My Basic Session Planning

Before we get to today’s post, a little Extra Life update and reminder. I am currently just over a third of the way to my $1000 goal, which is excellent! Thank-you to everyone who has donated or spread the word, your support is going mean the world to sick kids at the Stollery. If you’ve been waiting, now is your chance. I posted in September about my Extra Life plans, and you can check out that post for details and how you can donate and get involved. Now, on with the post!

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I know there are Game Masters out there that don’t do a lot of prep between sessions. I respect GMs that can work completely on the fly, because I am not one of them. While I have gotten better at improv over the years, I still need to do a minimum amount of prep in order to feel confident going into a session.

The very first thing I do is go over my session notes from the previous session. I’m looking for anything I said I’d have done by next session (XP totals, treasure lists, and so on). I’m also looking for any NPCs I might have to prep, and any indications of where my players are going next. Sometimes that’s straightforward; they’re still in the dungeon, so they’ll stay in the dungeon. Sometimes they have a bunch of options, though, and hopefully I noted which one they were leaning towards at the previous session.

Once I’ve gone over my notes I start putting together the things I might need for the session: NPC stats, location info, results for Knowledge checks. I read over the next portions of the adventure a few times to get familiar with them, assuming I’m using a pre-written adventure. If not, I review my adventure notes, and fill in any blanks I might need for the next session. I also assemble the physical items I’ll need for the next several encounters, like miniatures, maps, and player handouts. I like to have those things ready to go so I don’t waste playing time fumbling or searching for them. This also helps maintain the illusion of always knowing where the players are going.

I usually prepare one more encounter than I think I’ll need, and often two. Sometimes the players go in a direction you weren’t expecting and it’s great to be prepared for that. And sometimes the players breeze through an encounter you thought was going to take longer or be tougher. Either way, it’s good to be ready with the next, or alternate, encounter so they aren’t waiting for you to catch up. This is where I often dig into my collection of free encounters/adventures from DriveThruRPG or elsewhere, so I have something quick and low-prep.

About an hour or so before the session starts I prepare the playing space. I anoint the four sacred corners with the sacrificial blood…just kidding. A little Old Gamer “D&D is satanism” humour. But I do tidy up the play area, removing any distractions. I set up my end of the table with all my GMing tools close to hand. I set out the players’ minis, the map sheet we’re using, and character sheets if I held on to them. And I set out the snack bowls so we don’t have to waste time hunting for those later in the game.

One thing that I started doing fairly recently, I pre-roll about 15-20 times on a d20 (assuming we’re playing Pathfinder or D&D; I pre-roll for other games as appropriate) and note the results. This speeds up things like NPC/monster saving throws, skill checks, and surprise attack rolls a great deal. I use the same numbers for player checks when I need the check to be secret; for instance, an elven character’s Perception check for a secret door. This is useful, because sometimes you don’t want to give the game away by rolling a d20. Some players can’t help harmful meta-gaming, and pre-rolling avoids that issue.

On my laptop, I open up the PDFs of all the resources I’ll need during the session, and bookmark the pages I’ll need for reference. As part of my NPC prep I’ll have noted any spells and abilities that were not familiar to me, and I’ll have those pages open as reference. If for some reason I’m not using my laptop (rare, but it happens), I use sticky notes to tab all the pages I’ll need as reference. Either way, I want to cut down on the amount of fumbling through books I have to do during play. Not only does it cut down on wasted time, but you come across as a more confident and in-control GM.

Once that’s all done, I’m ready to play! I sit back, sip my coffee, and wait for the players to arrive.

What’s your prep routine like? How much time do you put into your session prep? Talk to me in the comments.

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Seven

30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, yadda yadda yadda…

How do you prep for the start of a campaign?

Most of the Game Master prep I do at the start of a campaign was touched upon in yesterday’s post. To sum up, I heavily detail everything immediately around the party’s start location, because this is the part of the campaign they’ll spend the bulk of their time to start. But I do have other things I do at the campaign start, mostly related to the players.

Campaign Intro Email – I send out an email to the players with the following:

  • character creation rules
  • campaign restrictions; which books are available for use, any races/classes that are off limits, any optional/house rules we might be using, and so on.
  • what I’d like to see as far as character background information, and the rewards for such
  • date/time suggestions for our first session(s)
  • details about snacks, dinner arrangements and the like

I also use this email as an opportunity to discuss details of the campaign world, ask for player input, and give the players information their characters may know. If we are starting with a character creation session, the email gives the players a chance to think about character concepts. If we want to jump right into play, the email gives players everything they need to have a character ready to run.

Stock my Campaign Binder – Even though I find my laptop useful for taking notes during game sessions, I still use a physical binder to hold some campaign information. Things I include in my campaign binder include:

  • the game world’s calendar, so I can track time
  • a random weather chart, just so every day isn’t sunny and clear
  • a print-off of any non-player characters the party will encounter
  • a page of random NPCs in case a player really wants to talk to that shopkeeper
  • blank character sheets, for levelling up or recovery from horrible spills
  • blank loose-leaf, preferably graph paper, for taking notes and mapping

I keep the binder next to me during play, and add/remove pages as required.

Prep my Playing Space – About half of my gaming takes place in my game room; I have a travelling GM kit to cover myself for the rest. Prepping my space includes:

  • clear off the table and make sure I have enough chairs
  • pre-draw the maps we’ll need for the first few sessions
  • set up my GM space at the table: laptop, dice tray, GM screen
  • ensure good lighting
  • select miniatures I’ll need for the first few sessions
  • setting out snacks, as well as the collection jar (my players each chip-in $5 each session, which I use to buy snacks/drinks/make dinners for each session)

Amongst those three things, I also read and re-read the first adventure, until I’m comfortably familiar with the encounter details. Or if it’s a home-brew, I go over my notes and make sure I haven’t forgotten any details. I like to get as much of the prep work out of the way pre-session, making it easier for me to improv during a session as needed. If you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, or you’re playing an RPG that is more improv-based, you can set aside the reading and re-reading portion of prep.

What do you do to prepare, pre-campaign? Leave me a note in the comments.