour to the party when they start investigating nobles who might be part of the cult and they’re putting pressure on the City Guard to stop the party. I might include a small side adventure where the players have to rescue the Guard Captain after the cult kidnaps her and is trying to sacrifice her to the Archdemon. They do so gladly; not simply for the loot or XP, but because they’ve come to see the NPC as a friend who’s stuck her own neck out for them when it mattered.

  4. Akuma says:

    My DMing style has become very… interesting ever since I started writing adventures.

    Previously, and most commonly, I handled campaigns by thinking up the ‘big picture’ beforehand. So I’ll have the major villains, the major plots points or situations I want to drop my players into. The inbetween bits on the other hand are a mix of improv and short planning. It only takes me like an hour before each session to come up with what’s going to happen/what’s going on based on what we did last week.

    But then I wrote my own adventures and in the process of play testing them I have noticed a significant drop of stress. That’s not to say I was getting super stressed during my sessions, it’s just it can be quite draining when your brain is in full creative mode. It’s oddly relaxing having a big book, that you wrote yourself, that you can look to whenever you want to know what happens next or what quests/events are going on.

    It’s also interesting running groups through the same event chains and see what they do the same or differently.

    • HauntedAutomaton says:

      I’m running my next game like this, and now I really want to run more than one group through it. I hadn’t ever really considered running more than one group through the same stuff, so seeing how different people react seems like it would be so much fun.

  5. HauntedAutomaton says:

    I’ve run a few long-term campaigns, and I like to play things real loose. I typically improvise just about everything, but I have the world in my head rock solid. It also helps that I built our system too, so everything fits together rather well. I also love building all of our maps, as I’m really a level designer at heart.

    Here is a bit of the work I’ve done with maps for the game.

    The only things I really need to write down are for the players, since I’ve spend so much time making the world and system it feels kinda like a second home. I’m even getting the opportunity to sort of coach one of my players as he’s about to run this setting and system for his friends. I can’t wait to hear what they get up to.

  6. NoneCallMeTim says:

    When I first started, I only used pre-existing campaigns, modified a bit to suit the players. As I got more confident I started writing.

    I found that creating a situation where interesting stuff is happening, with hooks to get the players involved is a balanced way to let players roam around, but still have guidance if people aren’t that self motivated.

    On the flip side, I have seen someone who their first attempt at running a game was trying to predict every outcome of a situation and plan for it. The adventure took months to write, and came off the rails when we did something unexpected, with him not knowing what to do.

    So: whatever your GMing style, improvisation is an important thing to learn, even if you don’t rely on it fully.

    • And on the flip-flip side, my first proper attempt at GMing involved a session where I thought, ‘Hey, improvisation is important – I’ve got a very basic concept so I’ll come up with something on the spot working off what the others have thought up’.

      Unfortunately, everyone else had had the same thought. (Well, I say unfortunately; we did have fun that day, just not doing roleplaying games.)

  7. Chad says:

    I used to totally wing it. I’d just take the characters back stories and improvise from there depending on what the players did. I was mainly the Marvel Heroes Gamemaster for our group, and that worked just fine for monster of the week type stuff, although I was usually able to organically develop through-lines that made it look like I planned things.

    But two years ago(!) (wow! That took us a long time to get through! We just finished it a couple months ago) I started my first pre-made module: Red Hand of Doom. between that, the Red Handbook of Doom thread at GiantITP, and tweaking things for my personal and party preferences, I did a lot of preparation.

    Now that the module is done, the party is carrying on toward epicness and are getting ready to head to Hell to close a tear in the planes that is causing random rifts to open on the material plane which was inadvertently caused by the party in the climax of the Red Hand of Doom. My personal style has evolved from totally winging it to a combination of having a broad outline and a villain backstory in my pocket, as well as several potential encounters/puzzles ready for each session. while also responding to what the players do and integrating that into the story, but never being so enamored of my outline that I won’t go with the flow if the players go sideways.

  8. Joshua says:

    I’m ok with improvising just about anything, but it’s really hard to make an interesting dungeon for D&D on the fly. Talking about interesting trap, rooms that have a purpose besides holding monsters, extra description fluff, etc.

    For stories, NPCs, etc., it’s usually not a problem to just ask the group to give you a minute or two to think something up if they’ve gone off the rails.

    • Crunchy games (that is, games with lots of mechanical stuff to them) like D&D usually take a certain amount of prep just to make use of the mechanical stuff.

