As a game master and a master of websites, I actually have a lot in common with Olympic runners. For one thing, I sweat a lot. Seriously. I think I have a glandular problem. I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t sweat this much just from typing at a computer. And I’m pretty sure I also shouldn’t get so out of breath. But if I bring that up to my doctor, it’ll probably be another lecture about how my blood pressure is so high that I know longer qualify for a diagnosis of hypertension and I’ve been upgraded to double-super-ultra-tension. But, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that runners and game masters and masters of content creation understand the importance of pacing. That’s why, for example, I invented the classification “Random Bulls$&%” as an article category. Every so often, I need to step back from producing useful crunchy stuff and fart out an insubstantial cloud of “content.”
By the way, you can support me on Patreon! Did you know that?
Just kidding. I absolutely would never flagrantly admit that, not only am I phoning it in, I invented an entire category of article AND commissioned art for it just to more easily facilitate phoning it in on a regular basis. I would never ever do that.
Seriously, though. Pacing is super important. And that’s why I’m not discussing it today. It’s a really crunchy, complicated thing that ties together running sessions and creating adventures. And it can make or break a game more drastically than just about anything else. Or a website. And I’ve had a lot of really crunchy, complicated posts lately. So we’re going to discuss something a little bit more insubs… a little more low-key and conceptual. Because of pacing. Yeah.
Okay, okay… seriously for reals…
There’s a thing that’s been coming up a lot lately that I need to discuss. And it’s not just insubstantial fluff. I’m not just farting crap out to fill out the calendar. I’m pretty sure, at this point, you guys know that (a) I have too much egomaniacal pride in myself to pull that kind of crap and (b) I’m such a f$&%ing genius that even my insubstantial fart content is 4,000 words of really useful advice sandwiched between 2,000 words of rambling and dicking around trying to be “funny.”
That’s what this part is, by the way. This is the funny rambling dicking.
But this IS a lighter, more conceptual issue. And if I don’t discuss it now, it’s going to become more of an issue over the next two months as I continue the Megadungeon and Adventure Building series. You didn’t think I planned that far ahead, did you. Well I do. Now. It’s a thing I’m trying.
In fact, that’s what I’m talking about today. Planning. And prep. And design. And improve too. Basically, this article about the front work. The stuff you do before the game to get ready for the game. Specifically, the stuff you do to get ready for a game YOU are writing.
Now, I realize I’m full-on rambling now and dancing around the topic. And, I know me well enough to know that the only way to break out of that is to slap down a section header and provide a context or a definition. So, let’s get to that.
Everyone to Angry: “Share Your Prep!”
In the past, folks have asked me if I’d be willing to share my pre-game notes. People are curious about what my game looks like. They want to know what’s behind my screen. What do I bring to the game? How do I record stats? How do I write flavor text? All that crap. Now, it hasn’t come up often. Except for one person who just keeps repeating the request at me like the answer is going to magically change. Seriously, that person is f$&%ing obsessed. It’s kind of creepy. And I’d file a restraining order if I could figure out how to word a court document demanding that someone stay away from my hastily scribbled notes about how to properly pretend to be an orc on a weekly basis.
But lately, the requests have been becoming more frequent. And they’ve also been taking a new form. See, I’ve been talking A LOT about how to design an adventure. You might have noticed months of articles on scenes and adventure structure and piles of spreadsheets about how to plan encounters. So, now, suddenly people are looking for my dungeon maps and my pages of stats and my prewritten flavor text. The stuff they think belongs in adventure prep.
Meanwhile, I keep talking about flowcharts and structure and narrative concepts. And meanwhile, I’m not showing my work. I’m not giving away anything meaty. And when people ask, I say “look, it wouldn’t work. Trust me. Seeing my notes wouldn’t do you any good. Trust me. Just listen to the stuff I’m telling you. Trust me.” But people don’t.
Recently, it was suggested, as I try to find ways to engaging occasional video/streaming/live content that I Livestream some of my dungeon/adventure prep. And, again, I had to resort to “it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t help. Trust me.” And still, people don’t.
And that’s what I’m going to try to explain. Because, at the core of it all, is an important distinction no one draws. The difference between planning and prep. And, closely related, the difference between improvisation and zero-prep and zero-planning.
