Forums Gaming Chat Roleplaying GM Pre-Game Prep

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    • Posts : 57
    • Bullywug

    So I’m prepping a one-shot 5th ed campaign for my best friend’s bachelor party (I’m his best man), and I just got done creating a series of pre-gen level 10 characters – one for each of the classes – each with their own flavor, role in the party, and character image. Next, I’m working on the story and various quest hooks that can be undergone during the one-shot, which is a story module I’ve always been fascinated by wherein the players take the role of the City Watch of Waterdeep instead of a random party of adventurers, and have to deal with the everyday grind of securing the city of Waterdeep – which is no small task in and of itself.

    So my question, and the topic of this discussion, is how much pre-game prep time do you folks normally put into games? Does it differ if you know it’s a one-shot versus a sustained campaign? Does it differ if you’re using a pre-built module, or a custom module with a pre-built world, or an entirely custom setting and module?

    Also, any tips on making this an engaging one-shot would be lovely.

    • Posts : 905
    • Gelatinous Cube

    The amount of prep I do usually depends on how comfortable I am to improvise on the night.

    • Posts : 1433
    • Owlbear

    Lvl 10 city watch? Remind me never to try my usual con-man style character in Waterdeep!


    My level of prep can vary wildly based on what game I’m running at the time. My current 5E game is fairly minimal, largely because I’m running the premade, published adventure. I’ll usually ensure I have images for NPCs, monsters, locations, and magic items. Sometimes I use the ones from the books or, if I don’t like them for some reason, I’ll track down ones I prefer. I don’t like using grid-based maps for combat because it really trips up the flow of combat – or even just walking – for my group but I’ll sketch out a rough map of doors and corridors if I feel it’ll help describe certain rooms. Other than that I just try to make sure I’m mostly familiar with how the chapter they’re currently in should go so that I can adlib based on their actions.


    Back when we were playing 4E I’d spend ages doing prep. It was one of the issues I had with the system. Every fight demanded a grid-based map or most of the powers that involved tactical movement were pointless. That was also my epic campaign, with huge story arcs and numerous plots interweaving throughout. I am still very pleased with how that story went, even though we never finished it. I would spend hours of free time and downtime at work plotting it out, working in details, figuring out how things would play out if the characters did or didn’t follow one of the countless hooks I had going. It was a lot of fun but way more work than I could afford to put into a game right now.


    I did recently put in a similar amount of effort, however, into a Cthulhu campaign. I love the game but had always been scared to run my own story because I felt I couldn’t do the mythos justice. I got this outline in my head before Christmas, though, and it kept gnawing at me. I wrote it out, reworked it, tweaked it, rewrote it again, then wrote pages and pages of handouts including a multi-year journal. We played through about half of it. I want to finish it. My players really seemed to enjoy it and we left on a really impressive cliffhanger.


    And then there’s Mutants and Masterminds. I had another game that we’ve picked up, put down, and gone back to a few times. It was the first campaign I ever ran. I did a couple hours worth of prep for the first episode, mostly spent conceiving of a team of winter and Winnipeg themed villains and an opener that basically amounted to “You’re in Winnipeg. There’s a fire. What do you do about it?” I was so scared about running my first game that I didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare for it. So I didn’t. Ever. That campaign had some of the most memorable and entertaining moments of any I have ever run as we all just improvised our way through it. After a couple sessions I got comfortable enough with the mechanics I could make up powered threats on the fly. It was fantastic. Of all the systems I’ve played, if there’s one I want to go back to again it’s that one, and the best part is after a quick refresh of the rules I could do it right now.


    Except that it’s 3 am. So maybe I should sleep.

    • Posts : 4638
    • Drider

    Certainly I do more if I’m using a module rather than something of my own, if only because I’m not familiar with someone else’s adventure in the way I am with my own. They often have different assumptions and can be drastically derailed by a careless GM who hasn’t grasped the big picture of NPC motivations and the like.

    My own style when it comes to adventure writing is to think of a general situation (often happens when I’m listening to a song, such as “Standing in for Joe” leading me to wonder what would happen if a PC was suddenly forced to impersonate Stalin or else be blamed for his death), jot down a few NPCs, then think about what the PCs would do. I like to think of a successful resolution, just so I know the characters can succeed, but it’s never the only answer and I’m happy for players to go their own way with the situation. My focus is on the overall situation, the characters involved and their motivations, and then a few possible set pieces or spanners to toss into the works as appropriate.

    I loathe statting up NPCs, creatures etc. If the system demands it then I’ll usually pinch a published character and slap a different name on it. Same with monsters: T&T uses a single number Monster Rating, so I’m happy with that; otherwise, if you’re up against, say, a smallish dinosaur and the game doesn’t include stats for it, then I’ll rebadge something similar (as in Weirdzone, where the dinosaurs used the stats for wolves). I’m really not terribly interested in the numbers, they’re not what players remember when they think back to a good game.

