To Plan or Not to Plan

One of the first decisions you have to make as a DM is figuring out exactly how much you want to plan in advance.  You can run your games completely off the cuff or you can plan out every single minute detail in advance or anything in between.  Each approach has its own benefits and drawbacks and it depends largely upon what you’re comfortable with.

One of the advantages of in-depth planning is that you’re ready for anything.  You know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen.  You’ve got all your NPCs statted up and ready to go the second the barbarian shouts, “I kick in the door!”  Gameplay tends to be faster for this style of DM as you have everything at your fingertips.  Since you’ve planned everything in advance, there are fewer incongruities as you’ve had time to work out all the details.  The innkeeper will always have the same name, the mage’s tower will always be the same number of stories tall, and the distance between the Flame Valley and the village of Waterford will always be the same.

The downside, of course, is that you’ve got everything planned out.  If the players do something that’s not in your notes or your charts, you’re stuck.  Since you’ve put so much detail and thought into everything, there’s a much greater chance of your players getting distracted and running off on a tangent.  “There’s a piano here.  It must be here for a reason!  I roll Dungeoneering.”  “I roll Arcana to see if it’s enchanted.”  Planning so much takes a lot of time, hours upon hours.  There’s a good chance that a lot of that work will be wasted if your players don’t decide to explore every nook and cranny that you’ve set up (which gets more likely if they notice that the game grinds to a halt if they do something you’re not prepared for).  You’re much more likely to railroad* your players so that they don’t stray from your prepared materials.

* Railroad (v): To force your players onto a specific course of action by DM fiat.  Example: “I guess the DM decided we absolutely had to get captured and put in the cell because he railroaded us with wave after wave of city guards every time we escaped.”

On the other side, you have the complete improv session.  You have a map and maybe a list of monsters, but everything else comes off the top of your head in the middle of the session.  You follow the whims of your players as they chase down whatever leads they wish and ignore the ones they don’t find interesting.  They didn’t go back and find out what’s down the corridor if they had turned left instead of right?  Awesome, saves you from having to deal with figuring out what’s down there.  You only need minimal time outside of your gaming sessions to get ready, and if everyone gets together and decides they want to play a game rather than watch the newest SyFy Original Movie, you can be ready to go the second the dining room table gets cleared.

Of course, now it’s up to you to remember all the crap you came up with in the middle of the game if it comes into play later.  You’ll be scrambling for scratch paper so you can write down anything to remind you of the names and descriptions of places and NPCs.  Sessions will get bogged down with you following every tangent your players want and if you have any ideas for an extended campaign, it’ll take them forever to get to the point of it.  Combat encounters will take longer because you’ll need to dig through a book or three in order to find the monsters, traps, and NPCs you need for the encounter, and odds are you’ll take longer on your turn from needing to read the description of the monster’s powers to know what they can and can’t do.  You also have to have a very, very firm grasp of every aspect of the game mechanics.  Running a game in this fashion means that you’re going to run through a lot more aspects of the game rules than you would if you’d planned things out, and your improvisation is going to encourage your players to do the same.

Every DM is going to fall somewhere in the middle between the two extremes.  I personally prefer to come up with a basic outline of the various encounters for each session, decide on the monsters, figure out the treasure, and then make up everything else on the spot.  It lets me be generally prepared for the encounter and have a goal in mind for the progression of the session, but at the same time allows me the freedom to let the players do what they wish and follow whatever strikes their fancy.  I don’t feel I’ve wasted time if they don’t do everything I had in mind, but I’m also able to wing it when they follow some plot thread I hadn’t noticed.  This, of course, is what works for me as a DM.  One of my favorite DMs to play under when I was a kid was completely on the other side, with maps of every nook and cranny.  I’d never seen him with less than 10 pages of notebook paper filled both sides with his tiny scrawl for just a single 5 hour long session.  He was more than capable of playing it by ear when necessary (it’s his own damn fault for letting Ray play a Kinder in my opinion), and he was a great improve actor with a wide repertoire of accents and impressions to pull out for the NPCs we ran into.  Neither choice is right or wrong unless it’s the right or wrong choice for your personality.

I would like to give one piece of advice to new DMs.  Err to the side of over-prepared but be ready to toss something out if it’s not working.  Sure, you might waste some time in prep if you go this route, but you’ll be thankful to have the material rather than having to come up with every single thing off the top of your head.  And anything you don’t use can be recycled for another day.  After you get several sessions running a game under your belt, you’ll know exactly where you stand just by knowing exactly how much you were reading from your notes and how much you were Kaiser Soze-ing game ideas from the DVD shelf and old Iron Maiden poster on the wall behind the players.

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Published in: on December 8, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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