Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dwimmermount and Preparation

Based on the comments to my last Dwimmermount post, it's clear there's some interest in my discussion certain aspects of how and why I do things in my campaign. So this post will address one of the questions I often get asked: how do I prepare for my weekly games? My answer is that I don't really prepare at all, but let me explain.

I am a very seat-of-the-pants kind of referee (aka "improvisational referee," aka "lazy referee"). I don't spend hours each week preparing for my sessions, at least not in any formal way. I do think about upcoming sessions, but I don't spend huge amounts of time poring over game books and making extensive notes in advance. Mostly, I just think about what my players have already done and consider what they will likely do next so I can be ready to pull things together when they -- or the dice -- push a session this way or that.

Now, to be fair, before the campaign began, I did do a fair bit of prep work. I pulled together maps from various sources and supplemented them with my own so that I had a rough structure for the first 5 levels of Dwimmermount. In play, I often change the maps on the fly, as I get new ideas, so those maps are, like so much of my prep work, guidelines rather than the Gospel truth. I also partially filled those maps with monsters and treasures, using the tables in the OD&D books. However, I also fill some over the course of play, reacting to player actions, my own ideas, and random rolls of the dice. Traps are a little different, as they're harder to invent off the cuff, so I typically prepare them in advance. The same goes for what M.A.R. Barker calls "Saturday night specials" -- those unique and memorable sections of the dungeon filled with mysteries, puzzles, enigmas, and unusual dangers.

I love random tables and use them often. Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets are a godsend and I keep mine close at hand. I also have a list of "appropriate" names I use for new NPCs introduced through play, although I sometimes let the players name them, since it alleviates some of the "sameness" that can occur when only one person (i.e. me) is the source of all names. I keep little scraps of paper with notes and ideas on them. I refer to them when I'm at a loss for how to proceed and need some inspiration. A number of things in the campaign that are now important arose because I put a sentence or two down on a piece of paper and I read them at just the right time to egg me on.

So, as you can see, I'm a pretty slapdash referee. My main gifts are a fairly quick mind in being able to react to unexpected turns of events and a complete lack of worry about "doing it wrong." And, honestly, both these talents can be learned and I would argue must be learned if you want to play an old school game for any length of time. Most of what happens at my table is spontaneous in the sense that it arises out of the confluence of my players and I interacting with one another and the random results of dice. I also have a lot of handy resources to draw upon to aid and inspire me when I run into a creative "dry spell" during play. That helps immeasurably. And of course it helps that OD&D is so simple mechanically that you can easily "conjure up" an entire lair of orcs and the combat that ensues from invading it without the need for any prep work whatsoever.

I should add that I am blessed with very good players, who not only share my sense of the game but whose ideas are inspiring to me. The Dwimmermount campaign is very player driven and thank goodness for that. The campaign might well have died if its success rested solely on my shoulders and I think that's true of most good RPG campaigns of any sort. It's particularly so in old school games, I feel, because they eschew "story" as a framing device. Without extensive player input and decision making, the twin terrors of referee railroads and aimless wandering rear their ugly heads and both are, in their own ways, surefire campaign killers. So, as Dwimmermount prepares to enter its second year of play, I must thank my players for all the fun they've given me through their great characterizations, creative decisions, and willingness to roll with the punches when necessary. The campaign wouldn't be the same without you.

7 comments:

  1. In play, I often change the maps on the fly, as I get new ideas, so those maps are, like so much of my prep work, guidelines rather than the Gospel truth. I also partially filled those maps with monsters and treasures, using the tables in the OD&D books.

    How dare you! You just making it difficult for somebody to publish Dwimmermount 30 years from now. %-)

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  2. Building on Rob's comment, it would be very interesting later to compare your original maps to all the changes you made and why.

    If you're looking for products to spin off from Dwimmermount, an example of its development from original ideas to first execution and then the evolution of the dungeon in response to character actions would attract and fascinate a large contingent of the DMing population out there.

    There are far too many products that illustrate the gospel truth approach to dungeon design (buy the module and run it "properly") and maybe none that do justice to the dynamic-development approach.

    For now, to keep that idea open, probably all you'd have to do is keep copies of the various stages of your work and jot the occasional reminder note about why you made each change.

    Just a thought.

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  3. How dare you! You just making it difficult for somebody to publish Dwimmermount 30 years from now. %-)

    I am reliably informed that I am indeed a bad, bad person. This is just further evidence of that.

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  4. There are far too many products that illustrate the gospel truth approach to dungeon design (buy the module and run it "properly") and maybe none that do justice to the dynamic-development approach.

    Probably because there is no "Gospel truth" to dungeon design. I do what I do because it works for me, as I suspect most referees do. I don't deny that what I do and why might prove interesting to others, but I would hate for anyone to take my approach as the approach.

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  5. It's interesting to see how many point of similarity their are between your prep for "old school" play, and the kind of prep that's common for dirty hippy storygames.

    * list of names
    * a broad outline of situation
    * ideas for points of challenge, but without preconceived outcomes

    ...and in play...

    * honoring player choice
    * soliciting and respecting player input
    * letting player engagement + the rules system determine final outcomes.

    Indeed, I know for my part my experience playing "storygames" has equipped me with a strong set of GMing tools which have stood me in good stead in my recent forays back into the old school.

    That's not to say there aren't distinct differences between the newest and oldest schools, both philosophically and procedurally. Still the existence of strong points of similarity in "practical GMing" would seem to indicate to me that there is a common core to what it means to play a roleplaying game successfully.

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  6. Indeed, I know for my part my experience playing "storygames" has equipped me with a strong set of GMing tools which have stood me in good stead in my recent forays back into the old school.

    I don't doubt it. The biggest difference, I think, is that most old school games are very open-ended in their focus, whereas most storygames tend to be more tightly focused. There are exceptions on both sides, of course, but I think it's the diffuseness of old school games that makes them so attractive to me right now.

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  7. There is nothing better than having a group of players (or at least most of your group) who are not just decent players, but can just relax and go along with the GM's flow. Makes winging it so much easier (and fun for GM as well as players).

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