Top 5 Mistakes of Game Prep – Part 1 — RPT#550
Martin Ralya at Engine Publishing sent me a preview of his
latest book, Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s
Guide to Session Prep. (Thanks Martin – the book looks
Written by Phil Vecchione, the 127 page book is carved into
three main sections:
- Understanding Prep
- Prep Toolbox
- Evolving Your Style
There are also meta pages covering references, intro,
conclusion, index and so on.
While reading the Understanding Prep section, I came across
three pain points of typical game preparation in a section
titled “You’re Doing It Wrong.”
A light bulb went off and I wanted to delve deeper into the
biggest mistakes I (and maybe you) make when handling
preparation for games.
This article, then, covers the three insightful GM prep pain
points Phil identifies, plus a couple of personal ones from
my own book of mistakes!
But before diving into today’s dish of prep faux pas, I
wanted to call out a couple of quotes from Never Unprepared.
Prep = Confidence
The first quote tells us the key benefit of game prep is
“The goal of prep is to give the GM a level of comfort
through the understanding that all the information they need
to run the game as smoothly as possible is readily at hand.”
I agree very much with this, that good prep gives you a
feeling of confidence. A sign you are preparing for game
sessions well is you feel confident going into the game
You feel like you can handle whatever the players throw at
you. You feel you’ll weave great tales of adventure with
your players based on your ideas and designs. And you feel
great about the materials you’ll need to play the game well.
Herein lies a gem from Phil’s advice.
If your goal of prep is confidence, then you just need to
figure out what makes you confident going into each session.
Once you know that, you know exactly what to prep!
For example, maybe you run a game with a good amount of
crunch in it, like Pathfinder or D&D. Confidence for you
might mean rules mastery and a pool of pre-designed game
elements, such as NPC stat blocks.
Or perhaps confidence for you means having a published
adventure primed to run – studied, tweaked and ready to
serve up like a hot dish of roasted PCs (with a touch of
Alternatively, confidence might mean having a bullet list of
ideas and a map in your back pocket.
The lesson here is to figure out what makes you confident,
for once we delve into our own recipes of confidence I bet
we’re each different. So no one can tell you exactly what
you need to prepare for you to feel confident.
If you are unsure, you can check out books like Never
Unprepared or the Adventure Creation Handbook to give you
When running games, be sure to note the parts where you
stumbled and a bit more prep could’ve helped. Track these
moments and make a pre-session prep checklist for yourself.
Improve your checklist over time until it becomes the
perfect prep recipe for you.
Silence Is Death
“GMing is in many ways like radio, where silence is death.
When [silence] happens, immersion is broken and the
gaming table slowly devolves into building dice towers, book
flipping, and sidebar conversations. Prep is what
prevents those moments of silence.”
I thought this was great advice from the book. Great job,
When I read this I put my iPad down and thought about it. Is
silence really a bad thing?
My conclusion: if not used for dramatic effect or as a short
bit of player recovery after something intense, then yes,
silence is death.
Silence caused by GM hesitation kills table energy.
Hesitation can happen for a variety of reasons:
- If you get stuck and can’t think of what happens next, the
ensuing awkward silence is hard to bear.
- If you get stumped on a rule, the silence caused from all
the research deflates the game.
- If you can’t find what you’re looking for in your notes or
book or adventure, the pause diffuses attention and
The first bullet is perhaps your worst GMing nightmare.
Mental writer’s block. A creative stumper.
One solution to all those potential silent killers is good
And that falls back to who you are as a game master and what
you need to feel confident, because confidence puts you in a
frame of mind where you never get stumped. You are in the
zone and have super recall. You handle tricky situations
like rules issues with ease.
“Bob, would you mind double-checking that rule while I do a
quick aside with Frank as he checks the locked box for
The Four Key Qualities Of Prep
Finally, I want to pull a model out of the book for you, as
I think it’s a great way to think about the carrier waves of
I was going to call these four things goals. But we already
have a goal for prep: confidence.
Therefore, these four things are the paths to confidence,
sort of like carrier waves. Do these, and you’ll feel
So, the four qualities of great game prep are:
- Accessible – What you’ve prepared must be available during
games when needed.
- Organized – Find stuff fast.
- Effective – What you’ve prepared must actually be useful
to you during games.
- Reliable – Your stuff is safe and secure (back your
computer up now!)
Nail these, and you will be a confident GM.
Now, onto the big mistakes of game prep.
Mistake #1. Writing Too Much
“This is the most common reason that GMs dislike prep: They
are simply writing too many notes.”
Have you ever written a huge background for an NPC, place or
item, then realized how little time is left before game day,
so you start scrambling?
I recall writing session logs that took a whole week, which
left me no time to get ready for next session.
I also remember writing vast histories for a homebrew game
world called Seven Cities. All that writing left me
exhausted and not interested in doing anything else to prep
for a while. The irony?
