Ryder asks in my previous post about level of readiness in your campaign planning how I find time to work on my campaign between game sessions. My current recipe is very successful, based on years of trial and error and from facing a ton of time theft from other parts of my life.
Bi-Weekly Game Sessions
We play every other Thursday night, from 6:30 until 10:30. My players have families, jobs, friends, and other hobbies, so gaming every 14 days is a great compromise. I say compromise because I could game master every day, if given the opportunity.) GMing daily would actually reduce my preparation needs!
Game mastering every other week lets me split my planning time into two phases: gathering ideas and thoughts, and design.
Week 1: Gathering Ideas and Thoughts
The first week involves mulling over previous session events, NPCs, plots, the campaign arc, and the game world.
Unless the entire session was spent in a small cardboard box at the bottom of a lake, there will be consequences to character actions from the last session and earlier sessions. Even if, for some weird reason, the whole game was spent hacking wandering monsters, that activity at the least would change the ecosystem in the region, providing fodder for new encounter and plot ideas.
Did the PCs change the attitude or behaviour of any important NPCs? (Let’s say death is a form of behaviour change, lol.) Did they knock out the top layer of the food chain, the bottom layer, or any important layer in between? Did something new get introduced into the mix, such as a disease, powerful magic item, or important knowledge?
For a week I’ll noodle over what the PCs have done and how that makes an impact. This is a great opportunity to do blue sky thinking about consequences, unshackled with having to make decisions or designs at this stage. This is a great time to introduce new elements just so they can react to the PCs, or to loop in old elements for a surprise, or to connect two elements to stir things up. By element, I mean NPC, plot, location, treasure – any noun in your game.
What author said the most important part of writing fiction is the question What if? Was it Ray Bradbury? I can’t remember. For anything that comes to mind about any aspect of the campaign while I’m driving, or watching TV, or doing email, I’ll ask What if? Why? So what?
This interrogation is a great way to chew on ideas to see what sticks, what reveals holes, what needs more noodling. For a whole week, without any pressure, I’ll just think and imagine the campaign, adventure, and game world, letting everything slowly circle the bowl until week two comes around.
Week 2: Design
By the time week two arrives I’ll have several leading ideas. I will have thoughts burning away and many ideas jotted out on paper or in my Getting Things Done RPG email organization system. It’s time to create stuff for consumption in the next game session.
Design is one of my favourite parts of game mastering but it’s easy to procrastinate. I’ll get busy with other priority stuff or I’ll come home tired and not feeling creative. I’ll have an e-zine to publish, or a family thing, or….a thousand excuses.
It’s rare now that I get a large block of time that I can either devote to design or last the entire way through without interruption or distraction.
My solution is to craft an encounter a day. Seven days, seven encounters. Sessions, on average, consume four or five encounters. This gives me a buffer of two. Sometimes I won’t make seven, so I need to draw on my buffer. Sometimes I’ll take an old, outdated, and unused encounter and update it for current campaign power level and situation. During game sessions, the PCs will do something unexpected, and an unused encounter is perfect to stall with or to drop in and make new game progress.
Mike Bourke made a comment about just writing 1-3 lines for game elements until they are needed, and then he’ll flesh them out in greater detail. This is an excellent tip. I’ll have several encounter seeds like this written down by the end of week 2 as well. These will be for ideas whose time has not come, for encounters currently relevant but I’ve run out of design time, or they were given low priority because they weren’t likely to trigger.
As for world design, that’s trickier and I’m behind the curve on that right now. My top priority is prepping encounters for use next game. That usually leaves me few cycles to do world creation. However, I’m always thinking about the game world, and it’s being fleshed out in the ol ‘noggin. Soon I’ll have enough of an encounter buffer from extra designs or from dropping in one of the published modules I’d like to try out in my current campaign – or a session will be cancelled – and I can spend a couple weeks on world design and documentation instead of session prep.
You Gotta Enjoy Campaign Design
A final word on this is you need to enjoy creating stuff for your campaign. This is different than feeling lassitude or being too busy or frazzled to get into the right frame of mind for creation. If designing stuff is not your thing then this approach will not work for you. The second week will be hell and full of avoidance, guilt, and bad feelings because you are avoiding something you set out for yourself to do. That path leads to burnout and eventual departure from game mastering. Look for other preparation methods, game systems, or game master styles to make up for a role that traditionally has required a lot of design work.
That’s my campaign planning cycle. What’s yours?