Approaches to prep in RPGing - GMs, players, and what play is *about*

Well, don't know about them games.

The OP mentioned the long, hard work a typical GM puts into making the setting of an RPG. While the players just relax and make a single character.

So if you reverse that, each player will do the long, hard work, and the GM will make just one single simple thing.
Or everyone will put in about the same amount of work making about the same amount of game stuff and the GM will at least in principle have more bandwidth available to run the game and make appropriate and engaging decisions. That's been closer to my experience.
 

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backstory, goals and commitments, relationships,
Yeah, try a game like Blades in the Dark. It's setting is actually fairly well defined but the characters really drive play and have plenty of hooks.
It's hard to completely extricate character from setting; that backstory, those commitments and relationships don't exist independent from setting. BitD is a good example of this, in the sense that PCs start out with mostly nominal connections to the world, and as the GM pulls on those they bring elements of the setting forward ("paint doskvol with a haunted brush").

That said, there is a certain tradition within dnd/trad gaming that is more about comprehensive world building either as its own fun or because it's what someone needs to feel confident or on the off chance that it will affect the PCs. Personally I don't have time for that kind of setting density anymore.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
It's hard to completely extricate character from setting; that backstory, those commitments and relationships don't exist independent from setting.

It isn't hard at all. Simply put the characters in some place distant or otherwise inaccessible from the location of their origins.

I'm running The Wilds Beyond the Witchlight right now. Play starts in a carnival, and quickly moves to the Feywild, with no expected contact with the rest of whatever setting(s) they start in.

I'm playing in a Rime of the Frostmaiden game. It is set in the Ten Towns in Icewind Dale of the Forgotten Realms. All action of the game takes place in Icewind Dale. The rest of the world might as well not exist. The character I'm playing isn't from the Dale, so he's had no contact with any of the material of his backstory. And I'm perfectly fine with that. The character can be who he is, without that past being explicitly part of the current events of his life.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I'll compare two games I played in and the two characters I played to kind of show what kind of contrast there is between different types of games.

D&D 5E- Malacus
Race
Eladrin
Class
Wizard
Background
Anthropologist
Personality Traits
I prefer the company of those who aren’t like me, including people of other races. I would risk life and limb to discover a new culture or unravel the secrets of a dead one.
Ideals
Discovery. I want to be the first person to discover my lost culture.
Bonds
I have a trinket that I believe is the key to finding my long-lost society.
Finree of the elves of the Gnarley Forest told me about the denizens of the Temple of Elemental Evil and how they had learned how to travel the planes. The area has grown dangerous once again, and she cautioned me to be careful. She also asked me to find two missing elves, Lady Talafi and Sir Juffer, and I swore I would do so if possible. She directed me to Black Jay, an elf-friend in Hommlet who may know more about the missing elves.
Flaws
My search for my lost lineage sometimes makes me blind to other things.

So the gist for this character is that he's an eladrin, the last of his tribe or community still on Oerth, and his people somehow disappeared long ago. He's studied all kinds of cultures and has now gone out into the world, to the Village of Hommlet to investigate strange happenings there. He believes that his people may have been involved in the Battle of Emridy Meadows, which ended the original threat of the Temple years ago. The bond above in italics was one given to me by the GM.

So far in play, I have indeed found and saved both Lady Talafi and Sir Juffer. There has been no mention of my lost people. The GM has looped in some of the bonds of other characters in a more meaningful way. My guess is that such aligned more directly with existing suggestions on how to hook characters into the events of play. Otherwise, my background and BIFT choices have been little more than triggers to get inspiration, and to kind of define how I play the character. Play has been about the situation with the Temple, with the PCs investigating it and then delving into the Temple itself to fight the dangers there.

Blades in the Dark- Jesper "Risk" Kellis,
Playbook: Lurk
Heritage: Akorosi, born in Doskvol
Background: Noble- scion of a minor house
Friend: Roslyn Kellis, a noble (his cousin, and the one member of his family that knows his secrets)
Rival: Darmot, a Bluecoat; Later- Lilith, a demon of lust
Vice/Purveyor: Obligation/ family- must attend family functions and meet family obligations in order for no one to ask questions about what he does in his free time; Later: Stupor/ Pux Bolin at the Harping Monkey in Nightmarket

Risk is a minor noble, who wants to avoid entering the real world, and so has remained a perpetual university student. However, he's recently gotten involved in labor activism and become friends with some criminals. It turns out he's a natural at crime, and is an adrenaline junkie, so he's grouped up with a smuggling operation, Capable Carriages.

