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MoonHunter Sayeth 20170807


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
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How do you prep your session?
aka You type it enough times.....

I find myself typing similar answers to similar questions all the time. I usually have to do a search and fumble with google, spending time to find what I typed last time or some time earlier. My google-fu is strong. It is usually faster than actually retyping. So I am going to put this post right here, because I can just paste the link to this blog post rather than go through all that searching again.

My game prep process for each session starts with chronicle and character design. Everything is integrated. There are two reasons for this: 1) I can do all the big strokes early on, thus I have the time to do adjustments and small strokes for each session, 2) I do all the heavy lifting/ creative work for the campaign when I am the most excited about it... right at the beginning when it is all shiney, new, and exciting.

I always start my campaigns the same way. I keep to this process because the only campaigns I have ever had "fail" in the last 40+ years, were ones I did not use this basic process for. I have gone over this ground in multiple places, but here is the starting point.

Starting a Campaign the MoonHunter Way

Then there is a quick summary which has been annotated.
Running the game the MoonHunter Way

There is some magic that happens before each game... (first some explanation)

I plan my campaigns as a bundle of story arcs - the main core arc and three arcs related to the characters.

Everything in my chronicle is planned in terms of a story arc. I try to make sure that anything I improv fits into these arcs ... thus has a real purpose in the chronicle. Every chronicle has one main story arc (and some supporting ones). This is "the big thing" that is going on right now... either the players are deep in it, or it will impact what they are doing (a major war between two countries perhaps). Actually I have one and a third big arcs (that way I can have a lead in to the next arc going and the last trailing bits of the previous story arc in play).

If we are playing a comic style chronicle , there may or may not be a bit story arc. If there is one, it might last three sessions. If we are playing a dungeon quest chronicle, the quest... including in the "places of danger" are all scripted as plot line and story arcs. Okay, we now return you to the regular rant.

Every character has three arcs attached to them. 1) There personal attachment to the main story arc. The other two are storylines based on the character's history, the characters goal, the character's relationships, or just something cool about the character. The player and I choose these at the beginning of the campaign and pick new ones after one of them has been completed. (This makes the players committed to the campaign.)

Major NPCs (including villains) and some locations have story arcs attached to them. A few floating story arcs are out there to be grabbed as appropriate.

Every Story Arc is a string of scenes towards a goal, some of them branching off but still heading in the right direction. Each line of the Arc has key scenes - things that must happen to move the story along. These can be action scenes, roleplaying scenes, or scenes that result in certain things. There will be scenes that should happen along the way (in between the key scenes), lesser action scenes that give you leads/ clues and transition scenes that get you from this action scene to the next. Some of these scenes are slightly important and a few are just required for logic's sake. (Okay, a few are just padding scenes to move that story arc along but not really being resolved.. sometimes you are not ready for important or slightly important scenes).

Scenes are normally defined as Scene Cards (or just notes because reasons). On the cards/ notes each scene has: a purpose (one that I try to stick to), some good background bits, and possible action. (The character is going to meet his contact... in a saw mill... and will have some hidden goons in the rafters). There are various outputs (ways the characters might go).

Sure, since I am planning for various odd paths I will prep too many scenes. It is okay. If they don't do the fight at the saw mill, maybe I can sucker the B-plot people into chasing a pick pocket into it.... as a set up)

As stated, each character has one to three story arcs attached to them. On any given night, one usually comes to the forefront. That is our A plot. Most of the plot resolution for tonight will be on the A plot. Usually I pull one or two other plots from the other characters, these are my B plots. (If they are not from the characters, they are from the location (as potential plots/scenarios) or larger organizations (often seen in flashback).

I break it down from the story arcs (note the plural) to scenes. The A Plot scenes tend to highlight their character, but usually there is something they might need their friends to do. Work the pathways for the A plot (It is a flow chart, not a list. If they opt to go follow the less ideal clue, I plan those options). This is a flow chart kind of arrangement, with a couple of optional paths and how to loop them back to where I have better drama planned. (Ideally this is done ahead of time, but sometimes I have to do it with my prep time.)

I try to make sure there will be something for the characters/players to do. Everyone should have something to do that shines. (The pick pocket chase helps show off our urban heroes street running (Parkour)). I do make sure that if we have one specialty, that we have a back up person for that specialty (Sure, I may not be Hardison the super hacker, but I can still cut code...), just in case they are out of place. I wiggle with plot lines, through in various random bits, and sometimes just add stuff, just to make sure the opportunity to shine is there. It is not perfect every week, but I try really hard.

