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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The Inquisition: Why Modules Rock

This rocks, too! Thanks to flickr user Martin LaBar. CC BY-NC 2.0

This is the second in a two-part series about running published modules. Last week we talked talk about why modules suck. This week, we’ll talk about why they’re great.

Do you have a life?

Do you actually have a life outside your roleplaying game?

Do you have friends? A hudband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend? A pet?

Do you like going to the movies? Do you like watching TV or reading books? Do you enjoy hiking, camping, traveling, sports, or one of a hundred other activities?

Do you have a job?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I follow it with this: where do you find the time to write your own game?

Yes, I’m being facetious, but to a certain extent, I do have a point. Game-planning is very time consuming. I’ve never planned enough for a game; there are always more details to add, more ways to describe a room, more flesh to add to the bones of the NPC’s. The world continues onward and outward beyond the edges of the scenario: fantasy worlds have nations and histories that reach through thousands of miles and years, NPCs have character backstories that last decades or longer and explain their tortured or blessed existence.

Genesis takes time. Lots of it.

On the other hand, modules take far, far less time. Are they, even the best ones, usually lacking in depth? Yes, of course. There just isn’t enough space in the pages of a module to flesh out an entire world. And, truth be told, you usually don’t need the entire world – that’s what improvisation is for. That’s when you tell your players you’ll get back to them, or break the fourth wall a little bit and tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree for this scenario.

The luxury of running as module is that it saves you two huge investments: time, and creativity.

We just talked about time, so let’s jump to creativity. Creating things from scratch is hard, hard work. You need to make things interesting. You need to make things fun. You need to make sure you’re only being inspired and not just straight-up ripping off your inspirations. (We’ve probably all played in scenarios that were cribbed directly from movies). The best thing about the module is that you don’t need to have a cool idea or even the beginnings of an idea – you just pick it up, read through it, do some preparation so you know it, and then be on your way. You can obviously just use the module as your inspiration as well.

I really like reading modules, not running them. Why? Because they give me ideas. I shamelessly steal some of them, but most of the time I adapt them to my own worlds and the styles of my games. For this purpose, the huge mega-campaigns are usually too much, so I like to choose smaller, maybe 1-8 page modules that just have the seed of an idea. I think map-drawing and scenario design is incredibly time consuming as well, so I definitely use (with modification) encounters designed by others in my games. I love that someone took the time to make sure this combat is a reasonable fight for a fifth-level party so I don’t have to. (Caveat emptor: not everything you read in a module is actually balanced!)

Thus, my advice to you when it comes to modules is this:

Published adventures are a tool. If you use the tool for a task for which it was not intended, it will probably do, at best, a lousy job and at worst will not be able to do it at all. I think most designers build modules that are ready to run out-of-the-box, but I suggest an alternative “right job” for modules: inspiration and adventure skeletons. Read through an adventure, but don’t be married to anything in it. Use the elements you like. Toss out the elements you don’t. Write new elements, skip entire pages and rooms, make it a sprawling campaign or a minute encounter. Don’t try to just pick it up, read it once, and run it; you’ll be disappointed. Modules enhance your game. Don’t make the mistake of having them be your game.

Happy gaming til next week!

Prepping for a Convention Game, Pt 2

Yesterday, I wrote the first part of this article. I talked about the games and I prepped for KantCon, and what made them easier or hard to get ready. Today, I’m going to work those ideas down into some general tips for getting a convention game ready to go.

Be Aware of Your Time Budget

At most conventions, unless you’re running a side game for friends, you’ve got a time limit to worry about. Usually, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-4 hours. If you’re not used to running a game that last a specific amount of time, then you need to factor this into your planning. Take some time during your regular game session before the convention and see how long it takes your group to get through what you have planned.

