The forgotten joys of high-prep gaming

edited February 2012 in Story Games
I played a lot of D&D in my day (Mentzer Red Box in junior high, AD&D 2e in high school, and D&D 3e for many later years), and I did lots of adventure prep - maps, monsters, treasure, all that jazz. It was often fun, but the older I got, the less time I had to do it.

Finding new-fangled low-prep/no-prep games a few years back was great; my gaming, in general, is more fun and less stressful. Even for games that require some prep, I'm pretty comfortable winging it.

This past weekend, a bunch of old friends got together for an epic D&D game (we played Dungeon World), and - for whatever reason - I reverted to my old habits. (I even got a little panicked about not having enough cool stuff and started a thread to solicit ideas.) I ended up with ten pages of adventure notes and monster stats, two different sets of mini-handouts for moves and questions, and a map that I re-drew because the first one didn't look cool enough. I totally nerded out.

And the game was really awesome.

All that prep made for a different experience. I didn't invent much of anything on the fly. I knew what the inn was like, who the townfolk were, what the wounded fae warrior in the forest had to tell, the bridges, the traps, the dungeon layout, the field of undead - the whole nine yards. I even wrote flavor text.

Having all that info let me bring more inventiveness to the actual encounters in terms of description.

Which is not to say that I plan to go back to this style of GMing. For one thing, there's no way I could spare the time to regularly prep for games like that. Plus I really like the make-it-up-as-you-go school of gaming. But I'm glad I put all that work into my epic D&D reunion game.


  • Oh, man!

    Whenever I play games that require (or even allow!) prep these days, I find I have one of two reactions:

    1. Wait, what? I have to do work before we even start playing? This is... odd. How did I do this before? Why is it necessary?

    and then/or

    2. Prep is a certain kind of joy, a fun activity of planning, plotting, and looking forward to seeing your contributions in play. Boy, it can be fun!

    So I'm with you. I love both very much.

    The only thing I don't like is games where the prep is likely to be wasted. That's a major drag, and likely to sabotage your game in insidious ways, I think. When I play a game, I want to know (whether from the book or from experience) what kind of prep will lead to fun in the game, and what kind is unnecessary or even harmful.
  • The prep wasn't really that fun. I mean, it was more fun than work usually is, but mostly I just did it because I felt like I needed to. But I'm with you on "seeing your contributions in play".
  • I am blessed with a D&D4E group that has a lot of buy-in, and I have come to enjoy the biweekly lonely fun of spreading out the megamat on the coffee table at home, taking up the wet-erase markers, and drawing to find out what happens.
  • Brian, my experience of running DL1 this past weekend was kind of like that. I even read some of the boxed text aloud!
    Posted By: Paul T.That's a major drag, and likely to sabotage your game in insidious ways, I think.
    For sure, and part of my auto-procrastination reaction when I have to do prep stems from this. But what if the PCs don't go in this direction? Will I subtly be tempted to railroad them? Etc.

  • edited February 2012
    I think part of what makes all the various games that are "Powered By the Apocalypse" so great is that they work equally well with no prep, with a little prep, and with a whole lot of prep. There aren't many games so versatile.

    But yeah, I do find a certain enjoyment in preparation for my bi-weekly Pathfinder game. I'm using a published Adventure Path, but it still requires a lot of advance reading, note-taking, map-drawing (I use gaming paper and draw all the combat encounter maps ahead of time), etc. I also cut and paste all my campaign notes and the relevant text from the adventure into a text-tree editor on my netbook for easy access during the game, and I kind of love that kind of menial computer task.
  • I think you just coined the phrase: "Nostalgia Prep".

  • I didn't feel like I did any railroading. But then again, when you're fully prepared to roll old-school, and there are "RUINS" labeled on the map, you make for them, because, hey, dungeon.
  • That's totally cool!
    Yeah, no one likes to have their contributions ignored, mocked, or shot down, so "no-prep" games are usually safer.
    But I've been running a mythic China game recently and, when I've got NPCs or locations that I've prepped, I find a way to work them in no matter what. It's been fruitful because
    • The NPCs and locations relate directly to the players issues
    • I make the players fill out note cards for things they want to see again
    • The Will of Heaven is a lot like a big, soft, mythic Rail-Road of coincidences, which works because
    • We stick to genre expectations and play off of them
    Are you getting something similar?
  • Actually, I came up with a bunch of townfolk and monster encounters that never even came up. Which I was expecting, since I wrote up so much stuff, I knew they'd never have the time to interact with all of it. It's like a little TSR boxed set, with all kinds of NPCs waiting around to deliver their line.
  • Haha, that's cool too. NPCs have important stuff to say!

