GM Advice Full-time DM, Part-time Prep




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  1. #1

    Full-time DM, Part-time Prep

    I have a friend who has been thinking of building a campaign from the ground up, but he has recently had a baby and gone back to school. He has little time.

    Fortunately, I have been refining a style of DMing (and campaign building) over many years that requires--even encourages--minimal prep. I decided to type up a list of tips for him, and figured I may as well share them here, as well.

    If some of these concepts seem familiar to any of you, I wouldn't be surprised. One of my greatest assets as a DM is my ability to absorb good ideas from other DMs.

    So...

    How to build (and run) a campaign with minimal preparation:

    Lesson 1: Be organized.

    Lesson 2: Know the rules.

    Lesson 3: Reduce the bookkeeping.

    Lesson 4: Get your players to do the work.

    Lesson 5: Every element is an NPC.

    Lesson 6: Don't plot. Hook!

    Lesson 7: Never stat what you don't need.

    Lesson 8: Re-fluff and recycle.

    Lesson 9: Keep notes during play.

    Lesson 10: Don't use weird names.

    Lesson 11: Most battles should be skirmishes.

    Lesson 12: Listen to the players.

    Lesson 13: If the question is, “Can I do [something that's cool],” the answer is “Yes!”

    Lesson 14: Look everywhere for inspiration.

    Lesson 15: Encourage your players to develop background as you go.

    Lesson 16: Always build toward something.

    Lesson 17: Set the pace.

    Lesson 18: Embrace the surreal.

    Lesson 19: Trust your players to solve their own problems.

    Lesson 20: Name the party.

    Lesson 21: Be mysterious.

    Lesson 22: Make it personal.

    Lesson 23: Campaigns mean Change.

    Lesson 24: Monsters may wander, but encounters aren't random.

    Lesson 25: Get the dice to do the work.

    Lesson 26: Use your players' imaginations.

    ...So, this is my list of lessons for full-time DMing with part-time prep. Does anyone else out there have ideas or advice for campaign-building or running games with minimal prep?

    --Edit: Traveon Wyvernspur has attached a PDF of these lessons (current through Lesson 25) in this post, should anyone want a more-easily-printable version.
    Last edited by Rune; Saturday, 2nd November, 2013 at 03:54 AM. Reason: Update.

  2. #2
    Lesson 1: Be organized.

    There are a few lessons that I consider fundamental to this style of DMing; without them, you will find yourself doing preparation that does not need to be done, or even redoing preparation that you have already done. In order to cut your prep, you need to streamline as much of your process as possible, and that starts with organization.

    This may seem pretty obvious, but, if you intend to run a lengthy campaign, you should keep it all together, in one place. This is particularly important for the DM who has little prep-time, because such a DM is most likely to work on bits of the campaign in a piecemeal fashion, particularly if inspiration strikes unexpectedly. This is all well and good, but do yourself a huge favor and keep it all in one place! Commit to this before you even begin the campaign, and you will save yourself a lot of headache (and extra work) in the long run.

  3. #3
    Lesson 2: Know the rules.

    Maybe your players all want to play a light-hearted game and specific knowledge of the intricacies of the rules-set is not that important, because it just won't come up. That's great. However, all it takes is one rules-savvy player and your lack of knowledge is exposed. Does it matter? That depends on the player. The player might act as a repository of said knowledge in the game; if this is so, take advantage of this resource!

    If, on the other hand, the player is the type to look for any advantage he can get, your lack of knowledge has given him a pretty big one. In such a case, it is particularly important that you educate yourself.

    But it's important anyway. Why? Because the better you understand the rules, the more consistent you will be as the game rolls along and, believe me, if you are trying to streamline, consistency is your friend.

    If you don't like a rule, fine—don't use it. If you don't know every arcane minutia of the rules, that's okay, you can rule on the fly, and look something up later. But, the more solid your grasp on the basics (and the commonly used not-so-basics), the better equipped you will be to tinker with the rules, and to make consistent adjudications in play.

  4. #4
    Lesson 3: Reduce the bookkeeping.

    The last lesson kind of leads into this one. Take a look at the rules. There are probably several things that jump out as tedious and time-consuming. Can you ditch them? Do they need to be replaced with something? How can you reduce the bookkeeping load both for you and your players?