If you’re right down to the wire, planning-wise (as anyone who is going to GenCon will be), I would break a four-hour game down like this:

Intro to Game System, setting, rules and characters – 30 minutes

Action/Story set-up – 30 minutes (I’m a fan of dropping the group right into some trouble; gets people focused)

Main Story – 2 1/2 hours

Wrap-up – 30 minutes

If you’re not sure how long your main story will last, well, just move on to my next point.

Overplan, but be Flexible

It is always a good idea to have too much ready to go than not enough. If you think your session might run on the short side, then plan a few extra encounters because combat almost always takes longer than you think it will. Be ready to add content, if necessary.

However, your biggest concern should be your ability to be flexible. Yes, you maybe should railroad a touch more than you usually would to keep things moving through your adventure. That said, some groups will completely move into left field, and it’s your job to keep up with them. Do your best to keep up with them and roll with the punches. If that means not using the elaborate, set-piece combat that you spent six hours building, then don’t use it. Check your ego at the door and remember that you’re all there to have fun.

If  Time is Short, Use Something Pre-made

There is nothing wrong with grabbing an adventure module from your favorite publisher and using it. I repeat: nothing. No matter what you end up running, you’re going to bring your own unique flair and your own twists to whatever it is that you run.

This goes for characters, as well. If you have a source for good, decently-optimized characters, it’s not a bad idea to use them. One thing that I found out about myself when I was getting my KantCon games ready is that I am not the best in the world at making good characters, especially those that are higher-level.  They characters weren’t bad, per se, but I really could have done a better job with them. Next time I am either going to take more care with their building, or find a set of pre-built characters to use.

Quick-start rules, like the ones for Savage Suzerain that I linked to yesterday, are a good source for that kind of thing. That’s one of the things that Savage Mojo did well; their characters were pretty well built, and that saved me a lot of extra work when I was getting that game ready.

I Mentioned it Already, but Be Flexible

With a convention game, you will have people showing up late, people with generic tickets who want to play, people who walk by, who stop and watch, ambient noise from other nearby game, and a whole host of other distractions. You may end up with half of the players that you expected to have, and your number may double.

Case in point: when I was ready to run The Haunted Mines at KantCon, I noticed that there was a lot of interest in the game. Given that it was the last gaming slot on the last day of the convention, I had totally forgotten how many players were supposed to be in the session, I just knew that I had brought 8 characters for people to choose from. Feeling generous (and a little loopy), I decided that adding two additional characters would be no problem, and I ended up running a scenario designed for 5 players with a total of… wait for it… 10 players. It wasn’t the way the scenario was designed, and I ended up having to improvise a lot more of it than I would normally be comfortable with. I think it ended up going well, but it likely would have been better if I had stuck to the original gameplan.

Double-Check Your Supplies

This one is self-explanatory, but super-important. Make a checklist of what you need to run your game properly, and don’t forget to bring all of it. Yes, it’s a convention, and yes you will likely have the ability to buy the things you need, but it is much easier if you just remember to bring what you need.

If you do happen to forget something important to the running of your game, remember what I said above: be flexible. The worst thing you can do is let the lack of something you feel to be crucial ruin the game session. You’re a GM, improvise, come up with something. If you can run the session, do so and never let the players know anything is wrong. If you pull it off, you could end up running a great game that will be talked about for a long time. Don’t let the lack of something derail your game completely.


Running a convention game can be a lot of fun, if you approach it properly. Keep your head about you, be ready to change your plans, and have a good time; that’s what it’s all about.
[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, preparation, GenCon, KantCon, Aruneus[/tags]

Prepping for a Convention Game, Pt 1

Given that I’m only a few days out from GenCon, and I recently got some experience with prepping convention games (see KantCon Actual Play Sessions). I figured that on the eve of the eve of my departure for Indianapolis, I’d take some time and give some insights on how I went about prepping my games for KantCon, and how I’m going about prepping my one game for GenCon.

