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Doubleheader: You Do Not Have Time for That

This post is one of two posts today in our Gnome Stew Doubleheader. Today’s Doubleheader is about designing campaigns.  Check out Phil Vecchione’s article Doubleheader: The Triple Constraint of A Campaign [1] after reading this….

My father retired a few years back after several decades of being a union electrician for the Chicago Transit Authority. He was a foreman in charge of maintaining the signal services for several of the train lines. That was his purpose in life for the majority of his years. I asked him if it was worth it and he replied “No job is. No matter how much they pay you, no matter what they give you, they cannot give you back your life. Knowing that I spent my life doing my part to keep people safe is why I went to work each day. Not the job, but the results.” I remember those words precisely. They caused me to have an epiphany of sorts.

We GMs are a busy bunch. There are plots to work out, encounters to calculate, settings to map, NPCs to stat up, and a plethora of other tasks that we do in order to run a fun game. Some systems allow you to do these tasks on the fly, but many systems require you to prepare them in advance. All of these tasks require a bit of mental energy, maybe some physical materials, and other resources that can all be replenished later.

These tasks also require time, and that is a resource that you cannot replenish. Not only can you not replenish your time, but you have no idea as to how much time you actually have to begin with. You have to spend your time wisely. Do not waste it on things that will not have results that you consider worthwhile. This is true for every aspect of your life, so why not apply it to your game prep work as well?

There are only two reasons to do prep work of any type when you are the GM:

1.       You enjoy the prep work.

2.       You think that the effort is worth the results.

Now if you are enjoying what you are doing you do not need any advice from me. Carry on you lucky soul!

Chances are though that many GMs do not enjoy all of the prep work that they are doing. So why are they doing it? My theory is simple: A lot of GMs fool themselves into thinking that an increase in prep work results in an increase of fun. We have an idea for something fun to include in our game but do not clarify the desired result. We then begin to add unneeded details to that initial idea which results in more prep work. We eventually lose focus as to why we thought this idea would make our game more fun to begin with and have now managed to swamp ourselves with prep work instead.

This is what happens when the designer becomes engrossed in the design and loses focus on the intent of the product. More importantly, it is a waste of your time.

Your prep work should always be done with a conceivable result in mind. Each piece of material that you prep must have an objective. If you cannot think of what the desired result is before you begin that prep work do not do the work. If you do have a result in mind do the minimum work required to achieve that result. Do not add to that idea or concept with supporting material once you believe that the result will be achieved. Move on to another task. Spend your time wisely by working towards desired results that you have clearly stated to yourself.

For example, if I want to include an NPC in my game that will pass a vital piece of information onto the PCs. I want this to be a memorable social encounter I have to design him. My desired result is to use the NPC to pass the information along only through some bartering and role playing. I will now design the components that the NPC needs for that result (for my tastes this would be a name, description, personality quirks, motive for passing the information, and what the information would be bartered for). Any game mechanics that are required can default to whatever the system uses as the norm for most beings. I do not need to roll up a complete character sheet for this NPC. I have saved time by just designing just what I needed to achieve the desired result with.

The benefits of being a results oriented designer are numerous. You know exactly why each part of the design was created. You can also quickly adjust any part of the design and know how it will affect the rest of your design. With every component of a design being modular and focused on a particular result you can also recycle those components into future designs. Focusing on the results can end up saving you time in the present and time in the future!

Plus there is the additional bonus of being able to keep your game on track without railroading your players. If your players do something unexpected you just modify the component to deliver the result in a way that is appropriate to the situation. Using my NPC example, if the players decide to use game mechanics instead of role playing by attacking the NPC I will probably have the NPC surrender the information out of fear and role play the scene out. The NPC will explain that he would have given the information up in exchange for something else. I will have achieved my desired result of passing the information along through role playing without disregard to the players’ actions. That is a win-win situation.

Keep this in mind the next time you sit down to begin prep work for your next session. Know what your desired results are before you begin to design the components and not only will you have better results, but you will spend less time on prep work as well.

That is my opinion on the matter. What is yours? Be sure to share your own tips and tricks with the Gnome Stew community by leaving a comment below. Remember that the GM is a player too, so always make sure that you get your share of the fun at the table!

