This is the first of five articles scheduled to be part of the November 2016 Blog Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is hosting. The carnival subject is “ordinary life” – in this case, the ordinary life of a GM and how it impacts his game…
This article was within about 3 hours of completion, some 4 hours short of the desire publication deadline, when an electron strayed down the wrong pathway and lost about half of what you can see below. It’s quite disturbing when half your document is suddenly filled with garbage characters. Hence the delay in publication…
The typical GM’s life revolves around five activities: Plotting/Writing, Design, Time Management, Research, and Logistics. These five activities have to be arranged around everything else that the GM does – eating, sleeping, working, entertainment, and so on. The subject of this article is to offer an overview of those activities, their management, and how that arrangement is handled.
Every GM’s circumstances differ either by a little or a lot from those of every other GM. That makes this a difficult subject to write about because you can’t easily generalize and still be relevant. But I’ve been a GM under a number of different arrangements and circumstances, having been at this for a while now – since 1981, in fact – so it’s my hope that if I recount my own varying experiences from different periods of my life and then generalize all of them, I will in fact be able to discuss the subject in a meaningful way. The ride may get a little bumpy along the way, but at the end, other GMs reading this will be able to point at one of those circumstances and say, “that’s the one that’s closest to my situation” and find applicability to their own campaigns as a result – so we’ll get there in the end.
I’ve selected a number of different time periods in which my approach to gaming was quite different due to my external ‘real life’ circumstances of the time.
- Period 1 is an aggregate of a couple of different time periods when I had no job (but had some obligations to meet in order to receive government support, consuming anywhere from 1/2 to 3 half-days a week – the equivalent of a part-time job but which traded disposable income for free time. Also included in this aggregate will be a recent time period in which I had no obligations but restricted physical capacity and in which I was writing gaming articles semi-regularly, either for Roleplaying Tips or in the early days of Campaign Mastery.
- Period 2 covers the early days, a couple of years after I first settled with some permanence in Sydney and had a full-time job, but had minimal outside capacity for entertainment beyond gaming.
- Period 3 is an aggregate of a number of times in which I was working full-time. There was a later period just after I resettled in Sydney (after spending a year away), and a couple of other occasions on which I had reliable employment, with the occasional bout of overtime, plus some outside non-gaming interests or social life to accommodate.
- Period 4 will deal with my current situation in which I have demanding physical constraints and the equivalent of a part-time job – writing Campaign Mastery – around which I have to structure everything else I do.
- Finally, Period 5 was a time when I had rather greater working responsibilities that mandated constant overtime – up to 200 hours of it a week at one point, but averaging about 30 hours a week, the equivalent of having a second part-time job, which a lot of people have to do these days to make ends meet, or of someone who has to look after the kids.
As you can tell, the major variance is in the amount of leisure time available, and the presence of other consumers of that leisure time with activities other than gaming and related matters. They have been arranged in sequence of decreasing time available for gaming, ranging from almost-unlimited free time (Period 1) to virtually no free time at all (Period 5), and a couple of different points in between. Hopefully one of them will be analogous to each reader’s current situation.
I’m going to discuss each of the time periods using the same structure:
- Context: The place to start is with an overview of each period to put the game-related activities into context.
- Game Play: How much potential prep time there was, and how much of that was consumed with actual gaming, and how the two were structured.
- Plotting/Writing: The basic consumer of time known as game prep, what corners had to be cut, how it had to be squeezed in, and where time was found to make it possible.
- Design: A sub-element of game prep, usually the handmaiden of plot/writing, how much of it I did and what corners had to be cut.
- Time Management: How rigidly I had to organize my time, and the impact of that necessity.
- Research: Time, tools, and practicalities.
- Logistics: Often overlooked, but a centrally important factor in a number of ways.
- Making Gaming Fit: the other major distractions, how gaming had to be compromised to fit, and how gaming forced compromises on those other leisure activities.
- The Impact On GMing Style: A wrap-up in which the consequences of all this squeezing of time are examined for consequences.
Period 1: Near-Unlimited Time
These days the Australian system of unemployment support is far harsher in terms of the degree of effort required to meet obligations and is founded upon the false assumption that there is work available for anyone who wants it, but in past times it was for more balanced. I don’t want to get too deeply into the politics and sociology involved, because those are side issues; instead, I want to focus on the time left available after those obligations were met. In a nutshell, that left between 5.5 and 6.5 days available. That’s plenty of time to run and prep a couple of campaigns for weekly play, and so that’s what I did.
My general rule of thumb is that every hour of game time requires between 1.5 and 2 hours of prep to be adequately provisioned. Anything less than that, and game prep is compromised; anything more is generally wasting time that could better be spent on big-picture activities or something entirely unrelated (a variety of stimulus helps keep you fresh).
