Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In Which The Warlock Prepares an Answer on Preparation...

Just after returning from Origins, DigitalKat posed a question to me.  She's been up to her eyeballs with "real life" obligations recently--a full-time job, an internship on her days off, plus family and friend obligations.  Prepping game for one group, let alone two or more, has been a huge challenge for her.  She's written up some of her trials and tribulations here, where she describes how she manages to fit in her game-prep in the midst of her busy schedule. 

Just don't look up!
Then again, don't look down!
She asked me, "How do you manage to do it?"  Naturally, this is a question that I get asked quite a bit, considering all that I have on my plate.  Between freelance writing, working on my own projects and writings, and the struggles of grading and teaching, it almost appears like I'm working miracles!  Truth be told, I often make the analogy of a juggler:  as long as I don't look up, I can stay in rhythm and keep juggling indefinitely.  But, it's when I sit back and "look up" at the massive amount of projects I have on deck that I get overwhelmed!

While the summer affords me quite a bit of time to get caught up--I average about 4,000-5,000 words a day, if I spend a fully day writing--the school year often "interferes" with my ability to write.  But, during the school year, this time is curtailed significantly, due to my obligations in the classroom!  That said, I do manage to find times during the day where I can actually get some game-based work done!

Journaling and Silent Reading

As part of my daily teaching procedures, I begin almost every day with either a 7 minute journaling time or a 15 minute session of silent reading.  While the benefits of reading and writing each day are well-documented, this has a multi-faceted benefit for the teacher.  First, it establishes a gravitas and attitude in the classroom, allowing students to calm down and focus on something literary or philosophical, rather than their own items.  Secondly, it gives me a time in which I can take attendance and take care of any outstanding issues, like make-up work or conferencing with individual students.  However, while I keep my attendence software on one tab in my browser, I arrange it so that it only takes up half the screen, leaving the other half free for Word, Excel, or Publisher.

Writing during this period--under a massive deadline and in short spurts--usually doesn't net me much at each session, though tallied over a full day of 5 class periods, that's about an hour's worth of writing, usually totalling around 500 words by itself.

Hall Supervision and Prep

What the Warlock's schedule
is usually like...
This past year, I was afforded a boon:  my supervision period (hall duty for half the year and study hall for the second half) and my personal prep period were back to back.  My duties during these times were particularly small:  sign passes, keep track of attendance, and ensure that no one's really messing around. 

Mondays, most days, I spend formalizing and submitting my lesson plans, then sending them on to my department head.  Tuesday through Thursday, under normal circumstances, I spend my time either organizing my thoughts, taking care of e-mail correspondence, or actually writing.  Fridays, though, is where the real "prep" takes place, as that's game night.

This time span affords me almost two full hours--with a glorious little break right in between, wherein I can get coffee--to focus on writing and the like.

Prepping for Game

Oftentimes, the amount of prep that I do directly relates to the type of system that I'm running.  For a game like Savage Worlds or ICONS, I find that my prep is almost negligible.  I'll come up with a few plot elements or ideas that I'd like to introduce, or spend my time focusing on elements actively sought after by my PCs.  Oftentimes, if I have information that's privy to only one or two, I'll drop them a private e-mail during this time, providing them whatever info they've happened to stumble across.  Unless it's something I'm likely to forget or if I'm juggling a whole pile of plot hooks, I often don't even have to write these down.

For a game like 4e D&D, however, I need a little more time and effort put in.  Most times, this occurs through the (offline, of course!) Monster Builder.  I start by filtering monsters by level and type, then see what kind of monsters might fit for the adventure hook I'd been planning.  If there are some pre-built, or at least close in terms of level, I'll simply adjust the monster level, print and go from there.  If not, I often take a pre-existing monster, re-flavor it (by changing names, adding or subtracting an attack or two, and adding in thematic items) and then print away.

