The Inquisition: The Big Game

Some gamers getting ready for the big game.

I have always gotten extremely nervous before serving as the GM for games. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s before a group of newbies or a bunch of seasoned veterans, a game at a convention or one in my own apartment, some people I’ve never met or my most stalwart friends, new material or re-hashed stuff I’ve already done. I get anxious that the game I’m about to run is not going to be fun.

I know that this is the result, to some extent, of being a perfectionist. For some reason, I just have never felt that I’m adequately prepared for a session. I can always design one more encounter, or add a bit more detail to a room, or tweak the numbers a bit to make things more balanced. After all, what is all this extra time for but for more planning? It doesn’t matter that I’ve been shown time and again that sometimes what I plan for one session actually takes three to four, there’s always the creeping sense that things are going to go off-book and I’m going to have to come up with things on the fly.

But, that should be something great about roleplaying: not everything can be scripted. Not everything can go according to plan. And even if it does, there’s no guarantee that your players will even really like that plan or that script. They’re going to like what they like, and you have to adapt your story to be some middle ground between the story you want to tell and the story they want to hear. This is the curse and the blessing of the Gamemaster. You’re totally in charge of the game. I used to say to people who told me that my games were really fun that most games were 50% GM and 50% players. I’ve had games I thought would be amazing turn out to just be rather bland due to what I’ll egotistically call “boring play”. I’ve also had rather bland or derivative plots turn into riotous, uproarious, truly memorable romps.

I got the same feeling back when I was in school and had to prepare for tests. There were always a few minutes left and a few more facts that I could memorize. So, studying and preparing for a game often become an act of settling, of recognizing diminishing returns (more time spent for less product) and cutting yourself off after you reach a point somewhere past good enough. Sadly, I’ve always been the kind of person who cares more about the quality of his RPGs than the quality of his grades, so I find the exercise of locating good enough to be very challenging.

What’s my point with all of this? Well, I want to share a few things I do (or try to do) before each game session. Maybe it will inspire you to better organize your game planning. Maybe it will clue you in to the oft-incredible amount of time GMs can put in to planning RPG sessions. Maybe it will just be interesting to look at someone else’s process.

  1. At the end of each session, I make sure to write down a to-do list after everyone has gone home. This usually takes anywhere from 5 to 20 mintues, depending on the amount of material the group got through, how many questions they had, and how much of the next few sessions are written or conceptualized. It helps to keep a running list during the session, I find, that way nothing gets lost to the ether and you’re left not having a good answer when someone says “Remember when I asked…”.
  2. I try to knock off as many things on this list as possible when I have free time. Having a list is great, I find, for a spare 15-20 minutes here and there where you can just knock off an item or two.
  3. During this inter-session period, I also try to write down in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way random ideas that I come up with. Sometimes I try to incorporate them, other times I plan to do so down the line.
  4. I schedule for myself a sit-down of at least a few hours for “game preparation”, usually taking place a few days before the session. This is when I go over my notes: check the overarching plot and see where we are, note what things have changed, who’s dead, and so on. I start planning a “Next Session” document, which is just a piece of paper which has what I want to accomplish on it. It might read: ambush at night, conversation with the Duke, 24 hours downtime in town, arrival of the caravan. Now, I can never be sure that the players will actually do all this stuff, but with some experience GMing you can guess where they might go next. I make sure to prepare the few most likely places they might visit. During this session I plan any major physical projects I’ll need to spend time working on, specifically intricate hand-outs or props.
  5. I design the encounters and draw the maps in my notebook, as well as note what important NPCs and phenomenon happen as in-game time passes.
  6. Then I take a break for a few days to try and relax. Because:
  7. The night before the session I always start to get nervous, so I usually give myself a little time to go over the session, make some final notes, tweak encounters to account for player absences, new abilities gained, and whatnot.
  8. I make sure all the physical materials I need for the game are ready to be used. Clean the battlemats, organize the figurines, make sure there are pencils and markers. If I’m hosting, I try to get a snack or two and some drinks to provide.
  9. I make sure to get a good night of sleep, and eat well the day of the game. Don’t game tired or on an empty stomach, it saps your energy!
  10. I can’t help but think about the game all day during the lead up. I usually take this time to do some game flourishes. A handout here, a piece of papercraft there if I have the time. I always like to make tokens for NPCs and monsters.
  11. When I get to the session, I take about 10 minutes to set everything up. I lay out the map, draw on it (if a combat scene is happening imminently), put up my screen if I’m using one, get out my dice, get a drink and a snack and settle in.
  12. At the start of the session, we go over anything that happened in any downtime, and do a quick recap of where we are and how we got here. I then answer questions if anyone has them, the players get a little planning time, and we go!

The way I described it probably makes it seem more complicated than it actually is, but I find that if I miss too many of these steps (as happens when life gets in the way), the quality of my sessions starts to suffer. There are some games I can do, for example, without a lot of prior planning (such as Paranoia!) and others that I absolutely must have the encounter design (crunchy D&D dungeon crawls).

One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to planning for your sessions, but you should absolutely find a system that works for you and try to stick to it. You probably already do have a system, if you just grab a bottle of Mountain Dew, throw on a movie and draw dungeon maps every Thursday night, even if you don’t call it a system. Your game will be better for it.

PS: I think preparing for games is something that players should do as well. You need to correlate all your notes and information gained in previous sessions, do your inventory housekeeping, determine where you want to go next and what is your next goal, and so on. The more of this happens outside of the game, the less time your co-players spend waiting for you to flip through the rulebook to buy your 17 items from the shopkeeper.

Photo Credit: Warhammer Games (Mick Garratt) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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