Running two campaigns a week, sometimes three (I had a couple of once-a-month campaigns on the side, plus four-to-eight campaigns running concurrently each month) chews up time, but time was plentiful. More importantly, because four of those campaigns were set in the same game world, any picture work had four times the usual ‘value-for-money’. When the number of campaigns was four (plus on-the-side games), the game sessions were twice as long – 8-10 hours each instead of 4-5. Outside of the initial creation stage, when there is always more work to do, the total demands were the same: about 20 hours a week, plus eight hours for play. You can easily fit that into four days of roughly working-hours length, leaving plenty of time for TV or campaign creation or rules or whatever.
I generally made the effort to try and get each game’s major prep done in a single day, allowing me another half-day to full-day to polish anything that wasn’t quite as good as it should be, or that would add some lasting value to the overall campaign.
But it’s a truism that activity loads will increase to more than fill any empty time. Periodically, I would find that I was cutting game-prep corners to allow a little more time on a side project, and ultimately, that many campaigns became too much for me. Eventually, things stabilized at five campaigns for roughly 5 hours play a month, each – a single day’s prep each week.
A couple of tips for managing activities in this sort of environment:
- Always take care of any real-world necessities first.
- Divide game prep into the essential and the non-essential. Divide the non-essential into the enjoyable and the tedious. Ignore the last, prioritize the first, and use the middle group to revitalize and re-motivate yourself as necessary.
- Save something that’s both quick and fun for the night before play; you’ll find that not only is the game more enjoyable for you but is often more entertaining for the players, and that your GM skills are both quicker and sharper, if you start in an “up” frame of mind.
- The “Essential” takes priority over any other form of recreation. Always allow yourself a 50% time margin to complete it. Everything else is negotiable.
The game week always starts with outlining the plot. Don’t rely on memory or on what seems obvious right after a game session; memory will fail you at some point. I then use the plot outline to list the required game prep that I would ideally like to have done. That list is always longer than time will permit; I use the prioritization technique specified in the bullet points above to categorize what has to be done. Top priority is always breaking the plot down into a more substantial outline, writing any narrative and dialogue that’s to be pre-packaged, and creating any notes to players that tell them things that the table in general don’t find out.
That gets followed by a more complete rendering of the adventure in text form. I always focus first on the big picture because that’s my guideline if/when the players zig when I expect them to zag; next, I focus on the needs of this individual adventure. Any other “essential” game prep gets done when it becomes relevant to the plot outline – if I need a map, I’ll pause writing and produce a rough outline when I get to the point where the PCs are first expected to enter the location, and so on. However, I won’t create full NPCs at this point; just a couple of rough notes on their story functions and the concept, personality, archetype, and/or abilities that are needed for them to perform that function. Just the essentials, in other words.
When you have plenty of time, there is no need to skimp or cut corners in this part of game prep.
Design generally comprises four types of activity: (1) Handouts/Props; (2) Illustrations; (3) Final versions of maps; and (4) Ready-for-play NPCs.
These all get the same essential/nonessential-but-fun/nonessential-and-tedious breakup. This category is always the first where corners get cut if they have to be. It’s always better to have a rough indicator for the players and solid vision in your head of what it will be, supported with descriptive narrative, than it is to have part of the day’s play fully detailed and lavishly illustrated/mapped and part not-at-all.
Again, unless you go completely over-the-top, with lots of time available, the essentials and most of the non-essential-but-fun activities should be possible.
I often found that I could work on the non-essential-but-fun while watching TV; it gave me something to do while the ads were on.
1.3 Time Management
Time management is fairly loose, tightening up a bit as game day approaches. If all the essentials are done, and I had lots of time on my hands, I would frequently look ahead and do any essentials for the following week’s game before dealing with the non-essentials for this week’s game, especially if I knew that I had something to do that was going to take a lot longer than usual.
For most of the period that this category of available time applied, I was without internet. That meant that I generally had two options: the local library, and making stuff up. Being the creative type, I usually applied the latter course, augmented by my personal reference library.
Research can basically be considered an interruption to the writing process. If you can do that research at home on-the-fly, the disruption is minor; if you have to walk to the library and look something up, it’s substantial. In the latter event, I did my best to create a list of all the specific questions that I needed answers to, and dealt with it all in one hit, minimizing the time wasted in traveling back-and-forth. If a lack of information created a bottleneck in the writing process, I always chose to make something up and keep writing.
This also formed my basic attitude to the internet long before the world-wide-web even existed – so far as I am concerned, it simply expands that home library. There were definitely times that I felt the lack, especially when dealing with European nations and cultures. You can’t tell much from a history and an atlas!
I always took the research needs of a campaign into account when designing it. It helped that I had a large omnivore’s appetite for non-fiction and television documentaries; I know a huge amount of odd factoids that have often come in handy with no clear idea of when, where, and how I learned it.
