I find that the more experienced I get at running table top RPGs, the better I am at picking up on new a DM or GM’s mistakes. The biggest mistake I’ve noticed is that they are either not taking enough time or taking too much time to prepare for their group’s next RPG session.
Why do I say that not taking enough time is the biggest problem? This is very much a trickle-down type of problem. If not enough time is spent prepping a game or a session, it absolutely shows. Your players know when you’ve prepared for the game. The game will run smoother, players will have more player-agency, and you’ll be a lot more confident in yourself come game time.
There is an easy solution to this problem; spend more time prepping! But how much time should you be spending? There are quite a few factors that come into play here. These factors may include: the amount of experience you have in the system you’re running, the amount of homebrew in the game, the number of players, how long each session runs for, and the RPG system in general.
Without further adieu, let’s learn how to manage our time properly!
The RPG System
I’ll compare D&D in which the DM crafts the backdrop and the overall story to games like Apocalypse World where the storytelling is much more collaborative. There are plenty of systems out there that fit in-between these two examples, but I find these two to be great examples of the extremes as far as story-telling goes.
I will admit that these time estimates won’t be 100% accurate for people who go the extra mile and paint their own minis or make special props for their game. These estimates are based on gathering or creating the information needed to play a session of your RPG. This includes things like NPC creation, encounter creation, drawing maps, writing the story, and world building. If you are spending more time than my estimations you’re not doing anything “wrong” either, but if you’re not seeing results for the extra time spent you may want to use this as a way to rethink your session prep strategy.
Dungeons and Dragons
For games like D&D the narrative is somewhat collaborative, but for the most part, the backdrop is entirely designed by the DM. As the DM you are expected to control all the creatures, create maps, flesh out NPCs, build the world, and create encounters that award interesting loot! Sounds like a ton of work. For the most part, it is, but it’s very rewarding.
D&D also has a lot of mechanics that players and the DM should be at least aware of. This tends to further increase prep time as you need to consider these or read-up on spells and abilities before planning out an encounter.
If you’re a DM that wants to create a homebrew world and unique story you’re going to be doing a ton of heavy lifting. Everything is going to be made by you, but it is so worth it. Having a game that you’ve created and that is unique for your players to explore is very rewarding. It takes a ton of time up-front though.
I’ve also written about D&D published adventures which include a world, predrawn maps, and premade encounters. These are great ways for DMs to save time specifically in planning. However, it does require a lot more homework before the game begins. Before running your first session, maybe even before session 0 you should read the entire adventure. Make some notes about the important characters and some bullet points for the plot. That way when something pops-up during your session you’ll have an idea about how the bigger picture is affected.
For a game like Apocalypse World that uses the PBtA system you’ll have a ton of player-input on what the game is going to be like. Before players even begin creating their characters you all have to sit down and talk about the game. What’s the setting? Who are some NPCs? Why are you here? What caused the Apocalypse?
As the GM you’ll have an overarching idea of who the bad guy is and what their intentions are. You’ll also want to have a bunch of NPCs written up beforehand. Outside of that, there’s not much more you have to do before playing.
The low-prep time is absolutely the biggest plus in the PBtA games and collaborative storytelling games in general. There is a lot less prep time for each session because it’s being built by everyone in the moment.
Before Session 0
I’ve written about what a session 0 is so be sure to read if you have any questions about session 0’s!
Before you do ANYTHING, read the book or handout for your chosen RPG. Find out what the mechanics are, how to run a game, and anything else that will teach you how to play. Read blogs and watch videos of people playing. This is where the majority of your prep time is going to be spent regardless of the RPG system. Block off as much time as you need to learn and get comfortable with your chosen system before you do anything else.
For games like D&D if you’re creating a homebrew campaign do everything you need to do to fill in the back story. Create the map of the world. Make bullet-points detailing a bit about the major cities and towns in the world. Create a timeline with the history of the realm. Decide on what the overarching plot or story will be. This takes a ton of hours to do, but after it is done you will have saved a lot more time than you have spent. We’ll get back to that part in a minute.
Typically I block off a couple of months before a Session 0 for a new homebrew game and then about a month or so before Session 1 just to get it all prepped in time. I’ll announce the game, ask players what they’d like the theme or general setting to be like and then go to town. I’ll continue to ask for input from this point forward up until the night of the session 0.
Session 0 Prep Time: As much time as you need.
Premade Adventure or Campaign
I hope you like reading because you’re going to be doing a ton of it. Thankfully though, since all of the balancing and creating has been done for you all you have to do is read and tweak the parts about the game you’d like to change. Using a premade adventure is a great option for any DM or GM, especially those that are new to the role or don’t have as much time on their hands.
Session 0 Prep Time: Enough time to read the adventure cover-to-cover.
Collaborative Storytelling Games
For a collaborative storytelling game I’d say you should spend about an hour or so before your first session planning out a lot of NPCs, the villain(s), and evil organization(s). Don’t spend too long on them though. Provide enough of an outline that you can introduce these characters and then build their personality and interests while role-playing with the players. Everything outside of that such as the setting will be done during your session 0.
