CRB is a repository of all the creative things that float through my mind about the RPG Pathfinder. Two major features are random character generation and building characters based on the god they worship. Anything that seems like it adds to the creative aspects of the game will pop up from time to time, including location descriptions, adventure ideas and even short stories. CRB won't just be my own creativity, it will open the floor to anyone who has an idea sparked by what I present to you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I've Put This Off For Too Long

I’ve been seriously putting this off—writing this article that is. I’m writing it on a Monday afternoon which is actually pretty early for me. I do my best work around 9pm on Tuesday when the article needs to be up Wednesday morning. Sometimes I won’t finish Saturday’s articles till 3 or 4am Saturday morning. The thing is, I don’t see this as a bad thing, I just tend to work very well under pressure.

Now how does this translate to gaming? Well I put everything off until the last minute there as well. I usually start setting up for a session the night before. I have all these ideas swimming around in my head and I can’t seem to get them out until it’s go time. Sometimes as much as an hour before game I’m still just getting things down for what I want to do.

These days I mostly run online. My work schedule makes it hard to meet with a regular local group, so it’s either that or not play at all. I know a lot of gaming purists dislike online gaming, but I have to say I enjoy the hell out of it. I found a great group, which includes a few GMs so that we can take turns. And, I was a late adopter; I delayed trying it out, thinking it could never live up to face-to-face. I discovered, however, that it can.

Even though I love Roll20 (I know some of you may use something else but I dig roll20) it hampers the one thing that I’m really, really good at: On-the-fly encounters. It’s easy enough to find counters for your bad guys and I can just roll manually instead of setting up a sheet for the NPCs. But setting up maps takes a while, especially sizing them to fit a pre-existing grid on the virtual table top. Adding dynamic lighting (at an additional cost) is an amazing feature, but it also eats into set-up time.

In my days of in-person gaming I could throw an impromptu encounter at my players with a minimal amount of preparation or forethought. Occasionally their actions would give me an idea that just had a life of its own and I could usually put it into play pretty quickly. I would rough sketch some terrain on a battle map, open up the Monster Manual to the page I needed, and run with it. Now, if I absolutely want to run an encounter on the fly I need a 15 minute break to set it up.

This isn’t a condemnation of online gaming; I still love it. But, as a procrastinator, doing things spur-of-the-moment is my specialty. I can still get away with it to a degree, and I’ve surprised my players on more than one occasion with encounters I didn’t even know I was going to use. Some of them read this blog, and I know they’re now wondering which encounters I totally pulled out of my ass and which I didn’t. I’m not telling, sorry guys.

But maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you’re a planner and far more organized. One of the other player/GM’s in my group Joel has a few words for you to counterpoint my own.

In response to Simon’s excellent post on off the cuff DMing, I thought I might write a counterpoint examining my own style which is heavily informed by preparation. He and I trade off GM duties (along with another fellow) so that we can all enjoy playing without becoming burned out with the heavy work of running a game. Some background; I cut my teeth in 1st and 2nd ed. DnD, and several other systems that were popular at the time.  Storyteller, Battletech, Palladium, Shadowrun, and various others were frequently played at my table. Life and college forced me to take a break for the better part of a decade, but five years ago I returned to the scene and have been running games ever since. Pathfinder is my current system of choice, like Simon, and in particular the AP Rise of the Runelords.

I, like Simon, can be a bit of a procrastinator.  However when it comes to DMing games, I generally put more hours into preparing a session than I do into actually running it. I also use Roll20 Virtual Tabletop, and over the many thousands of hours I have spent logged into it over the last few years, I have become fairly skilled at making it work for me.  I have become fairly proficient at the use the Photoshop alternative GIMP in order to build some rather nice high quality battle maps for my Rise of the Runelords campaign (all of which are posted on the Community Created thread on the Paizo Runelords forum for anyone to use).  I enter the enemies so that each has their own character sheet (tho mooks will share one naturally), and their own token.  I often set up alternative versions of the enemies with different templates such as advanced or undead, just in case I want to throw something different at the guys once and awhile.

 I spend hours reading the source material for my adventure, forums where people discuss their experiences running the game, and background material for the setting in which we are playing.  All of this improves my game greatly I think. The work I do in my character journal, setting up those sheets, allows me to yank out a mook they fought as a solo encounter at a lower level, and set them against the now leveled up PCs in groups of four or five.  I can boost up a former villain that escaped and make him a returning baddie, perhaps supported by a gang of cutthroats or a bunch of zombie goblins.  It may take me twenty or thirty min to set up a minor mook, but if I use it three or four times in the course of a campaign, it saves a ton of time.

Not all of my preparation is done in the VTT however.  In fact, MOST of my prep time is probably spent in research and story/plot planning.  Naturally, since we are in a sandbox situation, it is counterproductive to try to plan out a linear storyline for the PCs to follow, but you can develop storylines that are perhaps a series of dramatic points you are trying to connect without tying the hands of your players.

 For example you might say “I want a tense standoff with some mobster types, followed by a chase scene, then the following day there might be an encounter with some town guards looking into the ruckus”.  Fairly general, but I know I need Mobster Mooks, some Town Guard mooks, and a chase scene mechanic.  All of that is easy to prep ahead of time and, if I end up not using some of it, well, perhaps it pops up in a future game.  