      • Cordance says:

        While this is “true” in a sense. Once you get a better feel for it you can just make it up on a fly. However a secret I find with making things up on the fly with a game with to many rules is board strokes letting players deeper dive. If they start asking questions about what do the goblins eat you add in a fungus lair. If your looking for an interesting trap just pull one out of a movie you have seen and ball park a DC (or several DCs if its a pit trap with retracting spikes and an acid bath).
        I find the greatest risk of improvisation in a rule base world is unexpected power gains. Im sure Rutskarn will cover pegging back players when you want to later.

  9. Hey, Ruts, are you planning on having an article about computer gaming aids like Obsidian Portal? Also, you should check out Obsidian Portal: http://obsidianportal.com

  10. Akri says:

    I’m currently in the middle of changing up my planning style. I started out trying to have as much stuff pre-planned as possible, which I should’ve known was a doomed idea because I am really bad at planning things. But I’m also not incredibly confident at winging it, either.

    Solution? Practice sessions. I’ve set the main campaign aside and instead we’ve been playing short games that only take a session or two. The only planning I do happens as the players are making their characters, which means the game is 99% off-the-cuff. I’m finding this to be a really good way of practicing my improv GMing skills, and as a bonus it also lets the players experiment with a lot of different character types and practice their roleplay skills (useful, since half of my group is new to RPGs). I’m finding that this way is a lot more fun for me, so I’ll probably try to take a more relaxed approach when I reboot the D&D campaign.

    • TMC_Sherpa says:

      This. I’ve taken to doing cold opens when I’m playing with new (to role playing, the system or me) people. I throw some stock(ish) characters at them, put them in a situation and we all feel our way around for a session or two. The players aren’t invested in the characters and I’m not invested in the story so everyone can kinda play how they want to play without worrying about the consequences. Are you a GM who has no qualms about killing players? Kill off some scrubs, now everyone knows. Are you a player who thinks way outside the box? Great, now the GM knows to make a few things even more open ended than they were planning on.
      All that said, I did have one of my cold opens turn into “the game” which was initially awkward. The campaign lasted three years though so I really can’t complain.

      Dirt little secret No.4:
      The players will use everything you give them. Probably in ways you didn’t expect. Usually this is great. Sometimes it becomes a horrible monstrosity and you are complicit. Some of this is knowing the players (not the characters, the players) so all I can say it tread carefully. I will give you an example. Do not play a Cyberpunk 2020 game that involves a battle in a nuclear missile silo unless you want the players to have a pet ICBM. Ask me how I know.

    • Cordance says:

      Something I did with a new set of rules as a DM is run the same adventure over and over adding and altering it to keep things interesting. This lets players become more comfortable with rules and testing out different characters. It lets you as a DM practice “against” said different characters it also lets you practice changing things on the fly. Nothing like people expecting something in a room only to find it full of corpses with a new “boss” in town.

  11. Malimar says:

    I plan differently for two different kinds of campaign:

    One campaign is a sandbox megadungeon, where I spend most of my prep time coming up with a.) dungeon areas to slot into the megadungeon (including a basic theme and backstory for each area and a dynamic wandering monster table for each area) and b.) bounties to prompt low-level players to visit particular areas. (High-level players tend to find plot hooks to pursue within the megadungeon itself.) Basically, I’m building a world for players to explore.

    Another campaign is Spelljammer, where I have a loose, overarching story and most of my prep time consists of coming up with the next dungeon the crew is about to explore and the next few monsters they’re going to encounter. (Or sometimes weirder stuff — This week, the Rakshasa Mafia is suing the crew in a court of law for the damages the crew has done to the mafia, so I have to come up with a courtroom scene.)

    So I suppose in both cases most of my prep time involves designing dungeons, but that works out differently in each case.

  12. TMC_Sherpa says:

    Christ Ruts, it’s been 35 years. The only thing that’s still the same are the dice. Kinda. OK a new set doesn’t come with a crayon anymore but now you’re being pedantic.

    Back in my day graph paper was hard to come by so I tried to use as much of a page as possible. I didn’t care about ecology, practicality or “logic” it was rule of cool all day every day. It was dungeon crawls and fate of the world type stuff.
    I can tell you exactly what caused me to change almost everything about how I played.
    My local library got a copy (probably 84ish?) of Fantasy Wargaming by Bruce Galloway and it blew. my. mind. The rules in it aren’t particularly good but the first half is sort of a making of and it was a light bulb moment for me. The epilogue is I returned it, couldn’t find another copy, someone stole it from the library and it wasn’t until November 25th 1994 at 11:34PM that I found a copy. I still have the receipt and use it as the bookmark. Apparently I payed cash.
    Now days you can find dozens of copies on Amazon. Along with graph paper and dice with precolored numbers. Kids today eh?

