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What Am I Doing Here?

At the beginning of each prep session, before I put finger to keyboard, I ask myself, “What am I doing here?”

In asking this question, I’m not doubting my GMing abilities, or having a ‘senior moment’, or feeling guilty about slacking off on husbandly duties to write game material (OK, so I’m not always feeling guilty about the latter.)

I’m asking myself, “How will this add to the story, action, and fun of the campaign?” Forget the current notes. Forget how you first imagined the scenario. Forget the little niggling details that you still haven’t finished. Forget the perfect names or the perfect descriptive text.

Is there any aspect of the game that you could be working on right now that would be more fun for the group than what you’re about to do? If so, then stop what you’re doing, and work on that ‘more fun’ aspect.

Sure, you could force-feed your Epic Tale of Adventure™ to your players, or carefully calculate the reactions of every NPC in the world, or write about the ecology of your latest custom critter. These can be important elements of GMing. But I like to take a step back and simply ask myself if my prep time is maximizing the level of enjoyment around the table. Am I following the players’ leads? Is this going to be the most fun thing we can do at this point? Will this create a fun and interesting situation for everyone at the table?

Do you have any guideposts or touchstone questions that you ask yourself during prep, or during the game?  Sound off and let us know…

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "What Am I Doing Here?"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On April 14, 2009 @ 7:23 am

Darn it, carefully cataloging the reactions of all my new NPCs was what I thought of as “prepping roleplaying.” I had just been running Dungeon Crawl Classics before and I was trying to build a town.

#2 Comment By LesInk On April 14, 2009 @ 8:04 am

I find myself ALWAYS asking “What will be at least 2 really cool choices for this character” as I go through the list of player characters. I figure that if the game is to be fun for each player, this implies a required involvement of each character in the game. By providing 2 major choices, each player has to make a decision that affects the outcome for the next session.

Planning sessions usually then end up being the continuation of the many story threads that each character is working through. Although it may sound like a bit of action/reaction, it usually works out logically.

The rest of the prep time is filling out the possible end points that the above choices require.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On April 14, 2009 @ 10:28 am

Good question, very easily overlooked. Adventure prep shouldn’t be the grind– your players will notice.

I really like Lesink’s idea of making sure two choices exist for each character. It’s been a long time since the characters in my campaign had two choices apiece in one session. I should fix that.

#4 Comment By DNAphil On April 14, 2009 @ 10:38 am

One of the things I have done for a few campaigns now, is that when I am preparing my session notes, I include a purpose statement for every scene. In my template for my session notes, the first section for each scene is Purpose.

The purpose statement is only 1-2 sentences long. If I cannot describe the purpose of the scene in 1-2 sentences, then I give serious thought to keeping the scene. This way the only scenes I put into the session notes are ones that have a define purpose, and support the main story.

The added benefit, is that while I am writing my notes, I have something to focus my notes on. Is what I am writing supporting that Purpose. Also, when it comes time to run the session, at the top of my notes, I can read the purpose, and know quickly, what the purpose of the scene is, so that as the scene unfolds, and evolves during play, I can make sure that I achieve the purpose.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 14, 2009 @ 11:30 am

[1] – That sounds interesting! Do you find it easier over time to create situations that provide decision points for your PCs? And how “rat bastard” are you in your choices? (‘Deal with the mafioso or lose the election to the BBEG’s agent’ vs. ‘Save the orphanage or lose the business opportunity’; heroes should have no problem with the latter one.)

[2] – Your purpose statements sound handy, if a bit [3]. 😉 Could you provide a couple of examples of them?

#6 Comment By Rafe On April 14, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

[4] – I think Phil means “This scene is in here to provide X decision in order to challenge Y player” or “This encounter will heighten the suspense when the party reaches Z.”

Sounds like a good way of getting rid of a lot of those filler or “the party needs a bit more XP” encounters that D&D tends to be fairly well known for. With Phil’s purpose statement, you keep what has relevance and discard the useless, stalling fillers.