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Doubleheader: You Do Not Have Time for That"

#1 Comment By Sarlax On January 28, 2009 @ 10:23 am

The example of the NPC informant being designed for a memorable social encounter makes me think me think of sunk costs. As a GM, it’s hard to predict the outcome of an adventure, even if you’re inclined to run linear games. Who knows what the PCs will do?

Given this, you shouldn’t put more effort into an NPC, an encounter, etc. than is necessary to achieve your goal. If you do, you’re sinking further costs into one game element and getting diminishing returns.

When the game plays out, your rationality (in the economic sense) as a GM is more likely to decline if you’ve sunk a lot of time into some part of the story. Suppose you’ve crafted an exciting gun battle in the enemy base – you’ve done the map, written mook stats, and planned escape routes for the big bad. The players throw you a curve, though, and decide to hack the base’s computer instead of sneaking in.

Many GMs will try to force the battle to happen. After all, they spent so much time working on it! This is irrational, however. That time is already gone. All that matters now is how to get the best game you can given present circumstances.

So I agree with this post entirely. Don’t sink more time than is needed to effect the result you’re seeking.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On January 28, 2009 @ 10:50 am

I like your dad’s idea that no job is worth it, the results are. It fits very well with GMing. I know that some of the most fun moments that have come out of game had very little to do with anything I’d prepped. Players, and the GM, love to see cool things happen, and even if there is no prep for them or nothing but figuring it out on the fly, so long as there is a payoff it is all worth it.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On January 28, 2009 @ 10:51 am

By the way, really great article!

#4 Comment By Tommi On January 28, 2009 @ 11:20 am

All preparation is strictly voluntary. Prep work can be reduced to zero by playing a suitable game designed for zero prep. Hence, if one finds that one is not enjoying one’s prep, one ought to change playing style or game.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On January 28, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

I like the way these two articles play off of each other. I think the “prep what you’ll use” advice is frequently given, but it is important to remember. I know that I often get sucked into less productive prep if I start mindlessly grinding.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 28, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

As a soldier if what he does is worth $1500 a month and free room and board… You’ll get the same answer (with the caveat, “…and I get to blow shit up”).

Good article; it helps illuminate (sometimes painfully so) the mistakes I’ve made in running past campaigns. I’ve prepped encounters that were skipped, statted out NPCs who were never encountered, and written up descriptive text that was worse than useless when the party sneaked in the back door.

Also, I like how our little Doubleheader experiment worked out.

#7 Comment By ulmus On January 28, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

This is a great point and I cam to the same epiphany a couple of years ago myself. You shoudl read Robin D’s Laws of good gamemastering. It’s chock full with advice on how to make the most out of your preparations and how to look after your players and see to it that they are enjoying themselves. That, after all is your job, more than anything else.

New RPG blog: [2]

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 28, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

Thanks all! I’m glad our first doubleheader is being so well received.

[3] – I disagree. I love to cook. I love to prepare homemade pizza from scratch for my family. My kids and wife really look forward to when I get out the stones and make a couple of specialty pizzas for them. They love my thin crust. So do I.

I hate preparing the pizza dough. The problem is that it is an essential part of my recipe. Pre-made substitutes alter the taste.

I’m not about to make lasagna just because I don’t enjoy one part of the homemade pizza experience. The results outweigh the discomfort. I look for ways to improve upon the dough making process, and perhaps one day it won’t be such a pain. I don’t look to eliminate it since it is essential to the results.

Some games are worth the prep work, and some games with zero prep work are not. Focus on the results and not the work. Will the results be worth it?

[4] – Yep! Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering is an excellent read for any GM. Congratulations on your new blog!

#9 Comment By DNAphil On January 28, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

I had learned this lesson the hard way, a few years ago with a failed Mutants & Masterminds campaign. I ran about 6 sessions, but had about 100+ pages of campaign background and NPC’s.

Since then, I keep it simple. Prep just what I need, and a few seeds to draw the players attention.

A great article and an important lesson for those “older” GM’s who are realizing that their time for session prep, is getting less and less each year.

#10 Comment By Tommi On January 29, 2009 @ 1:12 am


Okay, the “ought to” was too strong. “can” is a much better word. Everyone has the ability to reduce prep to arbitrary small amount, but sometimes people have reasons for not doing it.

#11 Comment By DocRyder On January 29, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

Excellent article, and one I need to remember as I prep a new campaign. 😀