Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep by Phil Vecchione is game master’s (GM) answer to better time management. I ran across Never Unprepared at my friendly local gaming shop (FLGS) a few months ago and it is chock full of useful advice for anyone who is GMing, from first timers to people with decades of experience like myself.
Never Unprepared picks apart the process of planning a game and then gives you advice on how you can improve each step in your process. Through Chapters 1 through 7, it first details how a game is put together and then details each step. The five basic process are Brainstorming, or coming up with the initial ideas for the game; Selection, where you pick out the best ideas for your game; Conceptualization, where the work of planning each aspect of the game happens; Documentation of those ideas; and finally Review where we check the result for plot holes, typos, and play test the story.
Note that this isn’t a single formula to game creation but rather an assembly of advice so you can determine where you most need help and ideas for how to accomplish that. In each chapter you have a bit where you rate yourself on the aspects of that step and then the book offers advice of how to improve on those areas where you feel you are lacking.
Some of the more interesting ideas for me came from the later chapters which deal with tools for helping make your work more efficient.
Chapter 8 deals with the physical or electronic tools you use to record your ideas in each step. While Documentation uses these tools the most you will need something to write down your ideas while Brainstorming or store your Conceptualization ideas. Never Unprepared does a good job of running down all the current tools you might use as well as their pluses and minuses. For my own purposes I tend to use a simple notebook and pencil for Brainstorming and even some Conceptualization. But the rest of Conceptualization and Documentation is all done on a Wiki using the GM Only section of Obsidian Portal.
Chapter 9 deals with mastering your creative cycle, identifying when you have the most energy and time to tackle the various aspects of game preparation. It starts by having you map out your responsibilities and then identify how high your creative energy is during the remaining free periods. It is an interesting exercise. If you are like me you’ve probably already realized when ideas come most easily to you. For myself, I’m a morning person so I work best in the mornings with my energy tailing off around or just after noon. I get a resurgence after 4 or 5 PM . Frustratingly for me work eats up the first part for most of the week while family life chips into the later part. So weekend mornings are when most of my work gets done.
Another chapter I found very interesting was Chapter 10: Your Personal Prep Templates. The idea is have a standard template for your work that specifically addresses what you feel are your weaknesses. For example if you think your description is lacking , you might make a template for non-player characters (NPCs) and locations with a description section right at the beginning. That way as you plan your game you can fill that out clearly and be more confident in that area during play. I personally have a template for scenes which is how I break up the action for my games. An example scene template is:
Setup: A rough description of the initial setup of the scene. Cast: what PCs should be there. NPCs: what NPCs are present with links to their wiki pages. Location: the location and perhaps some description with a link to its wiki page. Action: The mechanics of what happens in the scene as well as any prompts for role-playing action.
Sometimes if I am running a tightly plotted scenario there will be a Clue section that points out where the story could go next based on the core clue(s) of the scene.
Of course this is a fairly prep-heavy template. For a prep lite approach you want to look at Chapter 11 which gives advice for reducing your workload and minimizing the preparation you need for a game.
The final chapter of advice deals with preparing for the unexpected: when you find a glaring hole in your story before a game or you have a family outing that uses up your weekend. The sort of problems that come up often and can derail a campaign.
The fundamental thing to understand about this book is that it is not just about time management but about finding the tools (which include the notes you are preparing) that will give you the confidence to run a great a game. For that purpose I have not seen a better resource than Never Unprepared.