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Dr Berry
03-08-2010, 05:29 PM
I recently re-adopted a policy of mine on DMing. A couple years back, I was always pressed for time, so I would spend literally zero time prepping for sessions. It was all 100% improv. For a while after that, I began carefully preparing every session, writing extensive flow charts and stats for everything. Here are the pros and cons of each:

Improv
Pros:
-There is no such thing as a railroad plot. Players do whatever they want.
-More fun for DM, has to think on his feet
-Freedom to alter storyline at any time to fit situation
Cons:
-Encounters are haphazard and ill-prepared for
-Can easily run into dead ends
-Challenging for non self-motivated players

Rigorous preparation
Pros:
-Encounters run smoother
-DM has many known contingencies
-Players feel definite purpose
Cons:
-Prone to railroading
-Time consuming
-Less DM involvement in-game

I am now running an adventure that combines the best of both, with a fully mapped campaign world that the PC's can explore at will. It is the most rewarding style of play for me because it allows players total freedom over what they do and where they go. Here is how I have run things so far:

-Stock characters. Have stats on hand for a variety of generic characters (peasants, courtiers, soldiers, bandits, etc.)
-Multiple adventure seeds. Have an idea for every region of your world, and keep it in mind in case the PC's go there
-Write the world first, then put the players in it.
-Jot down on-the-go encounters that the players might meet, and familiarize yourself with a couple of them.

This method involves way more prep time at the start of the campaign, but it makes it possible to show up with only minutes of preparation before each session.

Where do you fall between the extremes of improv and preparation? What techniques would you recommend for your particular style?

Hiraevun
03-08-2010, 06:10 PM
Cool thread starter. I'm currently trying to balance my prep time/improv. When I started running my Dampbricks campaign (shameless link plug here (http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/dampbricks) :p), I spent hours and hours detailing the sewers underneath the district. Of course, my players had their own motivations and ideas, and the first session passed without them setting foot into the sewers. I was very disappointed and frustrated because I had spent all that time detailing material. The PCs did get the hint, though, and next game session they were down below the city with some railroading help delivered via worms bursting from the sewers.

In recent sessions, I've spent progressively less time preparing, and I've also been pulling back from the minute details and focusing instead on area encounter tables and NPCs. I know where I'd like the PCs to go, but recognize that they may go off in a different direction. Right now I have a couple of detailed "dungeon" areas mapped out. One is stuffed with content, while the other is just a map with a few notes on it.

When I was younger, I would spend hours upon weekends creating maps and adventures that were modeled after the published D&D and AD&D modules. That is also how I started with this campaign, although now I'm beginning to go light on the details. More maps, more encounter tables, more NPCs, but less planned/keyed encounters, seems to be the order of the day.

Also, I would like to work on anticipating PC actions based on their past actions. I hate getting backed into unplanned corners of my setting; more than once I've been unprepared for questions or requests for details. I know no matter how much I plan, that will always happen, so I suppose the key is developing the setting broadly, anticipating PC actions based on past actions, and being able to improvise convincingly in those uncomfortable moments when I don't have the answers written down somewhere.

Dr Berry
03-08-2010, 07:04 PM
Cool thread starter. I'm currently trying to balance my prep time/improv. When I started running my Dampbricks campaign (shameless link plug here (http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/dampbricks) :p), I spent hours and hours detailing the sewers underneath the district. Of course, my players had their own motivations and ideas, and the first session passed without them setting foot into the sewers. I was very disappointed and frustrated because I had spent all that time detailing material. The PCs did get the hint, though, and next game session they were down below the city with some railroading help delivered via worms bursting from the sewers.



Definitely a problem I had forgotten to mention! Careful planning doesn't seem so effective if the PC's never even find the detailed settings you build.

JediSoth
03-09-2010, 07:17 AM
I usually try to have the meta-plot planned, but keep myself open for the players to throw me a curveball now and then. For some reason, though, I'm really, really HORRIBLE at improvising during D&D games. The last time I had to improvise, I ended up sending the PCs to an area they were clearly too powerful for and spent the next three sessions trying to make that challenging.

