Top 5 Mistakes of Game Prep – Part 2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0551

A Brief Word From Johnn

Whoa, What Happened To The Format?

I experimented in the last couple of Friday Gems emails with changes to the email format.

I added some basic HTML elements and made lines full window width.

This hopefully made the email easier to read and mobile friendly.

Bold headings, for example, made the email faster and easier to skim.

And by not including hard line wraps like I usually do, you now have full control of the size of the message width in your device screen or message window.

So, I thought I’d take the big leap and try these changes with the Roleplaying Tips newsletter.

The plain text version of this edition has been saved in the usual place, if you still prefer plain text, though I’m leaving the line wrap off:

Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.

Top 5 Mistakes of Game Prep – Part 2

Last week we covered some great advice from the new Gnome Stew book written by Phil Vecchione.

The book is called Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s
Guide to Session Prep. You can pre-order it now at:

Phil talks about three mistakes we GMs make with preparation:

Mistake #1: Writing Too Much

Mistake #2: Poor Tools, or Tools You Are Not Excited About

Mistake #3: Not Understanding Your Creative Cycle and Schedule

This week, I have more big errors to add to the list.

Getting your prep style figured out is critical to being a happy GM. Whether you prep light or heavy, once you have your methods worked out, your role as GM becomes so much easier.

Here we go.

Mistake #4: Not Rewarding Yourself

I know we are super busy these days and time is short. But I feel strongly that game preparation – or design as I prefer to call it – is actually playing the game.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking only table time with players is playing the game. No. All the work you do to create adventures, NPCs, maps, treasure and worlds is playing the game too.

You are playing as you prep!

This play is unique and special to the GM’s role, and I cherish it when I get to design. It’s so much fun.

Design-as-play offers you an important mindset change you should make to get more enjoyment out of your hobby and GMing.

With prepping, the players are not there and the gameplay is different. But it’s still play. And it’s still fun.

It’s More Fun Than Practice

Athletes perform a high ratio of practice to actual game performance. They practice daily for hours getting their minds and bodies ready for their events.

Some athletes don’t mind practice, others have steeled themselves to accept it as part of being good at their sport.

However, game prep is not practice. We don’t do drills. We don’t lift metaphorical weights so GMing seems easier come game day.

Prep produces tangible results you actually use during and between games to make your campaigns awesome. You create stuff. It’s not practice. It’s building materials for later use.

Now yes, some activities do fall into the realm of practice. These are optional, and can be a lot of fun. For example, solo game play lets you test designs in your practice environments, or create materials while you get some play time in.

However, this type of thing is optional.

Game prep should be fun.


The Right Mindset Unlocks The Fun For You

Prep stops becoming fun when you do not reward yourself by designing the kinds of game elements you find interesting and exciting.

For example, if you love creating maps but never do that because you think there are more important things to prep or because you don’t need any more maps, then you are depriving yourself a huge gameplay opportunity during the design stage.

If you don’t get to do what’s fun, it becomes work. And we all know how that turns out. We start to cut corners, lose a bit of passion for the hobby and look for ways to avoid prep.

That makes sessions riskier and makes you feel worse about GMing. A vicious circle ensues.

Avoiding design is like avoiding fun. It’s crazy.

Instead, you need to focus on the design activities you are best at. Chances are what you’re good at comes from a natural interest and talent in that activity.

Take map drawing, for example. If you love making maps, then work to this strength and do as much map-making as you can. Prep will become fun again.

Fun Prep = Better Games

Once prep becomes fun again because you are designing what you enjoy most, your whole game lifts.

Let’s return to our example: say you love maps. Well, I have some advice for you. Change your GMing style so maps are more important in your game.

  • Use maps as props and treasure.
  • Use locations that are more involved and therefore need maps to help GM.
  • Create player versions of maps to make gameplay simpler and faster.
  • Turn information about other game elements into maps. (Just google data visualization; and Edward Tufte is a great place to start.)
  • Do more adventures where players get cool maps and they have to figure out the paths and clues drawn on maps to achieve their goals.

If you embrace maps as an important part of your GMing style, then you’ll find ever more reasons to create maps to prepare well for next session. Let the design fun begin.

Maps are just one example. For me, I love creating NPCs and items. And I’m guilty of not focusing on these design activities enough to bring more enjoyment to my prep. My Riddleport campaign has often been just-in-time-prep because I’ve lost focus on what I love to design most.

What game elements do you enjoy most? What are you best at designing?

Here are some ideas to get you navel gazing:

  • NPCs
  • Encounters
  • Locations
  • Items (magic or mundane)
  • World Building
  • Politics
  • History
  • Countries and kingdoms
  • Cultures
  • Monsters
  • House Rules
  • Art and Props
  • Plots
  • Adventures

Whatever strikes your fancy most in that list, embrace it as part of your GMing style. And make sure you do more of it when you get to play between sessions with your designer hat on.

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Mistake #5: Preparing Boring Stuff First

Use momentum to get you through the tough parts of session prep.