- Tip: Amazon’s “Look within”, intended to be a sales-and-marketing opportunity, can be a great way to conduct research. Even if only 1/10th of a book is included, there is a chance that this tenth will include what you need to know. Let’s say the subject is Denmark; I start with the Wikipedia page, which will answer most questions I might have, leaving perhaps 1/10th or so. I will then go to Amazon Books and search for “Denmark”, picking the two or three most promising books off the first page or two of results for closer inspection. Then I will “look inside” any of those that offer the option. It doesn’t always give the answer needed, but neither would plucking a book off the library shelves. And if I discover a book that is generally going to be useful on multiple occasions, it goes into my wishlist for purchase when finances permit.
My logistics were always focused on my personal finances during these periods. The trade-off between employment and unemployment was always free time vs financial independence. When I was first GMing, I could only afford bus fare to gaming, not back again; I walked the latter, often getting home around the 3AM mark, sometimes later.
Logistics had one other vital role to play in the era when I did not have access to a laptop: if it wasn’t on paper, it couldn’t go to the game, and everything that I needed for a game session had to be physically carried.
Another key consideration under this heading was paying for meals. There were often two or even three of these to be covered; on many occasions I would make sandwiches, adding to my load (and consuming space in the bag used to hold everything). If it was a choice between buying a meal and getting public transport home after gaming, buying the meal won. On one occasion, I had to pay so much in photocopying expenses that I walked both ways.
As a general rule of thumb, the more tightly you have to manage your time, the more of a free hand you have with respect to logistics, and vice-versa, at least in my experience.
1.6 The Impact On GMing Style:
Adventures were a lot more sophisticated and polished, and there was a lot of focus on creating rich adventuring environments and game worlds. I looked on a lot of prep as being an investment in the campaign; for example, if I didn’t need an encounter or a location in one adventure, I would still have it floating around for when it did become useful. To some extent, too, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the Drow Kingdom was already fleshed out and detailed, it made it a lot easier to create an adventure that made use of the location.
Period 2: Dedicated Leisure Time
In my early days, I had lots of time but little money. These gave way to a period in which I had less time due to employment, but rather more money – and virtually nothing to do with my free time except gaming. That slowly changed when I bought my first TV and VCR, but I was more interested in music than TV in those days, and music is something that you can listen to while doing something else – as I write this, “The Best Of Supertramp” is drowning out the noise of traffic and providing non-immersive background. So my first purchases were a Walkman, a graphic equalizer, and some car speakers that were mounted on wooden enclosures. I used car speakers because they were sensitive enough to be powered by the Walkman, and when I went out, I just had to unplug it and jack in my headphones and keep right on listening to whatever it was that had been playing.
As a result, I had about half the prep time that I had enjoyed previously, but I was still learning how to GM; my techniques were inefficient and more closely resembled plotting a novel or short story. There wasn’t all that much in the way of grand plans, and the descriptor “epic” could only be applied to the occasional failure.
At the same time, I knew the direction that I wanted to head in my gaming; I just had to figure out how to make it happen. I frequently think back to those days when writing the “Basics For Beginners (and the over-experienced)” series, with the occasional technique learned or devised subsequently thrown in for good measure.
Quite often, i didn’t plot; I simply started writing, with no idea of the direction in which the story would go. At the time, I only had one or two campaigns, and all were being played weekly, so I would usually start with whatever the PCs had said they wanted to do in the previous adventure and the question, “how can I make this interesting?”. My focus was not on the PC who wanted to do whatever it was, but on how the situation would be made interesting for the other players at the table. I relied heavily on the premise that seeing someone succeed without a struggle was boring, whereas a complication or struggle could be enjoyed vicariously, especially if it spilled over to affect the whole group and not just the individual. There was also a strong emphasis on character interactions.
Everything was being done either longhand or, later, with a manual typewriter.
Handouts didn’t exist. Maps were all hand-drawn with ruler and graph paper, usually twice – once in pencil and a second time in ink, normally using 0.5mm marker pens. I worked hard on character illustrations, both PC and NPC, but anything else was rudimentary line art at best. Some sketches from back then are still in my possession; some were better than I appreciated at the time, some worse than I thought, and some manage to be both at the same time in different sections! All NPCs were fully developed and statted out, 99% of which was never used.
2.3 Time Management:
There wasn’t much of this at all; if I finished the adventure early, I would spend the rest of the week thinking about the big picture and making notes on ideas for later adventures, or working on rewriting the rules to do more of what I wanted and less of what I didn’t in a relatively piecemeal approach.
At this point, I didn’t have much of a reference library. There was no research; I simply made it up as I went along. While there was a great freedom in doing so, it showed in a frequent lack of polish and detail.
