Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 06, 2012
D&D session preparation

I just bought and started reading Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep by Phil Vecchione. In the introduction he states: "The end result is that many GMs hate to prepare their session notes. I have yet to encounter a GM who is excited to prepare their notes—at best, they have made some kind of uneasy truce when it comes to getting their prep work done." Apparently I am not a typical GM, because for me preparing a D&D session is already half of the fun. I prepare session notes, create maps and tokens when needed, make initiative riders to sit on top of my GM screen, make index cards for monsters, and even sometimes play through the upcoming battles to familiarize myself with the powers the monsters have.

What I don't prepare is a detailed campaign background or the various roleplaying aspects of Dungeons & Dragons. My campaign outline is a two-page document, basically just listing the adventures I want to run, and how they are connected to form a greater whole (at level 1 my players found the first hint that will ultimately start an adventure at level 6). My NPCs I mostly improvise, with the session notes only containing what information is essential for the NPC to tell the players.

I think that roleplaying games, whether pen & paper or on a computer, have a "mechanics" part of combat, and a "content" part of story and roleplaying. The huge advantage of the pen & paper version over the computer version is that the story is one that grows out of interactive storytelling. Thus I don't prepare story, because I want it to evolve from the interaction with the players. What I prepare is what motivation and plans my NPCs (including the villains) have, and by just knowing that I am able to roleplay them to act reasonably to the actions of the players. The last thing I want is to railroad my players into something, just because the written-down story says so.

The advantage of the computer version of roleplaying games over the pen & paper version is that a computer is obviously much better at handling numbers and keeping track of status effects and the like. Some DMs cop out of that problem by going for pen & paper systems with a minimal amount of numbers and math. But as I and my players enjoy tactical combat, I need to be able to efficiently run a more complex system like D&D 4th edition. Thus the preparation of maps, tokens, monster index cards and ini riders, all of which help to run combat smoother. I am currently pondering how to best handle the various status effects of 4th edition. I've seen some nice acrylic 4E status effect tokens on the internet, but haven't found a shop yet that would be willing to deliver those to Europe. If I can't find any of those, I'll probably make cardboard rings with status effects written on them, although cutting those out will be annoying.

As Phil Vecchione says in his Never Unprepared book, Silence is Death in a pen & paper game. That is not only true for roleplaying situations, but also for combat. Combat has to flow smoothly to be enjoyable, and that isn't possible without preparation. You don't want to discover during combat that some monster has an ability that applies a status effect of which you aren't sure how it works, and be forced to start flipping rulebooks in the middle of combat. Knowing what the monsters abilities do also allows me to start planning tactics ahead of time, to make a battle plan for the monsters that goes beyond "rush the players". If there is one thing that computer games have taught me is how annoying it is to fight enemies with a bad AI, so I always assume that even a "stupid" orc has some fundamental grasp of tactics; after all he is supposed to be fighting a lot.

In summary, I think session preparation is important to guarantee an enjoyable game of Dungeons & Dragons. Especially for tactical combat. Complex combat systems and the need to prepare for them sure aren't for everybody, but I consider them to be "advanced" Dungeons & Dragons, and the difference between a roleplaying game and just improvised theater.

Here's my usual skepticism - okay, the GM says he doesn't want to railroad. And...then he has one big bad...and oh, look at that, the PC's end up taking down the big bad!

It's not even utterly intentional - what are the PC's going to do, grow cabbages? Like moths to a flame, you have one big important thing, they gravitate toward it.

It's actually an interesting question - can your PC's sit down and grow cabbages/more to the point, what is the least epic thing they can do. And I mean really do - the GM sitting there with a lemon face but the players ignoring him and doing it anyway is not 'being able to do that'.
If one of my player's characters wanted to settle down and grow cabbages, I wouldn't want to stop him. If the player wants, he could roll another character with a more adventurous mindset to replace him. If it the PLAYER who doesn't want to adventure any more, he basically doesn't want to play the game any more.

If the whole group doesn't want to go dungeoneering, but would rather do something else, I can adjust the campaign for that. Right now I can't think of a good cabbage growing adventure, but for example a murder mystery or political intrigue without combat would certainly be possible.

D&D is not like a MMORPG, where the devs offer a "take it or leave it" product. Our current 4E campaign started because both the old DM and the group got tired of the murder mystery / political intrigue type of campaign we had, and wanted something with more combat. Ultimately you have a group of people around the table agreeing on some answer to the question "what should we play?".