There will be parts of prep you like the least. But you can get through them easier if you start your prep sessions with something fun.

It turns out the most difficult part of preparation is getting started. Once you start, you tend to keep going and can get a lot done, even in short periods of time such as half an hour.

The key is to start. Do whatever you can to just pony up and begin.

The first minute is crucial. If you can just do something for even one minute towards preparing for your next game, chances are high you’ll gain momentum that will keep you going for another minute, then another, then another.

If you try to tackle something you dread, then you WILL find excuses to avoid prep.

The tricky truth is there will always be excuses. We live in a world of choices. Therefore, we will never not have an excuse to procrastinate.

But if you can start with something fun or simple, you trick yourself into sneaking up on the less desirable stuff.

Better yet, sandwich the gunky stuff between two slices of awesome.

For me, that would be updating session notes between creating two NPCs.

Here’s a simple recipe for building momentum:

1) Make a list of To Dos. What do you need to get done to make next session a success?

2) Pick the item that looks most fun or is easiest.

3) Do that item.

4) Congrats for completing that item. Hey, while you’re here, why don’t you pick another item to do?

Just get started. And do not defeat yourself before you begin by picking something boring. Start with fun.

Mistake #6: Doing Deep Dives Into The Unimportant

A classic error for me. I described a time in last issue where I spent all my time designing the gods and then ran out of steam before I could design the world.

Other times, I went into the deep end of NPC backstories, got way too designy on minor magic items and hit the meta button of adventure prep itself.

That last one is common for me, actually. I start out preparing for next session and end up with an outline for a Roleplaying Tips article. lol

In all these examples, I started with good intentions but got lost. When I finally found daylight I realized I had not achieved my Primary Objective: be ready for next session.

Don’t Wander

We go walkabout on session preparation for a variety of reasons.

  • We’re in our sweet spot and keep doing what we find most fun or interesting
  • We’re secretly avoiding stuff we don’t want to do
  • We don’t know how to effectively prep and are just stalling

You might have more reasons (if so, drop me a note and let me know what they are).

First thing you should do is ask, “Is this me?”

Recognise whether you do deep dives that cause problems with your other To Dos. If so, then diagnose.

Regardless of reason, the best remedy for deep dives is easy. Get a timer. You need one with an alarm.

Decide how much time you have for a To Do item, set the timer and begin.

If the timer interrupts you, stop for a moment and assess:

  • How much have you got done?
  • What’s left to do?
  • Why did you miss your deadline (you underestimated, you got distracted, you went into a deep dive, you stalled…)
  • What would be the fastest way to address why you missed your deadline and get this done?
  • Set timer to new deadline and repeat

This simple process will give you one huge benefit: you will learn about yourself.

More important in the long run than just getting stuff completed, you will learn what you are doing.

You will find out through trial and error what works, what doesn’t, and what’s blocking you.

Self-awareness as GM offers you wonderful insight into how you tick. You can use this knowledge to get leverage on yourself when you need it. For example, you might learn which prep tasks you like least.

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Mistake #7: Not Outsourcing

Outsourcing in this context means to get help when you need it.

Back when I started gaming, when you had to pedal your car with your bare feet through a hole in the floor and the newspaper was printed on stone tablets, you could only get help in person or by phone.

We GMs were a reclusive group. At least in my area. And there was no collaboration. So it was every GM for himself.

Now, though, we all have each other! We can hop online and ask questions, download each others’ creations and support each other.

We can reach the game designers through Facebook, ask for help with NPC builds and find cool maps free online.

Sites like and Google Groups make session logistics easy.

Ask For Help

For game prep today, I highly recommend outsourcing in the areas you need help with most and like to prep the least.

Take your list of To Dos and tick what you want help with.

Get started on your outsourcing early, to give others enough time to help you before next session rolls around.

Meantime, keep doing the stuff you enjoy most.

Seems like a perfect world, doesn’t it? Gamers who enjoy the stuff you like least help you with that, while you focus on what you find most fun.

Here’s the catch.

Go out there and help others!

That stuff you like most? Do that for your fellow GMs.

I think that’s the ideal scenario.

You like making maps but hate NPCs? Throw me the map, I’ll throw you the NPC!

If you need help, go out there and connect with your fellow GMs wherever it makes sense and ask for assistance. Alternatively, websites or services might have what you need. Game publishers might have support materials you can grab.

Outsourcing can help you prep in many ways. Take advantage of it. And give back in return when you are able.

Reader Tip Request

How do you manage long-term campaigns?

I’ve been reading your articles for several years and am somewhat of an amateur GM.

I’ve run several short-term campaigns I’d intended to make long-term, and many of my friends have experienced the same issue.

So, basically, my question is what advice could you offer about campaign management? How can you increase your chances of making a campaign a great long-term one?

Thanks Again,


[Johnn] If you have any tips or links for Chris about long-term campaigns, just hit reply. I’ll share the best advice in an upcoming issue. Thanks for your help!