Why I Can’t Share My Prep
First, let’s talk about why I won’t share my game notes. It’s not because they are a big secret or I’m afraid that my players might get ahold of them. In point of fact, I’ve always let my players know that if they wanted to see my maps or stats or plans, they could. In fact, I taunt them with it.
“Hey, guys, here’s the map for tonight’s adventure,” I’d say. “I’m leaving it right here while I go to the bathroom. You can look at it and I’d never, ever know. Only you would know. And I don’t even care. Because if you want to rob yourself of the fun of being surprised and discovering thinks, I won’t stop you. Hahaha.”
I’m not worried about it because knowledge of my game won’t break my game.
So why won’t I share? Well, partly it’s because I’m often a hypocrite. And people make a much bigger deal out of hypocrisy than it really is. The thing is, I don’t always take my own advice. In fact, I often do things at my table that I would never tell another GM to do. I take a lot of semi-calculated risks. Often for some really stupid reasons. We all make bad decisions.
The thing is, though, that people take hypocrisy as a sign of bad advice. And that’s just fallacious reasoning. Hypocrisy doesn’t invalidate advice. It just means the source of the good advice is kind of dumb about everything except giving good advice. The fact is, no one is perfect and all people are hypocrites and that’s why you have to judge ideas for yourself. On their own merits. And ignore the source of the advice.
But that’s not the real reason I can’t share my notes. The real reason I can’t share my notes is because they are indecipherable scribbled crap. When they even exist. Which they often don’t. I’ve reached the point now where I barely bother with any maps more complex than sticks and boxes with cryptic notes like “gob cv wtfl” or “spd lar crpse hlf eqp gp ptns(?).”
I s$&% you not. That makes sense to me.
When it comes to my game prep. It’s hasty. I’m actually lazy as f$&% about my game prep. Well, truth be told, it goes in spurts. Every couple of weeks, I get excited enough about an idea to prep some cool visual aids and to make a neat thing. Or I get rambunctious and decide to really map a real adventure site and stock it “like you’re actually supposed to.”
Okay, that’s not ENTIRELY true. There is one aspect of my game that is always very well documented. Stat blocks. 99% of the encounters in my current D&D game involve custom monsters. Even if they are just kobolds I’ve tweaked. And, honestly, I don’t know why. Because it’s completely unnecessary. But I’m very picky about the monsters I use in my combats and I make them just right.
So, if I tried to share my game prep, it’d be two hours of me inventing new versions of spiders that are almost identical to the spiders in the Monster Manual except they do 2 extra points of damage and their Dexterity is four points higher or something like that. The rest of the time would be spent watching me frantically scribble indecipherable crap onto a single piece of paper and shove it into my backpack five minutes before the game.
And lately, because I’ve started just keeping a bestiary of my custom monsters, I only have to make new monsters every couple of weeks. So it’s down to just the five minutes of scribbling and backpack stuffing.
Game Planning vs. Game Prep
Now, if you’ve been reading my website, you’re probably a little surprised to hear that. And if you HAVEN’T been reading my website, you picked a weird article to start with. The thing is, I’m very much an advocate for deliberate design, careful planning, and understanding all of the principles of narrative and game structure so you can deliver a quality game. And I abhor lazy GMs. I’ve been very vocal about that.
So, yeah, I’m a hypocrite. Right?
Well, that’s the thing. No I’m actually not. As haphazard and slapdash as all of my notes SEEM, the truth is that my game is actually carefully designed. It’s carefully planned. But I can’t show you any of that s$&%. Because most of the planning of my game happens when I am naked in the shower or pooping or on my bike or lying in bed or watching Adventure Time.
The crux of the issue is that game prep and game planning are two very different activities. Planning a game is the act of making all the decisions about how the game should run and how the world works and what NPCs want what and what scenes you’re going to have and how the adventure fits together. All that crap I write about. Prepping the game is about writing that s$&% down. And, you know what? After GMing regularly every week nearly uninterrupted for 28 goddamned years, I don’t have to write a whole lot down anymore. Even for an encounter that’s going to involve combat.
A little square with three exits labeled “waterfall cave, goblins” is all I need. Because I can throw a waterfall cave that provides a good combat encounter space onto a battlemat and improvise the terrain. And I know that the party is second level, so in D&D 5E, that’s probably three to five goblins. And I’ve got stats for two or three different types of goblins (archer, blocker, warlock) and I can mix or match them. And add chokepoints in the form of natural rock bridges or shallow paths under the water. And visibility obstructions in the form of mist and falling water. And cover in the form of stalagmites and columns.
