As someone who has been running role-playing games for 30 years now, I’ve spent a lot of time prepping for them. I’ve spent… a really, really lot of time prepping for them. Shudders as he thinks about the vast amounts of time he’s spent prepping games. I enjoy world-building. I enjoy plotting. I enjoy cartography. (And I will probably share some of all of those here on this blog). I used to spend hours upon hours thinking and taking notes. That was fun for me. The problem with that was: At the end of the session, it was all still in my head. The players never touched what I made.
In the traditional games I played, though (Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, Traveller, Mechwarrior, and even shudder GURPS), the GM needs stat blocks, Trap DC’s, maps, notes, etc… or else he’s fumbling at the table with books or papers, or… So I did it. I mean, that’s what all the published adventures looked like that were written by industry luminaries, and they couldn’t be wrong, right?
When I met Joann, and I started playing in her Shadowrun game, she kept telling me I had a nasty habit of taking all of her carefully laid plans and turning them on their heads to come at a problem sideways. It just seemed the thing to do. She told me later that she ended up shifting to a list-based prep, where she would come up with some general ideas or outlines of things that could happen and lists of names and places and then wing it. At the time, I thought she was crazy. Then I found the Cypher System.
Starting on page 431 of the Revised Cypher System Rulebook, it talks about preparing for a game session. The main concept: Lists and brief notes. Just what Joann had figured out several years ago. It was then that I started trying to shift how I prepared for things. So here’s a partial list of some things that I do now and recommend as you start preparing games using the Cypher System:
- Have a notepad handy where you can jot down ideas that solidified during play in the session. Otherwise, you’ll end up like me when I started trying to have the PC’s have a conversation with old Wazzisname the Bartender.
- I don’t care what system you’re running or what type of game. Always, ALWAYS have a list of names. Always. Coming up with a random name on the spot sucks. Alternatively, you could consider the Cypher NPC Deck (I… can’t even begin to describe how much I love decks. OK, I can. Here’s a blog post where I do so. TL;DR? They’re AWESOME. Best GM money I’ve ever spent).
- Come up with a few NPC’s (3 or 4) ahead of time. Not super detailed, but some interesting people that the players could interact with. Do NOT, however, tie them to a location. The idea is that you want to maintain maximum flexibility here, so leave them place-agnostic to drop in wherever you need. If you don’t use them, save them for another time. 3 x 5 in. note cards work great for this.
- Come up with a couple of locations appropriate to your setting with a couple of interesting details about them. The idea here is not to detail every little thing, it’s to pick the prominent few so as to give it flavor. Good authors do not describe every single little detail about a character. They lose the reader that way. They pick a couple details that capture the feel of a character and share those. Good GM’s are no different.
- Have a general outline of where you think the story might go. Remember though, just like how in war, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, most session plans do not survive first contact with the players. THAT’S OK. Really. In fact, the more you can let go of the need for narrative control and hand it to the players and the more they take responsibility for that control, the cooler your game sessions are going to be overall.
- Expect to improvise. This is a learned skill, and you CAN get better at it with practice. But, if you’re like me, and you need some prodding, there are aids you can use at the table to help. Lists are one way, but did I mention I like decks? Because I really, REALLY like decks.
As an additional resource, while it tends to approach things from a Fantasy or Dungeons & Dragons-based viewpoint, Michael E. Shea’s “Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master” is a wonderful book with some down-to-earth tips that are easily adaptable to prepping for your Cypher System games. With a philosophy of “Prepare what benefits your game”, he puts together and explains the Lazy Dungeon Master’s Checklist, a series of things to think about and answer before a session. It can be done in 30-60 minutes and gives you a bunch of tools that are easily adaptable to any situation that comes up at the table.
Above all, storytelling is supposed to be fun. One of the biggest reasons I play role-playing games still at middle age is the enjoyment I get from sitting around with my friends and dreaming up and telling exciting stories. If, at the end of the day, you focus on making sure everyone has fun and it happens, you’re doing it right.
- Josh Walles