Scheduling your prep
I generally try to be organised when it comes to getting my prep done for a campaign, some people prefer a more seat-of-their-pants approach but I like to know what I have left to do and organise it into managable pieces, it helps me get the prep done and also helps relax me at the start of a game session. If I know that I have the necessary prep done I can go into a session confident that I am prepared and ready for whatever the players throw at me.
When I say ready for whatever the players throw at me, I don’t mean that I’ve scripted everything down to nth degree, that would make for a not very entertaining game, I mean that I have enough of my world and campaign prepared so that I feel comfortably able to create consistent details if my players do something unexpected.
Try and do some of your prep in advance
This relates to my previous point, however it can be a difficult balance to strike, you don’t want to prepare everything in advance and then not end up using any of the prep, but by the same token, you don’t want to find yourself on the back-foot and panicking when the players do something odd or unexpected, and they most certainly will at some point, trust me on this one.
Take your cues from the characters you have.
Even without specifically discussing it with your players–although that’s never a bad idea–there’s a lot you can intuit about what sort of campaign they want from the characters that have been created. If you’re running a wild-west game and the players all create Pinkertons and Marshalls then it’s a fairly safe bet they’re looking to fight on the side of the law, bringing criminals to justice and preventing larcenous deeds, whereas if they create a mixture of different townsfolk perhaps a more widely focussed game dealing with the challenges people living in the american west face might be more in order.
Ask for brief character backgrounds from your players.
Make it clear to your players that you’re not expecting a massive novel from each of them to cover their character background, but that having some details would help make sure that you feature interesting stuff in the campaign. Some players are more comfortable with writing character backgrounds than others, I recommend creating a background question sheet that you ask players to fill in, this helps players who might otherwise struggle, it helps keep the background brief and makes it easier for you to reference during the later stages of your prep and during sessions.
Look through the character backgrounds and highlight anything that you find interesting.
It’s very easy to forget about a potentially entertaining point of someone’s background once your neck-deep in your new campaign and are trying to juggle all of the various tasks that a GM has to do, you want character backgrounds to be as easy to reference as possible so that you can check through them occasionally during your campaign. One way of doing this is to produce a background question sheet as detailed above, but there are other ways such as asking the players to submit their backgrounds as bullet point lists or even going through the backgrounds and highlighting major points once you receive them.
Do I need a session 0?
For those of you who don’t know, a session zero is effectively getting everyone together who will take part in the game, creating characters, discussing aspects of the game etc without actually playing a session (although some GMs do a mini-session to play out elements of a characters background here). Whilst these sessions are far from 100% necessary for a campaign game, they certainly can help since it gives everyone an opportunity to ask questions, work up some enthusiasm for the game and also for anyone who is less sure about things like character generation to ask for help.
In my mind one of the main advantages of a session zero is that talking about the campaign and getting player input makes them feel invested in the game and also starts to build up that group cameraderie.
Decide on your prepping schedule
Don’t try and do too much.
With the best will in the world real-life stuff is going to interfere and other priorities will crowd in, clamouring for your attention. Trying to take on too much prep work will just result in you not being able to manage it, at that point frustration can set in and the task of prepping your games can start to feel like an impossible task. You should know roughly how much free time you have in your normal week so set yourself realistic goals, it’s far better you do less prep a week but are productive and maintain your enthusiasm about the game than you set yourself an inachievable target, don’t manage it and become disillusioned with your own game.
Try and set aside regular time to devote to prep
It’s generally far easier to manage your time if you set yourself an hour or two on a regular basis where you sit down and run your prep, since I tend to get up early I generally do my prep on Saturday and Sunday morning or occasionally in my lunch-break at work if I don’t need my books. Don’t beat yourself up though if sometimes you can’t stick to your scheduled prep, it will happen on occasion, try and find some other time where you can fit the prep in and then get back to your schedule next week.
Work in bite-sized chunks
Sitting down and trying to design an entire kingdom or pantheon from scratch can be very daunting and might even put some people off before they’ve got started, a far better way to do this is to break the work down into smaller chunks and work on those. This is similar to techniques recommended for people taking exams or tests, rather than trying to do everything at once and overloading yourself, concentrate on smaller parts of the whole.
Identify what parts of the background you are working on the PCs are likely to run into first and work on those.
For example: If you’re creating a kingdom work on the village or town where the PCs start in a little more detail and then lightly sketch in the rest of the kingdom, you can then use the PCs actions and direction in your session to guide your prep.
Motivate yourself with fun things
We all have bits of prep that we love and that sing to us personally, and we all have bits that we don’t find so motivating, for me writing up the stats of bad-guys and NPCs isn’t particularly exciting for me in most systems whereas I love coming up with the motivations, backgrounds and quirks of said NPCs. Try to spread the bits you don’t find so fun between those bits you do enjoy, doing this means you’re more likely to get them both done.
For example: With my example of the NPCs, if I come up with all the concepts and quirks for the NPCs (the bit I enjoy) I’m then left with this huge amount of stats that I have to slog through and generate, whereas if I work on a couple of characters at a time, get their concepts/backgrounds and their stats done before moving onto the next, I can still look forward to coming up with some new concepts for the next bunch.