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The second part of the translation of Johnn Four's double contribution is pending. And here it is. If you missed the first part, you should read it beforehand. In it, Johnn refers to the new book Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep by Phil Vecchione. In the second part, Johnn talks about lessons he learned the hard way. I know that in the end there are more than five big game preparation mistakes, but that's what the title of the original article says.

Author: Johnn Four
Translation: Michael Beck
Original article: Top 5 Mistakes of Game Prep - Part 2. (Not yet online - will be linked as soon as it appears.)

Last week we covered great pointers from the new book at Gnome Stew by Phil Vecchione. It's called Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep and you can pre-order it here.

Phil talks about three mistakes we game masters make when preparing the game:

Mistake number 1: Too much writing

Mistake number 2: Bad tools, or tools that we don't enjoy.

Mistake number 3: Not understanding your own creative process and terminating it incorrectly.

This week I have more big bugs to add to this list.

Understanding your own preparation style is very important in order to become a happy game master. Whether you prepare a little or a lot, if your methods work, your role as a game master will be a lot easier.

Here we go.

Mistake 4: not rewarding yourself

I know that we are always super busy these days and that time is always short. However, I perceive game preparation - or as I prefer to call it: game design - to be a game itself. Do not fall for the idea that the game is only played at the table with the players. No. As you design adventures, NPCs, maps, treasures, and worlds, you play the game too.

You play while preparing!

This game is unique, reserved for the game master and I'm happy when I design the game. It is so much fun. Designing as a game gives you an important point of view that you should adopt in order to have more fun with your hobby and the game management.

During the preparation of the game, the players are absent and the game is different. But it's still a game. And it is fun.

It's fun and less practice

Compared to the actual playing time, athletes have to train a lot. You train for hours every day to prepare your head and body for an event. Some athletes don't mind the training, others are hardened and accept the exercises as part of the challenge of being good at their sport.

However, game preparation is not training. We don't do exercises. We do not use metaphorical weights to simplify the management of the game on the day of the game.

Game prep produces tangible results that can be used during and between games to improve your campaigns. You are producing something in the process. It is not a training, but you are creating material for later use.

However, there are also things that actually fall under the domain of training. These are optional and can be great fun as well. For example, you can test your design with solo games or create material by playing. However, these things are at your own request.

So game preparation should be fun.

Correct posture opens up the fun for you

However, game preparation is no longer fun if you don't reward yourself by preparing game elements that interest you.

If you love to make cards, but skip this because you think you have more important things to prepare or you don't need any more cards, you are depriving yourself of a lot of fun during the game design phase.

If you can't do the things you enjoy, then you work. And we all know where that ends. We're starting to cut corners, lose a bit of passion and look for excuses not to prepare for the game. This makes game preparation riskier and gives us as game masters a bad feeling. A vicious circle arises.

Avoiding designing is like avoiding fun. It's crazy!

Instead, you should focus on the things that you are best at. Chances are, you have a natural interest and talent for these.

So if you enjoy making cards, use that strength and make as many cards as you can. You will then have fun preparing the game again.

Enjoyment of preparation = better games

Once prepping is fun again, as you are doing the things you enjoy most, it will help your entire game. Let's stay with the card example. Well, I have a tip for you. Change your guiding style so that cards become more important in your game:

  • Use cards as handouts and as treasure.
  • Use complex locations which therefore need a map to guide them.
  • Create appropriate player cards to make the game easier and faster.
  • Turn information from other game elements into cards (search for Data visualization and Edward Tufte).
  • Create more adventures where players are given cool maps and have to find ways and clues on maps to accomplish their goals.

If you adopt cards as an important part of your guiding style, you will find more and more reasons to create cards and use them to prepare yourself well for the next game night. Let the design fun begin!

Cards are just an example. Personally, I love creating NPCs and items. And I admit that I don't focus enough on these elements to make my preparation more fun. My Riddleport campaign was often prepared for the last minute as I lost focus on what I love to design most.

Which game elements do you prefer to create? Which things do you create best?

Here are a few ideas for self-reflection:

  • NPCe
  • Encounters
  • places
  • Items (magical or ordinary)
  • World building
    • politics
    • history
    • Countries and kingdoms
    • Cultures
  • monster
  • House rules
  • Handouts and handicrafts
  • Plots
  • Adventure ideas

Whatever stimulates your imagination the most, embrace it as part of your guiding style. Make sure you bring in these game elements often as you play between sessions.

Mistake 5: preparing boring things first

Use the momentum to get through the difficult parts of prep.

There will be parts of the pre-game which you dislike the least. But you can get through these areas if you start your game prep with something enjoyable.