Throughout the campaign, Risk's family obligations were a constant entanglement for him. The struggle between remaining a criminal and still maintaining appearances with his family was ever-present. Eventually, because of the machincations of his rival, a Bluecoat named Darmot, his family realized what was going on and cast him out, and he had to find a new vice to replace that of his family. He turned to booze, and became a bit of a drunk. Around the same time, he learned that Darmot was possessed by a demon, and it was determined to destroy him. He and the crew took down Darmot, but then Lilith starting possessing others and complicating Risk's life. This left Risk paranoid, and had him questioning his decision. He saw the impact that violence had on others, and it started to take a toll on him. Ultimately, Risk's father was killed, and it turned out that the family had been involved in some shady dealings, and his mother asked him to return and take his place with the family. Risk agreed to do so, with the caveat that he was allowed to do so his way. With his allies, he managed to keep his family safe and fend off their troubles, while also expanding the criminal enterprise of Capable Carriages. When we stopped play, we had manipulated events so that Risk was going to gain a seat on the city council in exchange for resolving some major issues. It seemed a pretty suitable closing for the character given that his initial stance was to avoid any responsibility.

********
So two different characters in two different games. One, D&D 5e, is very much about the setting and the initial situation established by recent events. I would describe it as a site-based adventure. Very little about my character drives play in any way. The meaningful Bond that I have was given to me by the GM. Blades, on the other hand, was very much about Risk (and the other characters). Events revolved around them and their circle of friends and family, and their goals. Character is always driving play, and the players offer the GM lots of material just via character creation.

I wouldn't say that making either character was more difficult than the other. Both are reasonably simple. In both cases, I did about as much work as I did above typing their summaries. The most complex thing about the wizard was selecting spells, but for a first level character that's not really that tough. Neither required pages of backstory, or crazy amounts of effort by me as a player.

The idea that participants in an RPG need to do all this effort before hand is not a universal truth. It's a choice we make. Some games will require more than others, but even the most prep-intensive games don't require the amount of effort that's often sited in these discussions.
 
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hawkeyefan

Legend
My players would have none of that. They always seem to want to be carried along by the story than make it themselves.

Do you think that's a preference of theirs? Or more of an expectation based on past experience?

I always think of this topic as a chicken or egg type situation.

I like the idea of making stories around the PCs, but getting the players to make the hooks might be a problem.

Why do you think it would be a problem?
 

I wouldn't say that making either character was more difficult than the other. Both are reasonably simple. In both cases, I did about as much work as I did above typing their summaries. The most complex thing about the wizard was selecting spells, but for a first level character that's not really that tough. Neither required pages of backstory, or crazy amounts of effort by me as a player.
I wonder if we both read the same OP, or did you have like a long private talk about this that your responding too?

So for a traditional game, the GM takes hours/days/a long time to make a game setting. It's a LOT of work. A player, on the other hand, makes the tiny amount you posted above. Maybe ten minutes of work for a good player. And that's it.

But on TOP of that, the player casually comes to the game with their paragraph or two and say "here GM, MORE work for you as I want you to add ALL of this to the setting". Then the player just sits down ready to play.

It's the classic group project, the GM does 99.99% of the work, the player maybe does .00001% and then the player wants full shared credit for the "shared setting".

-----------------------------------------
So, the OP is talking about taking all that work away from the GM. Having the players do the TON of work. But that is not the example your giving?

The idea that participants in an RPG need to do all this effort before hand is not a universal truth. It's a choice we make. Some games will require more than others, but even the most prep-intensive games don't require the amount of effort that's often sited in these discussions.
I guess you could provide an example of this no prep game type?
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I wonder if we both read the same OP, or did you have like a long private talk about this that your responding too?

Perhaps you missed the below passage? It's largely what I took to be the point of the OP.
Instead of the setting as the source of situation, look to the character as the source of situation. So responsibility for prep shifts from the GM (with their setting) to the player (with their character). The player needs to set up a character that has hooks - backstory, goals and commitments, relationships, etc - from which situation naturally flows. This player prep (which need not be particularly onerous) provides the content and context that the GM draws on to frame situations and consequences. On this approach, setting - rather than being primary - becomes a secondary or tertiary concern: it is a byproduct of the creation of characters and the framing of them into situations.

And maybe you missed this bit at the end where @pemerton specifically tagged me, in reference to the thing I then posted about?
(I'm also tagging @hawkeyefan because of some things he posted recently about playing in The Temple of Elemental Evil.)

So, biased though I may be, I think my post was pretty relevant.

So for a traditional game, the GM takes hours/days/a long time to make a game setting. It's a LOT of work. A player, on the other hand, makes the tiny amount you posted above. Maybe ten minutes of work for a good player. And that's it.

No. For a traditional game, the GM may take hours/days/a long time to create the setting. It may be a lot of work. But that's a choice. It does not have to take that much work. I used to prep very much along the lines of what you're describing, but over time I have moved away from that. My trad games have significantly less prep than they used to.

