Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ensuring No Prep is Wasted Prep

This sprang out of a series of comments on Google+ on one of my posts. Basically, I said to offer rewarding hooks to the PCs if you want them to try new things. But the idea was at least partly rejected as being wasted work - why prep things no one wants?

Thinking it over I realize that fundamentally with a sandbox type of play, and with repetitive use of the same play area (game to game, session to session, campaign to campaign) that to my mind there is no wasted prep. No prep is unnecessary prep, if you know what to do with it when it gets "wasted." Even if the players don't want to interact with the stuff now (or "ever"), it's not wasted if you know what you can use it for.

I think I feel this way because of the style of game I run - a sandboxy megadungeon. The PCs keep coming back to the same place, and if they don't go left today they might do it tomorrow. If they don't run down a tasty rumor this session, they might ten sessions from now. And if they do go too far in one direction I wasn't ready for, well, I have tool to quickly fill in the gaps. And I have clever ways to stall them without discouraging them from keeping on in that direction.

But what if the prep is for someplace the PCs never go, or for interactions the PCs don't intend to have? Or if you overdid the prep a bit, and went beyond a useful work:reward ratio. You started naming each goblin in the random patrol they might not encounter, detailed all the stock in the stockroom at the inn they'll never visit, or drew up dungeons in places they have no intention of going. Now what?

Repurpose - the first thing you can do is re-purpose the details. Find another way to use that prep.

Names for the goblin patrol? You can re-use those names when they capture a bunch of goblins.
Stock at the inn? Ready made list for the next inn they go in. Or the next stockroom they happen to duck into and search.
Dungeon all drawn up? File the names off (if they matter) and place it where they are going.
Diplomatic mission all detailed, but the PCs never meet them? This can suddenly become stuff found on the corpses of the dead diplomats when the PCs stumble across them.

Reuse - lot of prep is reusable prep, either in whole or in part. Monsters, treasures, NPCs, etc. - all of them are there to use again and again.

Dungeons can be re-stocked.
Monster encounters can be bypassed now, but then turn out to have important stuff people need later.
Diplomatic mission details can be re-used when the King keeps sending the same folks out to do his negotiating. They might not get met in play, but they can provide a steady background to setting by always being around and name-dropped by the GM in rumors and news.

Re-play - Even more simply, just keep running games on the same world. If every fantasy game you play is in Greyhawk, then "wasted" prep on the border wars in the region where you dungeon-bashing party simply raided dungeons is still good prep. It's now a rich background of events, with player-driven causes and ends, in a play area you can re-use with different players or the same ones playing a different style.

One of my gamers once played in a Rolemaster game set in a world that had been cataclysmically altered by a previous group of PCs. What made the world so fascinating for him to play (and me to hear about) was the trashed world had been trashed by the GM's previous group. Nothing felt forced, and the drive to investigate what the previous group did fed game play.

As low-detail as my own Felltower game's gameworld is, little bits keep emerging that make it a good place to set another Dungeon Fantasy game, or even a larger fantasy game if I ever feel like running one. So the little scattered stub ends that say "fill me in if someone cares to do this" make for a potentially richer play area sometime later. And even if they don't, the fact that these little bits (the cities of Cashamash and Molotov, the keep on the borderlands, names of holy inquisitors, hints of other dungeons) make the world feel deeper, richer, and endless. And because I can re-use and re-purpose and replay, it really is all of those things.

That's why I feel like no prep is wasted prep, with this approach to the game.


  1. Once again, you hit the nail on the head. I try to get as much prep work done as I can before the game even starts. All of the fantasy games I run are set in the same world. Including the new megadungeon. Although I tend to run games set in the same time frame. More like re-starting a level on a video game, rather than having it develop over time.

    1. I wonder how common it is to re-set vs. set the game later in the same game world. I tended to the latter, and/or setting the game is a nearby but different section of the same game world.

  2. I am a "by the seat of my pants" kind of game master. I found that I make encounters more challenging if I improvise (prepared encounters end up as either a cakewalk or too hard), that my descriptions are more natural if they are made up on the spot, etc.

    This means that for me prep is more about getting a general idea of what things are, and compiling name lists. Oh, and obviously drawing maps, assuming I don't have a strong mental image of what the place is.

    1. I find I need more prep, but given a solid theme for the game, it's not hard to know what's the right thing to do for the game. It helps if you have a map though. :)

    2. Good post and I'm a bit like you, I tend to prep more than I need, then re-use bits of that later on if possible.

      At worst, I'll have one line somewhere for something. If it's a dungeon, I'll just assign numbers and at least put a couple words even if I don't into more details. Outdoor, I tend to just keep a table of possible events and depending on how the game is going, I'll use one. For cities, I try to keep rumor tables and a quick list of possible events as well. Nothing big usually but I try to write down all the little ideas somewhere.

      One thing I tend to overdo is battle maps preps. I usually avoid "just combat" for more meaningful tactical combat approaches and I love having thought out battle maps that provide options for players.
      Because of this, I keep tons of various battle maps design around, from wilderness setting to urban streets with multiple houses available, taverns, docks, etc.


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