    Did you find ways of working their information in anyhow?
    I mean like, in the specific instance that follows, what are your thoughts?
    • A nasty mechanical tiger guards the cave the players need to traverse. There's an NPC in town who repaired it once, and has something that can disable it. Otherwise, it's much too big for the PCs to handle and they'll just be retreating the whole time and trying to dodge it's wrath.
      So it would be really cool if they talked to people and gathered up some info and figured out an advantage, or else they're gonna get hurt bad.
    I understand that some people like this kinda thing, in that it is a satisfying chain of events either way. Find info? Gain advantage! Charge in? Get hammered!
    But sometimes that kind of prep leads to bad feelings. Where is the line? I mean, if the GM expects the PCs to investigate, is it fair to get sore if they ignore the "cool NPC with stuff to say"? Is it all in the expectation and not the execution?

    I'm jealous of having such a fleshed out world though! Monsters that the PCs don't encounter? Events that they can engage or ignore? Cool! Maybe my problem is that I get too invested in prep. I worry about making each thing introduced carry an emotional pay-load, which isn't probably the healthiest thing to do.
  • I got Adventurer Conqueror King. I have a pile of graph paper. I am planning on world-building and putting together dungeons and I will most likely never run a campaign of it (but maybe I will!)
  • Bret, I'm in the exact same boat! Though I'm running a dungeon someone else built and focusing on a very small area around it. Time enough to expand later. :)

    I can only say that you need to grab some players and get them to roll up characters ASAP! Don't waste the enthusiasm!
  • Oh my final statement about it that I totally forgot to write was that high-prep as lonely fun is a thing I'm totally rediscovering with OSR stuff. I might run it at some point but I have too much on my plate right now, so I'll just draw some maps.
  • One thing I really like about writing Dungeon Starters is the fact that I can spend as much free time as I have doing the prep (lonely fun!!!) but, ironically, it's with the goal of creating something that will ultimately be used to avoid prep and that will be robust against sabotaging the game. Making them is high-prep, using them is no-prep.
  • My neurosis is that no one will like or believe my prep.
    I play Diaspora and we create everything there at the table; it becomes real.
    I just got Stars Without Numbers, Red Tide and Adventurer Conqueror King. I read them and go "wait... I'm supposed to prep alone?" There's just something so weird about that, like rolling the dice behind the screen almost (which I never do). With ACKS in particular I had expected rules for starting play with blank paper, rolling and consulting tables as the PCs move in the world.

    I've got a very fast imagination (not saying that what I come up with is good, just that it is more or less the same regardless of if I take my time with it or just throw things out there at the table) and I'm also concerned that the players won't believe my prep, that they'd think I'm winging it as usual.

    Thirdly: if this story is to be about the world, and not the player characters lives, isn't it a bit strange that I as GM is writing it all beforehand? My world becomes a novel that the players read by visiting its locations. They can find the hidden room or they can miss it, but... they'd be experiencing my show.

    That's how it used to be all the time (winged or prepped, it was "enter the GM's world") but I wanted to find a new way of working. Maybe that's futile and I should just get back on the OSR bus.
  • I think inventing together at the table is great, and it's my preferred way to play.

    But inventing beforehand and revealing is also a fun experience, as long as you're entertaining and engaging the other players and not boring the crap out of them and making them read pages of notes. (Here I am looking squarely at my 23-year-old self. What were you thinking, 23-year-old self?)
  • Posted By: Brian MinterBut inventing beforehand and revealing is also a fun experience, as long as you're entertaining and engaging the other players and not boring the crap out of them and making them read pages of notes. (Here I am looking squarely at my 23-year-old self. What were you thinking, 23-year-old self?)
    YUP. Definitely my 17-23-year-old self too.
  • Posted By: Brian Mintermaking them read pages of notes.
    Ah, no, nothing like that. But making my own monster list (well, porting from a non-D&D–game) and lair encounters and dungeons and drawing my own map and things… it does seem a bit focused on my dreams.
    Things will be random tables and hexcrawling and dungeon crawling, no background notes required.
  • edited March 2012
    I was a much more grievous offender. For every new campaign, I'd put together this elaborate setting document, with maps and political factions and named dragons and ALL THAT SHIT, and one dude (Troy!) would read it and incorporate it into his own equally lengthy character backstory*, and everyone else would show up for the first session and be like "My dude's a ranger. Let's get going. Your email said something about a haunted forest, or something, right?"

    * Worst of all, I never finished reading Troy's lengthy character backstories, because who has time for that?
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