    Right off the bat, I'm going to throw a proposal out here. Ditch the Experience Point system. It is cumbersome and, frankly, encourages a style of play (that is, combat-driven) that will make your life more difficult.

    Some DMs simply advance PCs whenever it feels appropriate. If you would prefer a little more structure, however, I recommend advancing the PCs in level as they accomplish quests (say, 2 major quests, with 3 minor quests counting as a major). There is some degree of tweaking that you can do here, as well. For instance, if you want earlier levels to come quicker than later levels, you could add 1 major quest to the total needed every time a level is achieved.

    With this simple substitution, we eliminate the need to figure out how much XP a party earns, how to divvy it up, how many combats you need to plan for so the party can level, and how to advance the PCs if they take an approach that isn't combat. These things may not seem significant, but they add up, and they eat away your prep—and playing—time.

  5. #5
    Lesson 4: Get your players to do the work.

    Now that you've got an idea what kind of mechanics you're going to support your campaign with, it is time to start in on the setting. And, you know what? Your players can—and should—help with that. What you need to do is provide incentive to do so.

    This is how I do it: Whenever a player takes it upon himself to do something outside of the game that could potentially enrich the play experience (make a map, NPC, prop, or whatnot), I award a point that the player may use with any PC in any game I run to alter fate in some way--turn a hit into a miss or vice versa, turn a hit into a crit, throw in a plot-twist. This awards the players according to their initiative (as opposed to the PCs' initiative ) and has the added bonus of helping the entire party be more survivable (which, in turn, makes my job easier--it's like rewarding myself for getting them to do prep for me!).

    It comes down to this: The more minds that are excited about the campaign setting and actively working to embellish it, the richer it will be—and the less work you have to do to get it there, the better off you will be.
    Last edited by Rune; Friday, 3rd February, 2012 at 11:31 PM.

  6. #6
    Lesson 5: Every element is an NPC.

    Everything. That abandoned village the PCs just came across? NPC. The pile of loot they've been after? NPC. That forest fire bearing down on them? NPC.

    What does all of this mean? It means that a little personality will go a long way. The better your players remember things, the more sparse your notes can be.

    More importantly, if you are going to do as little preparation as possible, you will not have detailed notes on many of the elements in the game. Therefore, you need to make what notes you do have count. Think about these elements as characters and it will be much easier to bring them to life. As with any NPC, you should be thinking, “How will the PCs interaction with this character matter?” When you get down to it, that's all that ever matters.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rune View Post
    Lesson 4: Get your players to do the work.

    Now that you've got an idea what kind of mechanics you're going to support your campaign with, it is time to start in on the setting. And, you know what? Your players can—and should—help with that. What you need to do is provide incentive to do so.

    This is how I do it: Whenever a player takes it upon himself to do something outside of the game that could potentially enrich the play experience (make a map, NPC, prop, or whatnot), I award a point that the player may use with any PC in any game I run to alter fate in some way--turn a hit into a miss or vice versa, turn a hit into a crit, throw in a plot-twist. This awards the players according to their initiative (as opposed to the PCs' initiative ) and has the added bonus of helping the entire party be more survivable.

    It comes down to this: The more minds that are excited about the campaign setting and actively working to embellish it, the richer it will be—and the less work you have to do to get it there, the better off you will be.
    I used to award exp bonus's to players who did this in my long time ongoing campaign. I had a list of things that needed work as well as areas that players could create with minimal input from me that I would update as time went on, and it worked quite well (I always had final approval of course). Until... One of my players had gotten a new job assignment and he had a few weeks off of work between his old assignment and the start of his new one. Unbeknownst to me, he went to town. We played every other week and I showed up for one of our sessions and he had pretty much written a books worth of material. It was obvious he has put an insane amount of work into it and it was all really good and it was going to add a lot of really good and valuable material to the campaign, so there was no way I could renege on my ongoing rule. I reluctantly awarded him an insane amount of exp (we had a set formula for how much you got for what work was done). With the exp award he leapt ahead of everyone else in the group. and pretty much stayed ahead of everyone else for the rest of the campaign (several years).

    What I took away from it was we added limits to how much could be awarded at any given time as well as a maximum bonus you could receive based on the levels of other players.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rune View Post
    Right off the bat, I'm going to throw a proposal out here. Ditch the Experience Point system. It is cumbersome and, frankly, encourages a style of play (that is, combat-driven) that will make your life more difficult.