The hardest part of prepping is getting started. Once you start, you tend to keep going until everything is done, even in small periods of time like half an hour. The key is to start. So do whatever needs to be done to get yourself up and get started.

The first minute is crucial. If you can do something for just a minute to help set up the game, chances are you'll have enough momentum to put in another minute, and then another, and another ...

If you are trying to address something you dread, you WILL find an excuse not to do so. The hard truth is: there will always be excuses. We live in a world full of choices. So we will never have no excuse to delay anything.

However, if you start out with something simple or fun, you can trick yourself and move on to less desirable parts as well. Better still, pack the less great between two great things. For me that would be, for example, sprucing up game master's notes between designing two NPCs.

Here's a simple recipe to get you going:

  1. Make a to-do list. What needs to be done to make the next session a success?
  2. Pick the item that looks easiest or most enjoyable.
  3. Do this.
  4. Congratulations you did it. While you're at it, why not choose another item from the list?

Just start out and don't beat yourself up beforehand by starting with something boring. Start with joy.

Mistake 6: Getting too lost in something unimportant

A classic mistake for me. In the first part I wrote about the fact that I once put all my preparation into gods and had no more motivation before I could even start to create the world.

At other times, I've gotten to distant points in the backstories of my NPCs and been thinking far too much about smaller magical items. As a result, I completely neglected the preparation for the adventure.

In fact, this mistake is often my problem. I'm starting to prepare for the next game and at the end I came up with an RPG tip J

In all of the examples I started with the best of intentions but got lost somewhere. When I finally find myself again, I realize that I have missed my real goal: to prepare for the next game.

Don't digress

We get lost preparing for the game for several reasons:

  • We are completely in a state of flux and just get on with the things that give us the most pleasure or are the most interesting.
  • We secretly avoid things we don't want to do
  • We don't know how to prepare something effectively and so we get stuck.

You may have other reasons (if so, let me know by email). The first question you should ask yourself is: what am I doing here? Know if you're completely wandering around and getting into trouble with your to-do list. If so, find out why.

How to prevent wandering

Whatever the reason, the best remedy for not digressing is simple. Get an alarm clock. Decide how much time you need for a bullet point on your to-do list, set the alarm and get started. When the alarm goes off, stop for a moment and check:

  • How much did you do
  • How much remains to be done
  • Why didn't you make it (you underestimated the time required, you were distracted, you wandered, you suspended ...)
  • What would be the quickest way to get rid of this reason? Do this.
  • Set the alarm again and repeat.

This simple method will give you a great advantage: You will learn about yourself. Much more important than getting your things done in the short term is that you learn what you are actually doing. By trying it out, you can find out what works for you, what doesn't, and what is blocking you. Confidence as a game master gives you great insights into what makes you tick. You can use this knowledge to influence yourself when you need it. For example, you can find out which preparatory tasks you like the least.

Error 7: Not Outsourcing

Outsourcing in this context means receiving help when you need it.

Back when I started roleplaying and you drove cars by sticking your bare feet in the ground and running across the street and the newspaper was printed on stones, the only way to get help was in person or over the phone.

We game masters were a lonely group. At least in my area. And there was no collaboration. Each SL was on his own.

Today, however, we all have each other! We can go online and ask our questions, download other people's creations, and support one another. We can reach out to the game designers on Facebook, ask about NPCs, and find cool cards to use online for free. Sites like and Google Groups make the logistics for game rounds very easy.

Ask for help

For today's game preparation, I therefore advise outsourcing the things that you need help for the most and that you do not like to do.

Take your to-do list and mark the items for which you want help.

Start outsourcing early so that the others have enough time to help you before the next game session is due. Meanwhile, you can do the things you love to do. Sounds like a perfect recipe, doesn't it? Game masters who love to do the stuff you loathe do it for you while you do the things you love to do.

Here's the catch.

Go out and help the others! What is your favorite thing to do Do this for your fellow GMs. I think that's the ideal scenario.

You enjoy making cards, but hate making NPCs? Throw me a card and I'll give you an NPC! If you need help, go out and get in touch with your pals wherever it makes sense and ask for help. Alternatively, websites could have what you are looking for. Game publishers may have material that you can use.

Outsourcing can help you in many ways. So take advantage of this. And give something back if you can.


Johnn made many interesting points in these two articles. And I have to say that this call / wake-up call could not have come at a better time for me. I've noticed for a while that I'm avoiding game preparation. So I'll take the advice to heart and hopefully have a lot of fun preparing my game again. I can only join in with the last call from Johnn! Let's create more material together that can also help other game masters.

Have a creative and fun prep game this week!

- Michael

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