Categorizing RPG Prep
Over in the comments to Prep-Light RPGs? on Martin Ralya's Treasure Tables blog I mentioned that prep could be broken down into three distinct categories. I'd like to add a fourth here:
- creative - generating ideas, situation, etc.
- mechanical - writing up NPC stats, determining obstacle DCs, etc.
- organizational - organizing and neatening up notes, e-mailing notes to all the players, updating a game Wiki, etc.
- research - reading National Geographic for ideas, searching in the library for information on power source efficiency or animals resource needs in the desert, reading novels in your setting or genre, or even browsing your module collection to find a suitable module, etc.
When you sit down to do prep work, it's likely one session will have tasks from several categories, but in general, most tasks will pretty clearly be one category or another.
It might be usefull to compare the prep for some different games, so I will share thoughts on Dogs in the Vinyard, Cold Iron, and Arcana Evolved (D20/alternative D&D). This blog entry of mine is an example of Cold Iron prep.
For my first Dogs in the Vinyard game, I read the sample towns in the book, plus several towns on the web. I probably spent several hours doing this. For the exmple Cold Iron prep, I probably spent two hours browsing the web for a suitable map. For a given Arcana Evolved adventure, I might spend a few hours browsing my extensive module collection (that would also be typical for Cold Iron). But this is just one kind of research.
Above, I hinted at a couple extended research sessions at my university library. Once, we were about to do a desert expedition, and I wanted to know how much water the party would need to cary. So I read about camels and donkeys. I did a lot of research for SF gaming, including one extended session of studying power sources and their efficiency (a cool resource for that was some NASA publications, and I think I managed to find a paper or two my father had published in another government publication [he was a civil servant working for the Air Force Geophysics Lab]). I still have the notes from some of these research sessions. These types of research sessions can be a lot of fun, but the way I understand gaming these days, are probably mostly irrelevant. Sure, it's fun to base stuff on reality, but what the players actually care about is that they need so many donkeys or camels, and if you tell them 2 per expedition member as a SWAG, or 2.3 as a carefully calculation based on reality, the players really don't care.
For some folks, this is the most exciting prep. For others, it's the most torturous. Dogs in the Vinyard is the only game I've seen to date with a complete guide for this part of the creation. This prep can either be very explicit when you sit down to just try and generate ideas, or it can be more casual when you think about the game on the drive home from work (and this second type of prep suggests there is no such thing as a zero prep game - every game is going to utilize and benefit from this kind of casual thought). Note that every other category of prep does involve some creativity, but my goal of calling this out separately is that there is always some time spent purely imagining and creating, without putting pen to paper or reading texts.
I didn't do much of this kind of prep for the Dogs game since I used prepared towns. Of course I did read the towns and think about how I might use them, and started to form ideas of the NPCs. The example Cold Iron prep had perhaps 10-15 minutes of direct creative prep once I had a map. When I do module searches, there is often creative prep intermixed. I'll look at a module, read parts of it, browse the map, etc. and think about what I might do with the module. When I'm doing a module conversion (I do a lot of this since 90% of my modules are for D&D, and I haven't run D&D for almost 20 years), I'll spend a lot of creative energy coming up with appropriate NPCs (monsters or otherwise).
Coming up with a scenario from scratch generally requires a lot of creative prep time, and is one reason I don't do that much at all for D&D-like games.
This prep is the statting up of NPCs, traps, etc. Drawing a map on an appropriate grid might be this kind of prep (though it will mostly be creative). Generating mechanics to utilize library research would also be mechanical. This type of prep directly engages your system's mechanics. It should be noted that some folks really dislike this kind of prep. It's too hard. It takes too much time. It isn't fun. Of course other folks love to churn out NPCs in loving detail. Some game systems ease this prep by statting up NPCs differently than PCs.
For Dogs in the Vinyard, mechanical prep is very simple. You generate a page (or two) of proto-NPCs. Perhaps noting which stage of the sin progression each element of the town's problem is in is mechanical.
