When I run my D&D 4e game I use a random encounter generator. I look at the stats for the various monsters, and I then put those monsters into the game. This might result in a zombie, some lizard people, a classic magical beast, and a handful of human minions being the encounter. If the PCs decide to travel into the woods that evening these monsters are suddenly re-skinned as various wild elves with a strange fey creature that acts as a watch dog. If the PCs head into the city this encounter becomes a group of bandits, a necromancer who has hired them, and the enchanted beast that serves at his side.
I do not care what the monster’s name is. I am not going to spend hours designing the perfect encounter for the woods, and then even more time on an encounter for the city. The only thing I care about is if the encounter is correct for the party’s level.
I even generate random treasure and just come up with a plausible reason for why it is there (wherever there is). I do throw in one custom chosen magic item per session for a particular PC, but as long as the treasure is appropriate for the party’s level I am happy.
This is how I prep for a highly structured game like D&D. For a more subjective game like Fudge I prep by practicing several different accents and mannerisms to generate an NPC on the fly with. I read essays on the classic works from the genre that we will most likely be playing that session (with Fudge you never know), and I analyze what are the common story elements used within those works.
I do not plan the details for my games. I have a general idea of where the plot will most likely go, but there is really very little that I nail down as absolutes before the session begins.
That is not to say that details do not matter. My games have a lot of details. I just do not plan them. I improvise them and add them to my notes so as not to forget them as the game progresses. So while my prep notes might say “treasure: artwork, 350 gold pieces”, my in game notes say “PCs found a portrait of the murdered Baron’s wife. Artist’s signature is that of the suspected villain.”
I started GMing like this when I realized that my strength as a GM was reacting to the players, and not in world building. Some people can create very detailed worlds and adventures easily. I cannot. It is difficult for me to write up even a few pages of material for my games. Where I am strong as a GM is in deciphering what is going to be the most fun for the players based on the moment.
My plots are never set in stone. My encounters are merely the frameworks of the opponents until the very last minute when I suddenly apply the outer layer right before the PCs “stumble” across them. The words “Clue found.” in my prep notes become “The stable boy is dying in your arms, but with his dying breath he whispers the name Elandra.” Who is Elandra? I usually have no idea until the next session.
You may not be comfortable with trying to GM like I do. I am not suggesting that anyone else use my style. What I am suggesting is that you might find it useful to not include all of the details when you are preparing for your next session as the GM.
Players have a way of negating a GM’s highly detailed plans with unexpected tactics and approaches. GMs sometimes miss chances to enhance a game based on the players’ input at the table because the GM has a plan already laid out. Yet GMing is a form of performance art, and that means you have to react to your audience. Like a great jazz musician you need to practice your art, but you cannot know for sure what the music will sound like when you go to jam with others. You just have to roll with it.
My advice to you is pretty simple: try to prepare your next session with a little less detail than what you need during the actual game. Do not try to plan every description, scene, or even the encounters. Instead leave a few gaps for you to fill in on the fly. When the time comes to fill in those details ask “What details will make this more fun for my players right now?” Then roll with whatever pops into your head at that moment and right that down in your notes immediately.
You will probably make a few mistakes, but I am confident you will make less mistakes the next time. You will eventually find the right balance between planning and improvising for your style of GMing, and that is just one more tool you will have developed for many game sessions to come.
In other words, forget the details of the plan and pay attention to the details of the game being played.
What about your GMing style? How much detail do you prepare for your games? Leave your comments below to share with myself and others, and remember that the GM is a player too. Have fun with it!