    Edit: I should note that in 84 I was like 10 so I may be over selling it a bit.

  13. Steve C says:

    There’s another GM type mission on that list: The randomly generated campaign.

    Basically think Fiasco where the difference is that only the GM sees the setup. The various characters, plots, motivations, settings, conflict etc are rolled randomly by the GM while the GM is alone and planning. That creates the skeletal structure that the GM fleshes out by finding and creating logical connections between elements.

  14. MikhailBorg says:

    Probably the most successful game I’ve run recently was a Shadowrun where the player characters were assaulting the Seattle Space Needle because (actual) terrorists were holed up at the top with an aerosolized neurotoxin bomb.

    I had some maps of the (present-day) Space Needle, and had planned out the motivations of the terrorists and the people paying the runners. Since I had some sneaky, thoughtful players and some “guns blazing” players, I wanted the first half of the story to be stealthing to the top and the second half to be “kill ’em all, it’s okay, they are terrible bad guys”. I had little else beside a desire not to tell the players “No, you can’t do that,” whenever it could be avoided.

    It took some effort to keep the “guns blazing” players from a frontal assault with attack helicopters and missiles, and I had to play the “No, you can’t do that,” card more than I liked there. But they settled down, and their patience paid off when they got to empty their SMGs at terrorist bad guys in the second half. Even the decker got something to do as she struggled to keep the trigger program on the bomb from executing before the rest of the party killed the evil decker.

    So, yeah, my best recent game was a mix of light planning, knowing the outline of the story, knowing my group’s play styles, and winging the rest. All the players were smiling when the adventure was done :)

  15. evileeyore says:

    “Has your planning style evolved over the years? If so, how?”

    A long, long time ago (the early 80’s) I planned everything about the games I ran. I even prewrote dialog…

    As time went on (and I got older, wiser, and more experienced) I had to wing things more and more and little by little I planned less and less. At this point I probably wing 90% of the campaign. I plan out skeletal outlines with a few words concerning possibly plot, a few key ideas on turning or junction points and where it might head and that’s it (oh, and i tend to develop a ‘world’ map if necessary for my usage). I don’t even stat or name NPCs in advance anymore.

  16. Coblen says:

    I started out DMing back when I was 13ish. Back then I was that guy who wrote the coolest chracters that the PC’s could cheer lead for. I was the worst, and I’m surprisingly ashamed by it all even though it was ages ago.

    I started out making campaigns very local. Basically it was all a never ending spree of dungeons that I would carefully draw on graph paper. All the characters where written out before hand, including long sprawling dialogue that they would invariably not get to say.
    The further I went the less I prepared stuff and the more I winged it. Writing too many things down just feels like a waste of time. I found the things that my players tended to enjoy most where the moments when I was improvising.
    One night my friends asked me to DM a game for them out of the blue. We had nothing prepared they just quickly wrote up some characters and then I winged it. I was surprised how much smoother it all felt when I was not trying to steer the campaign towards anything but instead just letting it flow. It was a lot of fun but the setting quickly became a mess. They PC’s where in a city that was simultaneously within walking distance of a mountain range, a boreal forest, a jungle, and a dessert. All of which had self contained problems that never interacted with each other.
    Now I like to start big picture writing a whole history of a world. I create locations, people, and historical stories to be a backdrop that I can always draw on for inspiration but never dictate how a campaign has to unfold. This way the world remains consistent and feels alive, but my players and I are free to take it anywhere we want.

  17. tzeneth says:

    I used to use a bit more planning than I do now. Now, I tend to think of the big ideas and concepts and see if my players will run with me as I try to introduce them to interesting situations and see what happens. I’ve tried to run sandbox style games but my group of players I most often play with just don’t have enough of their own initiative, so I tend to push them toward more mission styled storylines where x happens and then the players react rather than getting that experience of. Player A desires to do something which then causes chain reaction of x happens.

    Overall there’s usually a few notes somewhere in my brain for a few ideas. Sometimes I’ll do more elaborate things, like when I really want to actually use my damned minis and battlemat but otherwise it tends to be more loose. Funnily enough, I’ve always found GURPS to be easy to play loose with, then again I tend to be lite touched with it. Roll 3d6 high is bad, low is good. :P The only annoying part is balancing characters and character creation… Which is a different topic from GMing.