I wrote about the creation of the universe and the formation
of the gods. That’s it. I was exhausted and I had not even
started writing about the lands of the Seven Cities and the
kind of games and adventures that might take place there. I
got stalled in meta land.
So, if you feel pressure to write a lot to be prepared, and
this makes you procrastinate, then stop writing. It’s not
However, if you love creative writing like I do, then
writing a lot about your campaign is great as long as you
manage your time and energy well.
I find writing helps me explore the setting and its peoples
better than any other activity. It’s better than just
reading a whole bunch and trying to absorb all the details.
When I write and create my own stuff, I have better, longer
recall of it. It becomes part of me – I just “know it” when
the time comes to use it for prep or during games.
But each to his own.
- Find your sweet spot between creating enough details to
feel confident and not writing so many details that you run
out of time or energy to be fully ready for next session.
- If you like to write, create a To Do list of what you need
to do to be ready for next session. Then put time limits on
your creative writing sessions so you leave enough time for
the other stuff.
- Try to do a lot of creative writing before you start
campaigns. Use this activity to set a strong foundation of
knowledge and readiness, so prep you need to do during the
campaign is diminished and easier.
- Through experimentation, learn what notes style helps you
GM best. For example, I’ve found bullets work better for
read aloud text than full paragraphs.
- Consider using stat blocks more often for various game
elements. I’ve published a few stat blocks for different
types of game elements in past emails. Stat blocks create
consistent information entries, such as for NPCs and items,
and can forestall the need to do a lot of writing because of
the efficient format.
Mistake #2. Poor Tools, or Tools You Are Not Excited About
Try sawing a board with a hammer. You need the right tool
for the job. The wrong tool will leave you frustrated,
ineffective as GM and stressed out when you prep.
You should not only consider the physical properties of a
tool, but choose a tool and preparation system you enjoy
using. A tool you hate lies unused.
For example, you might use your computer for preparation,
but not have it available at the game table, so you need to
print everything out, which is always a last-minute mess.
Or, you might have five different pieces of software for
notes and idea capture, making consolidation a nightmare.
I use MyInfo software for prep (plus some helper software
But I’m always tempted to use a GM binder. And I also love
the idea of going back to index cards.
Reverting to a binder or card boxes would be a mistake
though, because then I’d have information sprawl – some
information on a computer and some on paper or cards.
Plus, I love the search, tag and customization features of
MyInfo, so it’s a tool I’m always excited about.
- Experiment with different preparation and organization
methods for a little while. Then pick what you like best.
- Stick with your decision! No system is perfect. Do not
think the grass is greener on the other side. That will
always be true. Stick with your chosen system and make it
work for you, or risk getting bit by Mistake #2.
- Understand what you need from your prep tools:
- Inspiration (i.e., generators, news sites)
- Idea capture
- Reference (i.e., gazetteer, cast of NPCs, plotline)
- In-game note taking
- Crunch (i.e., bestiary, NPC stat blocks)
Then pick your tool(s) of choice.
- Avoid flip-flopping between tools (see bullet #2 above).
For example, quit downloading notes apps and just pick one
and stick with it. The more you use a tool, the more you
will master it and learn how to make it work best for you.
Mistake #3: Not Understanding Your Creative Cycle and
Prepping while tired makes you dislike prep and it generates
Some people are better in the morning, some in the evening.
You might work better on weekends, or perhaps a half hour a
day right after work or school helps you unwind and get
Never Unprepared goes into detail about your creative cycles
and taking best advantage of them, which is great.
The book also guides you through schedule creation. Author
Phil has a project management background, and he brings that
to bear in his top-down approach to figuring out a schedule
that helps you take best advantage of your peak creativity
I think just calling out that you have periods of higher
creativity is brilliant. Once you realize, “Yeah, I am more
creative when hooked up to my coffee intravenous each
morning” you gain a key personal insight you can take
advantage of for better game prep.
For me, I’ve tried the top-down approach of figuring out a
weekly schedule and I have a slightly different angle.
Instead of making a calendar and filling in all the time
boxes, I decide when I’ll do game prep each week and book an
appointment with myself. I carve out this time and have
everything else work around it, letting it all sort itself
I used to spend time each morning before work doing prep.
But recently I’ve switched to after work. I get home from
work, do a half hour of prep, then a half hour of exercise,
and then I’m ready for whatever the evening has in store for
The end result is the same. Whether you fill in a whole
calendar or just carve out protected time, you set yourself
up for success.
- Determine when you are most creative, inspired and
interested in doing game prep. If unknown, experiment. Know
- You might have different strengths and preferences at
different times. For example, mornings are my idea times,
and afternoon breaks are great for organizing and research.
Evenings are good for crunch. That’s me. How about you?
- Make a schedule or book an appointment with yourself.
Either way, protect your prep time and keep appointments
with yourself – don’t be a no-show.
