Behind the Screen Chapter 4: Session Setup

chap4Welcome to chapter 4 of my weekly write up on various things role playing. This week, I will be looking at session set-up – the process of gathering the things you need to run a given session of your favourite role playing game. This will not include pre-made adventures, obviously, because you don’t need much there.

First of all, you need an idea. The session needs to be about something. Whether it is a continuation of an over-arching story or something else completely off the wall, there should be a goal at the end. It need not be super complex, but it should fit the feel of the game itself. But in saying that, a sudden shift in tone and content can sometimes be welcome, depending on the group you are playing with. If your campaign is mainly combat based then having a largely role playing session can break things up a lot. Variety is the spice of life, they say. I personally like sliding the odd horror session into non-horror games. I draw on my knowledge of the Lovecraftian Mythos and other parts of the horror genre. I will twist the setting into something much darker and put certain re-occurring elements into the session that hint at something much larger and more nightmare inducing. Quite often I will adjust the rules for these sessions to keep the players on edge.

Once you have your idea, whatever it may be, then it must be fleshed out and made usable. I’ve seen three ways in which GMs approach this part, and in terms of preparation, it can be simply described as ‘a lot’, ‘some’ and ‘none’. I’ll go into detail about those terms now.


A Lot of Preparation


Prep’s done, let’s play.

Some GMs will prepare their session very thoroughly – writing the full course of the session down in extended detail, exactly what the PCs will encounter and when, and in what order. They will have maps for everything and all the stats they need for the slew of creatures and NPCs that the PCs may encounter. There are pros and cons for this method. Some of the benefits include a session running (fairly) smoothly as all the needed details are close at hand and time need not be wasted looking for them. But the cons are the time needed to write up all those details, and having such a structured session can lead to the players being forced to follow the story instead of exploring it more organically – a term generally called ‘being railroaded’ or ‘being on the rails’. Another problem this method can cause is if the GM is not very spontaneous and the PCs decide to go from the set path, the GM might not be able to cope very well with having to come up with content they did not plan previously.


Some Preparation

This is the method I employ when I organise my sessions. It involves writing down some  of the information required, but not writing down the entire session from start to finish. I would get a map for the main dungeon or outdoor area, but not for minor areas or rest stops. I would make a bullet point list of the events that I would like to occur during the course of the session, but it is not in any sort of order. I would make a list of NPCs, but not bother to give them stats beyond a name and basic profile. The monsters I’d use would just be a list with page number references so I can look up the monsters in the books. Any treasure would be randomly rolled, except for specific pieces, or I would just think up random things.

This method does not work so well for those who might be lacking in spontaneous imagination. Using this method would mean the GM will have to think up descriptions and such on the fly. The great benefit, I think, is adaptability. PCs will always do something the GM doesn’t expect, and a rigid plan doesn’t cope as well with this. From my experience, players generally don’t like being railroaded, and never like being denied an action if it is reasonably possible. This method can easily handle the PCs wanting to do their own thing while still providing all the events that will make it more enjoyable. A good GM can essentially control the players without them knowing.


No Preparation

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It is as the name states. The GM does no prep for the session, beyond maybe deciding on an idea to follow. A good GM can cope with this, but a less experienced GM would most likely have troubles. Quite often, from what I’ve seen, the session will move haltingly. The GM will have to pause frequently to look up things like monsters, rules, treasures and other details. To me, a smoothly flowing game is a good game. While I have quite often run on the fly sessions, I don’t think they were as good as my more prepared ones.


The full prep method is something that would work well with a new GM who is playing with new players. New players don’t know that they can do whatever they want, and will generally follow the instructions given by the GM. This method does not work well with experienced players and a new GM, because the new GM might not be able to handle the players going off the set path. This is something I am quite experienced with, as I have run quite a few pre-made adventures, which act the same as the full prep method (though with me, it is normally something akin to no prep, as I generally fail to read through the entire adventure, and just make it up as I go along). If a new GM is running a pre-made adventure and experienced players in the group ask to go somewhere the adventure does not support, the GM could be in trouble if they cannot invent something to fill that void.

As I’ve said, I use the medium amount of prep level. For me, that works really well. It gives me enough information to work with so that the game runs smoothly while giving me enough space to invent things as I need to fill in any gaps. As the PCs are moving through a given area, I can see that area in my head, so coming up with on the fly descriptions of the location is quite easy for me. In comparison, my partner tends to see words rather than pictures or movies in her head, so while she can (and has) run on the fly games, she needs to write a bit more down prior to really populate that session because she has a bit more trouble with spontaneous descriptions. I’m not saying her game sessions are bad – because she would hate me if I did – but I am saying that her sessions are more flavourful the more prep she puts into it (and I won’t get in trouble for this because I’ve told her this before).

So what it really boils down to is personal preference and experimentation. Try all the methods and see what works for you and your group. It is all very well and good spending two weeks writing up every single thing that can happen in a session, but then you can have your players resent you for railroading them. Spending no time on the session because you decide to be lazy can result in the players being annoyed because you have to stop every 15 minutes to check something in a book or find a particular monster.

We all have our own methods, so tell me about yours. I genuinely want to know. One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that as a GM and player, there are always ways to improve, and I am still on that mission.

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One Comment
  1. Jemma
    January 17, 2016 | Reply

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