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


I haven't yet played Burning Wheel, but it seems like a game that zeroes in more on who a character is than, say, Blades in the Dark. I've found the latter to be more concerned with what a character does, or wants to do, and the gm can pull on character relationships and so forth as things that might impede or facilitate those goals.
Well, the slogan for Burning Wheel is "fight for what you believe".

Character goals are a thing, because they can be one manifestation of "what you believe". (But Beliefs don't have to be goals.)

The system has mechanical devices for linking character goals to framing and to setting. I gave the example of a Circles check - the character wants to meet a helpful/useful/friendly NPC - leading to setting (including GM-authored setting in response to the failed check).

Another example: in one game my secondary character Aramina had as one Belief something like I won't END my career penniless and without spellbooks. I (the player) decided that Aramina had heard rumours of the tower of Evard the wizard being in the neighbourhood. I made a type of knowledge check - on Great Masters-wise - to see how reliable the rumour were. The check succeeded, so Aramina was pretty confident and she and Thurgon (my main character) headed to the tower. Of course the GM embellished it with other elements, including connections to the troubles in Thurgon's knighly order (Thurgon has a 1D Reputation Last Knight of the Iron Tower) and to Thurgon's family (Thurgon has a Relationship with his mother, and a 1D Affiliation with his family).

I mention this detail to further illustrate what I have in mind when I talk about Character => Situation => Setting. Burning Wheel is probably a paradigm for this approach, but I think it can be adopted in other systems too. I've used it in Prince Valiant, though not as consistently and with less "pointed" (for lack of a better word) situations. I've used it in 4e D&D, and in MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic. And there are other less well-known RPGs for which it's the core approach, like In A Wicked Age.

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A suffusion of yellow
The Fate Core game Spirit of the Century has an interesting character creation phase that asks the PCs to come up with a title for a novel starring their character “Character in ….” eg Bilbo Baggins in An Unexpected Party They then add a 2 sentence blurb and generate 2 Aspects from it eg “a gentleman of the shire” and “a dash of the Took*”.

The next character might have their novel be “Piotr Parkov and the Spiders Bite” in which Piotr identifies the Spider Queen as his arch enemy (Aspect: Hunted by the Spider Queen)

Then all the titles get shuffled and swapped with another player who adds 2 more sentences about how they get involved as a guest character in the novel.

The aspects can now be used to build the setting and game.

I also really like Dungeon Worlds fronts and can see the SotC aspects and novels being used in connection with them by defining Dangers, Impulses and Portents as Aspects
eg Title-Antagonist -Dangers & Impending Doom - Grim Portents & Stakes
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Well, in classic trad D&D the GM makes a lot of setting (at least a base of operations, some dungeon levels, and a bit of connecting terrain), a bunch of NPCs, etc. However, traditionally NOTHING is said about the PCs at all! They aren't locals, they have no background/backstory, their class is just a generic template, and literally all you have is an alignment, and the purely gamist conceit that the PCs will band together and cooperate (even though there's absolutely nothing driving that). Thus the appellation 'murder hobos'. WotC D&D has tacked some background and whatnot onto that, but its a pretty thin thing. I don't know of any version of D&D, not even 4e, that attempts to actively encourage things like any relationship or history between the PCs. 5e BIFTs certainly don't do that. In effect players do no prep at all in this sort of game. It isn't even just D&D, Call of Cthulhu for instance, there are no ties between PCs, generally. Traveller, you just somehow showed up on the same ship/planet/bar/TAS etc.
Just as an aside, 4E's DMG2 does have a section on establishing relationships between the PCs akin to Apocalypse World's Hx. If I recall correctly, you set up a positive relationship to the PC of the player sitting on your right and set up a conflicted relationship to the player sitting on your left.

In my 4E games, to give these a bit more mechanical teeth, I have the players write a minor quest about each relationship.


I get there are plenty of GMs that love this idea of just sitting there and doing what the players say. Some GM like to just follow the lead of the players, like they are some lesser part of the game.

This is a really weird way to view it. Does that really sound like what anyone is describing?

I see the other side here though? What is in the game for me as a GM? Nothing? I get to serve the game up for the players?

The GM gets to be surprised by what happens. The GM gets to be creative in response to the players during play. If you ask any of the folks who GM these sorts of games, I'm sure they'll tell you how much fun it is.

And it's worse with that "move" idea from them other games: The GM can only make a move in response to a player move.

Why is that a problem? The rules saying when the GM is allowed to do something doesn't seem problematic to me at all.

I mean, you've described players being able to "do anything" as equivalent to them not having any challenge, right? So what makes play challenging... what makes it require skill... is limits on what they can do. Correct?

Then wouldn't the same be true of GMing? That not having total free rein to just do anything would require more skill?

But it's just two different, incomprehensible, ways to play a RPG. Some games like D&D let everyone have the free choice on how to play the game. Many other games have set game rules to force the game play in a single direction. To each their own game....