I no longer had to walk home, a positive benefit of being employed. But I would often go to a friend’s house on Friday nights for gaming, stay there overnight, travel to gaming on Saturday with him and the others who had showed up – initially by public transport and later in his car, then head home Saturday night – or with another friend back to his place for the night and still more gaming on the Sunday. I would also spend a lot of time watching videos with him until the wee small hours – he had an extensive collection of 1970s and 80s sci-fi, both TV shows and movies. After a few months of this, we were joined by another friend who had escaped a bad domestic situation and now crashed on my floor the rest of the week.
It was easy to make gaming fit; everything else (bar work) was compromised to make it do so.
2.6 The Impact On GMing Style:
I’ve given some indication of this in the section on Plot and Writing. These days, a lot of those plots seem so rudimentary that in writing up the official history of the Champions campaign for reference by later players – a still-unfinished process – I have found it necessary to dress up the plots or even replace them completely, keeping only the broad outlines of what took place in actual play at the time (another part of the motivation for these changes is to remove trademarked characters expropriated from other sources and replace them with more original creations).
Period 3: Part-Time without Restrictions
In the many timespans that comprise period 3, I was working at least part-time, consuming some of what would otherwise have been free time, but I had few other sources of recreation aside from reading old favorites. I didn’t always have the time to go to the library to borrow books, but made up for that by being able to spend money on my own books. Logistics eased, as always happens when you have money in your pocket (no matter how minimal) but time management became more important.
I frequently only had enough time to prep one campaign for play each week, but I continued running two or three or more of them anyway, so they were all fraught with compromises. The tight plotting of Period one was conspicuous in its absence; while there were a number of ongoing plotlines that I manipulated – hastening here and delaying there – in order to create climactic resolutions, there was a far greater episodic emphasis, and far more patchiness when it came to quality.
One of the major changes that I made to the way I structured my plotting and writing was to always have a quick-and-dirty filler adventure on hand that I could drop into the campaign at the last minute. This was usually the opening salvo in a new longer-range plotline whose details had not yet been fully worked out, but on occasion it was a standalone adventure. Some things that were tried as experiments/fillers in this time period worked, such as dedicating a ‘standalone’ adventure to the introduction of each major NPC or ‘chess piece’ within the campaign, especially if these were to be different from canon, which is now part of my standard campaign structures.
The benefit was that if necessary, I could delay the next major development in an ongoing plotline until it was ready. The danger – and the result that eventuated – was that I would end up with too many plotlines on the go at the same time. This was also the source of some of that patchiness in quality that I mentioned. There were times that I invented the basic outlines of the plot in the car on the way to play, as I described in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly, especially when other interests began to eat into the available time. In hindsight, I was doing too much for the available time; but at the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do.
The basic approach described in 1.1 was unchanged in these periods other than as detailed above, but corners were cut almost everywhere, especially in the design phase.
Handouts just didn’t happen, and any need for them was written out and replaced with in-game narrative. For maps, rough drafts was usually adjudged to be enough. Illustrations were reduced to rough sketches done as I went, or also replaced with narrative; this sharpened my skills in the narrative area greatly. Everything was done on a manual typewriter or written longhand (mostly the latter) – and it’s astonishing how you learn to compress your writing when that’s the case. And I completely stopped developing NPCs beyond the initial ‘specifications’ described in 1.1.
3.3 Time Management:
Time management became a critical consideration. Many things that at other times would have been deemed “essential” were downgraded to “non-essential” and most non-essentials didn’t happen at all. Because I was trying to do too much, it became critically important to estimate how long tasks would take, and schedule them sufficiently in advance that I had at least a theoretical hope of finishing them on time. Quite often during this period I would use a 1-5 scale for priority instead of the simpler system described earlier. With some polishing and refinement, this period’s work practices were the basis for the system described in Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity.
Research simply didn’t happen if I didn’t have what I needed to hand. Even if I knew I had a book with the required information in it, I set a strict time limit to first searching for that book and second searching the contents for the information required. These days, the approach described in Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time would usually permit full research to be carried out within that allocated and restricted timespan; back then, there was no internet, so the basic practice was to further extend the practice of “answers, fast, or make something up”.
These weren’t as important. There was still a limit on how much I could take to a game, but that was fine because I didn’t have time to prepare as much material, anyway.
3.6 The Impact On GMing Style:
I had developed a long-term campaign plan before entering this period; all that had to be done was to devise the actual adventures that fitted into the prescheduled slots in that campaign plan. The results were a strange blend of careful planning and improv that worked so well it’s become a standard part of my toolkit ever since, though I no longer improv anywhere near as much as I did back then. What was astonishing to me is the way I garnered a reputation for having everything preplanned in this period, thanks to that master plan; as best I can tell, none of the players could ever tell that I was devising adventures ad-hoc and en-route. I’ve since noticed the exact same thing happening in more recent campaigns, such as Lovecraft’s Legacies, my Dr Who campaign.
