Game prep is the single largest task of the Game Master in any RPG. If you want, you can write your own adventures and create your own campaign settings and all that, but regardless of what you construct yourself vs. use from another source, everyone has to prep game sessions.
I thought I’d give some insight into how I plan my campaigns, for those interested in running multi-year kinds of stories. I try to balance in the sweet spot of “sandbox enough that PCs feel like they can go anywhere and do anything” with “story enough that there is something actually interesting and compelling to go do.”
The overall trick is drawn from the project management world, it’s called horizon planning. Basically, you make rough plans for far in the future so you have a target, and have more specific preparations for more proximate activities.
I tend to separate the timeframes out into campaign, plot arc, adventure, and session.
For the campaign level, at start I decide what I’m interested in and survey the players and come up with a rough idea of what the campaign will look like, and run that by the players to get buy-in. In our Reavers on the Seas of Fate campaign, I pitched a pirate adventure/horror campaign with anime influence that would start out urban as a mix of Riddleport from Second Darkness and Freeport, move on to open seas pirate action, and then to the jungles of the Mwangi and other esoteric locations. The PCs signed off on that and submitted their ideas for cool stuff they’d like to see included, and I know things I’d like to put in. For campaign prep, I basically have all those ideas in a sheaf to draw from.
The three aforementioned legs formed my three potential major campaign arcs or “seasons.” I have a Word doc where I block out an arc and list potential published adventures and other things to include. It’s high level enough that it doesn’t change much but is very amenable to change when new stuff comes my way either through new content or player action.
The arc I’m in, I plan out the sequence of adventures more. In the first arc, the urban arc, I planned out that I’d use the first Second Darkness adventure, interleaving it with the Freeport Trilogy of adventures, and other stuff. I roughly blocked out, again in Word, what a likely sequencing would be. Some parts are more mandatory, like the culmination of the Freeport trilogy was intended as a significant plot point. Some are completely optional – “if they agree to go with Captain Clap and raid the island, use Mansion of Darkness.”
For example, my season one prep information for Reavers consisted of NPC writeups, handouts, and a list of probable adventures in rough order, like:
- Water Stop – while the PCs are sailing to Riddleport, they come across some escaped slaves on an island (use Water Stop from En Route II) and a goblin pirate ship (use the Sable Drake from Stormwrack).
- Cheat the Devil and Steal His Gold – the PCs get to Riddleport and visit the Gold Goblin when a robbery breaks out; use the adventure from Second Darkness “Shadow In The Sky.” Try to get them to join up with Saul.
Of course they may never use one or more of these, or react to them in a way that obviates the adventure – “Escaped slaves? We murder them all and sail off quickly!”
As the game progresses, I more frequently revisit this based on PC action, inserting, deleting, and reordering. “They want to go back to the island from Arm-Ripper? OK, plan that out…” This relies on a little give and take from the PCs. I don’t want to nail them down, but I like them to tell me what they’re thinking about doing as opposed to them just setting sail and making me guess where they’re heading. “We turn left and NOW WE’RE AT THE ISLAND AGAIN! Ha ha ha you’re not prepared.” My players are more than mature enough that doesn’t happen, though of course there’s always the chance when in town or whatnot that they decide to go stir up a major hornet’s nest I don’t have much on.
Handling The Unexpected
This is actually where a lot of the bulk my advance prep takes place. It’s easy to prep for a session you expect, but harder to prep for one you don’t. I make sure and have a raft of content around. For an urban setting, for example, I might go “light random generation and wing it” like with Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, or have Freeport: The City of Adventure (both versions) around to pull from. I actually do both, to use depending on my mood.
I have major NPCs pre-statted with contingencies – the main risk is that the PCs will say “that crime lord a-hole has been dogging us long enough, let’s go kick down his door and go all home invasion on him.”
Along those lines – I keep notes from old sessions and keep them around, and expand on them as needed. PCs are unlikely to go toss themselves through the window of a random bar, but they are very likely to do so with a bar they have been in before. I pay attention to throwaway stuff the PCs react well to – like recently, the PCs were trying to sell off some loot and the party halfling made good rolls to find them some perfect buyers. So they went into this little private bar to sell some cold iron weapons and found some very serious looking people with an obvious grudge against all things fae. I just made it up as an explanation for a high rate of return on selling cold iron weapons, but the PCs were intrigued. “We should go look up those racists again! They were cool!” Note to self, write it up and keep it on hand.