Behind the Curtain

Instant Gunslinger!  Just add dice!
One of the biggest secrets I can pass on, though?  Cheat!  Once you have a degree of system mastery in the game you're running, it becomes easy to fudge NPCs for a session or two, then fully flesh them out when you have a little bit of extra time.  Let's say, for example, an bounty hunter is pursuing your PCs in a Deadlands game.  You know he wields a shotgun, and he makes a living pursuing criminals (or, in this case, your players!).  If you know Savage Worlds reasonably well, you could assume that he has a d10 in Shooting, a d10 in Tracking, and probably a reasonably high (d8) Notice.  He'd probably be pretty quick (maybe a d8 or d10 in Agility) and fairly tough (d8 in Vigor).  Anything else?  Call it a d6, unless it really fits into his "bounty hunter" schtick!  Want to give him some more personality?  Give him access to a skill that he wouldn't normally have--maybe this guy has a d10 in Taunt, and he always opens combat by taunting the group.  As for Edges, go thematic--Woodsman would make sense, as would Quick Draw or Marksman. 

You can do the same thing for nearly any system, once you have a handle on the math.  For 4e D&D, it all starts with the base of 1/2 Level + Ability mod.  If you had to build an archmage on the fly, start with his Intelligence score, perhaps something around a 22.  Ability mod for a 22 is +6, to which you add half of his level.  Is he trained in a given skill?  Probably, if it's academic--give him that +5 bonus pretty indiscriminately.  Now, how about some personality--let's make him a dwarf!  He'll have slightly higher hit points and a slightly lower movement speed, as well as the rest of the dwarven traits--don't worry about those unless they come up.  As for spells, pick a theme!  Maybe this mage is all about manipulating fire or earth.  You could give him a bog-standard "Flaming Sphere" and just reflavor it as a half-sentient earth elemental rampaging through the battlefield.

Obviously, these stats aren't concrete.  They're meant to be "just enough" to get you through a single session or two.  If you need more, that's when you can devote the time to putting forward a full NPC writeup.  If this character is meant to be recurring, it's time to give him the full business.

A Major Mistake

I didn't always take the minimal prep route, truth be told.  In fact, I used to obsess over game prep, particularly when I was in college.  While working in an amusement park gift shop over the summer, I'd craft epic campaigns filling whole notebooks....only to have most of that material go either unused or underused.  Plus, when I'd plot out the entire plot of the adventure, I'd end up denying my players the opportunity to go "off book" and improvise on their own. 

It wasn't until I had almost graduated from Wittenberg did I finally realize this phenomenon.  Actually, it was in one of my infamous "Blackfall" games--the epic Blackfall II, which spanned over 48 hours--that I finally divorced myself from my over-preparatory tendencies.  With over 15 players and a co-GM at my back, we had to be ready to improvise at a moment's notice!  Combat had to be fast and furious, to allow everyone an opportunity to shine--getting bogged down in minutia simply wasn't an option! 

Everyone, however, has their own balance of preparation against improvisation.  For me, I fall much further on the side of improv than I did even a few years ago, and my choices in games indicate that shift in philosophy as well.  It's all a matter of what works best for you or for your table, as always.


  1. In the past I would used missed encounters to fill in short nights of playing with them. With the old Tom Moldvey rule of "no matter which way you go thier they are" so the player find what you have design ready.

  2. Anonymous10:31 PM

    I'm definitely of the school of off the cuff GMing and almost always make up stats for NPCs and monsters so that I can focus on the story, not on the stats. Granted, I tend to run simpler games where that's more manageable, like Savage Worlds. Especially for people that are going to get killed, it doesn't really matter much what the stats are and the players aren't going to see them anyway, so why not make it up?

    I found that I actually had to "sit down and prep" when I ran D&D 4e, which really crimped my style. Although I used the (offline!) Monster Builder originally, I eventually just opened up the Monster Manual and made any level adjustments on the fly based on what felt right. Heck, I even ran a session of D&D once when I just rolled a d20 and arbitrarily made up a modifier to see if it hit their AC.

    It might seem like I'm unprepared with this sort of GMing style, but as long as I've got a fleshed out story and adventure in mind and am willing to improvise, it works rather well.

  3. Oh, man, yes--one of the biggest tricks I used when running D&D was to prepare a few "sample" encounters, then use variants on those stats, regardless of what the PCs were actually fighting. Great strategy, oh DreadPirateTim!

    And, JourneymanGM, I'm totally with you. More and more, I find that I can just run with whatever works and damn the consequences. As long as everyone has a good time, who cares what the prep is? :D

  4. Yo can get some good good advice from the tome show podcast.