Here’s a useful way to look at the process: There’s a rough master plan which dictates how each adventure relates to the whole, but doesn’t say very much about the content of that adventure, and which is largely concerned with evolving the campaign background. Each adventure then has a specific plan which creates an initial situation and provides an overall direction towards achieving the requirements from the master plan. The adventure itself is largely preplanned, but that specific plan, the current status of the campaign background, and the adventure/campaign themes, give me the confidence to let the PCs wander away from whatever I have planned, sure that I will manage to incorporate the developments that the master plan requires and beyond that, whatever is fun is fine.
Period 4: Part-Time with Restrictions
This is my now. I write Campaign Mastery two days a week, sometimes three; I do campaign prep for the Adventurer’s Club one day a week; regular life maintenance – shopping, etc – takes another day, sometimes two; I play one day a week; and that leaves one day for watching TV and relaxing and doing anything else that’s on my horizon, like prepping for my other campaigns.
All that is complicated by my physical condition, especially my eyes, neck and back.
I talked about the latter in Part 2 of Dice And Life: Bio of a gamemaster (but I’ve linked to part one so that if you’re interested, you can read the whole thing; there’s a link at the end of the post that will take you to part 2). In a nutshell, one of the discs in my lower back has split and managed to turn inside-out, where the lining abrades both the muscle wall and the spinal column. The vertebrae on either side of the damaged disc occasionally pinch nerves, and are only held in place by my back muscles, which are continually being damaged by the disk. The consequence is that I can’t do anything for too long (stand up, walk, sit, travel, even lie down) without crippling back pain. What’s more, short-term agony is always one careless move away – or a cough, or sneeze, or whatever. After severely overdoing it two or three years ago when family visited, I have only recently regained sufficient capacity to be able to walk about three city blocks – on a good day.
In my neck, I have two more slipped discs (one worse than the other) which occasionally pinch nerves affecting my upper body or give my hand uncontrollable shakes, and which often requires me to sleep in positions that puts my lower back under stress, and another which is showing the first signs of arthritis. It aches if I write for too long without a break unless I’m careful not to lean forward.
Both often cause phantom pains in other parts of my body, especially hips and shoulders. When my neck is particularly bad, my left arm can be completely numb and all-but-immobile. They also prevent me from doing even simple things in the kitchen more than two or three times a week – even making sandwiches is often beyond me. This makes managing my diabetes difficult, but fortunately I have responded very well to medication in that area.
As a rough guide, for every 2 hours or so of sitting and writing, I have to spend 30 minutes lying down. In combination with the sleep disruptions caused by these two injuries, it’s easy to drop off, further contributing to a perpetually-confused sleep cycle. But that at least lets me rest my eyes, which get quite tired after reading a screen for hours at a time, or reading a book for a few minutes.
These days, I organize my life around these physical infirmities and limitations. Everything takes 25% or more longer than it should – more, because it’s inefficient to stop and start; you have to spend additional time getting back up to speed, and you lose creative momentum.
The solution to that problem, to a large extent, is to plan more stringently in advance, as described in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post. I can delay taking a break long enough to finish a section or subsection, making it much easier to get back into the groove after a rest, or can bring the rest forward if I’m about to start a new section that I don’t think will be completed in time.
As I have remarked a number of times in subsequent articles, I use exactly the same process to do just about everything, including writing game content like adventures. This essentially means defining my campaign and adventure plans more robustly and in bullet-point form, permitting me to expand these adventure notes one at a time.
I’ve made any number of attempts in various articles to explain the process that I use, but have never been completely satisfied with any of them, so here’s yet another. The diagram to the right illustrates the process; I have a master plan that lists the developments in the big picture and contains, as a sublist, a very broad outline of the game events that result in those developments. A typical example might be “Earth-Prime: Baron Varnae (supervampire) – people are vanishing from the Paris Sewer art community and there are reports that the place is haunted by a shadow that kills with a glance.” This tells me where, in broad terms, the adventure is to take place, who the antagonist is to be, and what (in general) the plotline (or in this case, plot hook) are going to be. In addition, there might be various subplot developments and incidents from the personal lives of the PCs. These, collectively, are the “Adventure Content”.
The second level of planning is what I do when I refer to “plotting” – I take those known elements of the adventure that I am working on and add more until I have a full story outlined, identifying how the PCs will get into each piece of the plot, what the purpose of that plot element is at a metagame or big-picture level, what the tone of the adventure is to be, and so on, and the order in which they are to occur. These collectively form the Adventure Outline, and each item is “plot content”. A specific piece of adventure content may provide one piece of plot content or many. At this point, I also look at what any PCs are doing if there is no specific plot material for them – I have a table that I put together of 100 random “general events” in the PCs lives, so I simply roll for each.
