We started chatting about prep because I was talking about having just finished preparing for the first session of the new game I'm about to start running, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. It's a big change of gears after wrapping up NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE, which was a small-cast, high drama affair. MRD is a more traditional game, running on a traditional (even retro, in a lot of ways) rule system, with a lot more demands on the GM side of things.
I think the two games will provide fruitful points of comparison in terms of what was required to prepare for both of them.
First, let me say that a lot of prep is about figuring out where there are gaps in your personal GMing style and doing work ahead of time to compensate. For me, that's often on the rules mastery side of things, because I often have difficulty remembering all of the details of a complex rule system. That's likely why I gravitate toward lighter rules systems as a general practice, because that means I have to devote less energy to the mechanical side of the game and I can turn that attention toward the players and their experience.
To kick off my new game, I've devoted as much time to building handouts that summarize all the important rule systems as I have to writing the actual adventure -- and the "pilot episode" is written like a very traditional adventure, with maps, detailed notes, and monster stats. You have a special obligation as a GM when you're starting a new game to teach the game to your players, and if you're confused by how things work, you can get them really confused, because it's very likely they haven't personally read the rules. The GM is their only touchstone for the game, so preparing handouts that sketch out the high points means everybody has common ground and a place to go to make sure we're doing it right, the first couple of times. Making handouts also gets you thinking about the rules, which is helpful for people with shaky memory on such things, like myself.
I also almost always build custom character sheets for each game. Taking the time to understand where all the moving parts are on the characters and figure out a way of representing that which is as clear and accessible as possible means your players will see things clearly too.
NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE was much less work on my side of the table, although I ended up putting in some time figuring out how I was going to hack together several rule systems to make the game do what I wanted but fade into the background the rest of the time. In the case of that game, when I came to the table for the first session I hadn't nailed down a lot of specific details about it except that it would take place in a haunted house. So my job as GM was to facilitate a detailed conversation that would create a situation in the game that would build drama. I discussed several possible story frames featuring haunted houses, and we settled on one that appealed to everyone (sprawling family drama) before discussing player characters.
In a game like NOGOA, it's explicitly about the player-centric stuff, so I was really trying to help the players toward a strong starting point, building conflicts and a family history.
Once MRD is underway, I'll continue to have the work of sketching out adventure locations and populating them with monsters, as well as overseeing character progression. The interesting part will be a subsystem I've written for player-driven investigations, which sort of formalizes the idea that the players can drive the campaign in any direction they like. This is the ideal of the traditional "sandbox" adventure game -- go anywhere, do anything-- but I've found that in practice, players often find that much freedom a little overwhelming. So I've given my players a concrete way that they can move the game toward elements they find interesting. Once that starts generating feedback from the players, I'll have to adjust what I'm doing to incorporate their ideas on a regular basis, which should be a fun collaborative thing that leads toward novel adventure elements and pushes play toward player character backstory and goals. That's the theory, anyway.
NOGOA was a different dynamic. Since a significant portion of play was about the main cast of characters interacting with each other, my job was to facilitate that by using NPCs to push drama forward and also create a compelling backdrop for the story (by painting in the details of the haunted house setting). For an average episode of NOGOA, I'd take two pages of my notebook (side by side) and write down a short list of scene ideas for each character, places I could push them, snatches of NPC dialogue, and bits of ghostly shenanigans that were both backdrop and pressure for more drama.
My wife Megan often says of theatrical training that it carries you through during performances when you don't have a lot of personal energy or you're not at the top of your game for some reason. GM prep is much the same kind of thing. I may not need my list of ideas for scenes, if the players are really hot, I may just be able to sit back and react to them. Knowing I've got at least a few ideas to bring to the table means that if any of us are low energy, I have at least a starting point. Sometimes that's not enough for a great session, but it's usually enough that you get your session in rather than hanging it up partway through. And sometimes having the right kind of thing ready is the difference between a good session and a great one.
Of course, a GM always has to hold those ideas lightly, and go with the flow of whatever the players are bringing to the game. Ultimately, it's not a game that's about your ideas, it's about the friction that's generated by grinding them up against the players.
I have more general tools that I often bring to a game, especially when it's an improvised affair or a one-shot. A list of setting-appropriate names is pure gold, because inevitably you're going to have to manage a player character interaction with some bit player in the setting who you're making up on the spot. I especially make an effort to put a little cultural diversity into my list of names so every NPC isn't named Joe or Mike or David. I also try, in games where combat is featured, to have the ability to quickly improvise a combat when necessary. Sometimes a session needs a little jolt of adrenaline, and a fight can fit the bill. For my SHADOWRUN Fate game, I put together a little template that would let me quickly create some baddies or even improvise a short "run" to pick up the pace. Knowing I just had to pull out that sheet meant I was ready to roll when I needed to.
For NOGOA, I had a stack of index cards listing a dozen or so locations in and around the haunted house that we could use when someone was looking to start a new scene. Rather than have to invent a locale on the fly, they could pull out a card and say "Ah, let's play a scene in the conservatory" or maybe ask themselves what compelling location hadn't been featured yet.
For one shots, my favourite thing to do is to put together something that's basically all setup -- create a charged situation, then let the players decide how it goes, and make interesting fallout out of that. Most of the best games I've played in have flowed from important player decisions, so I try to frame the game around a few meaty ones; the rest writes itself, and it makes players feel like they are at the center of the game (which is as it should be). Yes, this is basically drawn from Ron Edwards' idea of a "bang"; it's a classic for a reason.
So, to sum up, for myself prep usually takes one of the following forms:
- Handouts and character sheets to help teach the game, and make it more accessible
- Tools to provide ingredients that can be added to a scene (names, props, locations)
- Traditional stat-driven prep (adventure notes, monster stats), if necessary
- Flexible tools that help me improvise elements on the fly (simple encounter prep)
- A list of general or specific ideas for scenes, usually tailored to the characters to drive conflicts forward or introduce ideas into the fiction
- An idea for a charged situation to center the session on
To be honest, I feel like "what's the right thing to prepare for a session" and "how much prep is necessary for a session" are questions that I am always wrestling with. If I can come to the table and feel relatively comfortable diving in, and supporting the players so that they can do the same, I feel like I've done my job.
What kinds of things do you guys do to prepare for a scene?