Yesterday I ran the first play session of what I hope will be a long, in-depth campaign. As usual, my preparations for the game included weeks of little notes jotted down on scraps of paper followed by several hours of semi-panicked organizing on the morning of the game. The game went well, reasonably smooth and enjoyable. But sometimes I think there must be a better way . . .
Then I read Never Unprepared by Phil Vecchione. Mr. Vecchione is a wise man. As he rightly points out, most GMs are never taught how to prepare for a session; rare is the gaming book that discusses prep work; and gamers just don’t talk about it much. Sure, most of us have developed some kind of haphazard system that works enough, but imagine how much better our games could be if we got organized!
Well Never Unprepared, is the book we need. It presents, in a clear and straightforward style, advise on every aspect of game preparation. It demystifies the creative process, renders prep work non-threatening (and even enjoyable), and reveals how – far from consuming precious time – effective preparation actually maximizes quality time at the gaming table. The book is broken into three sections: Understanding Prep, Prep Toolkit, and Evolving Your Style.
In the first section, “Understanding Prep”, Mr. Vecchione begins by revealing the simple and wonderful purpose of prep: to allow us to run games comfortably, to be, as he puts it, a “back-up GM” to help you out of trouble spots. Prep is broken down into five stages (brainstorming selection, conceptualization documentation, & review), each of which is given its own chapter. This is an in-depth book, with a bit of work-booking, concert techniques for improvement, and common mistakes and pitfalls, in every area of prep. Whether it’s brainstorming on demand or the three stages of reviewing your game prep, this is the heart of the book and every GM will find something she can use here.
If section one is the “what” and “why” of prep work, then section two is the “how and “when”. “Prep Toolkit” concerns the actual tools available for prep work: notebooks, laptops, mutli-media software, etc. Instead of recommending a specific tool, however, Mr. Vecchione demonstrates how to choose the best tools to fit your needs and style.
When to prep and how to find or make the time, is the province of Chapter 9: “Mastering Your Creative Cycle”. This can be a sobering chapter, particularly for us older gamers, as we chart out our free time and realize how much less we have now than in days of yore. But Never Unprepared reveals not only how to squeeze valuable prep time from a busy schedule, but also how to discover when we are at our most creative, what to do when, and how to maximize our time.
In the last section, “Evolving Your Style”, we learn how to apply the rest of the book to our personal GMing needs. Mr. Vecchione discusses identifying our strengths and weaknesses and tailoring our prep work accordingly. He also demonstrates how to tailor prep work according to the needs of a particular game and campaign.
Oh, and in case you were thinking of dismissing Mr. Vecchione as an anal-retentive fusspot, there is “The Prep-Lite Approach”, an entire chapter devoted to time-saving techniques, sneaky GM tricks, and clever “cheats” (such as re-using stat-block, creating only what the PCs see, etc.).
The last chapter examines that messy intersection between theory and practice and offers an array of contingency plans for Real Life incursions such as prior commitments, lack of energy, and the old college buddies that turn up out of the blue and want to game.
The book has evocative illustrations throughout. I reviewed the PDF and found it easy to read, with a clear font and a single column of text. There is also a text-only file included in the download. Finally, as befits a book about time management and organization, there a list of resources for GMs and a fairly extensive index.
This is an excellent and important book. I can think of no GM who would not benefit from reading this volume. New GMs, struggling GMs, experienced GMs, even ad lib GMs confident in their ability to “wing it”, will find invaluable information within. Aspiring GMs and players hesitate to GM because of the work involved should definitely read this book as it takes the trepidation out of prep work and might encourage them to step behind the screen. Because this hobby needs all the GMs it can get.