Once the adventure outline is complete, it’s time to actually write the adventure. I break the list of plot contents and break it into acts and scenes, and sometimes into even broader units called Parts, indicating that the adventure is intended to operate over multiple weeks of play. I may also specify prologue and epilogue. Starting with the first one on the list, I break it into logical scenes and specify any details that will be needed – you can see the list in the right-hand side of the yellow box. Descriptions, who, where, what’s said, and what’s to happen, basically. Then I move on to the next one, and keep going until I’ve finished the adventure, or – if I’m pressed for time – enough to get me through the next day’s play.
A lot of this material is in brief note form; my players still have no idea how much of each game session is run “off the cuff” in response to their choices and decisions (well, one might, because he’s in the Dr Who campaign and I send him the adventure as written after it is finished). I use my improv skills to cover any shortcomings or gaps in my planning, using the adventure outline and the big picture content of the adventure to enable me to know what’s important in terms of outcome when the players go off-script.
The priorities for any given adventure are, in order, (1) to fulfill the big-picture needs; (2) to tell a good story that entertains the players; and (3) to keep the campaign and its NPCs evolving and developing. Anything and everything else is up for grabs, a distant fourth-place ranking in importance.
The major strength of this approach is that the essentials get done, and as much of the non-essentials as there is time for, but if anything else is unfinished, I know what it is that I have to achieve with whatever improvisation I use to fill the gap.
Handouts happen from time to time, but these represent a major investment in time and effort, requiring me to start work on them months in advance, so they are fairly rare. Maps are rough sketches some of the time, narrative descriptions of locations some of the time, and images some of the time, or some combination. On occasion, I will lay out battlemaps but I’ve found that leaning over the table to set these up is hard on my back, so I prefer to do them the day before play if at all possible; if that inconveniences the players at the game table, that’s too bad. As for NPCs, I’ve written several articles here at Campaign Mastery outlining the techniques that I use to create them – and not to spend any more time creating them than I have to. See:
- Look beyond the box: a looser concept for NPCs,
- Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep,
- The Flunkie Equation – quick and easy Hors d’Combat, and
- The Ubercharacter Wimp: Plotting within your PCs limitations.
You can also find a number of actual examples that I offered in the pre- and post-Christmas period last year (go to this list of articles from December 2015 and this one for January 2016, and click on any of the articles that are entitled “Pieces Of Creation”.
4.3 Time Management
You would think that time management would be more critical than ever, and sometimes – as when there is a handout required – that is the case, but for the most part the plotting technique outlined earlier means that I don’t have to worry too much about that.
My #1 priority is my health; Campaign Mastery is priority number two; and gaming is priority number three. These days, I GM mainly out of friendship, for my own pleasure – I like entertaining others – and for the inspiration of new articles. I could probably be more productive – for a while, at least – if I gave up GMing and focused on writing fiction and game supplements; but, since gaming is my primary social activity, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t go squirrelly without it.
For that matter, cold hard logic states that I should take CM to a weekly blog instead of the current bi-weekly schedule, enabling me to start updating old posts and converting them into e-books, but the itch to create new content is too strong; I have trouble squeezing every article I come up with into the current schedule, never mind trying to do it into half as many. My post schedule currently stretches into late January! It will undoubtedly change between now and then, but the fact remains that I have enough ideas for articles outlined to carry me through the next three months without thinking of anything in that time.
So my time management is simple and flexible. Sunday, I start Monday’s post (if necessary), and Monday I finish it, then deal with any big-picture game items needing my attention. Tuesday I deal with any real-life priorities. Wednesday I do game prep for the Adventurer’s Club campaign with my co-GM. Thursday, and occasionally Friday, I do the second article for the week; if Friday is not used for that purpose, I use it for my campaign prep. Saturday I game and relax. But all of that is subject to change as necessary; next week, for example, Pulp Prep will be on Tuesday so that I can watch coverage of the US elections on Wednesday (my time).
I’ve already referred to the Lightning Research article, so there’s no need to do so again.
Logistics remains a major consideration. All but one of the games that I participate in, either as player or GM, take place at my home simply because I don’t travel very well. The Adventurer’s Club is the one exception that takes place off-site. For that campaign, two laptops are normally used – one to display maps and images to the PCs, and the other to show the plot to the GMs. Aside from dice, any handouts, the only other thing that I take is a notepad – both laptops have copies of most of the rulebooks. In a pinch, I can make do with a single machine, further reducing the load to be conveyed.
‘Logistics’ can also be used to describe the management techniques that I employ to squeeze in everything else that I do. In particular, I record a lot of TV shows so that I can time-shift them to more convenient watching times, and very closely monitor how much I need to watch on any given day to ensure that the hard disk doesn’t fill up. I maintain a rigorous and fairly pessimistic budget. I have a set morning routine, and the only real variable is how much spam I have to process; my daily TV-watching takes place, first and foremost, while I’m eating. I get my groceries delivered because I can’t carry them, and try to do most of it in a single big monthly order so that I can reduce delivery costs.