It's a choice to put that level of work into the game. I wouldn't like to hold my choice over others' heads. I don't think it's particularly healthy for a group of people to have that level of imbalance in their time spent on a leisure activity. Not unless the GM really loves to do all that prep and isn't going to shame others for not doing as much. Nor do I expect for players to put in a ton of prep ahead of time. I want them to be engaged in play while we're playing... what they do before we play, I really don't care about.

But on TOP of that, the player casually comes to the game with their paragraph or two and say "here GM, MORE work for you as I want you to add ALL of this to the setting". Then the player just sits down ready to play.

Well, I don't see how a couple paragraphs would be all that difficult to handle, but even still... there's a way to avoid this. That's to make the characters and the setting together. Don't make all these decisions in a vacuum, either as player or GM.

Collaboration... work on all this stuff together. Build the world and the characters as a group. Then everyone has a say about the setting, and all the characters fit naturally into it.

It's the classic group project, the GM does 99.99% of the work, the player maybe does .00001% and then the player wants full shared credit for the "shared setting".

That's not the way it works at my table when I GM, even when I run trad games like D&D. Other games do a lot more to make this possible. Plus, I don't really care about credit.

So, the OP is talking about taking all that work away from the GM. Having the players do the TON of work. But that is not the example your giving?

No, that's not what the OP advocated for. See the section I quoted above.

Yes, he said to shift some of the effort from the GM to the players. But he also pointed out how it need not be onerous.

For the Blades in the Dark character I shared above, I did pretty much the minimum required for character creation, and the GM took those decisions and used them heavily in play. Those things then triggered other events in the fiction, and had ripple effects. The game was very much about the characters involved. The GM didn't do any more prep for the game than being familiar with the game, and the setting, and then looking at the decisions we made as players.

I guess you could provide an example of this no prep game type?

In recent threads, I have offered several. So have others. The ones I've mentioned most are Blades in the Dark, Spire: The City Must Fall, and Stonetop, which is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, meaning derived from Apocalypse World. That game, Apocalypse World, is a major work in character-driven play, though there are other games that did so which predate it. But it did so in a clear and intentional manner, and it spawned a whole school of game design.

When these games get mentioned, you typically just say "I don't know that game" and then go back to your assertions that "GMs must do X amount of prep" and "players will barely ever bring anything to the table" and so on. But we've been telling you that, while that may be true for the way you play, it is not a requirement for all play.
 

When these games get mentioned, you typically just say "I don't know that game" and then go back to your assertions that "GMs must do X amount of prep" and "players will barely ever bring anything to the table" and so on. But we've been telling you that, while that may be true for the way you play, it is not a requirement for all play.
Well, I don't know anything about the games....so what can I say. From what gets posted it's just like "well the game is great always and we have no problems and it's amazingly great with no effort at all". So, ok, if that is true....I still don't know anything about the game. So no comment.

And I don't see anything new? The statement is the player can make a paragraph or two of stuff....the DM makes hundreds of paragraphs, and oh, for more work the GM can add the players paragaphs into the game too. That is how many have played RPGs for decides. It's nothing new.

And sure it's great in a game when a player adds things like the classic LOTR one of "oh my character is a secret king" and the player just sits there, does nothing, and then tells the GM "king me, as I wrote it down".
 

pemerton

Legend
It's hard to completely extricate character from setting; that backstory, those commitments and relationships don't exist independent from setting.
At the risk of being gauche, I'll repost a bit from the OP:
Instead of the setting as the source of situation, look to the character as the source of situation. So responsibility for prep shifts from the GM (with their setting) to the player (with their character). The player needs to set up a character that has hooks - backstory, goals and commitments, relationships, etc - from which situation naturally flows. This player prep (which need not be particularly onerous) provides the content and context that the GM draws on to frame situations and consequences. On this approach, setting - rather than being primary - becomes a secondary or tertiary concern: it is a byproduct of the creation of characters and the framing of them into situations.
For instance, in the first Burning Wheel game that I GMed, one of the players, as part of the build of his wizard PC, gave him a 1D affiliation with a sorcerous cabal. That established the existence of the cabal within the setting.

The same player also (i) chose the Rogue Wizard lifepath - which sits within the Outcast "subsetting" for Lifepath selection - and (ii) gave his PC a relationship with his older brother and (iii) wrote up, as part of his PC's backstory, the circumstances in which he and his brother fell out while living together in his brother's wizardly tower in the wild hills. This established the existence, within the setting, of his brother, the tower in the hills, and the events of the falling out.

The setting is a byproduct of this creation of character. And is further developed in subsequent framing into situations - eg the player declares as an action a Circle check to connect with Jabal, a wizard of his cabal. I introduced Jabal's tower into play, and the henchman that he sent when the Circles check was a failure.

Characters (predominantly player-authored), then situation (GM-authored based around the player-authored hooks), then setting as a tertiary elements (generated by player decisions about character, GM decisions about situation, player contributions to action declarations, GM narration of consequences, etc).
 


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