I also use Orbit Characters and assigned NPCs. Players, who aren't doing anything else, can run the NPCs. In fact if I plan it right, I can have all the players talking to other players (NPCs) and I am not doing much except coordinating the timing of things.

Sure, sometimes it all goes off the rails and the planning goes away. I usually find a way to recycle the settings and some of the drama from the scenes

Before each session, I look over where we are in the course of things. I go over who is coming to the game. Where are we in each character's plotlines? Where are we in terms of location (and are there any history story arcs or throw away plotlines for the location? My games sessions are set up by picking either a dramatic or transitional scenes related to the main arc, their personal arcs, and any random arcs - to ensure the arcs move forward and there is something for every player to do. Sometimes I create some "filler scenes" between the core scenes or lesser scenes, to move a plotline forward without doing too much. I grab the scene cards/notes (if any are there), make up some stuff if needed (or pull it out of my book of stuff I previously prepped), look up various notes, and my prep for a given game session is under 15 minutes. (Because I have already done the heavy lifting earlier).

In game, I try to follow the plan as a guideline. Often my innate sense of story is right and it works as planned. Sometimes we get a left turn and it takes some adlibbing to fill in the new scenes. (And sometimes I grab scenes that didn't make the cut for the game and use those).

Remember, the details in the session all need to be soft. Nothing survives contact with the players fully intact.

You have read all of this (or the entire thing) by this point. I know what some of you are thinking.

Some people say, you can't prep all of this. They say things like too much advance planning is counter productive; as is scripting events too far in advance. Too many moving parts means that to make sure your plan as GM works, the player need to be railroaded to one degree or another. And not in the "This way to the Adventure" way that players usually appreciate. In the "This way is the Adventure, all other directions lead to the same point" way that players often get irate about..

You can. You can, but it requires a change of mind set that most people have about their prep. It is all just a place to start.

You just can't be so married to it that you actually expect to use all of it in the order you wrote it. It is there as a go to foundation. In truth, advanced planning only goes bad if it is linear and locked into to it. (Or you didn't bother to plan for "other options"). Use it all as written if you can, but use as much of it as actually fits in play. You need to plan for variable options. Your story should never be a single line. Ideally, it is a flow chart with many branches. You need to put down the big strokes and only the smallest amount of fine details. For example, when I plan a scene, it is about 8 lines max (Check out the Cue Cards for scenes). The prep is just setting the focus and a foundation for what will happen. It is something to build upon.

There's two basic methods of world and chronicle development and they are extremes of each other: DaS (develop at start) and DiP (develop in play). The extreme of DaS would be to make up everything about the world before ever play begins; the extreme of DiP would be to start playing with only having having a basic idea about the world, and just make it all up as you go along. While there are those who champion the extreme position, most games and players favor a mixture of the two. As a GM, you need to find your own personal balance between the two. To be honest, after doing this for forty years, do what you can ahead of time. This way you have a strong foundation (DaS) to build upon as the game progresses (DiP).

And lets face it. No matter how much work you do, DIP happens. It is all about asking "why?" or "what happens next?".

Also, players will constantly be changing their minds about things, so you can adapt things to fit their new ideas.

To Summarize
So, hitting the table I have a flow chart (a story flow map) for what scenes (from various plotlines/ story arcs) I expect on a given session, including some possible alternate routes and those scenes. I have all the pieces (and spot rules) I might need for those scenes prepared. I will even of done some riffing.

The appendix - Some back up information.

The setting/ chronicle packs again have been discussed in a number of places, but here is the new source entry. Another useful building tool is the Worklist.

Scene Cards are explained on the link.

Some additional detail about Story Mapping. The story mapping goes over the plotline creation and application. It goes into more depth of discussion for the whole story arc thing.

Oh one last post script: GM burn out and Gamer ADD is the reason I do all the heavy lifting for a chronicle when the chronicle starts. That way, when I get pressed for time or I get burned out/ disillusioned with the campaign or want to do something else, I can use pieces I have built and scenes designed to just coast. Sure I am phoning in the delivery, but the pieces are in place and they connect the characters to the upcoming scenes.
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