Once the group agrees to play in a certain way, certain story elements are so essential that they become undisputed. When the big bad does something evil to the group or the village they are staying in, players usually WANT to go after him. How exactly they do that is up to them, but it is unlikely that they'll refuse to take down the big bad guy.
Use your imagination, Tobold! Due to a curse by a witch the players defeated once, the cabbages grow up into evil wandering NPCs, and the locals threaten to burn your party at the stake if they don't deal with the Dread Cabbage Plague.

You should probably keep this one in reserve. Afterwards players will respect your plots ;-)
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I don't know why Tobold, but I love this site. I came to it one of the first time you and Markco got into it and I just fell in love haha.

You have some seriously interesting posts. I dont even have an interest in this game, but loved this post.
I'm with you; when I was preparing D&D, I really enjoyed preparing my sessions, planning out the surprises, the maps, the encounters. The idea that a DM wouldn't want to prepare is a bit of a sticking point, because what, then, does the DM want to do? Make it up as he goes along? Well, if he's a good enough DM, kudos to him, but it's a rare DM that can handle that kind of thing. D&D is complex enough that planning is almost required, at least from a tactical standpoint, because without it, players who know their character's abilities well will obliterate any challenges made up on the spot by the DM, unless the DM comes up with challenges so difficult that they're likely to obliterate the players. Finding the right balance is the key to the fun - the threat of failure, of loss and death, without that actual outcome. It takes planning to find that balance.

As for railroading, I've found a lot of people have different definitions for what precisely is railroading. I've also found it quite ridiculous that DMs expecting players to play into the game is falling more and more under the realm of "railroading." There are basic social conventions, social contracts if you will, that go along with playing in a PnP RPG. I can't stand players who want to play these loner types who have nothing to lose and who get along with no one and yet expect everyone else at the table to go along with their anti-social and dangerous behavior; that's railroading, too, by a player, yet many juvenile players do just that. I make clear my expectations before a campaign starts, and like you, I don't stop a player's free will, but I also make it clear that the freedom isn't freedom to do whatever they want, but to do what's good for the game. Not for the DM, not for themselves, not even for all the PCs, but what's good for the game.

Does that mean sometimes they play into a scenario? Yes. Does that mean sometimes they go completely out of book? Sure. Does that give them the opportunity to solve encounters in non-traditional ways? Yes.

The social contract is about trust. You have to trust your players to do what's good for the game, and they have to trust that your game is going to be entertaining and worth their play time. As long as those two parameters are established, you won't have players who want to go off alone all the time and make everyone else sit or start fires that burn down taverns and cause a lot of trouble, or for that matter, to grow cabbages as an act of defiance. Nor will you have a DM who heavy-handedly railroads players into every scenario he or she wants.

Then again, my two buddies used to play in a pirate game (I haven't a clue what the system was) where one of the players only wanted to be an accountant and another a cartographer, and it was virtually impossible to actually do any pirate-like activities. That game didn't last.
Thanks for the link to that book, Tobold. The Eureka book, with the 501 plots for GMs, is an absolutely fantastic factory for ideas. Haven't read the NPC one, or the GM prep book yet.
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How exactly they do that is up to them, but it is unlikely that they'll refuse to take down the big bad guy.

Yes. I'm describing that as a problematic issue. It's a variant of the ol' 'pick a card' trick, as it makes the player pick the big bad card rather reliably.

At the very least, making it that who the big bad is isn't clear to anyone (even the GM doesn't know - there are just forces enacting plans) can disrupt this problem.
In a virtual world with complete freedom in which even the DM doesn't know who the bad guy is, how would you ever get to any sort of interesting story? Wouldn't it just be a series of random trash mob encounters without ever meeting a boss?

And if you use some random means to let the players still meet a boss mob at some undetermined time, how do the players know that this was random and not planned? And how do you not bore them to death if those boss fights are just random occurences, and not the culmination of a story where they were chasing after that bad guy?
With characters who actually want something and will act to get it (and can't just snap their fingers to get it), their pursuit of that is the story. What deeds they are prepared to commit to get what they want, is a story.

There are no trash mobs. Everyone has a life, no ones a random spawn. What you do to other people/creatures to get what you want is a story.

Unless were just talking about story as a fluff text for a play to win gameplay structure. But then it doesn't matter if they want to pursue the big bad after it does something bad to them or village they are in.
I am sorry that I have nothing to add to the conversation above but to say this:

I've never really trusted cabbages.
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