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Tabletop Takeaways: Prepping for Your Roleplaying Games

Found on Paizo Blog

Recently there was a discussion on the Cannon Fodder show for the Glass Cannon Network, talking about the time that it takes to prepare for your tabletop roleplaying game sessions. The main point revolved around the intense time investment to actually prep for a session, and I wanted to share my thoughts on this since I’ve evolved as a Gamemaster over time.

Troy, the Gamemaster for the Glass Cannon Podcast: Campaign 2 – in which they run the Gatewalkers Adventure Path by Paizo Publishing, mentioned that he would spend upwards of 6 hours preparing for each episode of the podcast, which runs for roughly an hour of actual gameplay, give or take.

First of all, I understand the difference between running a game at home with your friends versus coordinating a video and audio experience for a bunch of listeners. That is not lost on me at all. However, 6 hours of preparation seems astronomical for that long of gameplay, especially if you’re doing that every week.

I ran a Rise of the Runelords campaign over the course of 3+ years and I don’t think I ever approached 6 hours of prep for a 2-hour session. However, I definitely did spend a lot more time early on compared to the amount of time as the campaign hit the halfway mark and, eventually, the endgame. So what changed?

Prep Smarter, Not Harder

Especially when you’re talking about a pre-written Adventure Path, the initial preparation is bound to be longer. You want to understand the broad scope of the story starting out so that you can plant seeds, provide foreshadowing, and give context for the motivations of the various NPCs. Reading through the books one time is a must, but from then on you can mostly use the summaries at the beginning of Paizo’s APs for reference.

From there, you really only need to focus on the current book and the immediate future. There’s no sense in agonizing over minutiae of what’s likely to come hours and hours from now because the actions of the players could totally invalidate things that you’re sweating over.

Instead, before each session, I would think about a couple of options that the players might end up taking. This is generally easier than it would seem. Maybe they’re already mid-combat, and you have a feel for how long combats of this difficult normally take. Or perhaps they’ve been given a quest or directive, so you just need to know the steps of how that might play out.

The hardest preparation is when you’re dealing with a sandbox environment, where the players could go in a multitude of directions. Technically they always can, but when you’re running a pre-written adventure there should be an understanding at the table that you’re all working on progressing that story.

With sandboxes, again there is this idea of narrowing down the scope of your preparation. You are the Gamemaster! You can prep a handful of things and then nudge them in certain directions with either an NPC’s actions, global events like commotion happening, or put a ‘Closed’ sign on a shop window.

Image from Paizo’s Dark Archive.

Experience is King

Perhaps the factor with the biggest impact in allowing me to cut preparation time was experience. The more that you GM, the more you’ll be able to improv certain things or focus on aspects of the game that enhance the player experience beyond the pre-written module. This means incorporating flashbacks or set-pieces that the players have prepared that showcase backstory or little vignettes that bring your table to life.

Some people focus a lot of their preparation time on monster/enemy statblocks and abilities. Over time this gets easier too. Paizo is really good about putting in typical turns for how enemies will react and act in a combat, so use that to your advantage.

Even when it comes to preparing NPCs, I keep it very simple. What are their key motivations and what are a few things that flesh them out as a person? For example, I might know that the blacksmith is primarily known for their unique forging ability which allows them to temper weapons more efficiently than anyone else in the vicinity. They might have bushy mutton chops that he obsessively maintains and a ‘pet’ squirrel that constantly annoys him at the forge. Boom. In a matter of a minute or two, I suddenly know more about how I want to portray this character to the party, and have a funny little scene in mind where the squirrel interrupts whatever conversation they might have.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

One of my most important tips is that you can always keep things waiting in the wings. Even if you prepare for something that doesn’t come to pass, you can always reskin and repurpose that to use elsewhere. Because guess what? Your players won’t even know the difference!

Whether it’s a monster that you can tweak into something else or a little sidequest that was never introduced, you can shuffle things around and use them another time instead of throwing them on a scrapheap. You’ve already prepped it, so why prepare something else?

I do this ALL THE TIME and it saves me a lot of headache. Part of the stress of a newer Gamemaster is that they prep for all of these things and then only a sliver makes it to the table for that session. This alleviates that fear and lets you operate in the present in a more carefree manner.

Prep Easy, Rest Easy

And those are my main tips for you! Yes, they’re fairly generalized but my main point is that being a Gamemaster doesn’t mean you have to spent gobs of hours preparing for every session. My prep time for games like Blades in the Dark was down to about 15 minutes, and most of that was just generating a list of various setbacks and consequences that I could spring on the players. For Pathfinder 2E, my prep was under a half hour: a cursory glance at statblocks, reading ahead a few pages, and making sure the Virtual Tabletop was loaded up.

Cutting down on preparation time is key to keeping your sanity as a GM, and gives you more freedom and flexibility to curate your prep into enhancing the game experience for your players. Because when you prep easy, you rest easy.

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