I have a huge stack of DVDs that I haven’t yet had time to watch, and a stack almost as tall of books that I have yet to read; I used to consume a book every 3 days while traveling to and from work, but I no longer have to commute (and I’m not really physically able to do it, anyway).
None of my health problems are immediately crippling unless they are mismanaged by exceeding the practical limits that have been learned the hard way. But they have compromised every other aspect of my life in one way or another.
4.6 The Impact On GMing Style:
A lot more is improvised than the players realize, thanks to the “master plan” technique that I outlined earlier. That being said, some of the most recent adventures have been easily amongst the richest and most complex that I have ever run, with more moving parts and chess pieces than you can poke a stick at.
Take, as an example, the current adventure in the Zenith-3 campaign, which I briefly outlined in Monday’s article; it contains more than two dozen significant plot developments or NPCs, (or will do after the final part) – don’t worry, I’m not going to give the game away to the players! Some of the entries on this list won’t mean anything to anyone not familiar to the campaign (and some are new to everyone because they haven’t appeared yet):
- (1) a newly-resurrected (in the previous adventure) Backlash announces his intention to reclaim leadership of The Champions – at least for a while;
- (2) An as-yet unidentified arcane invader whose presence and/or arrival is causing control problems for mages all over the world and who may have already triggered World War III;
- (3) Voodoo Willy, a narcotics dealer and Voudon Priest with whom the PCs have an understanding;
- (4) A blinding light that blanketed half of North America;
- (5) Urba Garbon of Imperial Cybersecurity;
- (6) Hollow, a hacker targeted by Garbon, who turned out to be a sentient distributed-intelligence hologram roaming the Internet;
- (7) The PCs’ first public failure;
- (8) E-III, an Imperial Special Forces soldier who was fully cyborgized after being wounded in a firefight somewhere in Africa and whose brain has been artificially over-clocked beyond it’s capacity;
- (9) Swarm, an experimental cyber-upgrade into self-replicating nanobots;
- (10) Dr Heinrich Vossen, aka The Maker, leader of the Menschen Richtung, the most extreme survivalist cult in the world;
- (11-20) other notable members of the Menschen Richtung:
- Oppenheimer,a cyber-enhanced ape with transplanted human brain;
- Nurse Gillian, a bio-enhanced human with an extra layer of cloned gray matter added to her brain;
- Brutus, head of security for the Menschen Richtung, an enhanced humanoid Doberman with transplanted human brain;
- Georgio, a humanoid shrew-lemur hybrid with transplanted human brain;
- Reginald, engineer and cybertechnician with a very impressive CV, whose brain has been transplanted into a human/mole hybrid humanoid body;
- Gunther, a humanoid creation with slug DNA inserted into his genetic sequence;
- Lupus and Carlos, a human-wolf hybrid and hammerhead-human hybrid respectively, both with transplanted human brains, and members of the security force;
- Patricia, a cybernetically-enhanced snake-human hybrid; and
- Arthur, a partially-cyborgized maintenance engineer;
- (21) Other members of the Menschen Richtung menagerie: No-name (humanoid bear), Wolf-man, Elephant-head, Spider-woman, String-thing, Rat-man, Alligator-Man, Tree-Woman, and The Hunter-thing;
- (22) The Freakshow, a name collectively applied to Vossen’s surviving failed experiments;
- (23) Mutagenic Drugs;
- (24) A cybered-up street gang named the Chrome Tigers who have begun to branch into the manufacture and distribution of low-quality Mutagenic drugs in order to fund a gang war;
- (25) The Lavender Gang, a vice operation which runs territory formerly under Chrome Tiger control, and the targets of the Gang War;
- (26) A conspiracy providing political, financial, and legal protection to the Chrome Tigers and who may be doing much more;
- (27) Skygge, who the PCs have yet to meet;
- (28) A stolen (and crashed) alien starship which is counting down to a continent-wrecking catastrophic self-destruction;
- (29) Holy Web, the internet division of the Roman Catholic Church; and,
- (30) A hidden ally somewhere in the Vatican.
And yet, when you boil it down, this represents a mere handful of pieces of Adventure Content:
- Subplots: RA12 (Arcane Invader), RA09, RSu03 (Voodoo Willy)
- Encounter: RV03 (Holo, E-III)
- Plotlines: V13a (Swarm, E-III), RV13a (E-III, Vossen, Menschen Richtung), V02e (Voodoo Willy, Chrome Tigers, Lavender Gang)
- Epilogue: RV03 (Holy Web), V05d (Vala’s Ship).
Each of those codes points me to what is usually just a line – something as simple as “RV03: E-III disrupts a raid to capture Holo (both previously unencountered)” – but which may be a paragraph, or even (in some cases) multiple paragraphs. The non-numeric part of the code tells me which plot thread of the 33 which will comprise the entire campaign the development is part of, but I’m not going to translate as it gives the players too much information.