A given adventure may span one or less sessions, but more commonly it spans 2-4 sessions depending on its complexity and the PCs. Here, I may use a published adventure or not. I’m not going to say too much about prepping an adventure – if it’s published, I read through it, decide what I want to add, remove, or change, and consider how my PCs will likely react. If coming up with an adventure, you may need as much prepped as you’re comfortable with – if you are a super on the fly guy and you like coming up with whole dungeon complexes off the cuff with nothing but a random monster table, fine – if you need as much detail as a published adventure, write it down. Suffice it to say that you usually have a lot less control as to what part of the adventure the PCs will be doing in a given session, they may go anywhere, so you need near session level detail on the adventure. I tend to use little chunks from published things, write some myself, and fill in the gaps with random generation and improvisation.
I spend as much time prepping a session as the session takes to play. Our sessions are usually ~6 hours. Some adventures have more of a timeline and I can prep just the early part as a session; others (like a location-based dungeon) need several sessions worth of prep up front.
I keep a separate Word doc for each session, which also serves as notes afterwards. It usually spans 2-5 pages, depending on how much of the content is original vs. derived from a published product, and has three sections:
- Cast of Characters
Cast of Characters
I list all the relevant NPCs, good and bad, and named monsters that are likely to appear in the session. If “War2, ship’s carpenter” is enough information I put it inline; for major guys I have a reference – “see Denizens of Freeport p.76″ or an attached PDF, often generated from Hero Lab, with the NPC in question.
This is often a large part of the session writeup for me – I do very character driven stuff, and in this campaign the PCs often have NPCs along, have a ship crewed with NPCs, have various major NPCs involved with them or scheming against them. My philosophy is that if you have enough interesting characters, the adventures unfold largely on their own. As an example, here’s a partial list from my Cheat the Devil session prep sheet:
Bojask, Saul’s bodyguard (SS p.39)
Pigsaw, boar (SS p.40)
Marzielle Ajuela, firey part-time barmaid
Iecha, scullery maid – This lady reminds you of a crazed lunatic. She has almond-shaped eyes the color of fine silver. Her thick, straight, black hair is short and is worn in a bizarre style. She is short and has a busty build. Her skin is china-white. She has a large mouth. Her wardrobe is risque.
Angvar Thestlecrit, wizard robber
Thuvalia Barabbio, one-eyed robber
4 nameless thieves
Many are from the Shadow in the Sky adventure or the Gold Goblin location writeup; I reference or enhance as needed. That Iecha description is pasted from a random generator. I usually generate visual aids, too, with a picture for major NPCs and their name.
What’s probably going to happen, or could happen. I tend to keep this pretty bare bones, and refer out to set-pieces from other adventures or whatnot. From my Cheat the Devil session, here’s my adventure notes. It has some random things, and then a little info around the likely big fight from Shadow in the Sky.
- Meet Samaritha Beldusk at the Cypher Lodge, she can ID the wand the PCs found last adventure.
- Have people go to the Publican House.
- Have people go to the House of the Silken Veil. Shorafa Pamodae, Lavender Lil, and Selene will be here. Selene is already working there and wants Ox.
- Use Riddleport random encounters table
Go to the Gold Goblin and run Cheat the Devil, Take his Gold SS p.13
Robbery! SS p.16
Angvar: “All right, everybody be cool, this is a robbery!”
Thuvalia: “Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of ya!”
Blunderbuss 500 gp 1d12 3d6 19-20/x2 15 ft. 8 lbs. B and P
If they fight off the robbers, Saul asks them to join! Gives them vouchers for a trip to the Silken Veil if they haven’t gone yet. Run the Goblin, do beast fights, have random trouble.
That’s it. With NPCs and city setting information, that’s more than enough for me. Of course, getting all that stuff together and familiarizing myself with it takes a whole evening.
Here, I keep the notes from the session. They are short but keep the important parts – character interactions, places visited, things accomplished… Here’s an example notes section from the Cheat the Devil session:
- Wogan went to Kolter’s shop for powder and shot
- Selene seduced Ox
- Tommy solicited Lavender Lil
- Sindawe used in Infamy Point to do a stunt and KO Thuvalia
- Angvar and Thuvalia were caught alive and have been exiled from Riddleport
- Sindawe faces Zincher in the Gold Goblin
- Iecha starts in on Wogan but Ox intervenes, now she’s onto him
Of course, often I’ll prep a whole adventure as one session, and the PCs will only get through part of it. In that case I commute the unused prep to the next session and add extra prep if I think that’ll be required to fill the session – most things can stand more expansion!