Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Storycraft vs. Chaos: Why I Minimized Prep Time

 For about 34 of my 38 years of playing Dungeons & Dragons and similar games, I have not been a fan of random tables. I was very much in the Hickman school of gaming when I was a kid, I believed that GM should be crafting a dense narrative structure, and then adjusting it whenever the players did something I didn't expect.

The idea of buying a whole book full of random tables would not have appealed to a younger me. Even well into my 30s, I was far more interested in crafting bespoke encounters and adventures that reinforced a central narrative or collection of narratives. I tried not to waste much energy on things that felt random and unconnected to the story I was crafting.

My planning method worked like this:

Multithreaded Campaign Planning

I would come up with an a plot, driven by a humanoid villain with some kind of goal that would sow chaos. I would note 3 or 4 things that they needed to accomplish before their plans would begin to bear fruit. Once that happened, I imagined several ways of stopping them thought out their progress on each step. This was "A plot"

I would then come up with a "B plot" with another villain, this time usually led by a monstrous or otherworldly villain, that had machinations that were mutually exclusive to the A plot's. To achieve their plot, it's villain would have to accomplish things that would hinder the A plot as well as  taking steps of their own. In this way I created factions that would cause themselves conflict

Then I would conceive of a "C plot" that had nothing to do with the machinations of either of the other plots, but could serve to be disruptive to either if left to pursue their goals for too long. This one would usually involve political intrigue or warfare. By setting up, I would have something that the local political powers, the Church and the Crown would have lots to worry about, and will be blind to the events of the A plot altogether because of it.

All of this would be drawn on a massive and tangled mind map, with a series of goals and consequences of those goals are not warranted for each plot. It would also include details about the political structure of the campaign world, ancient history, and other pressing matters.

Within this framework I gave the players lots of freedom. They could choose to engage with whichever events that are caused by the various factions trying to attain their goals. I usually started the first adventure with hooks and clues towards all three of these plots. Only once did players not take the bait.

Which faction had the upper hand, which events would take place, and the like were all still entirely up to the player characters. Their actions in response to antagonists' action could stymie or assist any of the plots.

When I first discovered Dungeon World, I found that their front system echoed this quite well, and included mechanics for deciding when things advance.

Every encounter table, every possible adventure site, every political faction, and every villainous NPC was tied into one of the three plots or multiples. Where one plot's villains' goals advance, those NPCs would prosper. Where those goals were thwarted, those NPCs would suffer a negative change in fortune, etc. Everything up to and including treasure hordes were pre-built to support the narrative. It was rare that a treasure that didn't have a clue, something a villain wanted, or something useful for working against the plots included.

My players have never complained about this. I don't railroad. I'm not trying to get the players to follow a story I have pre-imagined. But rather have a tragic, violent, and directed story in mind, and let the PCs be the Agents of Chaos who completely throw it off the rails.

This is not quite in line with the more modern story game aesthetic, nor does it quite line up with, say, how Matthew Mercer or many other actual play podcasts line up their "stories. "

But, they were a grotesque amount of work. When I was running my most advanced of these campaigns, I would often spend up to 5 hours a week in prep for what were usually 4-5 hours sessions.  There were times during my years as a life coach that I wouldn't book clients on Friday afternoons: I would do my accounting for the week, send out any communications that needed to be sent out, and then by 1:00 I would have time to prep for my game Friday evening. And I was usually planning right up until suppertime.

It was definitely easy to feel burned out. And I can't imagine what a GM who has a "story" to tell, and has to rewrite events to keep players coming back to their plot must have to go through.

Why I Stopped Doing It

Once I had children, and time became less abundant, I started to use modules. I started to randomize things I might have previously pre-planned. I often excluded a c plot or winged it when I was planning.

I feel guilty about doing so much on the fly or using random tables. I felt that my group deserved to have something that was completely bespoke. I felt that, in spite of the fact that most of the manuals were absolutely flush with random tables, I was somehow cheating by letting things be determined by the dice or using someone else's material.

My group at the time was very dedicated to my game, too. When one of my players had a baby, rather than take time off, she would nurse at the table in order to keep playing. I definitely try to extend the same level of enthusiasm. 

Once I had my second child, game time was very difficult to wrangle. And prep time was almost non-existent. When I actually got to play, I was frustrated with how slow the game moved. We couldn't get a lot of "adventure" in in the time we did have.

The first step to still being able to enjoy the game now that I was in my 40s was to pick a lighter and faster system. Pathfinder, Shadowrun 4th edition, and Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition all were just too slow and bulky. Going to Low Fantasy Gaming, Tiny Dungeon, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of The Flame Princess helped move things along nicely... But finding the time to prep was still difficult. Sure I could get a lot more encounters in in a night playing an OSR game. But I still needed a lot of prep time to keep building these complex game structures.

And then, at one point, I decided I just needed to bite the bullet and start using more modules and more random tables in between. Discovering the existence of tools like DonJon definitely helped.

And here is the thing: my players didn't really notice that things were more random, by simply feeling the Shir of the game and occasionally turning what was otherwise a random event into something meaningful and revelatory about things going on in the background, they felt just as complex and pre-planned to the players.

The only one who knew that I had generated a treasure table randomly or stock to dungeon using the tables from my old Rules Cyclopedia was me.

Nowadays, my prep usually consists of playing a game of Four Against Darkness over the course of 45 minutes to an hour to draw a map, then stalking it with monsters and treasures using random tables. once I've done that, I will replace a few of the monsters or reskin them to fit a theme, and make a few adjustments to the treasures generated to make them consistent with that theme.

If I am feeling particularly bold, I will include some hints and bits of campaign history in the dungeon. But those are really the only bespoke things that need to be in there. That the player characters managed to find some bit of history that tells them more about the clerics religion, or they find clues to an ancient evil that might still be lurking makes it feel just as planned as when I spent a whole afternoon every week on prep.

The most demanding thing on my time is to then put that dungeon into my hex map, come up with a good reason why it was there in the first place, make a few adjustments to the dungeon to make that make sense in the campaign,  and then seeding the rumor tables with references to it so that the players have a reason to want to go look at it.

Tangled plots take care of themselves in time. They don't actually need you to hammer them perfectly into shape ahead of time.

With my silver gull campaign, which has been immensely successful, I drew a dungeon that had in a teleporter to another dungeon out in the middle of a wasteland. I made two hex-blossoms, one for the starting dungeon and one for the dungeon on the other end of the teleporter.

I then made note of rough ideas of what would be in the other hexes that might draw the player characters attention. That is literally all I needed to do. If I got a sense of which way the players were going, I could sit down and build an adventure location accordingly.

Events at the campaign led to players making deals with the devil, plotting the downfall of a powerful demon knight, seeking salvation for their cursed souls, and waging war against a small group of bandits that had set up camp along the roads. It has been every bit as rich and dense as campaigns I had done detailed plotting for for the same group 2 years earlier.

I highly recommend any GM who plans their campaigns to be complex and floods them with mountains of customized material to try running a short campaign using more randomizers and cutting down on prep time. I guarantee you at The players are likely to be just as happy, and you will have more enjoyment of the game for yourself.


  1. This is good stuff. I agree with all of this. I would also add that it's important to find a prepping style that you enjoy. The first campaign I DMed was plot-based, and prepping was often a chore. Now I've realized that prepping for a sandbox campaign or session is FUN! I've found my style, which means that this is sustainable because I enjoy prepping this way. So I encourage all DMs who haven't already done so to find the prepping style they enjoy.

    1. Great point! I do a lot to make prep fun. Most of my dungeon maps are made by playing Four against darkness and then modifying the map a bit afterwards.