When the time came to sign up to run games for KantCon, I kind of went a little nuts with it. I decided first to run Savaged Fallout and The Tomb of Horrors. Savage Mojo then offered to sponsor the convention, and I volunteered to run the Savage Suzerain version of Dr. Ballard, I Presume. Finally, my madness peaked, and I decided to run Sugar Rush, an adventure I had run for my group at Halloween. And that was it, I was done. Or so I thought.

I then got a message from the venerable owner of this fine website, our own Ben, asking is I would be up for running the public debut of The World of Aruneus via the adventure The Haunted Mines. I thought about it for all of fifteen minutes, and then I said yes. And that brought my total number of games to five. Five four-hour games with anywhere from 5-8 players per session. (There actually ended up being far more than five players in The Haunted Mines, but that’s another story).

So how did I get all of these games ready to go? The answer depends on the game session. All of these games came to me in various forms of completeness, and the prep varied based on the game. Let me break them down.

The Easiest

The two games that were the easiest for me to prep were The Tomb of Horrors, and Sugar Rush. Tomb was the easiest of the two, simply because all of the work was done for me, aside from character creation. WotC did a good job with this module, and all I needed to do was read through it, tweak a few things to run it under Pathfinder, and that was that. Sugar Rush was similarly easy to get ready, but that was because I had done almost all of the necessary legwork last Halloween. I did have to update the monsters to Pathfinder, and I went back and changed up what the various, colored rooms did when entered, but all in all, that was about as much work as getting Tomb ready.

The Ones That Needed Some Work

The two that fall into this category are Dr. Ballard, I Presume and The Haunted Mines, but both for different reasons. Dr. Ballard was a full adventure, with characters provided in the Savage Suzerain, Play Now PDF. The problem with the module was that it was really poorly written. In my playtest with my home group, I was continually flipping through the pages of the module (which was only 9 pages long) to try and find what I was looking for. The fact that it took me so much flipping to find what I needed out of 9 pages is a sign of bad design in my book. As well, the original module was slated to run in about two hours, and I had to fill four. So, at the suggestion of one of the Savage Mojo guys, I added some content to the front of the adventure. Still, it took me longer than I would have liked to get this module into working shape.

The Haunted Mines was of medium difficulty for a different reason. The adventure that Ben sent me was near-complete, and had a lot of good stuff in it. The NPCs were fully statted out, and everything seemed good to go. My problem with this module was the world in which it was set. I kept feeling like I didn’t know enough about the world to do it justice as I was running it. I really wanted to make sure that the public premiere of Aruneus would kick as much ass as possible because I really believe in what Ben is doing with it. So, with all of that rolled together, I kept feeling like I was going to be missing something key about the world. I chalk this one up to my own propensity to worry too much. Ben has put out a lot of good information about Aruneus, and I think I was just worried about getting it right to the point that it was affecting my preparations for the game.

The Hardest One

Savaged Fallout was the game that I had the most trouble prepping for, and that was for a variety of reasons. First was that I was creating the module myself, and deciding where everything went, as well as what should happen. I did the same thing for Sugar Rush, as I said, but I did that work months and months ago, so it didn’t affect my preparations for KantCon. As well, much like the Aruneus session, there is an entire world that already exists for Fallout, and I felt that my number one goal was to recreate the feel of that world as much as possible. As well, there is a lot of equipment in Fallout that doesn’t exist in Savage Worlds, and since I was using Hero Lab to make my characters, I had a lot of custom content to add.

All of those thing combined to make Savaged Fallout the game that required the most prep work.

To Be Continued

When I started writing this article, I had intended to put down all of my thoughts in one shot. However, as I started typing, I realized that while I had covered what was difficult about the games that I ran for KantCon, I didn’t go into my game prep for my Deadlands GenCon game, nor did I give any real tips for how to effectively prepare for a convention game. So, you can expect the second part of this article to hit TC tomorrow. Until then, get out there and roll some dice!

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, preparation, GenCon, KantCon, Aruneus[/tags]

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