Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/08/15/tabletop-review-never-unprepared-the-complete-game-masters-guide-to-session-p-
Never Unprepared is a book that offers Game Masters (GMs) of all levels, from the brand new to the grizzled, advice from seasoned GM and self-described lover of organization and preparation Phil Vecchione. Is it good stuff or is it a bunch of crap?
Prep yourself before you wreck yourself
As might be expected from a GMing tome, a lot of the advice is about prep. This is great, because a lot of the GM’s job is about prep. Phil has a lot of good stuff to say about getting your ideas together and making them come to life. He advises you not to just sit down and start writing without ideas. Instead, the preparation cycle begins with brainstorming several ideas and then working out the ones that have staying power. After that, there are a few more stages that an idea will probably go through before it has metamorphosed into a full session or campaign. Phil outlines all of these stages, and then goes into them in detail so that anyone can see a clear line of development from conception to implementation.
Now, examining and taking apart the process of turning your idea into a working session may not sound like much fun, or maybe it takes the magic out of GMing a bit, but I think the goal of looking at prep this way is to give you tools and structure to work with so that you can make the methods your own according to your own work habits. And, if your work habits happen to be not very good at the moment (as happens a lot, let’s be honest), there are plenty of suggestions from Phil to help get you in the mindset to really construct a session for your players, and enjoy it too.
This prep is juuuuuust right…
One problem that the book deals with a lot is the idea of over- or under-prepping. It’s happened to anybody who has GMed several times: you’ve ended up with more than the players ever bothered to even explore, or you’ve ended up with not enough stuff and the players deviated slightly from the plan, leaving you struggling for ideas. Phil tries to help GMs assess how much prep they need for the game they are running through things like checklists and questions, such as what kind of players do I have? Will they get really involved in the details or will they skim over everything looking for what’s next? Do I have the general plot of the story covered from beginning to end? Do I have enough of my NPCs statted out? He gives a few examples of what can happen when we’re underprepared, like moving the players from place to place with no apparent connection (“wait, we were just in the Emperor’s throne room, now we’re being rescued from a prison cell?”).
One of the phases in the prep process is the “Selection” phase, where you decide what stays and what goes. The object is to get weak ideas out, and strong ones in and tied together. This is part of having the right prep level: if you don’t get selective about ideas then you can easily end up with too much material and you might end up using what turn out to be the weakest ideas. On the other hand, if you cut out nearly all the ideas for whatever reason, what are you going to craft a session out of? Phil advises keeping ideas that you cut somewhere nearby in case you are struggling for some more material and that idea you threw away yesterday starts to stir your imagination today.
Am I hot or not?
This book gives the GM several opportunities to take stock of their own skills and preparedness. You can read over the questions and give yourself an honest appraisal: how often do I conceptualize? How well do I put my story together? Admittedly, it feels a little arrogant to rate yourself highly, but hey if you’ve got most of this stuff down you might as well admit it.
One of the best parts of the book is the section on the Review phase. In this phase Phil asks you to take a look at your session material from three different perspectives: the Proofreader, the Director, and the Playtester. That is, look at it for general errors like leaving stuff out or grammar, then look at it from a cinematic view imagining how the story and the session flows, then look at it from the perspective of a player and what it will be like to be in your game. This is great, because in the game you can know that you looked at the session from all of these angles, and it is more likely that you will know what a player might do or how a certain scene might work out. In addition to that it just gives you such a great handle on the material you can feel more confident at the table, and your players will probably pick that up and get more into the game.
Space…the only frontier
The latter sections of the book deal a lot with how you work. Phil goes over his love of office supplies (which I totally empathize with) and finding out which tools work for you. Is it as simple as a notebook and a pencil? Great. Do you want your stuff organized with tabs and post-its and binders? Cool, get yourself to the office supply store! I would even add techniques like mind-mapping (Google it), and other less linear methods of writing ideas. Again, Phil emphasizes getting organized.
He mentions that finding prep-time can be difficult if you have a busy home or work life (or both). In those cases, he has some great suggestions for working out when you can work on your session material. They are generally centered on the particulars of his life but you will get the idea, which is basically that you have to make time. It takes dedication, sure, but if you’ve got a group ready and have a game planned, that should be enough to get you motivated. Many of his tips can be applied to just about any objective you are working toward in your spare time, you just do it when you can.
One really cool thing addressed in this book is finding out how to work with your creative cycles. As a creative person, I totally understand the idea of creative periods and the whole cyclical nature of being able to do great work on a project one day and have nothing good come the next. There are some great ideas and tools included in the pages of this section to help an eager GM find the best times to work, and find out how to cultivate their creativity.
Wait, you don’t want to spend that much time on prep, don’t want to figure out your namby-pamby “creative cycles” etc.? Well, Phil has some good suggestions for doing light prep. This is another excellent section of the book, giving examples on simplifying NPC stats and maps into things that you don’t have to look up and pore over.
So? Is it good stuff or crap?
This is good stuff! Admittedly, there are some things in here that experienced GMs are going to read and say “duh!”, but then this book really comes at this Game Mastering thing from all kinds of angles. It wrestles GM duties like Paul Bunyan wrestling a whale shark. Even folks who have been running games for a long time will find something in here that they look at and say “hey, that’s not a bad idea”. This guy is serious about his GM-ing, and he wants you to be too, if you have the will. This book will be great for those who have a group where they are struggling to come up with material on a regular basis. For people who have no pressure on them to create, well, they might read it and give the old “not bad” and keep it in mind for the next time they need to run a session. If you know you are the kind of GM who doesn’t like to prep, doesn’t like to be told how to GM, etc. then don’t bother reading this book. It’s got a lot of good ideas in it, but really we all know next time we sit down with you, oh GM-deity, you will just run it the same way you always do (and hey, sometimes that’s why we love you [or hate you]). Check out more of Phil’s work and more GM advice at Gnome Stew.
[5 of 5 Stars!]