Posted on August 7, 2012 by Steven Dawes
Available at RPGNow.com
The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep
Due to being a full time student for the last 18 months, I’ve not been very active in writing reviews for Flames Rising. I’d also retired from gaming for more than a year due to said schooling, but recently I’ve come to realize that gaming is too much a part of my being; it’s far too hard wired in me as a creative outlet to be able to give it up forever, much less for years at a stretch. So for the last few months I’ve been trying to make it work again, taking up the gauntlet as a weekly Game Master. But I couldn’t do it like I used to; changes in how I managed my Game Master duties needed to be made, and so I’ve been trying different things to varying results.
Also recently, I’ve been asked to be a guest writer this year at Nuke-Con, a local gaming convention that’s had a lot of impact on me and my growing and developing as a player and Game Master over the last twenty years, as well as my last several years as a freelance writer for Palladium Books. In being a guest, one of the duties asked of me is to run a couple of talk panels, and one of my planned panels is titled “Game Mastering 101”. So in between homework assignments, I’ve been trying to fine tune my GM methods for the weekly game as well as putting together notes and details for an upcoming GM advice panel.
So to me, it was very coincidental timing that Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep was offered as a book to consider reviewing, since it fits right into what I’ve been working on and where my head’s been as of late. But beyond that, I was genuinely curious about the subject matter; I don’t think I’ve ever read anything concerning session prep for an RPG before. I wasn’t even sure such material exists. When I talk to other GM’s about their game, session prep is never discussed. It’s like session prep is the “Fight Club” of Game Masters (Rule #1: No one talks about Session Prep). I’ve read what must be hundreds of tips, blogs, articles, and entire supplements over the years on how GM’s handle particular aspects of the game (like speeding up combat, making epic and memorable adventures, handling XP, NPC creation and handling), but nothing on this area. So I had no idea of what to expect from author Phil Vecchione (who’s a regular contributor of gnomestew.com and a contributing writer on both Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters and Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPC’s for Any Roleplaying Game) concerning this rather elusive subject.
Right away it put a big ol’ grin to my grill when I read in the first paragraph that Phil was thinking same thing that I was; he’s never read a supplement about preparing for upcoming game sessions either. “Most of them talk about encounter building and campaign planning, but none of them lay out what information needs to be in my session notes, how long my notes should be, or even the best way to record them. I don’t know if that’s an unrealistic expectation to place on game designers, but since the dawn of the hobby we GMs have been left to wander in the desert trying to figure out how to prep our sessions.”
After reading N.U., I couldn’t help but scratch my head as to why this subject’s never been looked at before, especially in the way this book goes about telling it. Phil brings up a good point right away in that a lot of GM’s do not enjoy or even desire putting together notes and details before a game, and coincidentally that includes me. I used to be an expert of GM’ing right off the cuff. Sure, I pre-planned in my head and what not, but I rarely ever wrote down notes or details about the upcoming game. But as I mentioned earlier, to be able to GM a weekly game again with such a busy schedule as of late, I’ve basically been required to jotting down and writing lots of info and notes for my upcoming games. I’ve just got too much going on in my life and head right now to think about and maintain all the ideas I have for my game and expect to have them on hand when I need them. As any GM will tell you, freezing up while trying to find your ideas when you need them and don’t have them is the worst. The silence and dead air heard during a role playing game is a deafening scream. Phil recognized this, and considers prep work to be your “Backup GM” when you need him to avoid the silence and dead air.
Phil’s introduction explained that he was a very similar Game Master back in the day; he didn’t need a lot of prep work and excelled at running by the seat of his pants. But after getting married, becoming a dad, juggling a career and the other growing demands of life has gotten to the point of where he realized that he HAD to start prepping for his games. Fortunately, Phil explained that he’s a Project Manager by trade, and therefore he’s a pro at organization and preparation. This and his thirty years of gaming experience made him an ideal candidate to write this book. He knows what he’s talking about, and he explains all of the methods and ideas in a down to earth, easily understandable style of writing.
Without giving too much away, Phil describes in great detail what he calls “The Phases of Prep”. There are five of them; “Brainstorming”, “Selection”, “Conceptualization”, “Documentation”, and “Review”. Once the overview is finished, he dives into each one, going into how each phase works, what makes them work, the consequences of doing too much or too little of each phase, and finally, a test to see which of the phases your strong or weak in. Along the way he dives into ideas of how to use these phases, the philosophy’s behind these phases, understanding your creative cycle and schedule, true stories and anecdotes about how he personally handles his session preps, and other insights behind making you the best you can be in prepping your game sessions.
As I reached the end of this book, I was happy to understand that I’d recently just started to incorporate a lot of his methods into my own session preps without realizing it. With me personally, the most success I’ve been having with my new game is when I’ve written up a few pages of info, which I treat like “session introductions” to help set the mood, tone, and direction of the game that night. From there I create a few notes of what I think the players might do that night and the NPC stats, rules and info that I will need to keep the game going the rest of the night (I hate downtime as I search through books for something, so I try to have the materials on hand), and then I jot down notes based on what happened during the game that session. From there I make new introduction scenes and notes for next week’s game, and so the cycle continues.
Well, it turns out that these are all fine ways of handling game prep. But the author understands that one method will not work for all GM’s, and so he offers other methods and ideas of how to go about session prep that works best for you personally. And perhaps most important, his ideas are presented so that they aren’t a pain to do. I’ve already started incorporating a few of the gems offered up by Phil into my most recent session prep, and I believe he’s onto something. As mentioned in the book, whether your new to the GM role, or have been at it for years (like me), there is plenty to offer for everyone!
In retrospect, I think I now know why this subject matter hadn’t been covered before now. I think it was waiting for Phil Vecchione to cover it. He’s simply the ideal broheem to scribe this book. He’s helped me understand what I was subconsciously starting to do for my game, he’s given me some pointers to include in my upcoming “Game Mastering 101” panel (and I will encourage people to buy this book at said panel), and he’s forever had an impact on how I will handle my session prep for the rest of my Game Mastering life. I believe that if given the chance, he will forever change your GM methods as well, and for the better.
Review by Steven Dawes