What is the Problem?

As Alexis suggests in this week’s Authentic Role-Play Podcast, we may be going about this all wrong. There’s a surge of interest in D&D, to be certain ~ though personally I suspect it’s no different than the surge that gave birth to the OSR, or the blogosphere in general, or the internet ~ and before that, there was the proliferation of D&D “clones” and magazines supporting the hobby ~ and in the end, we seem to be constantly dancing around some issue or another, some concern we have for the betterment of our games, but what? What, exactly, is the problem?

Since it was discussed in the podcast, let’s look at the subject of session preparation.

What is the problem with session prep?

I can do no more than speak to personal experience on the matter. When I prepare for a game session, the one problem I face is that I just bloody well don’t know what the players are going to do.

Sure, I have my notes from last session. I know what the players were doing when we wrapped up last, and if they’re in the middle of something, then I pretty much know what they’re going to do today: they’re going to keep going forward until they’re done with whatever’s in front of them. Unless I’ve really cocked things up, it’s very likely that the players are fully committed to completing whatever adventure or dungeon or battle or challenge is immediately before them. No, the session that begins in media res, as it were, is not a problem.

The session that begins in the middle of nowhere is a problem. This is the session where the players are traveling the wilderness without a clear goal or purpose. This is them just getting to the next town. This is the in-between moment, where we think we know what’s going on inside their heads ~ but we don’t, not really.

What is the problem, indeed? For myself, as I prepare for game night, there are many options available. I might add a few details to my map ~ the local map, at a scale of 2.5 miles per hex (as measured on one side, or a 5 mile diameter) ~ just enough around the outer edge, at the limit of where I believe the party can advance within the course of the session. I might add a few towns and I might grab a few town maps and town names ~ of course using some of the resources I’ve found online because I generally subscribe to the philosophy of random generation for the game world. I might produce an “encounter” or three, though I won’t treat them as actual encounters, but rather as monsters or NPCs that have taken up residence in the region ~ keeping in mind the timeline of the game so as to not introduce something that would call into question events that have already occurred.

Is there even a “problem” involved here?

I’ve heard it said that there is. There are DMs who have asked, “What am I supposed to prepare for my next session?” And there are people who have tried to answer this question. (And I agree with Tristan, it seems that a lot of advice is rather superficial, or at least not terribly relevant in the sense that it doesn’t provide a solid framework to fall back on.)

I think I’m starting to see the real issue here: we don’t even know what the problem is because every single table is going to be slightly different. I said it earlier: if my party is in the middle of something, my session prep is just making sure I’ve got a good understanding of what’s likely to appear before them in the next few rooms, or what’s likely to happen if they suddenly decide to backtrack out of the dungeon and head for town. If I have enough time, I might generate a random encounter or two, just so I know what’s wandering around them there hills. But if the players are just coming into a new town and haven’t really communicated a clear agenda to me, then I’m likely to spend my time producing shopping lists, representing available goods and services, or rumor lists, representing possible adventure hooks. Of if the action from the most recent adventures permits, I might develop a scene or two that I can drop into the middle of whatever the players are doing ~ perhaps an assassin, hired by that count they pissed off five sessions ago, or a run-in with that street urchin from last year’s riot in the capital city.

In other words, the “problem” of session prep is only a problem if you haven’t been paying attention to what your players are doing.

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One thought on “What is the Problem?

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  1. We can frame a problem regarding preparation in formal ways, addressing all the ways in which people are flummoxed before the start of a session.

    Often, I find it’s the first and second leap that paralyze people. Running your first session is terrifying, and even if you’ve finished a campaign, starting a new one and prepping for that first session is daunting.

    And then, there are people who are fine with running what is effectively one session, and then they’re out. They tend to run “one-shot” games or to run altered modules. The modules may be more than a single session, but they treat it as they would a single session – it’s what they’ve got, then they’re out of ideas. So the “second session”, in abstract form, is what paralyzes them.

    In other subjects, we’ve got ways to address all these ways, despite the diversity, right? When you learn to mountain climb or play tennis or direct a play, no doubt the barriers are many.

    If D&D were ever to get large enough to be worthy of academic study, I imagine a course on DMing would address such things as:

    – Overcoming your insecurities (there’s certainly a psychological element there)
    – “Top-down” vs. “Bottom-up” approaches, with pros/cons of each
    – Things a module can help you with, but also bad habits modules can teach
    – Cartography and bad habits it can lead you to
    – Worldbuilding and bad habits it can lead you to
    – Three-Act Structure and bad habits it can lead you to
    …etc, and in each case I think you’d need to address how the topic is relevant to the first and second session. The sessions after that are what I might call “higher order terms”…by the time you are comfortable those first two, the rest typically fall in line.

    The difficulty of answering the question “how to prep” is that usually questioners want one answer, preferably one tailored to them. This is usually even if they’ve not done the work to make it easy to tailor such an answer. They want the golden key in Dante’s Divine Comedy, without doing the work of picking up the silver key. If one of the subjects mentioned above happens to fit them, great! But it takes luck for that to be the answer given when they ask the question.

    After all, the eager answer-giver, especially on social media platforms that encourage short answers, wants also to give a single lonely answer – but they don’t necessarily have incentive to learn about the questioner or tailor anything to them.

    This generates the illusion that prep advice is somehow an insurmountable problem.

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