Now, when I run Star Wars (at least, the D6 version) or Paranoia, I just have to have a barebones outline of major things I want to occur; I need very little prep time.

Maybe it's due to the fact that those other two games are simpler systems and more skill-based than D&D.

Skunkape
03-09-2010, 08:18 AM
I try to balance my campaigns with about 50% planning and 50% improv. I've found that you can't spend too much time preparing because the players will always do something you hadn't planned for.

Case in point, while this wasn't in my campaign, it was one I was playing in and is still talked about to this day, 2 to 3 years later.

We were a rag tag group of adventurers who were in the process of starting a rebellion against the group that controlled most of the civilized lands. As we were headed toward one of our destinations, we spotted a plantation. After having to deal with the paranoia of being hunted 24/7, we decided to avoid the plantation, figuring the owners would be in collusion with the enemy.

Needless to say, the GM had planned out a big session centered around the plantation, but being the good GM that he was, when we went the wrong way, he was ready to improv. We still had a great session, and eventually went back to the plantation, but that encounter was quite a bit different than what he had originally planned.

That kind of player activity is why I try not the plan to heavily for my games anymore.

The Magic King
03-09-2010, 09:07 AM
I am good at improvisation mainly because I am a very random person in everyday life. However, I find that outwitting the players is the real fun of being the DM. Therefore I plan extensively for my campaigns. The randomness of the players is really irrelevant so long as you understand the basic motivating factors behind human actions. People seek to acquire wealth, power, fun, and most importantly they seek to break free of controlling factors in their play times due to being fairly restrained by society in real life. Unfortunately for the DM, who happens to be the controlling factor in the game. This however can be countered so long as one uses subtlety, don't railroad the players. Let them take whatever course they wish, but their freedom is in actuality an illusion. As you, the DM, have already planned for every inevitability. That, for me, is the real fun of DMing the game, I get to be the real villain, the mastermind. The most important factor is getting to know the players so that you may know their motivations. If you know what makes them tick, they will dance on their strings without ever realizing they are puppets! BUWAHAHAHAHA!

Zugh
03-09-2010, 09:30 AM
I LOVE Stand-Up DMing. The first game I made, I took absolutely no time preparing. But it was still a pretty good game. In it, the PC's were prisoners for killing the king's daughter, but they escaped from prison, and after a very complex storyline, become the rulers of the Underworld. Many wonderful thing can happen from Stand-Up DMing.

But...

Preparing for a game can be critical. If you just make it up as you go along, it might not come out as good as you would want it to be. Preparing a game might take extra time, but it will make for an over-all better gaming experience.

my only problem with preparing a game is that it might lead to rail-roading. Just make sure that if you do prepare a game that you take the time to make it so that the PC's can have an impact on the game itself.

So, if I had to choose between the two... I couldn't. I love both styles.

The Magic King
03-09-2010, 10:06 AM
"Just make sure that if you do prepare a game that you take the time to make it so that the PC's can have an impact on the game itself."
-Zugh

This, I can't emphasize this enough. They impact the game world and they feel accomplished, but they are having the impacts that you want them to. Nothing is more fun than getting people to happily dance on the puppet master's strings.


P.S. BUWAHAHAHA!

Dr Berry
03-09-2010, 02:41 PM
I just experienced this issue in motion: I just DM'ed a session for my new Pathfinder group, in which they had started a revolt to overthrow the draft of the royal army. They had defended their town against their government for a while, but soon, their king decided they needed to be made an example of, and sent a large force to raze the town.

Now, the PC's were faced with certain annihilation, so they had to lead the townspeople to safety. I figured that they had three options: try to slip past the army and into hiding in the cities, retreat over a mountain range, or go through the surrounding swamps.

However, they decided they would rather travel through caves under the mountains (which I had not designed). I let them go with it, though, and improvised an entire dungeon, complete with a riddle I recalled on the spot. They told me it was their favorite session yet. Go figure :)

tesral
03-16-2010, 12:31 PM
I do both. Carefully prepare, and improve like crazy. Players will do the unexpected thing. The Good GM is like unto the Swan. Serene and graceful above, paddling like mad below.


