How to Prepare for your Gameday Event
This is the second is the series of essays I'm writing for potential Gameday GMs/facilitators. I thought I would have more to say on this topic than I did, but this seems to capture the most important points.
Again, feedback is welcome.
Depending on the kind of game you’ll be running for Chicago Gameday, you’ll likely need to do some preparation ahead of time in order to fill a time slot with enjoyable play. Many RPGs require a great deal of rules knowledge, as well as materials that need to be created in order to facilitate a session. While you may be used to this sort of preparation in the course of running games for your regular gaming groups, the one-off, time-constrained nature of a Gameday event can pose unique challenges. The following advice aims to guide you in overcoming these obstacles.
Do Not Procrastinate
As with any long-term project, the sooner you start your preparation, the easier the overall effort will prove to be. In addition to creating a scenario or event premise, it’s likely that you may also be learning a new set of rules, creating an entire group of player characters, making handouts for the players, and gathering or building specific accessories (such as miniatures or terrain). In essence, you’ll be doing a number of jobs that, in a regular gaming group, would normally be spread across multiple people and multiple instances of play. It is thus imperative that you not put off work on your event to the last minute. All of the tasks mentioned above will most likely take more time than you expect. Finding yourself under the gun the day or night before Gameday is incredibly stressful and sucks all of the fun out of Gameday. Instead of looking forward to your event, you’ll simply be waiting for it to be over.
Pro Tip: Set yourself some deadlines. At a bare minimum, you should set an end date for your prep — a day by which you plan to be completely finished getting ready. Ideally, this is at least the Thursday before Gameday, thereby giving you Friday night to take it easy and get a good night’s sleep. If you break down your deadlines even more — rules read by this date, character sheets ready by this date, etc. — all the better.
Character Sheets Will Take the Most Time, So Do Them First
Creating pre-generated characters — if your game requires them — is one of the most time-consuming tasks involved in event prep, and it always takes longer than you think it will. If you’re formatting the character sheets yourself, even more so. If possible, create characters and prepare their sheets first, before you do any other prep. A side benefit of this is that you then have the characters in mind while you are crafting your scenario, and can adapt it to the characters, and vice-versa.
This same advice goes for handouts, such as rule or setting summary sheets, maps, visual aids, etc. While they don’t need to be the first thing you do, they should definitely not be the last.
Pro Tip: If you have character creation software available for your game, great! Use it and save yourself a lot of time. If you don’t, focus on creating the character data first; don’t worry about formatting it. Formatting-as-you-go can turn into a huge time-sink. (Nothing helps you procrastinate better than choosing just the right font.)
Make A Rules Cheat-Sheet, Even If You Know The Game Well
A smooth-running event requires a GM that knows the game well enough to facilitate play without spending a lot of time referencing rulebooks. Making a rule cheat-sheet for your game forces you through a study process that enhances your comprehension of the game. By parsing the rules into a digestible set of notes, you solidify your understanding of them. In addition, the product of your labor is a handy summary sheet that likely will be easier to use during play than the actual rulebooks. Not to mention, you can use them as a handout for your players.
Pro Tip: I find it most useful to make procedural notes, typically in an outline form. That is, I format my notes in order of application: “Step 1: Do this. Step 2: Do that. Etc.” Each step may also have subsections that note options or related rules that are relevant to that step, as well as page references, if needed. For example, if the first step is “Roll initiative”, but there are exceptions or modifiers to the basic initiative mechanic, I’ll note them under that first step. Then I can just run through the steps every time we use that set of rules, until I pretty much have them memorized.
Make Notes, But Not Too Many Notes
The notes for your event only need to be as detailed as you need them to be. Remember, you’ll be spending most of your time talking to the players, not referencing documentation. For most of us, the model for scenario notes are published adventures, but remember that those are products designed to be read first and then digested into playable knowledge. They generally include a great deal more information than is actually used at the table, like extensive background and guidelines for the person running them. You, on the other hand, already have most of the knowledge you need. Your notes only need to serve as prompts for your memory, so they can be brief and to the point. Most of the in-the-moment detail will be filled in by you during play.
Pro Tip: If you can fit all of the information you need for your event on one sheet of paper, do it. If you can’t, try to keep distinct sections of your event — such as a given encounter or everything about a specific NPC — on a single sheet so that any given moment of play, you’re only looking at one page of data.
Bonus Pro Tip: Use all of the formatting tools at your disposal to help organize your event notes: highlighters, color printing, post-it notes, colored paper, etc. If it works for you, use it.
Extra-Credit: Play-Test Your Event If You Can
This is “extra-credit” advice given that it essentially doubles your effort, but it should not go unsaid. If you have the time and players available, take your event for a test run. It’s good to do this no later than one week before Gameday so that you have time to digest feedback and make any necessary modifications to your event or player handouts. At the very least, having run through the event once will make running it at Gameday feel like a breeze. Not only will you have internalized a lot of the details in your scenario notes, but you’ll have a better idea what to expect from the players.
Pro Tip: You’ll want to debrief your players after the play-test. Ask them what worked, what didn’t, what made sense, what was confusing, and look for an honest assessment of how well you performed as a GM. Did you pace the game well? Did everyone feel involved? Were you speaking loud enough to be heard? Let them be brutally honest.