Tobold's Blog
Saturday, February 25, 2012
Preparation is everything

Can you imagine a stand-up comedian having to look up his witty repartee in a book before giving his response? He would quickly be booed of the stage. While being a Dungeon Master (DM) in a game of Dungeons & Dragons isn't quite the same as stand-up comedy, some of the same principles apply: The game is best when there is a good flow of interactions between the players and the DM, with the minimum amount of time lost in between. Having to look up rules for 10 minutes is bad, and so is losing time to set up maps. There is a reason why I spend so much time printing maps instead of drawing them during the game on a dry-erase map. Not only are the maps prettier, but I also gain a lot of time during the play session.

Gaining time during the session by spending that time in preparation is especially important if you don't play all that often. My D&D group only meets one evening every two weeks. I don't really want to spend a significant portion of that time drawing dungeons, setting up fights, or looking up rules. The rules you can sometimes make up on the spot, but for a decent combat encounter everybody needs to know exactly where everybody is on a battle map. If you lose too much time creating the maps as you go, you also break immersion, and tend to distract the players from the game. I am not a fast drawer.

And of course preparing my adventures is fun to me, not work. It is how I spend my weekends these days, instead of playing MMORPGs. I have a certain pride in running a game which is enjoyable for the players, and running smoothly without unnecessary delays. If that means spending some hours reading rule-books, and designing and printing maps and handouts, I don't mind.
I mentioned it before, but I agree: I routinely spent 8-10 hours a week preparing for a 2-3 hour session. Even as a player! And none of that includes time spent browsing the D&D forums back in the day, arguing rules and interpretations with strangers over the internet.

I wish I could still find that fun without actually having to have a game running, but it's just not the same. :(
I sense a asymmetry between your emotional investment and your players' emotional investments. This is usually a dangerous thing for a group. Just be careful.
Isn't that the same asymmetry as that between how many hours Blizzard spends to create an expansion, and how many hours the players spend to play through it?
Do your players pay you ? :)
I'm enjoying your take on "DM as Game Dev"...there's so much overlap of design principles!
Back in the days that I used to GM a lot, I favored RPGs with sparse rules. A system where you absolutely need maps and miniatures to play a session is foreign to my goals as a GM. I intended to create narrative threads that my players could fill out in any way they saw fit. I define the basic structure, but my players drive all of the details.

You can't do that in a rule system that demands maps and miniatures be planned out ahead of time.
I have to agree with the warning of over preparing. It can give the DM the illusion that his world is open and detailed, while simultaneously giving the players a sense of playing on rails.

You naturally become invested in your preparation. Players may not appreciate that since they may want a more fluid world and want to discover and create as they go. Too much detail can also make players feel lost and bored.

It has been a few decades, but I remember that the more complex the scenario, and the more tightly organized I was, the more it felt like work and not play. And players goofing off irritated me.

I found that simple encounters and back stories, although they may not seem as rich to me, we're always better to the players. If they were able to add details themselves, no matter how silly, they became more invested.

I also always used some kind of an NPC, none with significant power or authority, to accompany the group. This allowed me to keep a player perspective, prevent becoming a benevolent dictator, and allowed me to have more fun.
The group I play in has an interesting solution to sticky, hard to resolve rules questions: if it looks like it's going to take a long time our GM will make a nonbinding call for the current session and figure out the correct rules over the week. It gets us back on track nicely and doesn't lead to damaging long term precedents in the campaign.
Just an FYI for you. The new lines of business class color inkjets are about half the cost of color laserjets. Check out HP and Epson, but only the business class ones can tout that cost savings but are still in the range of $200-$400US.
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