I’m an improvising GM. I know that this hurts my games in some ways, but I work to even these issues out. I’ll go through my preparation stages to give a few windows into how I work out what happens in a session as well as how some of my bad habits can be overcome by other methods of pre planning.
My basic planning for a session will be figuring out what happened last time, preferably from the player’s point of view through recounting or discussing issues that came up in the previous encounter. This sounds a little silly; don’t I know what went on? Wasn’t I the one in control for what happened in the last session? Wasn’t I there? I was, but the thing I’ve come to realize is that my point of view isn’t what everyone else’s is. What resonated to my players and what they keep describing to each other is a major factor of what the way forward is.
In one of my games I have a great partial barometer; he has a great passion for his character and thinks most of the reactions through. This is one of the great things of running a group of GMs, they think about what’s going on with their character and are looking for that character arc. This act of finding what resonates with player’s helps guide where the adventure and campaign are going. This gives me the starting place from where we continue on.
The next portion of preparation that I’m thinking of is the world that the adventure is taking place in and what sorts of repercussions will come from the players past adventures. Will the reactions be major or small? If the players just left the last location at the end of the last session does this even matter? I’m asking these questions to remember the feel of the world and to have it make sense between one session to the next.
I do leave players on cliff hangers sometimes, mostly when time is short and I know the scene has at least an hour worth of play left in it. This is the easiest preparation for me it’s remembering the big reveal and making sure that the way the NPCs act is consistent for the last time they’ve been used.
This is also the point where I’ll find the maps or napkin backs where I’ve written my notes on where particular points have come from or NPCs that my players have come up with. If we’re returning to a certain place or this is a place where the players are expected to do some exploration I’ll do up a map. When the players are going to be around a table I’ll pull out my 35” x 24” gridded easel paper and pencils. When exploration is the reason for the map I’ll have a small map that I’ll keep just in my notes so I can mark off places and make sure I’m not getting turned around when I give my narration to the players.
As an aside I have very bad name permanence, I remember faces and characteristics and not names. This means it can be very hard for me to remember a name for anyone new, except Shane’s which always equate to “dead guy on horse” in my mind.
This leads to a very odd way I deal with NPCs, which I hold up as example of how not to prepare. I prepare most NPCs as somewhat typical versions of their position, the nebbish scientist or the greasy businessman as an example, and not put much thought into them. From a general point I’m extrapolating a leader from the intent of the organization this doesn’t allow for much nuance in the character or organization. When I have a group of helpers in mysterious robes, all I’m thinking about is giving the feeling they’re mysterious and not pinning down too many details for the players to hook into.
My lack of consistent recurring NPCs is one of my biggest failings, I’ll think of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ an event is going on, not who an event is going on with or how they’re described. The problem arises that few people are looking at the scenery and the grand machinations, but at the character interaction between the players and the people in the world. Because a thing is easier to describe and deal with my games have focused on them with motivating factors being concepts such as dread or protecting a group.
I toy with villain NPCs; my current one in my regular game is interesting enough, but I have a tendency to forget about them. This is the reason I’ve moved to having major NPCs on index cards so I can keep adding to them while the players are interacting with them. If I fail to keep using an NPC it slips from being a big bad to being a bygone is my usual worry for creating big bads in the first place. With the advent of the Fantasy Flight Games cards I’ve come around to the style of GMing that can emphasize the synergies of the cards, inserting my own variations on them as the case warrants.
Now that I’ve identified a problem I have for my NPCs, how can I fix it? I’m trying to do the index card idea that I’ve started to use for my major NPCs as well as having a list of species specific names that I can look to when players ask for a name, so I’m not grasping at straws for inspiration.
It’s these two things that I’m currently focusing on so that my players are more immersed in the story and not waiting on me to get over my own speed bump on the road to a good session.