How the PCs handle the encounter is up to them.  Do they negotiate with the Mobsters?  Are they the ones being chased, or are they doing the chasing?  Do they scrap with the town guard, or play nice?  All of this is up to them, but by having the guys entered with appropriate skills and combat stats I am prepared for both social or combat encounters.  And because of my research I am able to fill in interesting bits of descriptive text or background information that bring the encounters to life.

I try to develop the kinds of storylines for my players that tie into their backgrounds, and offer them opportunities to role play by surrounding them with 3 dimensional NPCs who, if I am doing it correctly, feel like supporting characters more than set dressing.  When they bump into Mama Alvertin in Sandpoint, I describe the barely hidden pain in her eyes and the fact that she is obviously putting on a cheerful false face so that later, when they find out about her son’s tragic death, it becomes a piece of the world they inhabit and not just a note in their log.

I am able to do these things because I have read and thought about the setting, the NPCs, the Player Characters, and the overarching Storyline and Background info.  I have run the campaign before for others, and learned from mistakes I made.  I have read the advice of others and taken their better ideas for my own.  And often, because of this, when I do need to wing something, I have a number of tools in my kit that I can bring to bear to make it all feel as if whatever I am improvising is something I planned the whole time.

I think am a better GM because I am prepared, but that may be just my own style and type of game. Are you a Prepper?  Do you spend hours developing your games?  What were some of your greatest long term plans that worked out in the end?

Are you a procrastinator or a planner? Do you set up encounters last hour? Last Minute? Last second? Or days before? What are some of your favorite on-the-fly portions of your game? Were they combat or RP?


  1. I am a no-prep GM. I judge games based on how easy it is to run on the fly. This started with Dungeon World which encourages this type of play. The rules recommend not planning anything for the first session and work with the players to build the rules, then flesh things out later.

    Some people think that this can lead to boring games without plot. The last game I ran featured the players being framed for the murder of a Duke's son by a doppleganger controlled by an elite assassin's guild. The murder was arranged by a nearby Baron who was jealous of the Duke and wanted to annex his territory. The assassin's guild never leaves a trace of their activities and must kill the PCs who have learnt to much. This drove them out of town where they stumbled upon a powerful artifact. In the process one of the PCs is mortally wounded but death makes him a bargain, he can live if he promises to give the artifact to the Baron which will lead to a war which the Baron will win.

    When we left off the party was travelling to the Baron's city to see what they can do to prevent the war, expect one PC has a secret agenda.

    This all started because at the beginning of the night I pulled an NPC out of a random generator I have. It gives a name, an instinct "to become someone else" and a knack "mysterious benefactor" From that I wove my tale.

  2. Thanks for the article Simon. It's comforting and helpful to be able to take a sneak peak into the thoughts and experiences of other GMs who also have a steak for procrastination :)

    I've been a prepper since I started GMing about 4 years ago. But lately as time rolls on, I begin to notice it really takes its toll on me.

    I love my campaign and I love my players but sometimes, the prep-work just really burns me out and I need to take a few weeks off to get the fire back.

    Lately I've been trying to find resources to help me run games with less prep but still have amazing storytelling experiences and exciting encounters. Currently running 5e right now.

    Sometimes I notice and have to laugh at the way RPG tabletop gaming unfolds... I'll spend hours upon hours prepping and fleshing out a corner of the world where I know my players are headed and they will either blow past it in 1/3rd of the session or they'll go and focus on some po-dunk filler village on the way there for 10 hours and do insane stuff that generates new major permanent NPCs or causes massive repercussions down the road, like one of the players accidentally cloning themselves and now that clones is running amok doing God knows what.

    But I guess that's the beauty of why we play tabletop :)

  3. @Tyler

    You aren't the first person to mention Dungeon World as a good no prep game. Honestly I couldn't get into it. I like a game with far more crunchy bits then DW has and I manage to no prep my pathfinder games quite often.

    That's said its interesting to see stories of how DW is run.


    Your welcome, sharing is an important part of my blog, allowing GMs and players to discuss their views, even opposing views, means a better community for your hobby. I too have had the prep for days players never use my material sessions, its frustrating. One of the reasons I don't mind my procrastination is I feel i makes me more adaptable to change.

  4. I think a mix of both works well for me, more balanced playstyle.

    It's great to have resources, especially with the noted difficulties in VTT's with that very thing... (Prepackaged resources and easily buildable/moddable terrains and sheets plz?). But I totally felt the pain in the first part of this, with the explanation of loving to be able to do things on the fly. I'm a bit notorious for tossing extra monsters or changing parameters on the fly if I believe the party can handle it.

    In the end, my philosophy is very non-Gygaxian. I'm not there to DESTROY the party, though if the dice are against them and they're short on brilliant ideas, it can happen. I'm there to tell part of a story. And I want to see where that goes and read the next chapter as much as the players do, or the game is going very, very wrong. If my party dies, I don't get to. So I'll give them every single chance for an out that I can. Every single crazy trick to save themselves.

    That's why I wouldn't necessarily call it procrastination so much as preferring freeform or 'on the spot' GMing.