That’s one adventure, lasting 4 sessions so far (with one to go) which examines the creation of “monsters” from four different perspectives with the overall theme that monstrous deeds, even if well-intentioned, create monsters who will, in turn, commit monstrous deeds. The campaign and plots are the richest, densest, and most layered, that I’ve ever run!
In part, that’s because the master plan is the most complex that I’ve ever put together; in part it’s because, while I can’t do much while laying on my back, I can think – and then take notes when I’m back on my feet; and, in part, it’s because of all the games that I’ve run, this is the one with the most complex and interesting PCs.
Period 5: Minimal Leisure Time
At one point I had a job that demanded Looong hours of partially-paid/mostly-unpaid overtime. Sometimes just an hour or two, in one particular week from hell, no less than 178 hours (an emergency situation). That on top of the 35 hours for which I was officially being paid. These herculean efforts were undertaken on the basis that if I helped the business survive the crisis, I would have a job for as long as I wanted it and a substantial pay rise. It didn’t work out that way, and eventually I was replaced by two 17-year olds whose combined salary was about 2/3 of what I was being paid. The business went bankrupt two months later when they wouldn’t do unpaid overtime, leading to a cash-flow crisis that made it impossible for them to pay their mandatory worker’s compensation insurance, or that’s what I was subsequently told. Nor was it all bad; the boss could be the biggest bastard around, or incredibly generous, depending on his mood and the circumstances of the business, and I have nothing but goodwill toward the managers who ran some of the subsidiaries, his sons.
Be that as it may, for about six months, I was working from 9AM to 10PM, sometimes later, 5 days a week, and the occasional weekend. This left me absolutely zero time for game prep. Did I shut down my campaigns? No – though I missed the occasional game session out of sheer exhaustion. I held that job for three years, and only about 6 months of it were bad.
I didn’t have a master plan that was anywhere near as fully developed as those I now use, just a more general one. I did what I could while on the bus traveling to or from work, a journey of roughly an hour, but a mobile breakfast was usually a higher priority. At best, I usually had about half-a-page of notes.
All design was done on the fly, during play. There was no time to do anything else.
5.3 Time Management:
What time? To get to work by 9AM, I had to leave home at 7:50. To get ready for work, that required getting up at 7:30 at the latest (and breakfast on the go). Getting home at about 11AM each night, I had no time to do anything more than going straight to bed.
My metabolism is unusual; before my physical problems arose, if I could go to bed at my preferred time (between 3 and 5 AM), I was quite happy to operate on about 5 hours of sleep a night, but if I have to get up “early” to attend work starting at 9AM, I needed a solid 9 hours to undo accumulated fatigue. This ability continues to come in handy, mitigating the worst effects of the sleep disruption that occurs because of my current infirmities. But for that six-month period, I was getting less than I needed. I went to work each morning, I came home when the day’s work was done (or when I couldn’t go on any longer). There was no time to be managed.
Again, didn’t happen.
Perhaps surprisingly, there were logistics. I could sneak an extra hour or two of sleep during the week if I worked Saturday mornings; Public transport then got me to gaming just in time to GM. If I’d been paid for a reasonable amount of overtime, I could afford to splash out on a Taxi, giving me time to eat lunch first. If not, I would usually have to eat en route – which meant buying food before catching the bus.
The Impact On GMing Style:
In a word: near-catastrophic. If my current adventures number amongst the best that I have ever run, these numbered amongst the worst in many respects. Virtually everything was made up off the cuff.
That being said, gaming was my only release of tension and stress, so it’s probably fair to say that I GM’d with more intensity and exuberance in this period than in any other. Surprisingly, a number of players look back on those adventures fondly.
The critical factor in determining how you are going to game is always the amount of leisure time you can devote to game prep after playing time is extracted from the total. It doesn’t matter what else is consuming your time – it could be disability or employment or caring for the neighbor’s pets. Sometimes, you can make hours do double-duty, especially time spent traveling, but the total remains the critical value.
No matter what your circumstances, adapting your gaming style to suit the available prep time will enable you to game successfully. You don’t have to change it consciously; evolution will make changes whether you want it to or not. But a conscious and deliberate analysis of your situation and how you are going to adapt to it, using the varieties of experience that I have outlined above, will almost always yield a better outcome.
And always be aware that the less time you have to devote to gaming, the greater your need to game will usually be. Don’t stop, even if you have no prep time; human nature abhors a vacuum, and no matter how temporary you intend the change to be, other interests will inevitably crowd in.
Even when I was living hundreds of miles away from gaming, I arranged my life and circumstances to permit me to game (you can read the details in part one of “Dice and Life”, linked to earlier). That’s why I’m still involved in gaming to this day, which is what enables me to talk to you all about it.