First Time GM is a series of articles dedicated to the newly-minted game master, making his or her first tentative die rolls behind the screen. Today’s article deals with preparing for the gaming session, commonly called game prep or just prep.
For some GMs, game prep takes far more time and effort than the actual gaming sessions. We could spend weeks on game prep, but this is just an overview of the process; techniques will be handled in a future article. Because game prep is such a wide and varied topic, I asked my fellow Gnomes to assist.
As a first time GM, you will likely over-prepare. It’s okay; we’ve all done it, either through enthusiasm or anxiety (or both!). You’ve probably realized by now that the prep needed to start a campaign is far more than the prep needed to continue a campaign.
Over-preparation can be a Good Thing, because there may be a time further down the road when you just don’t have the time or energy to prep, and can draw on the work you’ve done previously. Many GMs make use of this ‘early enthusiasm’ by spending a month or more working on a campaign before it actually starts.
This is not a reason to intentionally overdo it. As the first-time GM with a new campaign, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by everything. First off, relax.
Martin Ralya: You can’t prep for every eventuality, so don’t try. Instead, remember you can always call a five-minute time-out during the session to gather your thoughts while everyone else warms up another
bowl of delicious and nutritious Gnome Stewslice of pizza.
I like to set up a “priority of work”, so that needs are taken care of before wants. Some needs: knowing the rules of the game, establishing the opposition’s stats, defining NPC motivations, assigning names to people and places, and drawing maps (if you use them). If you prefer to use “boxed text ”, write that out as well.
Another need is to idiot-proof your storyline. (Let’s assume there’s a bit of railroading ; save the sandbox  for later.) Make sure that your red herrings aren’t too misleading, and that every step in the story is logical and obvious.
Matthew Neagley: I create a number of location hotspots where encounters might occur, along with notes on what might go on there, what NPCs are there when, what you can find there, etc….
Then I jot down a "path of least resistance" summary. In other words, if the PCs roll 1s all night long, will the adventure continue? If not, I’ll fill in the missing links. This makes sure that, even with trash rolls, the adventure doesn’t grind to a halt. Better rolls may lead to better results, more hints, background info, rewards, etc… but minimal rolls must still MOVE THE PLOT.
Regardless of what we or any other source of advice says, make sure that you are comfortable with your prep.
DNAphil: “If you are at the table, worrying about your notes, you won’t be able to focus on your players and your story.”
Less important things can be saved for later, or if you have plenty of free time. This includes things like hints for the next storyline, development of other parts of the universe, more-detailed stats for noncombatant NPCs, additional details, names, and places.
It’s easy to waste time in game prep, especially for the novice GM. One frequent time-waster is creating unnecessary encounters or scenes, either because ‘something cool happens’, or because they’re left over from an earlier draft.
DNAphil: Every scene or encounter should have a purpose. If you cannot briefly explain why this scene is in your game, you likely do not need it. I write the purpose of my scene at the top of the notes for it, and while writing my notes make sure that what I am writing sticks to the purpose.
Another common mistake is to spend too much time on the world, instead of focusing on the local area. Your players will probably be working in a small area at first. What happens in that area is far more important to the game than what happens elsewhere. If you are going to attempt to paint the world, use very large brush strokes and leave a lot of blank spaces in between them.
A mistake I used to make was to overdevelop an NPC’s backstory, either because I was trying to make him interesting, or simply because I could. Remember that the player characters are the stars of this movie; don’t try to take screen time away from them without giving something back (like a Big Clue as to the NPC’s motivations or weaknesses).
Remember that your prep style is very much in flux, and this is a great time to try new things and see what works best for your particular situation. We’ll cover actual techniques in a future article. If you have anything to add (as mentioned, prep is a huge topic), sound off in the comments and let us know.