I received my copy of Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep by Phil Veccione on Friday. I read it over the next couple of evenings (perhaps two hours total).
Conclusion: A very good addition to my bookshelf.
My background is quite similar to Phil’s. I’ve been gaming going on thirty years, started about the same age, followed what appears to be a similar career path (software development, but where Phil is ‘firmly in middle management’, I don’t have a staff — but I do operations management and program management, so we’ve got some similarities there as well), and I’ve been married nearly twice as long as he has. Overall, pretty similar.
He articulates much of how I go about game preparation. If I had found this book twenty years ago, or even ten, it would have saved me figuring a lot of this myself.
Phil does not prescribe specific techniques or practices. He doesn’t tell you how to go about the various activities. At all times he is conscious that people work in different ways, using different tools, and would apply different processes to achieve their goals. I used to have a boss who would describe this as a ‘holistic approach’, where you have guidelines and structure to what you do, but how it is done varies as needed.
The core activities identified in this book are listed below. The book describes what each means and describes the deliverables — in terms of the sort of information produced and what it can be used for, not in terms of specific documents or presentation.
- Brainstorming, coming up with potential ideas for an adventure or session.
- Selection, choosing an idea to proceed with.
- Conceptualization, developing the idea, expanding on it and fitting it into other materials for the campaign (I usually refer to this as ‘Development’).
- Documentation, actually packaging and preparing the material for use. I agree with Phil this is probably what most people think of as ‘prep’. If the first three parts are done well, this is generally pretty easy, if they aren’t done well this gets ugly… which I expect is why many people find prep tedious.
- Review, going over the material one more time to look for errors.
It is evident to me even without Phil’s saying so that he’s got some software development experience. Each stage provides fodder for the next stage, if you find at any part that things are difficult then something is wrong earlier. When I mentor programmers I often tell them that when programming at the business level, if something is difficult to implement there is a problem upstream in the design or analysis stages (system programming, algorithm/library development, and research programming can be different).
For each activity above, Phil provides some self-evaluation survey questions — two per activity, frequency (how often you do the activity) and strength (how well you do it) — and suggestions for how to improve them. This is, I think, a valuable element to this book.
Finally, Phil describes some time management mechanisms that can be used to improve your ability to prep for games (including scheduling various prep activities when you can be most effective at them — which varies greatly by person) and how to develop and evolve templates for use. He does not really specify what goes in various templates, but instead describes the sort of information you might find in certain templates (with some fields recommended as ‘always present’). The information a GM needs depends on the GM, and he recommends a few times that a GM spend more effort preparing where his skills are weak, rather than trying to prepare everything equally. For instance, if you are good at describing a scene you might just have a few bullet points about specific things to include in your description, while someone who is weaker here might include evocative phrases to use in describing the scene. Similarly, someone with the rules largely internalized might stick to just an indication of which rules (conditions, situations, etc.) are present, while someone not as familiar with the rules might find it worthwhile to summarize the relevant rules information, or at least pointers to the right pages in the rule book, in the documentation.
This is an important consideration regarding the book, and I mentioned it before. Phil describes the activities involved, and describes how he goes about them, but does not prescribe particular approaches for execution or what precisely to produce. The specifics will vary from GM to GM, so trying to be prescriptive and telling the reader to always include certain information would not work as well. The purpose of game prep is to ready the material that will be useful to the GM to run the game, without requiring meaningless and unnecessary make work.
When preparing material for someone else (such as an adventure to be published) the developer might want to expand on the material included to cover all areas in greater detail that the developer might normally need. A developer can reduce the prep for areas he is proficient in, but cannot assume proficiency in any particular area for a third party he has never met. Assuming a lack of proficiency and providing the material needed to support someone less proficient is more work, but makes the product much more usable by many more people.
Differences of Opinion
I don’t agree with absolutely everything Phil says. However, I think the differences are fairly small.
First, Phil uses the words ‘plan’ or ‘planning’ a few times where I might use ‘predict’ or ‘predicting’. I don’t try to plan what my players will do, but I will try to predict it so I can work on material I expect to be used. I think this is more an unfortunate word choice than anything else; from conversation with Phil I understand he’s had the same players for a long time, and once the scenario is prepared and the scene set he just presents and adjudicates. The period mentioned suggests to me that ‘predict’ and ‘plan’ aren’t necessarily all that different any more, so I expect in practice there is less direction on his part than is suggested by ‘planning’.
Second, there was no mention of random generators. Brainstorming tends to work best with multiple minds, so people can inspire ideas in others. GM prep tends to be a pretty solitary activity, so you lose that benefit. The purpose of brainstorming is to open the GM’s mind to a wide range of ideas so the material doesn’t fall into consistent patterns. I find this more difficult to do with a single person. Random generators can help cover that weak point. I often use Seventh Sanctum and various generators at similar sites (Seventh Sanctum has links to several such sites). Fictivite at Between are the Doors has a link to a random adventure generator by OFTHEHILLPEOPLE that looks like it can do a wonderful job of jogging me out of a rut. I describe it in more detail at Between are the Doors: Adventure Generator.
Third, and this is not something I see as ‘wrong’ so much as perhaps a lost opportunity, the book’s focus on session prep may seem to overlook campaign prep. I get the impression the book focuses primarily on prep from session to session (which, fair enough, is what the book is about). This provides a great deal of flexibility to the GM because course changes do not result in wasted effort, but I think it may limit the ability to devise more overarching possibilities. As it happens, much the same activities are involved, but generally at a higher level, with broader vision and less detail.
Finally, I saw mention of but not much emphasis on reviewing older materials for things that can be brought forward again. Did something happen or is there an entity (person, place, thing, event) that was previously seen by the PCs that could be related to the current events? Were there any loose ends that could be pulled on for ideas or other value while preparing for another session or adventure? There is mention of reusing (and reskinning) previous material, particularly encounters or opponents, but not so much emphasis on linking between what came before and what is coming up.
All in all these are not a big deal. One is likely down to word choice as much as anything, the others are minor omissions (one of which is outside the presumed scope of the book anyway).
Those who know me know that if that’s the ‘worst’ I can come up with, there isn’t much for me to disagree with. As I said, differences are fairly small.
A very good addition to my bookshelf. I’ll be going over my own practices and templates to see where I can improve them — I don’t doubt that I can, using this book.
I wish I’d had it long ago, it would have saved me a lot of thinking and made for more enjoyable gaming in that time.
I would have liked to see this book address a few more topics, if only in a fairly superficial manner (namely campaign development). That the activities are much the same means it might only be a page or two explaining the differences. A few sources of inspiration (brainstorming, reviewing previously-generated material) were touched on but not really explored much.
This was money well-spent. I have previously ordered the PDFs for Masks and Eureka but have not found time to read them. I’m going to have to move that up, and may end up ordering the print books as well, on the strength of this book.
Thank you so much for writing this review, Keith! You came at NU from a perspective I haven’t seen, and I learned a lot from your review. (Hell, I downloaded and printed the OFTHEHILLPEOPLE random adventure generator to use at GenCon this year!)
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