You've said in the past that you take total control of your games and happily railroad the players into your plot, because the players are too indifferent to actually put forth any effort towards play. So you'll excuse me if I don't take your notion of D&D granting free choice too seriously.

The problem is the overwhelming positive view point that makes the games hard to understand.

So the idea that the game works well and is engaging for all participants and is described in positive ways is hard to understand?

So here your talking about a simple improv game right? The GM just makes up random stuff depending on what random stuff the players do?

Nope, these are RPGs. I wouldn't say the GM makes up random stuff. The players make their characters... including more than their stats. They have goals and beliefs and connections. Then the GM uses all that material to create the situations for play.

People were doing random hexcrawls back in the 80's, so it's nothing new.

Hexcrawls require no prep? Interesting.

One of the big flaws with players making up stuff that must be part of the game is so many players will cheat. They will exploit that house rule to make thier characters rich, or powerful or whatever they want.

What good is it to do the group of players vs the GM? If you vote, the players will just outvote the GM, so what is the point?

I think maybe you're too locked in to this "GM vs. player" mentality. It's not antagonistic. It's collaborative, but there is an element of challenge to it, without the need to be antagonistic.


Mod Squad
Staff member
You could ask about the games. I mean, I feel like a decent amount has been explained to you about some of them. Certainly not everything, but enough to give you an idea that there’s something to them.

To just say “Well I don’t know about them, so no comment” and then go right back to the same assertions as if no one has explained anything at all to you about them… it seems odd.

To be fair, explaining a game can be kind of like explaining food. It can be useful if the person receiving the explanation has some relevant experience with related cuisine/dishes, but otherwise is apt to fail to generate clarity.

And he later makes a point about unrelenting positivity - sometimes discussions of non-trad games is conducted in a way that tends to dismiss areas that the games aren't actually great at, or that they sacrifice in the name of their focus.

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?

I guess you could provide an example of this no prep game type?
Here's my BitD character sheet. Now we've been playing for a while, but all the stuff in the top left is the sum total of what I put together on day one, basically. Maybe a few of the notes on the bottom left were there, in some form as well. I had some 'deadly friends', and a couple items, and of course my attributes, which were largely determined by my choice of the 'Cutter' playbook. I'd estimate I spent considerably less than one hour on this before we started playing. This is a pretty typical example of the prep done by players in this sort of game.

Heck, the hour also included talking to the other 3 players, agreeing on a crew type, and some crew specific stuff. The crew sheet is roughly about the same complexity as a PC character sheet. We picked a turf, invented a headquarters, a district, an enemy, a resource/contact, and that was about the size of it.

The process is very similar for Dungeon World, you pick a playbook, allocate attributes, bonds, an alignment, pick a race, a couple options for equipment, and a starting custom move. You can create these characters in 5 minutes flat. Honestly, 1e AD&D PCs take more time and effort to fill out than either BitD or DW requires. Neither game requires ANY up front GM prep, though usually the GM does some asking questions and facilitating the process of writing bonds or setting up a crew. Its all quite easy and lightweight!


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IMHO that is pretty much what a lot of common narrative type games are doing. Blades is just a whole ton of stuff that is BOUND to relate to the type of characters and situations that arise within its specific milieu. Dungeon World requires the GM to construct fronts which are intended to generate forward motion within the setting, so that the PCs do something, consequences are produced, and it all pulls at the characters. The GM frames all the scenes in both of these games, and the players interact PURELY via fiction in Dungeon World, except to answer GM questions. Players have a bit more mechanical work in BitD as they are involved in determining position and effect (though a player could simply leave that all on the GM, you could pretty much remain in character all the way through a score).

This is where discussions here often get a bit off. While not all games are made equal, the ones I play at least DO NOT have the players making up scenes, that's the GM's purview. Torchbearer works this way as well, the GM paints each scene. That being said, the scenes are not planned out by the GM, the GM is not 'grabbing elements' and mapping out some way to weave them in. Those elements are ALL of the story, any preexisting background, or GM prep is just stirring the pot or providing a palette of elements to draw from when needed.

To relate this closely to the subject of the thread, these two extremes, an entirely GM/pre written adventure and a fully narrative low myth game ala most PbtAs use prep for very different purposes. A D&D module is an environment, fully realized, where the player's job is navigation and some degree of extrapolation/embellishment and then seeing how the specific characters will work through that. PbtAs use prep (fronts basically) as a way to just 'stir things up', and provide a bit of a sense that stuff is going on in the world beyond what the characters see. Critically, it never pushes play in a specific planned direction.
A quibble with apologies. My experience of play in games like Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark is nowhere near as extensive as yours but it certainly felt to me as though the GM was choosing what elements to engage especially when the opportunities arose to make Hard Moves. Much less in the sense of thinking through what they looked like and when they'd appear I agree.

I do not think we are disagreeing that there is a vast middle ground between "The GM preps for days" and "The GM doesn't prep." I think even PbtA and Blades in the Dark play probably go better if the GM takes a few minutes before the session to refresh their memory about what has happened most recently and what the various situations in the air are.