A lot of these games have you create your characters during the session 0, so be sure to also familiarize yourself with this portion of the game. Your players will probably have a lot of mechanics questions for you!
Session 0 Prep Time: 30 min – 1 hour
Before the First Session
The first session of your game is always going to be one of the most important. It sets the tone of the game going forward and formally introduces the characters to your world. It’s a lot of pressure, but if you can start off on the right foot every prep session going forward is going to be quicker and easier because of it.
Between your session 0 and your first play session you should schedule between a week to maybe a month depending on how much more time you’ll need. Now that you have your setting make a few dungeons and plot hooks. Add a lot of detail to the starting area your players will begin their journey in. At this point it’s all about detail.
Think of this as an investment. The more time you spending prepping and planning before playing, the less time you’ll need to spend between sessions. As a rule of thumb I’d suggest using a ratio system. Prep for at least the amount of time you’ll be playing for during that first session. If it’s 8 hours, prep for 8 hours. Manage your time as needed!
Session 1 Prep Time: At least as long as the 1st session.
Premade Adventure or Campaign
Your prep for a premade adventure is going to consist of reading the first portion of the handout or book again. Read up to where you think your players may end and then read a few pages or sections ahead. Most likely you won’t come near that point, but it’s better to be a little over-prepared than under-prepared. Familiarize yourself with it and make some notes. Add in any additional details or change the parts of the adventure as you go.
If you use battle maps you may want to draw a few ahead of time depending on how detailed you’d like to be. If it’s something that can be drawn quickly during the session I’d suggest you just do that. Your time is valuable, plus this gives you more time to spend reading and planning the rest of the game.
Session 1 Prep Time: At least 30 min – 1 hour
Collaborative Storytelling Games
You may want to make a couple of maps and have an overarching idea of how you are going to start the game off. For these types of games your first session will consist of the most prep-time. Your world and game is a ball of clay with no features right now, you have to know where and how to start. Use what you and your players created during session 0 and think up some potential problems and conflicts you may want to use. Make a few more NPCs. Craft some more details for the world.
Session 1 Prep Time: 1 – 2 hours
From here on out you’re going to be playing regularly. What does that mean? Depending on your group you may play once a week, once a month, once a year, or any combination in between. The longer you have between sessions, the more time you have available to prep. However, the amount of prep time you’ll need should be based on how long your sessions are, rather than how much time between sessions you have to utilize.
I forget where I read this advice, but I’ve used it ever since. You should spend at least 1/2 as much time as the upcoming session to prep for it. If you play for 3 hours, prep for at least 1 1/2 hours. I also like to put a cap on this and say that you should not be prepping for a session for longer than the session is played. This helps me focus and ensure that I don’t get burnt-out.
This is where all of that preliminary prep helps limit the time you spend prepping between sessions. If you’ve already created the world, cities, plot, and major NPCs you won’t have to do any of this between each week. You’ll also have a clearer focus as to what you need to plan for. If you rushed through the session 0 and pre-session 1 planning you’ll have to spend a lot more time prepping between sessions.
I tend not to use this cap for things like creating homebrew mechanics, races, or classes for the campaign. When I create a lot of these homebrew items I do so intending to use them for multiple campaigns or this blog. When I’m prepping for the session I’m prepping solely for the session.
Session Prep Time: Between 1/2 to as much time as you spend playing each session.
Premade Adventure or Campaign
If you’re using a premade adventure your prep strategy won’t change much from how you prepped for session 1. Continue reading ahead and making notes. Create whatever you need to run the session. Honestly I like to sneak a few of these into a homebrew campaign or run a one-shot just to give me a bit of a break every once in a while.
Running a premade adventure is not easier than running a homebrew campaign, but they do save you a lot of that prep time. They are seriously game-changers for people who want to DM/GM and don’t have as much time to prep.
Session Prep Time: 30 min – 2 hours depending on the length of your sessions.
Collaborative Storytelling Games
From here on out stick to generating some ideas for the campaign and maybe more NPCs. Again focus on creating bullet points about these ideas and characters. Their interactions with the players should be how they grow and change in the game.
During your sessions you should make notes of what happens during the session. Review these before your next game and think of ways you can use the last session to move things forward for the next game. I would argue that taking great notes during the session is more important than the time spent out of the session trying to prepare. If you over-prepare these games no longer become collaborative, or you will wind up wasting a ton of time.
Session Prep Time: 30 min – 1 hour
The longer you play and the more experienced you get as a DM or GM, the better you’ll get at prepping for any RPG session. You’ll learn shortcuts, you’ll learn to improvise better, and you’ll know the mechanics more thoroughly. All of this shaves time off your prep time and gives you more time to flesh out the story or make more interesting characters.
I’m sure I speak for many players when I say I’d rather play half as much but have a GM that’s well-prepared than play every week and play with a GM that’s phoning it in. If you’re a busy person who can’t slice enough time out of their schedule to prep, add more time between your sessions.
As a player I don’t want you adding stress to your life for rushing to complete everything. It’s perfectly reasonable to cancel a session because you didn’t have enough time to plan, too. Life happens, everyone will understand that. I had a 1 month gap between games because I was studying for a huge exam for a certification. My players were 100% fine with it and encouraged it.