Rules 4 and 4 from the Basic GMing Rules. (http://phoenixinn.iwarp.com/fantasy/GM-rules.html)

4: Keep encounters open ended
A) An encounter with one solution is bad. I do not write encounters with a solution in mind. I present the problem, and let the players tell me how it will be solved. Remember they are creative too. Use that.
B) Frustrated players are bad. Look back to the Rule of Yes. If your players cannot solve something because you wrote in a single solution they didn't think of, they get frustrated. This makes the GM look bad.
C) Use any reasonable solution, be open to solutions you didn't think of. As above, rule of yes and keep and open minds. You have one brain, your players have one each. Use the brains around you to improve the game.

5: BE FLEXIBLE
Don't script. Players will do the unpredictable. And that is that. You want north they go south. You have the old gypsy with the legend they visit everyone but. When that happens, punt. If an encounter is important, it can be fit in elsewhere. Only you know how the scenario is assembled. No one will smite you if you shuffle the parts. If the Vicar has the legend and not the Gypsy you don't loose GMing points.

cplmac
03-16-2010, 07:08 PM
I totally agree with the two rules above in Tesral's post. In my experience as DM, no matter how much you plan, there will always come a time when the party does something that you hadn't even thought of.

Arkhemedes
03-16-2010, 10:39 PM
I find that the real key to good preparation for a DM is not how much you prepare, but knowing what you should prepare and what not to prepare. In other words, don't waste a lot of time on things like plots and strategies (although a certain amount of this should be considered including a number of contingencies). Most of the preparation should be spent on detailing the possible NPCs and monsters encountered, as well as the maps that will likely be needed. These are the things that can't be memorized or made up on the fly with perfect sense or accuracy. The rest however, can be altered and revised as the game goes along.

Don't waste a lot of time on charts and encounter tables. Don't bother detailing the stats of NPCs unless its likely the PCs will fight them. Instead of rolling for random encounters during the game, roll them ahead of time, detail them as they will likely be needed and group them in lists where they will likely be encountered. As long as you know what motivates each NPC and monster all you really need to have written down on paper is their stats and abilities. The rest can easily be stored in your head and made up as the situation warrants.

PS. And to be honest, the vast majority of my time is spent writing a review of what takes place every week, to be read at the beginning of every week. It serves as a reminder to the players what the current situation is and sets the mood for the game. Plus, players love to hear about their exploits from the previous week and I like to record what takes place every week in case there is ever a need to know what happened a year ago, or whenever (It also makes a pretty cool story that I enjoy reading later on.).

templeorder
03-17-2010, 02:43 AM
Its gotta be an even balance. I find i like "campaigns" more for this as there is always several threads i can draw from to improvise and they are all tied together making it a cohesive experience. I can pick up one or easily attach some side trek easily if i track these well, and even the craziest improvisation seems to fit within the story. I've never rail-roaded characters - the second they feel like you are just telling a story and they are along for the ride, there's no reason for them to stick around. I know, i've left groups because of it (i even tried to kill my character and the GM would not let me!). You have to listen as a M though, and always provide a way out. If the PC's don't want to explore a path thread, do not make them. You must be creative enough to offer secondary ones and be prepared to "wing it" but make it look seamless. There's nothing worse than the players getting the feeling that no ones steering the ship - then it feels so random and the measure of progress becomes difficult.. interest usually wans after that unless the GM is really dynamic.

Soft Serve
03-19-2010, 09:32 AM
Rules 4 and 4 from the Basic GMing Rules. (http://phoenixinn.iwarp.com/fantasy/GM-rules.html)

lol 4 and 4.

I want to describe in detail at least one of both styles going wrong for me but this keyboard is horrible. I'll leave it for now on the note, I'd have to say 70/30. I plan rough outlines of encounters/advents and some contingencies but I let the players put me in the improv spotlight more often than some of my vet players are even used too. I'd give an example but this keyboard types like it's been on fire twice.