Sunday, May 30, 2021

How I Prep: Rambling About Refereeing

I talk to a lot of people into the idea of tabletop gaming, but when it comes to game mastering, I seem to get a lot of hemming and hawing about how much difficult work it is. I won't dispute that it is work, but it doesn't have to be this monumental task where you sit at the table with a proverbial sword of Damocles above your head, waiting to strike as soon as a player gets frustrated. Figured I might as well detail how I like to prepare my games and link to some resources that may help some people. This isn’t specifically for OSR or sandbox games, it’s just a general idea of how I prep.

Try Not To Overthink.

Don’t overthink it. No matter how large or expansive you make the world, the players will only be able to see a small slice of it. You control the content and the rate you deliver it to your players, so as long as you have a good idea on what the characters would like to accomplish for the session, you should be able to stay one step ahead. Even if you have no idea what your players want to do, an improv-session focused on roleplay can help build up to the actual adventure itself.

Overthink Anyways.

When you have a general idea of what you can prep for the next session, now’s the time to brainstorm ideas around the adventure. If your players wish to pull off a daring heist to steal a magic scepter from a noble’s manor, you know you’ll need to prep the layout of the noble’s manor, but you may also get ideas on incorporating guard shift rotations, which of the house staff can be bribed, and secret passageways to move about the manor undetected. A showdown with an ancient lich will mean you will have to prepare the lich’s necropolis, his undead servants, the magical defenses incorporated into the structure, a cackling villainous speech for the final showdown, and a back-up plan when the players fireball the lich before he finishes the first sentence of that cackling villainous speech. Because these elements are what the next session will focus on, it’s okay to fully detail them. Likewise, it’s okay if the players skip right past some of these elements because you can either incorporate them into later events or leave them behind entirely. It’s not a videogame, you don’t get an achievement or hidden costume for 100% completion.

Find Your Inspiration.

We all have the various forms of life experiences and media that influences us. One of my favorite videogames growing up was Deus Ex. While the story was way over my head, I absolutely loved exploring the nooks and crannies of the various hub worlds and missions, discovering hidden locations and alternate ways to accomplish objectives. This gives me a tendency to approach building sandboxy locations with overlapping plots both major and minor. Inspiration might strike from odd places as well: I would not have made Drakkenhall in my 13th Age campaign into a facsimile of 1920s Chicago had I not been replaying Timesplitters 2 due to nostalgia. In fact, you should always be on the lookout for inspiration. If you see something you think is cool, grab it and see what you can incorporate into your campaign.

Don’t be afraid to research into topics, either. If you have no idea how something is supposed to work, and it’s relevant for the next session, there’s lots of resources online and at your local library. Don’t try to hook it up mechanically to your game, either, unless you absolutely have to. Hell, read your dang books! All those monster manuals and lore books are great to mine for inspiration for your own worlds and adventures. If you find a monster, location, or even a throwaway line of text that inspires you, note it down and where you found it so you can find it later.

Get Organized.

Get index cards and an index card organizer. If you prefer digital tools, try a desktop wiki like Zim, Cherrytree, or Tiddlywiki. Set up folders for Locations, Allies, Enemies, Plots, and other categories you might think you will need for your game. Keeping your notes organized will help immensely in the long run, especially when your game is 20 sessions in. Best do the work now before you have a bloated mess of scattered notes scrawled everywhere while the rest of the game’s details are stuck in your head just waiting to be forgotten.

Rule of Thirds.

When you’re starting out, keep it to three items per category. Three major locations, three helpful allies, three scheming villains, three macguffins, etc. If need be, you can even split them down further: The triumverate of witches all have three of their own strongest minions, which all have three squads of minions each. The three dungeons could all have three levels, with one dungeon having three sub-levels leading to three more dungeons.  The three macguffins needed to seal the dark lord could be split into three pieces each, and the players need to go on a round-the-world journey to join all nine pieces together. You don’t have to limit yourself to just three items, but it allows players the freedom of choice while keeping your prep constrained.

Effect, Then Cause.

This one can be difficult to do. When planning an adventure, start at the end of events and work your way backwards. If the adventure is about investigating an abandoned fortress, ask yourself why it was abandoned and use it to fill out areas in the fortress. Once you have the basic idea, asking “why” to events and taking the first idea to come to mind will help fill in details. This is also when turning to generators can help. Generators also help for names and small details like room dressing. If you’re stuck on a detail, or a name, put in a placeholder and come back to it later.

Start Small, Link Upwards.

Conversely, as players progress, you should logically progress the scale of adventures. Clearing out bandit holds and kobold dens can be tiresome if there’s no upward progression from there. You can foreshadow larger threats by adding clues around your adventure, even if you have nothing more than a name and idea. You’ll be able to flesh things out in greater detail later. Just remember, if you foreshadow something, expect to follow through.

Hooks and Daggers.

When starting a game, make sure everyone is on the same page about the kind of game you want to run. Tell them outright what you are looking for in characters, be they daring adventurers delving ancient deeps, deep space explorers discovering new planets, or hard-boiled investigators in 1920s Chicago. Look at the characters your players have created. Chances are, they’ll at least have focused their character on an aspect they’d like to participate in, or furnished a backstory and hopefully a character motivation. Grab these elements and write them down on index cards, as they become your daggers. When prepping, pull out these cards and look to see if you can use it to hook characters into the adventure. Even if there’s no obvious pull, there could still be character-specific rewards or chances to develop the character further with inclusion of certain elements of a character.

A Strong Start.

While this doesn’t have to be every adventure, the starting adventure should thrust players into an inciting incident. Even in a sandbox campaign, starting the players out with an investigation, an ambush, or even a prison escape provides player characters with a strong motivation and an immediate jump into the game. Even better, you can link this inciting incident to one of your antagonists or locations, encouraging the players to investigate further. Lost Mines of Phandelver does this pretty well, with the goblin ambush an inciting incident linking to the greater plot happening around the area.


After running the game, you should write up a summary of what had happened. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just enough to reference. Next, you should look at your list of NPCs, friendly and unfriendly, and figure out if the actions of the characters influenced them. Perhaps the murder of a slum lord causes a power vaccuum that culminates in gang warfare in the streets, or the party’s assistance in resolving a farmer’s goblin problem has the farmer recruit his friends to build a log cabin for the PCs to use as a home base. Lastly, you should note down things like experience totals, loot acquired, or updating the progress of long-term projects.

An End.

An ending of a campaign can be obvious, but most game masters do not have the energy or time to commit to a years-long campaign spanning from first level to max. If you’re running a linear story-oriented campaign, an easy trick is to break down the campaign into ‘seasons’ of a handful of adventures each. You can then link each adventure to one another, building up on it, but still have a satisfactory story arc if you have to end the campaign early. I highly recommend beginner game masters to try short campaigns and self-contained adventures first before jumping into the deep end of intricate sandbox plots.


  • Start small
  • Have a strong start
  • Three locations, allies, and enemies
  • Foreshadow upcoming threats
  • Steal liberally from backstories and inspiration
  • Write notes, update characters


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