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First Time GM – Game Prep I – Overview

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.

Overdoing It

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 Stew slice of pizza.

Priorities, Priorities…

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 [1]”, write that out as well.

Another need is to idiot-proof your storyline. (Let’s assume there’s a bit of railroading [2]; save the sandbox [3] 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.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "First Time GM – Game Prep I – Overview"

#1 Comment By Donogh On August 6, 2010 @ 3:54 am

I wouldn’t be too wary of “overdevelopment” of major NPCs or the world. This kind of detail really helps when you have to wing something for a typically out-of-left-field suggestion/action by a player.

#2 Comment By umbral.fury On August 6, 2010 @ 8:12 am

A trick I still use, which is very useful in prep is to have false choices; that is the players think they have a choice, and it looks like a choice, but the same thing is happening in all directions. (For the worlds sake it only happens in the one the players choose.) That is, if you want your players to find and stop a ritual in a cave, but they go explore the dark forest, the ritual is in a clearing, this way you may need to change the little encounters along the way, but all your big points are the same.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On August 6, 2010 @ 10:21 am

[4] – That approach is of paramount importance in Call of Cthulhu when it comes to clues. Some people who never realized this, or who felt they shouldn’t have to worry about it, went so far as to write a whole new game system to cope with “bad role = no clue = game over” syndrome (won’t say which, but a halfway decent search roll will put you on the Trail ahahahahaha).

Another useful technique when used sparingly is not to sweat details of plot, backstory or whatever if they won’t come together or you can’t pick from several equally good choices, but to let the players speculations help you to fill in these details.

Done carefully and SPARINGLY it will save you work and make the players feel good about their powers of deduction. Overuse the technique and the players will realize they are doing all the work and either quit in disgust or start taking the game where they think it should go – and they usually don’t know where, or disagree, so the end is a mess rather than a coherent story, just like real life.

And if you are writing any sort of event timeline for the bad guys that must be intuited or worked out by the players in-game, keep it as simple as possible. Remember, the Bad Guy wants to get the most effect from the least amount of work.

My advice as far as mechanics go (for the new GM) are : learn how skills work, not what the text of a given skill says. That can be looked up in-game by the player who wants to use it. Same for Feats/Edges/Hindrances if they are part of the game system you are going to use.

Learn how combat works by running one on your own. No minis? Use coins as markers. Nine squares are all you need to do this, also known as a tic-tac-toe board. If you have a chess board you could use that too.

Understand the big picture features of the combat system – flanking, multi-attacker bonuses, attacks of opportunity, ammo supply etc. (It’s okay to not use all of these, but you should have an idea of why they are there and what happens when they aren’t).

Write down notes on odd-looking rules that you think people will use but which don’t make so much sense that they’re obvious – attacks of opportunity are often put in this box, and I would certainly add the grapple rules of *any* game (I still write these down on a card and I’ve been GMing 30 years and more, and I often joke that anyone grappling anyone else will lose 100 xp for making me read the card – some mechanics are just complicated by their nature).

Drowning, choking, poisoning and so on usually have detailed rules, but can be hand-waved with confidence with the help of rolls vs constitution or vigor and the like. If you think something is going to come up (if your players are going to have to find a way across a moat to infiltrate a castle, the drowning rules might suggest themselves), use a bookmark so you can find those rules quickly if and when you need them.

Above all, keep your first outing a simple as possible while still maintaining the fun factor for the players. It’s often said you can’t go wrong with a dungeon bash – a few rooms, some monsters and a bit o’ treasure to make it worth while – and it’s true. There’s a reason the genre grew out of a simple dungeon bash – they are immense fun to do.

#4 Comment By evil On August 6, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

One of the things I would suggest be moved into the time wasters section is spending a lot of time on stats. Only build stat lines for characters or enemies that you KNOW are integral to that session, and that you’re pretty sure the PCs will attempt to take on. Don’t worry about normal enemies if these have stats listed in a book already (just put a bookmark in that page). Much like fleshing out complete backstories for NPCs, fleshing out stats for every enemy your characters might face will take up a bit of time that could be better used setting up story arcs, red herrings, and hooks.

#5 Comment By Rafe On August 6, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

The first thing I would say regarding prep is: Know how you work best; i.e., do you need things written out, well planned and organized, or do you work best on the fly, “shooting from the hip”? Most game systems better support one of those styles, though most work for either. So make sure you aren’t starting up a game using a system that focuses more on the style you find contrary to how you typically work.

The other thing with prep is to keep it handy. Simple is good. Don’t have binders that require lots of space to flip open and mess around with. Use your space well and keep relevant info close at hand.

#6 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-08-13 On August 15, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

[…] First Time GM – Game Prep I – Overview There are many facets to prepping for a game, and some of them can bite you in the ass if you’re not careful. You have to prioritize things and avoid time wasters. What are those priorities? Well, it’s different for each person, but the time wasters are pretty much the same. Go check out what Telas has to say over at Gnome Stew. […]

#7 Pingback By Kilka słów o północy (5) – dla początkujących i nie tylko « BeastWorm – Nieregularnik RPG On April 8, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

[…] First Time GM – Game Prep I – Overview „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” […]