Monday, 3 December 2012

Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep - detailed review

Looking for the perfect gift for the Games Master in your life? Want to bring some holiday cheer to your gaming table? Looking to convince your DM to round up that last 100 XP so you can level before the New Year? Never Unprepared is the perfect gift for the guy or gal behind the screen this holiday season. 

Here's a detailed review of Never Unprepared I wrote up a few months ago in September and I stand by everything I said then.
I've been sitting on this review for quite some time. I finished reading the pdf of Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep well over a month ago now. The thing is that I really wanted to put all of the great advice in there into practice and see the effect it had on my games before writing this up. As is usual things didn't go as planned. Shifting schedules, changing groups and lots of other mundane boring things got in the way. I'm still working on it though, I think the book has some valuable advice and I really want to give it a real try using all of the steps. Just the way that's going it's going to be a while. So this review is written while adopting the Never Unprepared methodology is a work in progress for me.

Never Unprepared is a 131 page PDF or Softcover book published by Engine Publishing and written by Phil Vecchione. Game preparation is a topic you do not see covered very often at all, maybe on forums or blogs but rarely in published products. This is the most detailed look at the subject I've ever seen. In addition it's written by a true professional. Phil is a Project Manager and deals with time management and organization for a living. It's very interesting to me, with a background in quality, leen and problem solving to see these tools applied to gaming.

The book starts with a forward from Sean Patrick Fannon, an introduction and a couple pages on how to use the book. It then dives into prep head first with the largest portion of the book: Understanding Prep. This is followed up by a Prep Toolbox and a section on Evolving Your Style. The books wraps up with a conclusion, references and index and biography. It's the three middle chapters that we really care about: Understanding Prep, Prep Toolbox and Evolving your style and I will take a quick look at each.

Understanding Prep is the "Guide" part of this book. Phil puts forward a very structured method of game preparation based on tested project management techniques. After a lot of talk about theory we get right into a working methodology that involves five stages. With Phil's method, proper effective game prep starts with Brainstorming. Here we see the usual Blue Sky, accept every idea and don't throw anything out style of idea generation. The most interesting part of this to me was that selection, is the next step and not part of Brainstorming at all. During selection you riffle through all of your brainstorming ideas and pick the on that will be best for your game. During conceptualization you flesh this idea out. Here's where most of the work that people think of when you say Game Prep happens. This 'work' continues in Documentation when you make all the physical notes, maps, artwork for your upcoming game. Last is a step I've never even really considered before and one that Phil, thankfully, goes into in some detail: Review. Here we are presented with a concept where we go over all of our prepared material, not just to read it over and put some of it to memory but to edit it. The breakthrough concept here though is to go through it as three different types of editors. We first look for spelling, grammar and structure as a Proofreader. Once proofed we review again as the Director making sure the story works and flows and makes sense with the overall campaign. Lastly we play through our notes ourselves as the play-tester. This part of the book really struck me as novel and a bit of a 'head-slap' moment.

I think the one of the most valuable part of the Understanding Prep section of the book is that Phil presents an open method that should be used by any type of gamesmaster. It's not a codified set of hard rules that you have to follow step by step. It's an outline of a methodology. GMs who are used to running with 5 bullet points on an index card can get just as much use out of this method as the GM who brings a full three ring binder full of notes to each session.

Prep Toolbox
This section talks about the tools you can use to facilitate the steps in the Understanding Prep section. This one was a bit of an eye opener for me as well. I never really considered how much easier it would be to prep with a nice pen and an organized binder to keep all my notes in. Where I'm not searching for a scrap of paper to make notes on and even worse trying to find that scrap minutes before the game starts. This section looks at these kinds of things. How do you take notes, where, how do you organize them. What I really liked in here was how modern the suggestions are. Lots of digital tools are suggested and it's excellent to read a book like this and find a new use for Dropbox. Phil actually discusses paper vs. electronic at length. Just like the last chapter, there's nothing pedantic here. The book puts forth arguments for both sides and fully understands that everyone is going to have their own preference.