    • Posts : 7755
    • Treant

    I am woefully poor and lackluster at prepping for games – as anyone who listens can likely tell 🙂


    If I am running something pre-written, I will read it… If I am running something homebrew then I may just wing it as I go along… If you have ever listened to Rolemaster – that was basically me making it up as I went along 🙂 Yay for winging it 😀


    Hal :hal:

    Hafwit 2.0
    • Posts : 160
    • Orc

    I rarely run pre-written games, and I’m too lazy to do a ton of prep for a specific game. I usually make sure I have the stats I need and a bunch of names (those are hard to make up on the fly. You end up with something like Lolita High :D) as well as a general idea like BJB describes upthread. I like to start with some action if possible – something the players and their characters can’t ignore. 

    • Posts : 256
    • Thri-kreen

    I’ve only ever run pre-written games, and by nature they require less prep. Having said that, Wrath of the Righteous requires a certain amount of prep regarding importing maps, entering stats into NPC sheets on Roll20, organising tokens and handouts etc. That’s sort of an ongoing thing, as I gradually turn the Adventure Path into a digital version, and it can take up a lot of time, particularly if there’s an update or similar that requires me to rejig stuff.

    • Posts : 447
    • Thri-kreen

    If I run a pre-written game and want to stick closely to the text, then I do a lot of prep, making sure I understand what is supposed to happen at each encounter, what info each NPC is supposed to do/say, etc.


    If I don’t mind playing a bit fast and loose with a pre-written, then I do less prep, and don’t worry as much if I need to retcon something or invent new stuff to fix what I broke.


    If I run a game I wrote, then I probably did a metric crapton of research while writing it (you won’t believe the amount of research I did for the two Adventure! serial APs that have been released and for the one mostly written but with no current gaming group to run it for), but then during play, I play very fast and loose. Since its MY adventure, I don’t feel any sense of loyalty to run it “the way it was written”.  Does that mean I’m disloyal to myself, the author? 🙂

    • Posts : 57
    • Bullywug

    So one of the things I’m doing, since it’s a one-shot and the PCs are all City Watch officers, is trying to put together a variety of different short plotlines, any one of which they could follow to completion – some that have more combat and some that are more interactive and investigative. 

    When you write your own stuff, or add on to existing stuff, what type of gameplay do you look to add in? Do you make lots of side-quests, do you like an open-world feel to the game, or do you make one very linear storyline? Do you like lots of combat or do you do a variety of different kinds of gameplay outside of combat?

    • Posts : 1433
    • Owlbear

    When you write your own stuff, or add on to existing stuff, what type of gameplay do you look to add in? Do you make lots of side-quests, do you like an open-world feel to the game, or do you make one very linear storyline? Do you like lots of combat or do you do a variety of different kinds of gameplay outside of combat?


    I may end up repeating a little of what I wrote above but I will attempt otherwise. It does very much depend on the game I’m running but generally I prefer open world to linear and I view combat as an element of the story rather than the focus.


    In the 4E game, for instance, it was very much an open-world sandbox game most of the time. I had a plot that was inexorably ticking along and the players were directly tied to it, but it wasn’t completely dependent on them doing specific things. I let the players decide where they wanted to go based on a huge array of hooks. I also was familiar enough with my group from our mostly improvised MnM game that they would take off in completely unpredictable directions and so I had to be prepared for all sorts of things. Some of the best sessions we had were those where they did something unexpected. The absolute best session, perhaps of any game we’ve ever had, was one where there was only one single dice roll the entire night and it was a 50/50 roll a player made because he couldn’t decide on something. But, the system was also 4E so when there was combat I needed to have planned out the combat because monster stat blocks and interesting rooms in which to fight were a lot more complicated to improvise. What I would try to do is only force a combat if there was a solid reason and if it would make a difference to the plot or would provide an interesting set-piece or story beat. If you read my stalled writeups of the Worldbreakers campaign I have in my blog (link below) you can see sort of what I mean. If they wanted more combat I’d throw something together. If they subverted a combat, that was fine. 


    The only other campaign I’ve really sat down and written was the Cthulhu adventure. I very much wanted it to feature the investigative elements from the other games I’ve played and run that others had written so I spent a long time working out the details of the plot and then figuring out how people could discover these clues. This did force a linear progression of events into the story because there were some clues where, as much as I still tried to be open minded, simply could not be found unless the investigators looked in certain places. I tried to make sure nothing was completely obtuse and that there were proper hooks and side-quests to guide them. They stumbled around for a little while at one point because they missed a couple rolls and didn’t then try what I had thought was the obvious backup plan so I had to help them out a little down the road. As the story continues it does get more linear. Eventually they will have one path and they won’t want to go down it and yet won’t have a choice. It is delicious.


    I am both excited and terrified of my next adventure. It is going to be my attempt at a completely open world 5E adventure and I don’t have a concrete plot. I want it to be more episodic with short story arcs. I also am giving complete freedom to the players and what they face will depend entirely on where they choose to go. I’ll have some adventures prepped before hand, although I might have to scale the levels and difficulty depending on the order players do them, and then there will be others I’ll just have to make up. It might work, it might not. We’ll see.

    • Posts : 5728
    • Mind Flayer
    • Posts : 555
    • Gelatinous Cube

    My preparation is minimal now compared to what it was 30 years ago. I start with what ultimate goal is being attempted from friends and foe alike.   We play a session, I think about what reactions would occur from multiple points of view, throw in a bit of things that are not affected by what the character’s choose,  then repeat.  It feels organic to me.  I also enjoy retconning but it happens very rarely.

    • Posts : 5728
    • Mind Flayer



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