One of the reasons I love Cold Iron is that for a crunchy system, this mechanical prep time is pretty modest. I can stat up a creature in as little as 5 minutes (and when I do so, I generate 4-8 levels for the creature). A complex NPC might take as much as 30 minutes if I really spend time picking spells and magic items (but more likely can be done in 15 moinutes, and in any case, I use relatively few NPCs of such complexity, most are 5-10 minute grunts). Cold Iron NPCs can be just as fully statted as a PC, but I have some short cuts that simplify the process.
For a side comparison, games like Rune Quest and GURPS can have quick mechanical prep time, while allowing NPCs the same complexity as PCs. This is done by ignoring the point system or advancement system. Games without strict character level progressions but instead with skills that advance individually is well suited for this kind of shortcut generation.
This prep for Arcana Evolved was painful. I could often re-use some of the monsters if I was using a D%D 3e module, but spell casters and other monsters with PC classes would need to be re-written. Using pre-3e modules (probably more than half my collection) left one without even monster stats. When I had more than 4 players, I would also have to upscale encounters.
This prep is often part of mechanical prep, but can be separate.
For Dogs in the Vinyard, this was where I spent the most prep time after chosing a couple towns. I cut and pasted one town from the PDF into MS Word for printing, and re-formatted a town pulled off the web. Copying proto-NPC stats from Chris Week's web generator onto proto-NPC sheets also counts.
For Cold Iron, I tend not to spend too much time here, though I may copy NPC stats onto handy sheets for use during the game (but just as often, I will copy the 5-10 stats I need the most onto scratch paper during the game when the encounter happens).
For Arcana Evolved, this was again a significant time, though mostly it was done in combination with the mechanical prep. I developed my own stat block format in MS Word and would cut and paste monsters from the SRD, or stat up NPCs into the stat block. The pages I printed left space to keep track of each creatures hit points and spell slots used.
Photocopying maps or player handouts would also fall into the organizational prep. Preparing the game room also qualifies as organizational prep. Sending e-mails to find out who is coming etc. also qualifies. Basically this stuff doesn't require much thought (I would place chosing fonts and such to make a genre approproiate handout into creative or research prep).
So what use is all of this? Well, one way would be to classify systems for the amount of prep in each category they require. Each of us has different interest levels in the various categories, so just knowing a system is light-prep isn't enough, if all the prep is of a category I hate, it might be a heavier-prep system for me than one that takes twice as many hours overall. Another way is in design. Dogs in the Vinyard is really cool for including such a good guide for creating towns. D&D at various times in the past has included some tools for creating dungeons, but doesn't have the same degree of guidelines (but the system is also less focused so providing such guidelines might be very hard). Cold Iron as I received it came with almost no help for prep (just a handfull of monsters and a few pages talking about monster creation, plus a few guidelines on creating magic items, from which I developed pricing formulas).
It's also valuable to look at how important each type of prep is. For example, I now realize that my in depth library research is of little value for most gaming. For Cold Iron, I learned what was necessary for stats for NPCs and streamlined my mechanical prep. During game design, consider ways to streamline this mechanical prep. Look for ways to simplify NPCs without constraining them. Systems can also help the creative prep. Again, Dogs in the Vinyard's town creation rules help the creative prep by providing a framework that must be filled in for each town. This guides the GM to spending creative energy on what is needed for the game, and not on what is not needed. Who cares how many miles between towns, it doesn't come into play in any mechanical sense, if you really need a number, let it come up in play. On another note, it would be poisonous to prep dialogue for an NPC in Dogs (even the intro the Steward gives when the PCs arrive in town should not be scripted, let it flow out of the mood at the table).
In fact, that bit about scripting dialogue in Dogs in the Vinyard turns out to be a major factor in my enjoying the game. The system drives the necessary dialogue rather than the GM having to decide ahead of time what the steward's speech will be.
I'm also planning on using Dogs in the Vinyard's town creation guidelines for prepping for my Burning Wheel campaign. I've followed Chris Chinn's The Conflict Web which is part of the prep, but I realize now that coming up with what each NPC wants from the PCs, as suggested in Dogs, will help me tremendously. So will "What happens if the PCs don't intervene." Even the sin hierarchy idea can be used, so I have all these NPCs, what have they done already? What is already broken that needs fixing by the PCs?