DM Preparation – Part 1
I’ve been roleplaying for almost 25 years, ever since my dad brought home a certain red box set. For a few years I was a player, learning from my DMs without realising. It’s too long ago to remember every session, but I do remember one chap I’ll call PW, who ran the definitive AD&D game for me. [Nostalgia Alert] He was a good storyteller, strong on action scenes, subtle with plot and always prepared for our adventures.
My swashbuckler Talfor Apalpius will always be one of my favourite characters and a name/concept that has recurred in many worlds (finally coming to rest in Five Cities). I was challenged as a player and had to work hard to get my rewards. These rewards were always cherished, but I always wanted more. PW was driving me on, without me even realising. Always there with the right balance of carrot and stick, action and plot. Always prepared and thinking ahead. Years later PW moved on.
Before he left I had started to DM myself. My style was generous and raw. I made stuff up on the fly, improvised on a regular basis. I gave out ridiculous amounts of XP and lots and lots of treasure. They loved it! However, I kept overpowering my players and having to start again. We could discuss my egotistical/megalomaniacal tendencies, but let’s just say I loved being in charge. More than that, I got a real pleasure out of providing an entertaining experience for my friends.
But my DMing (or GMing as I grew older) was still raw and all about a fun experience rather than a coherent plot. Anyway, PW was moving to university and he had limited space. So he asked me if I wanted to take his collection. Of course I accepted and found a series of boxes and bags appear from the back of a jalopy. It was all AD&D 2nd ed and there were loads. So much that I had inspiration for games for years to come. I think this was when I actually became a GM, I was so interested in all the details of these worlds. From then on 90% of my roleplaying experiences have been behind the GM screen. It was also when I started thinking about my own games.
That was a long way off though and there were players that needed games running! I soon realised that as the players (and my) age tipped over 18 they became more interested in the arcing plots and subtle stories. Obviously they still wanted all the shiny things too, but they were trying to get involved in the story. I began planning long stories and grand campaigns. The heroes would be akin to Frodo on such an awesome story that surely they would never forget it. The problem with this approach was that we often would never reach the end. There would rarely be the payoff. I’d shifted from no prep to too much prep.
With no prep, I was flexible and able to shift the story to match (or mock) the players desires. Stories were interesting and ferocious, but with no goal. This often led to an empty feeling. Standing in a pile of dead orcs with a magic sword in hand, but not sure why you stormed the village? Done that. At the time it didn’t matter, story was not the focus. Yet I think those early years of ‘just get stuck in and rolling some dice’ helped me a lot later on. Things were fun, but disjointed and there were many inconsistencies.
With too much prep, I was detailed and describing an intricate and subtle(ish) story. However, I was rigid and unable to quickly step beyond the well laid plans. The stories were better, but if I hadn’t prepped the latest player tangent (which always happens) there was a startling difference between the planned and off-the-cuff moments. One particular Vampire: Dark Ages campaign stands out. I set the game in Venice and had done my homework and then some. There were moments when the players stepped off the beaten path and found a paper thin trail. Luckily the story was strong enough that these few parts were quickly forgotten.
After many years I had begun to create my own world, what would become Five Cities and branched out into the sci-fi world of Third Order. At this point I still had those boxes that PW had set down on my doorstep and would often look through them. They still provided inspiration for games, but also a good benchmark for the ‘stuff’ to put in a game.
These days I only run my games. Sounds a bit egotistical, but it’s actually a long term play-testing plan. Mostly it’s Third Order and I feel people think that I don’t really prep. True I don’t have notes on everything in the session, maybe a map. However, something that PW made me realise was that the more familiar you are with the world, the more you can be flexible with the structure and give a little to deal with unexpected twists and turns. You’ll also have a stronger grasp of the themes that run through the game and be able to gently steer people towards any goal.
You need to have flexibility for those players that want to go off on what you would consider a tangent. Familiarity with the world will pay off in terms of being able to ad hoc fill the gaps, you’ll know exactly what should be in there. You’ll also need some structure, some plan. Familiarity with the world will pay off in terms of the overarching place in the world the players inhabit. It will allow your story to ‘fit’. In creating my own game and settings I’ve taken the final step in familiarity. I am these worlds (in so-much-as they came from my brain).
So that’s Part 1, my approach and general comments. Part 2 will go into specific preparation techniques.