And if the spider lair has a Halfling adventurer corpse and it’s a low-level game, I know the corpse is going to have about 50 gp worth of money, probably studded leather, a short sword, maybe a sling, a pack filled with adventure supplies, and a potion or three. Maybe two healing potions and a potion of climbing. Done and done. And that potion of climbing is cool because of the “cliff cave” coming up two boxes away.
Planning is Universal, Prep is Personal
Running a game is like taking one of those tests where you are allowed to use whatever notes you want. An open book test. Remember those? Well, if you borrowed my notes in high school and tried to use them on your open book test in algebra, you’d have a hard time. My math notebooks were mostly filled with dungeon maps and an odd little, grisly, bloody cartoon called Kirby’s Safety Tips I used to entertain my friends with. That’s because I’ve always had a good memory and I’ve always been a very auditory learner. And I’ve also always been really lazy and very easily distracted and always had kind of a disturbing sense of humor.
The thing is, notes are very personal things. The key to being efficient (or lazy) is to know what you need to write down and what you can remember and what you can invent on the spot. You want to do the minimum amount of prep work – of note work – possible. And that’s highly specific to you. Some people are good at remembering stories and characters and NPC motives, but suck at doing encounter math on the fly. They don’t need to write down all of Queen Amidingdong’s personality traits, but they do need to stat out the guards and decide exactly how many they are and where they are in the throne room in case the PCs decide to start a fight. Other folks are the opposite. They can slap together a high quality combat encounter or chase scene or whatever with zero up front work. But if they don’t write down all the names of every character in the campaign, they will forget who is who and who is working for who.
And, as time goes on and you get better at GMing, you also get better at doing things on the fly. You know the system well. You know the needs of a good scene. You know the characters in the world you’ve been running for two years. You know the lore of the setting you’ve been reusing for a decade. And you also get better at knowing what you do and don’t need. It took a while for me to learn that I don’t need a detailed map. I enjoy drawing them. So I do. But if I have a general idea of the structure of a site-based adventure, I can build a whole map out of nothing.
Hell, the single page below is the most detailed notes I’ve made for an adventure in two years. Yes, that is the entirety of my notes. And, just to be clear, it is an extremely detailed historical site. There’s a crap ton of lore tied to the setting and two specific PCs backgrounds in that site. There’s also a complicated puzzle that has to do with a specific moral code followed by the Iokharan dragonborn who built the site. That’s what the second page is.
So, there you go. Those are my notes for a dungeon adventure that will take about two to three sessions to play. ALL OF MY NOTES.
But that is not all of the PLANNING that went into the adventure. That adventure – for being a simple little dungeon crawl – actually follows some pretty important structural guidelines I’ll be discussing in the next few Megadungeon and Adventure Design articles. Yeah, it’s JUST a dungeon crawl, and it’s JUST an introductory adventure for a fairly new group of low-level PCs, but it is still carefully planned out. And that planning mostly happened while I was scribbling idly with the TV on in the background. Or while I was laying around hitting the snooze button and trying to write the next adventure in my head.
Zero Prep is Not Zero Planning
And now we come to the other part of things. I do rely very heavily on improvisation. That is to say, not only am I prepared to respond to the players crazy-a$& actions, whatever they be, and take the story in whatever direction it goes (within the constraints of the premise of the campaign, of course); but I am also prepared to suddenly and on a whim add new characters, plot developments, or setting details that seem like good ideas when I am sitting at the table. Or when I am riding my bike to the game. Or while I’m going to the bathroom.
In fact, in the first session of the adventure whose notes I shared above, I suddenly decided to add an NPC rival antagonist from a political faction the PCs had briefly interacted with a session before. See, the first interaction had been interesting. And the game had reached a slow point. And I wanted to develop the faction a little more. So, suddenly, I invented a mercenary adventurer. And, the funny thing is, I can’t even tell you her name. Because the PCs never asked for it. So I didn’t have to invent one. And I just started playing her and she turned out to be a bit prideful, a bit honorable, and not just a greedy treasure hunter. She wants to prove her combat mettle and challenge herself. But she’s not foolish enough to get into a fight when outnumbered or outmaneuvered.