    One big piece of advice if you’re creating less of a dungeon experience and more of a story experience. Get the players to talk to each other or at least the GM about their damned characters. I’ve had too many games where characters don’t mesh well when created in a vacuum. If developments happen during the game, talk everyone to make sure there aren’t any problems developing.

  18. Sleeping Dragon says:

    I think my planning has evolved along with how the RPs I was running changed. I started with fairly mechanics focused stuff like Earthdawn, went through some V:tM, a homebrew fantasy campaign, Dark Heresy and I’m currently leaning more towards FATEish narrative focused games with relatively simplified mechanics.

    For Earthdawn I would have pretty specific stats and I often went through manuals looking for specific gear, spells or monsters and I’d had the adventure pretty well planned with specific challenges in specific places (so leaning towards Derrick style). Masquerade I was probably treating too mechanically for the good of that system trying to pre-plan adventures too tightly. For the homebrew I would be somewhere between Brian and Caroline, I would have a rough outline of both the grand scheme and specific subplots that I would inject when the opportunity arose but otherwise I mostly gave players free reign and winged it (which resulted in them pushing the local death goddess from the balcony of her palace/main temple at one point… good times). Dark Heresy was a more mechanical system again but I houseruled the heck out of it and my last few GMing attempts were various spinoffs on the FATE mechanics.

    I think the Brian-Caroline mix is what I’ve probably settled into. I like how it allows me to have the idea of where I’m taking the campaign, as well as some cool things ready to throw at the players, but ultimately I like giving players a lot of freedom and largely wining whatever stuff they decide to drag the story into at this specific juncture.

  19. Cuthalion says:

    My planning style has definitely evolved over the years. I usually GM, and for a long time I always winged it. Eventually, I started taking some notes during the game and trying to think of a basic plot outline for the session while I was in the car, driving to it. Now, I actually try to have an outline of the whole campaign, keep notes on important things players have done and the names of NPCs they meet, and (now that I’m using a module for probably the first time) read at least a little bit ahead.

    Honestly, I found winging it more fun, but some of my players don’t like it when they can tell something didn’t exist until I asked about it or when they can see that I’m deciding plot points based on what they’re doing rather than having a world that “already exists” for them to discover.

    Just comes down to different players having different thresholds for immersion. I try to keep all of them happy. I always wished I could do a long, coherent plot anyway, so hopefully the planning is good for me.

  20. I’d probably want to do a mixture of Abby, Brian and Caroline for prep. And Derrick and Emily during play.

    This means that if the player decide to (or manage) to kill the king of the realm (or even take his throne by force) even though that was not part of the campaign but the rules of the wrld allow it then that is what would happen.
    The players would change the the world and the world be rewritten to suit.

    This is probably why I don’t GM (no social circle also helps I guess).

  21. Totino says:

    My style has evolved *dramatically* over the years, and this is coming from someone that has gamed for about 35 years. My first GMing experience was approximately 32 years ago, however, and somewhere around 30 years ago I became the “guy that always ends up GM, if he didn’t start as the GM, in most game groups I am a part of.”

    My first couple of games were run as a not-quite Felipe. Published adventures, although I was still pretty young and didn’t put a lot of energy into the pre-reading and what-not. I very quickly decided I was not a fan of published material, and gravitated towards Derrick. Plan the (at least outline) of an adventure, all the while creating my own fantasy world. As my fantasy world matured, I became a mix of Derrick and Brian, splashing in a bit of Caroline. Many of my “middle-career” games were probably most recalled as primarily a Derrick though, as I often meticulously planned combats. This trait remains with me to this day, at least in part.

    However, as I amassed so many games under my belt, and began to have first-had experience with parties of characters in almost every sort of plot you could muster, it became easier and easier to simply wing it, and slowly but surely I became Emily. Your description of Emily, above, is surprisingly accurate as a description of my GMing style.

    I still like to have a pretty good idea of at least one or two good combats (Derrick), but now I just wing the specific numbers as needed.

  22. Mersadeon says:

    My style has definitely evolved. It’s gotten free-er over time: for my very first session, I had pages and pages of character descriptions and possible dialogue, dozens of notes to find – but I quickly noticed how little of that actually got found and served their purpose. I also noticed that my improvised content is often the best I have. so now the basic principle is pretty set – plan out the most important parts, have some extra floorplans of common stuff lying around, know the basic quest and the most important characters and wing all the details. Just have a list of names lying around, because I’m awful at making those up.

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