Question 8: Talk about your typical approach to preparation for running an RPG. Is there a particular method you generally follow? What use do you make of published setting or adventure material, if any?
tl;dr: Boy, I sure am longwinded. I mean, I know that, but tonight in particular!
For running an RPG for the first time, I do a variation on Paul Beakley ‘s prep.
First thing I do, believe it or not, is go to the developer’s/game’s official website, download the errata and, if I have a physical copy, go through it and gasp write the errata directly in the rulebook.
Yes. I write on my books. I don’t care.
If it’s errata-ed, what good is the old stuff in it? I usually make a notation on the first page of the rulebook indicating the date and version of the errata, as there may be further errata documents released at a later date.
That’s when I read the entire rulebook for the first time. I go through it once, then a second time while composing a ‘cheat sheet’. I go detailed on that sheet. Sometimes it’s 8-10 pages long. I want it to the point where I can run the game without opening the book to look for stuff.
If I have a pdf copy of the rules, I’ll screenshot long tables, work them through an image processing program (I use Paint.net, which is free), crop the tables, then I’ll arrange them into as few sheets as possible on Powerpoint, and print those out. That goes to the clipboard or notebook where I keep the cheat sheets. Sometimes I put those into my GM screen (I got a plastic one with clear sleeves, where I can put the tables).
Then I study the sheets.
I mean it.
I’m a nerd. I study the rules like I’m taking the American Board of RPGs tomorrow morning, and I plan to ace it.
Rules matter. I like to play RAW. I want that game experience to be RAW. If I don’t like it, I can change stuff later, but I try to give it a shot and watch whatever I think is broken to see if it really goes down in flames, or if it turns out not to be a big deal.
Then I make at least 1 character to review the creation process.
At some point (it varies, sometimes at beginning, sometimes middle, sometimes at the end) in the process, if I’ve never played the game before, and if I have time, I’ll do research by watching YouTube actual play videos, and check the game’s forums or G+ groups for any stumbling blocks people might have had (or if I’ve run into gray areas in the text and videos.)
If the game has any introductory adventures and/or some official adventures for it, I read those. This is hit or miss, because my anecdotal experience is that these tend to be written by people other than the game creator and they tend to either ignore or contradict some of the game rules. Still, worst case scenario, it usually gives me a sense of the quality of the opposition, as far as NPCs and monsters and threats and stuff, should be.
So all this is for new games. For subsequent sessions, game prep will vary depending on the system. If it’s a trad game, I’ll prep NPCs and monsters, preferably by stealing stuff directly from books or from the net.
I love monster manual type books. One of the main criteria I have for running a game is: how good is the monster manual? And by monsters, I mean the opposition. This includes NPCs if the setting has no monsters per se. Does it have enemy NPCs written and statted up? I HATE statting my own NPCs and monsters. I’d rather pay game designers to do the scut work, or borrow stats from other gamers who post their ideas on the net.
Games like Burning Wheel, which have simple NPC creation rules get a pass, as there are clear ‘on the fly’ guidelines to make the opposition as you need it.
Sometimes I’ll steal ‘setpiece encounters’, maps and stuff like that from published adventures and modules. I rarely play published adventures as written, as the railroading required tends to be severe, and that’s too much work, plus I don’t like it.
I LOVE reading published adventures to get ideas, though. I should try to just read them through, then wing it from memory, as a lot of people like to do.
The only exception to this rule is the Barrowmaze, which I recently bought, which has me eager to try it as written using B/X D&D. Seems really well done. I’ve read some of it, but I think it’s perfect for reading as you play. It’s a megadungeon, so it seems like reading through the rooms as you come to them is fair. Also, I’m in a nostalgia kick. If I get the chance to run some Old School games like B/X or Star Frontiers, there’s a bunch of modules I’d like to run RAW.
For more improvisational games, or more Indie games, the one piece of prep I like to do before a game is a relationship map or a situation map. I tend to keep those simple, though sometime it’s a bunch of sheets. It helps me keep the factions and motivations straight. For most Indie games, that’s all the prep you need. Stats and encounters and such emerge organically and I enjoy winging it. Heavy prep for Indie games defeats the purpose of playing indie games. Play to Find Out and all that good stuff.
But whatever the system, session prep always involves me thinking about the game all week, imagining NPC agendas and possible scenarios, but leaving scenes loose, as no plan survives contact with the players.