#7 Comment By DNAphil On April 14, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

[5] – Rafe is correct. A typical purpose statement for a scene would be something like:

–The party must convince the Wizard to give them the maps to the caves of doom.
–Erland must escape from the prison chamber.
–The heroes determine the location of the captured General.

I will say that this kind of statement works well in games that do not use filler scenes to consume resources, or rack up XP (read: D&D). In story driven games, especially Investigation type games, I have found that the Purpose statement for each scene, has made sure that the only scenes that I am running are ones that advance the story.

#8 Comment By LesInk On April 14, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

@Kurt and @Martin — When preparing the decisions for the characters, they don’t have to be truly opposite choices and many options usually fall under the “take it or leave it” category, but I try to focus on making sure each characters gets choices that have BOTH pro’s and con’s.

For example, in one campaign, the paladin (leader of the party) was going from baron to baron asking for that baron’s support in a upcoming war against the invading slavers. Each baron had different requests that could be anything from a small side quest to marriage (yes, he was that dedicated to the cause). But he had to step carefully as many of his choices could potentially upset other deals previously made (e.g., warring barons, brother barons, etc.).

It was a good campaign because there was no end to little choices with possibly big consequences. Some were asked to betray the paladin. Others were asked to break the party apart and go another direction. But from the continuous plethora of choices, each character built a very strong character personality that wasn’t quite black and white. Even the paladin strayed from his noble and righteous self when he was given the opportunity to cheat (by using a girdle of undetectable magical strength) in a one-in-one combat intended to be an honorable fight – but so much ‘bigger’ results were sitting on that single encounter (yes, for the record, he cheated claiming it was for the greater good).

As I saw, it is my goal to provide the players ‘tricky’ options and to take it wherever it can go – not corner them into choosing between two bad options. Are they ‘rat bastard’ choices? I won’t lie – sometimes they are – but I actually have found out that players like those once in awhile – especially if their character is the star of that scene.

#9 Comment By LesInk On April 14, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

Oh, and I forgot to mention. Yes, the decision points become easier as you either 1) have old decisions they have not taken (some behind the ones you expected them to take), 2) new options logically follow the previous options taken, and 3) the players start catching on and request options.

I like to think of the state of each player as a room with many doors. Opening most doors open 2 more. When you get too many doors, you just start making some of the previous doors lock or disappear. It may sound like railroading, but keep in mind, the players are making all the decisions in the same way you build a dungeon.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 14, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

[6] – Thanks for clarifying; that’s what I was thinking.

FWIW, I have no problems with being a Rat Bastard GM, but I find Rat Bastardy far more effective when used infrequently.

[7] – Makes sense, although sometimes I could see “The guards attempt to slow down the characters or burn up their resources.”

#11 Comment By Milambus On April 14, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

@DNAphil How do you use your purpose statements without things getting too railroady? I’m a rather new DM myself, and I have a hard time seeing how to make use of your purpose statements without forcing the players down a specific story line. Or were your examples above more generic than you usually use?

#12 Comment By pseudodragon On April 16, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

When I’m prepping an adventure, the first question I ask (as I look over each encounter) is: “What if they don’t…?”

Each encounter fits into the overall story, but some encounters are more critical than others. I try to ensure that if the PCs avoid, miss, or otherwise entirely screw up an encounter it won’t keep them from completing and/or succeeding at the adventure. Any encounter that is a one-time-only-must-do kind of thing should be the finale that all other encounters funnel into. Otherwise, you run the risk of derailing your adventure before its conclusion. My adventures almost always have more than one way to accomplish the objective, often by different characters using their unique abilities to achieve a satisfactory outcome in totally different ways. The alternatives might be much more difficult and painful, but I try very hard not to paint my players into a corner.

Additionally, I try to balance the danger of the encounter with the information available to the characters. If an encounter could result in a TPK, for example, I make sure that a few clues have been laid so that the party doesn’t blindly walk to their doom. The clues might be bits of information from previous encounters or subtle descriptions and details in the present encounter. At any rate, the players should have some feeling that the present encounter could be a difference maker.