Friday, January 30, 2009

GM Prep: Using Three Things

In two posts so far, I've rambled around a little bit about the importance of GMs choosing where to put their energy-- especially in terms of preparation. I mentioned combat prep and a little bit about building background so it actually has an impact on players. I began considering this while mulling over the difficulties of a historical campaign-- including the level and kind of prep needed. In yesterday's post I mentioned the "What My Father Told Me..." structure which is an amazingly handy framework to use in game-building. It can easily be adapted and reworked for most campaigns. I have a number of other tools I use that have a better input (in terms of my work) to output (in terms of table time, enjoyment, utility, etc) ratio.

Let me preface this by saying I tend to run an interaction-centered campaign. I believe strong NPCs power a game. They move forward the plot, establish the scene, and provide challenges through conversation and questioning. I've been lucky to have great players who enjoy interacting with characters. I've also had a few players who find that less interesting or downright frustrating (I'll get to the topic of player needs and management in a later post). Generally my games are fairly freeform, in that while I do have a line of plot and event, I try to give players freedom to explore around and find their direction (my favored approach but one that does take careful watching to make sure that players do have a sense of the core direction-- something I sometimes forget).

The first prep technique I use is mostly for longer, ongoing campaigns rather than one-shots or mini campaigns. Generally before a session I have some sense of a couple of scenes I want to carry out-- a combat, the investigation, something the group has mentioned they want to do. These are the "collective" moments that move the grand gears of the plot forward. But I don't sketch out everything and I try not to write it all in stone. The trick is to be flexible and ready to roll with whatever choices the group makes. Usually I have a pretty good guess, in which case it is worth my time to sketch out those scenes a little bit. If I'm fairly certain and it will be a narrative centerpiece, then I put in more effort to develop detail. I also make a list of the major plot points or questions for the game-- I don't put any notes by these, but the act of remembering them and putting them down on paper helps me keep them at the top of my awareness when running. It means I'm more agile about tying those into what I'm doing.

But many of my sessions include time for the individual PCs to carry out their own agenda. If they have leads they want to follow, plans they want to carry out, people they want to talk to, I'll go around and deal with that. However, you can't count on everyone to have something in mind at the same time. My trick for preparation there is to make a list of three incidents for each PC. These are brief scenes I can throw at them. If I come to them and they show hesitation about what they're going to do or if they say something like "I'm going to study" that closes out the moment, I use these.

Here's an old example from the Arcane Rails campaign (6/03)

The Captain
1. Dealing with the fact of his impersonation
2. Captain Babcock-- invitation to be recalled
3. His former associate now a tool of Dr. Cross.

These were thread plot threads I'd either begun or was planning to begin with this character. In the first case, the Captain had learned that someone had been impersonating him back home and was making a reputation for themselves. I thought I might push the player into looking into that-- either suggesting it or mentioning he'd heard a new rumor regarding it. In the second case, this was a significant (and potential romantic interest) NPC for the character. He could encounter her and learn that she'd received an invitation to rejoin the Aeromilitary service from which she'd lost her command. This would potentially complicate their relationship and would also hint that preparations for war had begun in his homeland. In the third case, I'd engineer some revelation about another NPC who had been his right-hand man in the service. I'd set up the crumbs of the trail which could eventually lead him to discover this person now worked for the group's nemesis. All of these would be quick scenes, some advancing the plot more than others, but each giving the player a chance to have center stage.

Sometimes I'll put a little more detail in my notes, but generally I try to keep it simple. It does mean that on occasion when I go back later, I'm not sure what I was talking about. For example, from Libri Vidicos:

Sokka (6/1/07)
1. More notes from the Princess
2. Wickets and Imps
3. Mysterious Woman-- Hamhock assault

In the first case, I'd had this PC receive strange anonymous fan notes from someone. The mystery was half how they were getting into his room and half who the sender was. He'd get another note which might push him further into looking into the matter. In the second case, the PC is a member of his house's sports team which plays a game looking suspiciously like Qwidditch. I'd narrate a practice, maybe give some clues about what the upcoming team was like, or have him interact with one of his team-mates. In the third case...I have no idea now. Who was this mysterious woman supposed to be...and why was I so specific about an attack with a hamhock? Very odd.