Now, you might THINK that was an example of Zero Planning. But it wasn’t, really. As I’ve said before, the difference between Improvisation and Just Pulling S$&% out of Your A$& is that Improvisation is planning and executing in one step. Suddenly, I decided that I needed to add an encounter with a rival NPC. Why? Because the pace of the adventure had gone a little slow and because a rival group hadn’t gotten a strong enough introduction. From a narrative standpoint, I needed to give the PCs the chance to play with something. They needed to encounter something. And the rest of the adventure was pretty combat heavy. So a good interaction scene would be fun. I didn’t want it to turn into a combat so I gave the PCs the upper hand and decided the NPC was smart enough not to try to fight. Instead, they could just trade quips and establish a sneering rivalry. And maybe learn a few details about the faction.
That ISN’T Zero Planning. That encounter was very deliberate. It served a variety of game needs. Needs I recognized because I know how to put together a game and I watch how the players are engaging with it. Sure, I didn’t know much about the NPC before I started playing her. But I understand the reason for the scene. Narratively and within the story.
You Can’t Teach Prep
At the end of the day, I don’t talk much about game prep because you can’t teach game prep. And it’d be useless to try. Because I’d tell you about the importance of doodling bloody drawings of Kirby (the Nintendo character) failing to juggle chainsaws and maiming himself as the perfect way to listen to the teacher explain how to solve for two variables given at least two equations. And that’d be useless to you. What wouldn’t be useless, though, at least on the test, is teaching you how to solve for two variables given at least two equations.
And that’s what my website is about. I will never try to teach you what to write down because I don’t know what you should write down. I can’t know that. But I can tell you all of the important things you need to understand to plan out an adventure or run a good combat or whatever. And then you can figure out which of things you need to write down and which you can remember and which you can invent on the fly.
And any GM who tells you they can teach you good prep habits is full of s$&%. I’ve seen articles written by other GMs who have been at this for years. They tout these great methods for using five by five grids or index cards to prepare an entire campaign. And those things absolutely work. For them. And some other people whose brains happen to be wired up the same way. Who have also been doing the GM thing for years and perfected keeping a lot of stuff in their heads. The “entire NPC encounter on an index card” method relies on you being able to remember enough details about running that NPC that you only need some shorthand scribbles on an index card to help you through that. And the one-page dungeon is a neat idea. But if you’re going to run that thing, you’re going to need a lot more than what’s on that one page.
And Yet, I’m Doomed
And here’s where my rant about planning vs. prep and why I’ll never show my notes falls apart. Because of the f$&%ing Megadungeon project. The thing is, I can’t just scribble out a one-page map, add a thousand tiny indecipherable abbreviations, and call it good enough. Partly because the project is just too f$&%ing big for me to keep the entire dungeon design in my head. And partly because I’m no longer writing the adventure JUST for me. I’m writing it for everyone. I’m planning to not only share it on the website but to bind it up and sell it. As an actual product.
And I’m going to let you in on a secret: I’m not entirely sure yet how to do that. I don’t mean that I don’t know how to publish a book. That part I can figure out and I’ve got plenty of folks in my network prepared to sell me the skills I need to get it done. What I mean is that I’m pretty sure the way adventure modules are presented in mainstream RPGs is kind of crap. There’s a lot of walls of text and wasted space and unimportant details being spelled out while important details get ignored. And there’s a lot of cross referencing other books that make it difficult to use the product at the table. And one of my PERSONAL goals with the Megadungeon project (before I stupidly decided I would blog the whole design process for all the world to see) was to see if I can’t find a better way of presenting adventures. That is to say, to build a product that is designed to be easy to use at the table in a way I don’t think most adventure modules are.
And that means, if you ARE waiting for the sort of crunchy stocking of a dungeon and writing flavor text and putting absolutely every last thing down on paper, you’re going to see it. Once we get to the point of mapping and building and planning and stocking and designing individual encounter areas, you’re going to see what I think is all the stuff that needs to be available at the table. At least the basic assumption. The maximum. All of the s$&% that anyone could possibly need.
And, at that point, figuring out how YOU need to prep for YOURSELF is just a matter of leaving out the stuff you don’t need written down. And that will leave you space to draw dungeon maps and Kirby comics.