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Tome of Answers

After a bit of a delay, we return with Ask the Guild and an important topic for discussion this week: How long do I spend preparing for my various games? As well as what to do once you’ve bought one of those starter sets, such as the DnD Red Box, where do you go from there?

I’ve picked up the 5E D&D starter set, I want to start DMing, any tips you can give me as a new DM?

I’ll address this first, before I start talking about my preparation for various games, because this question ties into that discussion nicely. The first thing to do, before you do anything else, is to read all the material that comes with it quite thoroughly first. I even recommend, especially if you’re new, you run the scenario by yourself using the pregens. This might seem a bit silly, rather like playing chess against yourself, but it’s an easy way to figure out how the game works. For example you’ll rapidly run into obvious questions like “How does healing work?” or “What can I do every turn?” that will help you guide your players through it (or at least ensure you know how it works).

When you’re new to DMing, don’t be afraid to say that to the people you’re playing with and develop a “Let’s all learn together” kind of feel or atmosphere. Don’t sweat on getting every single rule correct at first or that you’re using every mechanic to the fullest. Generally speaking, because you won’t be confident on improvising try to stick with the adventure in the starter kit as much as possible! Improvisation and being able to go off script are not inherent skills for every DM, so there is nothing wrong with railroading a little for your first few games, until you become more confident.

I also really recommend you play with people you know fairly well if possible, which makes life a bit easier than trying to get to know new people while DMing. This isn’t to say good friends always make for the easiest of roleplaying sessions, it can be the opposite at times, but it does help to get everyone on the same page. Again, emphasizing that everyone is new, will be learning and is there to have fun is actually pretty sensible here.

One final thing to do is to try to come as prepared as you can, such as getting a good nights sleep first (You’d be amazed how often this helps), some notes on the adventure you’re running for tricky rules or similar and make sure you have the pregen characters/dice etc ready ahead of time. I don’t recommend that you try to get your players to make their own characters initially for this first time through, instead I would stick with the recommended pregenerated characters from the adventure at first. If everything works out well and you want to try a full campaign, that’s when you can start delving into the extra complication of character creation!

How much time do you spend on preparing for the game each week?

This is a good question and a tough one to answer, because it’s honestly completely down to the style of the game in question. Essentially I have a simple equation of putting in roughly 1 hour for every hour of the game I’m running that week, but this isn’t a hard or fast rule at all. For example, Trail of Cthulhu has a longer start up time in planning clues and similar, but I don’t need to think very hard about making complex combat encounters every week (unless I feel the need to). Writing the general outline of the investigation, designing NPCs and so on generally takes me a couple of hours at most. I improvise nearly everything else on the fly depending on what my players do after that point, as GUMSHOE is a very flexible system.

On the other hand, for something that I put a lot more thought into combat, I take longer. Easily 4 hours for a 4 hour session of preparation for a game like Shadowrun (dense mechanically), Star Wars (interesting combat encounters) or DnD (making maps and similar play aids). In fact the more the game looks at combat encounters s a core gameplay element, the more carefully I design the game as I like tough fights that run players nearly to the edge – but don’t kill them. Frequently if I’m using a lot of combat encounters, I like having maps and similar play aids to help – so that’s where (outside of writing notes on the scenario) most of my time really goes.

When I don’t get enough time or feel I won’t in future, I often use a clever trick: I repurpose existing adventures or materials into my games. Although set in the 1930s, many of the excellent adventures in Mythos Expeditions (as an example) can be converted or dropped into an existing campaign. I just modify the names of NPCs, places or similar to fit with my current campaign. Repurposing an adventure, by just inserting a few things of your own or similar, is fast and easier than doing something entirely from scratch. It’s also a good way to make use of published adventures, when you’re running your own campaign if you run out of time. It’s even possible to do 0 preparation and simply improvise everything out of a scenario you’re – quite literally – reading then and there. Definitely don’t attempt that unless you are supremely confident in your improvisation skills!!

Finally remember that roleplaying is a game and should be a fun hobby, especially for you as the DM. If you don’t feel you have enough time to prepare to run the game session well, then consider taking a break that week. Your players aren’t suddenly going to rebel and disappear because you decided not to show up that week (usually anyway), so it will give you some time to catch up or get ahead a bit. Especially because what I do, is I use that normal session time or slot to sit down and prepare for the game without any pressure. Or alternatively if I feel I am far enough ahead, I just take a break and go do something else that weekend. I recommend usually having a week off every 4 to 5 sessions anyway, just to ensure you don’t burn yourself out.

Edit: Also it goes without saying, but if I’m using a published adventure I always make sure to read through it beforehand if I can. This usually doesn’t take that long and you would be surprised how little of the adventure players will sometimes get through. Stealing the local Constables toupee that you accidentally mentioned before they went on the actual quest, can become an entire session taking obsession….

Well that’s all for this week I feel, so if you have a question here’s where you can get in touch with the guild:

  1. The about page has an email contact.
  2. Should you like facebook, there is a facebook page for you to like and leave messages on!
  3. Tweet short questions to me directly on twitter as well.
  4. The guild can also be found on tumblr, which is also where I tend to reblog a lot of great art!

Really complicated questions might get elevated into entire features under longer pieces, like Narrative Thoughts or Training Day as well – so don’t fret if I don’t immediately answer!