As a game master, you have a lot more responsibility than your players. All they have to do is show up, grab their character sheets, and wait for you to establish a scene for them to interact with. Even the most proactive players are still reacting to the situations that you have placed them in. However, as game master, you actually have to create those scenes, or at the very least thoroughly familiarize yourself with the module you are pulling those scenes from. Which, of course, is a lot like work.
If you’re anything like me, you may have a tendency to put these things off, because they are akin to work, and I try to avoid work. You might be thinking about vague ideas of things you want to do, but you tell yourself you’re “still ruminating on things,” and keep not writing things down. This is a terrible idea. I’ve come to the table more than a couple of times with what really only amounted to the rough draft of an idea, and I know the game has suffered as a result. Of course, some game masters require more preparation than others, and some situations will require more or less planning than others, but at the very least you should have an outline or a simple flowchart written down.
That’s all well and good, but sometimes I struggle with this. The same way I use to start college papers the night before they were due, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion scrambling to put some notes together just hours before the game starts. This lack of preparation tends to lessen my enjoyment of the game, and often leads to a halting, stalling style of game mastering, where I am having to come up with too much on the fly or I’m delaying the onset or outcome of certain events because I didn’t prepare for them properly.
The best advice I can offer to combat this is to start a simple outline early in the planning stages. Write a sentence or two that establishes some key encounters, and come up with at least two logical ways that your party might deal with the situation. You will probably be ignoring these later, since players almost never deal with anything in a logical way, but at least these ideas about how things could go should give you enough of a leaping off point to help adjudicate the way things actually go.
Perhaps more importantly, establish what happens if the players miss the boat completely. Every scenario you create should be able to flow to at least two more stages if your party does nothing at all. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a game master is to hinge your adventure on players acknowledging and interacting with your plot hook in a reasonable manner. Ideally they will have more opportunities to interact with the situation at each stage of advancement, but you should think about how every scenario you create resolves itself if the party does nothing. You need to know what happens if the players don’t go looking for that scroll that anyone in their right mind would have figured out by now they should be looking for, or what happens when they don’t even look for that secret door, let alone discover it. This keeps you from railroading your players, and it keeps you from designing poor adventures. If your plot hinges on the players taking a specific action, and falls apart if they don’t take it, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
Another thing you should have handy is a few names. I’ve written about this in a previous post, but it bears repeating. Take five minutes to write some names on a note card. That way when one of your characters starts poking around with his gather information skill, he can learn something from “Dwayne, the dock hand,” instead of just “a dock hand.” Your players may never talk to Dwayne again, and you may not need a list of names written down to give the guy a name like Dwayne, because Dwayne is the kind of shitty names you give to dock hands when you don’t have a list of names that don’t suck written down. So write some names down.
Finally, have some NPC stats handy. There are plenty of resources out there where people have done the work for you in this regard. There are whole source books devoted to the development of generic NPCs. Use them. Take a second to at least note the page number in such a book where stats for a guy like Dwayne can be located, in case things come to blows or otherwise require some sort of dice-based conflict resolution. I have a couple of free apps on my phone for generating names and coming up with a stat line for generic NPCs, so this isn’t hard to do. One other piece of advice: even though you may have some cool app on your phone that you think you can access easily, write shit down anyway. Pulling your phone out and looking shit up, no matter how quickly you do it, lets everyone at the table know that you are just making stuff up on the spot. And if they know Dwayne wasn’t named Dwayne until 10 seconds ago then he might as well be a generic “dock hand.”
This post started off as a rant about procrastination, and turned into something else. And went a little long. It turned out to be a nice way of putting off writing some stuff down for my adventures though. Anyway, the point is to not do what I just spent the last 3o minutes doing; don’t be a hypocrite like me, and don’t put off writing something down until the last minute. Write something. Anything. If you’re like me then your memory isn’t as good as you think it is, and you will benefit from having something to glance at during play.