- Always be thinking. I do a lot of prep just by thinking
and imagining when my hands are busy but my brain is idle,
such as while mowing the lawn. When it comes time to put
fingers to keyboard, I already have a lot figured out.
Thanks again to Martin for the review copy of Never
Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session
Prep. The book is available now for preorder at:
I promised you five GM prep mistakes. I’ve covered the three
mentioned in Never Unprepared today.
In another email, I’m going to talk about two others I’ve
learned the hard way over the years.
The first is called Not Rewarding Yourself.
Many GMs don’t like preparation. I was not a fan of it
myself for a while. And my games suffered because of it.
You might be great at ad libbing and running from just a few
ideas written on a napkin.
But I feel a little preparation helps even those GMs who can
- Adding a bit of polish to your ideas will make them gleam
- Connecting more dots between sessions will turn you into a
- And showing up to a session organized, prepared and
confident will help you have even more fun every game.
Once I clued into the proper mindset for preparation, my
whole game changed. Yours will too.
Sources For Systemless Adventures
Last week, GM Evan asked RPT readers about sources of systemless adventures:
I was hoping you might be able to help me. I want to start a new RP group and I was given the advice to start with a pre-made adventure module.
The problem is, I don’t generally use the more popular game systems and I like to play non-fantasy settings. As you can imagine, that doesn’t leave me with a lot of places to look.
I was hoping you could point me in the direction of some system-agnostic or easily converted adventure books or publishers.
And I received several tips from your fellow readers, which is great.
From: Robert McLean
Evan needs to check out Gnome Stew’s book, Eureka. It is an entire book full of systemless adventures. Gnome Stew is a game master’s website all written as systemless advice.
From: John Marvin
One of the reasons people suggest starting with a pre-made adventure for the first session is to allow the GM to learn how the system acts in-game before they try to design an adventure that might fall flat or become a TPK because the system isn’t understood enough.
Taking a systemless adventure will not give the GM that advantage.
Most RPGs come with a simple starter adventure that showcases the rules and setting. The free RPG scenarios are often great starters, and the publisher’s often have them online.
For example, Rogue Trader, from Fantasy Flight, has a starter called Secrets of the Expanse here: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt550roguetrader
If you know the system well, and there aren’t any starter adventures, you can often find conversions on the internet. Just Bing or Google.
And some games come with built-in conversions. For example, Trail of Cthulhu includes conversion rules for Call of Cthulhu, letting the GM buy any CoC adventure and quickly run it for ToC.
When converting, what you want is the story, the NPC personalities and flavor. You can convert even across genres.
However, while it can be a real time saver, using systemless adventures won’t show you examples of clever ways to use the game mechanics or setting.
Check out Mythic, which is probably the closest I’ve seen to a systemless game. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt550mythic
Mythic works off of mostly common sense and a chart that determines how likely something is. It’s designed to be used with other systems.
Also, I make my own adventures off the cuff using the D6 Locations series, mostly the Fantasy Locations, which has a great Random Dungeon Generator. It is generic enough to be easily adapted to anything.
You can roll anything from what the encounter is about, to why the heroes are even there in the first place, using either system. I’d recommend Mythic first, though.
From: Charles C.
A lot of classic modules can be tweaked into good non-fantasy adventures with a little effort. Other sources are Twilight 2000, Call of Cthulhu (minus the supernatural; normal folks can make nasty villains all on their own), and Shadowrun.
From: Trevor Dr
Go old school. Cyberpunk, Forlorn Hope being a good place tostart as it was a series of mini-adventures. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt550forlornhope
90s cyberpunk adventures had a lot of different story ideas. It’s good place to start.
From: Darren Blair
It might be difficult to collect everything due to the number of times the franchise has changed hands in the last 10 years, but the Battletech science fiction game was pretty good about putting out scenario books to go along with everything. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt550battletech
Some scenarios are actually pre-planned adventures that focus on role-playing, such as “Unbound” (wherein the party is sent undercover to investigate reports of bizarre new weapons being tested in the gaming arenas of Solaris VII). http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt550unbound
Others are literally extended compilations of battles for those who just want to do the table-top gaming aspect, such as “Fall of Terra” (which looks at multiple sides of a situation in which Earth is assaulted by militant religious
order the Word of Blake). http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rpt550fallofterra
All you need is one of the rules manuals, a character creation manual, and something you can use to pull up data on the war machines.
Message board Mordel.net has most of the mechs in the gamerecorded in the “Ministry of Intelligence” section: Mordel.net.
If you have some money to burn, there’s always the Heavy Metal series of computer programs (Pro, Vee, and Aero) which will even print the record sheets for you: Heavy Metal
There used to be Judges Guild modules in the old days that were all description with no game mechanics. These could be fleshed out systemwise by the DM: Judges Guild.
S. John Ross has some good system agnostic material on his Blue Room site.