Yeah, there's a fairly modest amount involved at the start getting everyone organized, figure out what the crew is, where they're situated, and just coming up with the initial start, but none of it is the job of the GM exclusively. Beyond that maybe some record keeping, which the players can mostly handle, but you will need to go through your clocks and notes a bit from what I've seen. I don't think I'd need more than 20 or 30 minutes a week between sessions, generally. These sorts of games are MUCH lighter prep in general than standard D&D, where even at the very least you have to read a module before you can run it. TB2 does require the GM to come up with the obstacles for each adventure, though there are some prewritten ones. Still, an adventure is maybe at most something like a dozen obstacles. I think you can expect a group to navigate more like 3-6 in a single session.
If there's an established setting I can get a more-conventional game happening roughly from scratch in under an hour if the players are on the ball and willing and know the setting. Between sessions my prep varies from about five minutes to about an hour depending on the game and situations and approach.


Given that we only play traditional type games, we've fallen into a pre-campaign rut that work well for us no matter the game and genre:

I present a campaign concept with wide frames for play style, setting, plot and theme. There's room for dialogue and adaption, but usually my players just buy it.

I present a bit more details on the setting where the game starts, as a foundation for making characters.

The players present their characters that inevitably will have detailed backgrounds, lots of hooks and implicit possible paths for evolving the character during the campaign. I no longer try to run campaigns that ain't very character focused. Or rather, I sometimes try, for example to test a new system out, but I will inevitably fail.

We start playing, I riff heavily on the characters actions, weaving in char backgrounds etc, while trying to keep original framing, theme and (ever-evolving) plot in sight and in front of the campaign ship.

So, as to the OP, characters are always the source of the situation. My job as GM - and a big party of my fun - is to constantly improvise and be creative to keep the frames for possible situations in line with the broad goals for the overall direction of the campaign.

For me and my table, heavily character driven play while still having some directions and framing in the sandbox is what works best for us.

And that's how I guess many of us older gamers play these days.

A quibble with apologies. My experience of play in games like Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark is nowhere near as extensive as yours but it certainly felt to me as though the GM was choosing what elements to engage especially when the opportunities arose to make Hard Moves. Much less in the sense of thinking through what they looked like and when they'd appear I agree.

I do not think we are disagreeing that there is a vast middle ground between "The GM preps for days" and "The GM doesn't prep." I think even PbtA and Blades in the Dark play probably go better if the GM takes a few minutes before the session to refresh their memory about what has happened most recently and what the various situations in the air are.

Going to use this post to demonstrate what “prep” looks like for a Blades game.

The PCs have Downtime where they commit to Downtime Activities. The Factions/Setting that the players either involve in play directly by targets for Scores or the fallout from Scores or Devil’s Bargains from Action Rolls become “activated” and the GM should be creating objective (Faction) or manifestation (Setting) related Clocks that have dice pools + status + fiction + “what happens if this goes off.” The players can then interact with this content (or not) at their discretion via Downtime Actions or Scores. Here are 3 at each of early game, mid-game, late-game:


3d6 = 2

4:8 Ticks

“The Unhorsed” continues to cut a ghostly path through The Lost District. The whispers of "Beaker" have no mortal ears to fall upon as The Silver Nails are too tied up in their own affairs at the moment.

* If this goes off, The Silver Nails rounds you up @kenada to threaten you. Either Forfeit 3 Faction with The Circle of Flame, formally renouncing allegiance with them, pay 1 Rep and 1 Coin to make amends, or stand up to them and take a beating 1 Harm (you can Resist) and -1 Faction.

Alternatively, at your discretion, we can play out a conflict where you guys see it coming and entrap them. Whoever wants to be present is there. But that is going to escalate to violence with a few members of a dangerous Tier 3 Faction however, giving you -1 Faction and +1 Heat, but you'll be in control of the situation so you can dictate the terms of the engagement to these MFers (2d6 Engagement Roll). Do enough damage and we'll escalate it to -2 Faction and The Silver Nails will lose Hold (3S to 3W).


4d6 = 5

2:6 Ticks

Ilya begins to experience occult phenomena at home...on her Bluecoat patrol...everywhere. Is it related to whatever events took place a Charterhall University Musuem? She has no recollection...but her lover has come up missing. He typically disappears for weeks at a time, so maybe not that big of a deal.

* When this goes off before Ilya is seduced to the cult, SWSiD will whisper her a terrible command to seek out Tal Rajan and slay him. I will bring her in as a Tier 3 Expert Thug with + Arms to a Score at a very inopportune time @Campbell !


Automatic success - 3rd time Aquire an Asset

4 Quality and Master Threat Level.

An array of Lashing Chains and Terrible Hooks..."crawl (?)" out of the runic circle. Connected to nothing, they animate via an unknowable alien sentience. They instinctually flay, but they will serve their master until they are dismissed back to whence they have come.

* DeadMeat (name of Discord group), Scurlock has this entity (again) for this loop. I will deploy it against you guys in one of your Scores this loop!

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