The three options technique is useful as quick prep and filler and helps to me to remember the various hanging plot points. If I don't use some of them in a session, I'll carry them over (provided the circumstance for them hasn't expired) to a later session. In the meantime, because I've noted them, I've got them working in the back of my mind. I've had decent success with this technique-- it reduces downtime and "um, I don't know what should I do..." at the table and more importantly it allows me to look more prepared than I actually am. A GM has to maintain that illusion-- must be a good liar.

The second preparation technique I use is an obvious one: having pictures for NPCs. I tried doing a little of this maybe ten years ago-- scanning some images and using them to illustrate major characters. It worked, but putting things together was hard. Today it has become insanely easy to find good illustrations. The best places I've found are the forums at,, and video game rpg sites like I use a good quality inkjet printer to print out images onto 4x6 photo paper. I keep large index card boxes for the campaigns with likely images sorted in the boxes. You'll want to try to do some organizing as you collect images, otherwise you'll lose track of things. I tend to print out more images and put them in the boxes so if I want to throw a random new NPC at the group, I can quickly look through and find them.

-This is not necessarily a cheap approach. You need a good color inkjet printer. I like the Kodak Easyshare I'm using. The ink is fairly cheap and BestBuy has bundles with both the cartridges and packs of average quality photo paper for less than just the ink for other printers. I've also had some of the best customer service from Kodak. The two times I've had problems, they've immediately fixed them and included extra materials.

-There can be a significant up-front time cost in tracking down the kinds of images you want. You have to be less than picky. I tend to download anything that looks interesting-- later some of the seemingly less useful images will turn out to fit with what I'm doing. I try to find an excellent artist and then follow back to see what other kinds of work he or she likes. There's a kind of research trail there (like following back sources from a text).

-I prefer illustrations rather than photos. That's a personal preference. It obviously helps with fantasy games, but even for modern, I like the slight unreality a illustration gives. When I ran my Vampire campaign, I used photos but I took out the color, filtered and blurred them to give them a slightly darker tone for the game.

-If you look hard enough, you can find images for many different campaigns. For the Exalted campaign, I've put together illustrations with an Oriental or Wuxia flavor. For Libri Vidicos, I try to find images that have a hybrid look rather than "high fantasy". I also use Victorian and Steampunk style illustrations. For Changeling I've been able to find a lot of strange modern stuff, as well as casual portraits.

Despite the work, the payoff for doing this is pretty huge. I keep images for particular campaigns in their own photo book. Players can reference this at the table and I can use it to refresh my memory while doing prep. Just as different people learn differently (doing, seeing, hearing, etc), different players respond better to different cues at the table. Some are very good at picking up the verbal details, which is important since a tabletop rpg is primarily narrative. But others are visual learners in which case a picture helps to establish a memory. For all players the images deepen the visual cues-- the GM still has to describe the character, but can put additional emphasis on behavior, speech and attitude. Players will remember and been interested in NPCs more deeply by having images.

On the flip side, having images ready is an enormous aid in coming up with characters. I know Kenny's started to do this with his campaign. Our instinct as storytellers when we see an image out of context is to try to provide a story for that character. That's a great way to generate new ideas. I try to mix it up between finding images which fit NPCs I've already come up with and finding pictures that I have to make NPCs out of. You can find concept art for various rpgs showing buildings and locations-- these can also be easily worked in. I try to do this more sparingly and save them for really unusual locations that I want to have a greater impact.

The benefit gained from doing this lasts across multiple sessions, so your work has greater value. If you take the time to do some mass hunting, you can make it even more effective. I try to block out periods that I'm going to go searching or do printing of things so that I don't overdo it.

Tomorrow, my technique for mass NPC generation and how it helps shape the campaign as well as my stolen trick of the Trinity prep sheets.

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