    Some DMs simply advance PCs whenever it feels appropriate. If you would prefer a little more structure, however, I recommend advancing the PCs in level as they accomplish quests (say, 2 major quests, with 3 minor quests counting as a major). There is some degree of tweaking that you can do here, as well. For instance, if you want earlier levels to come quicker than later levels, you could add 1 major quest to the total needed every time a level is achieved.

    With this simple substitution, we eliminate the need to figure out how much XP a party earns, how to divvy it up, how many combats you need to plan for so the party can level, and how to advance the PCs if they take an approach that isn't combat. These things may not seem significant, but they add up, and they eat away your prep—and playing—time.
    IMXP most players really want to receive XP points after every gaming session. But I agree that since they don't need to know how you calculate them, you don't have to calculate them by any rules, you can ad-lib your XP rewards based on how often you want them to level up.

    A couple of more ideas to consider:

    - I want my players to be focused on advancing the campaign plot (if any) and completing adventures. I don't want them to go looking for random encounters to level up and be stronger for the next chapter, in fact I prefer random encounters to be a punishment for wasting time. If you're of the same opinion, you may want to let the players know that random encounters and unnecessary combats (from the story point of view) will give them reduced rewards, maybe 50% XP and treasure, or something like that.

    - [WARNING: controversial topic] As as experiment, I would like to try a strange approach where I would use XP as a reward for players' efforts rather than achievement. Thus failing to defeat the BBEG in combat would still result in XP earned as long as the players didn't play poorly. The rationale for this comes from real life: we learn from our mistakes as well, not only from successes. In the game, sometimes the players manage to advance in the plot fast and avoid unnecessary combats, thus reach the BBEG when they are still too weak. Not wanting to downplay the BBEG but neither to force them to go something else for a while to "harvest XP", how about granting them XP even if defeated (assuming survived, of course)? After all, if the fight proved too hard to be won without sheer luck, this can be interpreted as "the goal has shifted from defeating the BBEG to surviving the encounter", so you're still technically handing out XP for achieving the goal At the same time, treasure can still used a a reward for in-game achievements such as actually defeating the opponents.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Li Shenron View Post
    - [WARNING: controversial topic] As as experiment, I would like to try a strange approach where I would use XP as a reward for players' efforts rather than achievement. Thus failing to defeat the BBEG in combat would still result in XP earned as long as the players didn't play poorly.
    That's fine IMO, as long as you don't allow 'farming' of the same unkilled foe. I'd typically give around half XP if the PCs fought well but had to retreat. Giving XP as for a 4e skill challenge would work, too.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Li Shenron View Post
    IMXP most players really want to receive XP points after every gaming session. But I agree that since they don't need to know how you calculate them, you don't have to calculate them by any rules, you can ad-lib your XP rewards based on how often you want them to level up.
    This is why I shared my formula. Once you realize that XP can be handled as a % of level progress times 1000 times party level, you can skip the encounter counting and just hand out a portion of a level's advancement.

    Quote Originally Posted by Li Shenron View Post
    - I want my players to be focused on advancing the campaign plot (if any) and completing adventures. I don't want them to go looking for random encounters to level up and be stronger for the next chapter, in fact I prefer random encounters to be a punishment for wasting time. If you're of the same opinion, you may want to let the players know that random encounters and unnecessary combats (from the story point of view) will give them reduced rewards, maybe 50% XP and treasure, or something like that.
    one way to do that is to not hand out XP for encounters, killing, treasure or skill usage. Instead, hand it out by achieving PC/party goals (which might be defined as quests/plots depending on style).

    If the PC wants to explore and clear out a 1st level dungeon, that's 500XP. If they want to become sherriff (possibly broken up into steps), that's 2000XP total.

    By giving out XP for job completed (or steps of job completed if you can break it down that way), the methods used by the PC are his own business. Plus, you don't have to add it all up or reward "wasteful" work that would get him more XP the old way.

    I wouldn't fully worry about S'mon's point on re-defeating the same bad guy (farming). Batman captures or defeats but doesn't capture bad guys all the time. He still gets better at his job each time (if it were an RPG). It's in the comic genre that heroe's don't kill, and they often face the same foe repeatedly.

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