The Toolbox section of the book is also the most philosophical. Chapter 9: Mastering Your Creative Cycle looks at your non-physical toolbox, your mind. Here Phil gives you a method to figure out when you are your most creative and how to use that energy. what is fascinating here is that the answer isn't just "prep when you are most creative". The method described suggests mapping your creative energy and then once you have that fit various preparations tasks (as outlined in the Understanding Prep section) into different highs and lows. When writing NPC descriptions do that at a high creative time. Lunch time at work, your juices are low but you have some time, well that's the perfect time to do something logical and mechanical and stat out those NPC.

Evolving Your Style
This section of the book takes a look at how to take all of the previous information and personalize it. Phil has you look at your strenghts and weaknesses as a GM and then gives you a method of documentation that will help bolster these weaknesses and emphasize the strengths. Again the paper vs. digital debate is brought up and the book really helps you hone in on what you really need and what you can skip over.

From here the book takes a realistic approach. There is discussion on what to do when you don't have enough time to put into effect all of the methodology presented in the book, called the Prep-Lite Approach. This is very detailed and has specific suggestion for what happens when you under prep in each area and how to compensate. A section on prep in the real world continues with suggestions and a lot of excellent reactionary measures you can take when things don't go as planned.

Never Unprepared is a nice looking book. Evocative cover and lots of well placed well drawn black and while art. The index is a nice touch and something I wouldn't expect in a book like this. I personally read a PDF copy and my favourite part was the fact the book was well hyperlinked. The links did not only include material in the book but also external links to many of the tools discussed. I'm always impressed when a digital copy of a book actually offers me more functionality than just a scan of the dead tree product.

How has it worked for me
Here's what I'm sure everyone is interested in. How has this book helped me with my own personal games. Well so far it has all been positive, though I've yet to really do more than scratch the surface. I think the first and most important thing this book does, more important than any individual step is get you thinking about game prep and how you do it. Even if you never use a single step in the book, just sitting there and thinking about how you prep while reading the book is invaluable. As noted by Phil is's something we just don't normally talk or think about, it's just something we all do our own way. Analysing how I prep and thinking about how to make it better has helped me significantly.

The first thing I did after reading the book and being inspired to improve my method and find enjoyment in the act of prepping was to look at the tools I use. The first thing I noticed is that I do brainstorming for my games all the time, at random times. At work, while driving, while waiting in line, in the shower etc. The one thing I never did though was document any of this. This I realize meant that many times good ideas are lost. So my first task was to find some way to document my brainstorming and then selection task. So I crowdsourced. I went on g+ looking for suggestions. For now I've settled on evernote on my iPod. I'm still not 100% happy with it and that will probably change up.

Next I went and bought a new binder/organizer for my two current games. Something with dividers, a built in calculator, note pad, 3 rings, file folder all in one. No more will I be writing note on loose scraps of paper only to not be able to find them before the game. This has worked great. I've run 4 session since having made the binder and I've yet to spend the first half hour of the game scrambling trying to find my stuff.

As far as the rest of the methodology and system. I have to admit I haven't done much with it. At least not yet. I've taken the brainstorming and selection information to heart. I find that I'm now doing a lot better at picking where I want my games to go. The players seem to be enjoying the new direction and drive quite a bit. Now I'm not sitting down to the table asking 'so what did you guys want to do next, I can't remember' I'm sitting down saying 'so now that you've poisoned the food supply, you noted you were going to return to town, when you get there...." In addition to this, I've not formally sat down and done any of the review steps one by one but I have a mind for these things now and I find that while working on conceptualization I am a lot more aware of making logic errors in my story. I realize the importance of permanence in the game world and avoiding doing having an "oh that place was supposed to be 2 days away... right.... sorry, yeah it's a 2 day trip" moment. I want to improve my documentation and really want to find the time to sit down and make custom templates to use during my documentation phase but I just haven't found the time, and that's my main problem. Time.

I really enjoyed the section on mapping your free time and figuring out your creativity schedule. The problem is that it only seems to work for people who have a regular schedule in their non gaming life. It's great for people who work 9-5 and eat dinner around 6 every night. It's not so great for people like me, who's work schedule next week is - 7-3 Monday, 3-11 Tues-Thurs, 9-5 Friday, 7-11 on Saturday. I don't find out what my work week will be until Thursday the week before and it's always changing. Often 3-4 different shifts in a 7 day period. Due to this my free time becomes "When I can find it" and my Creative Cycle is pretty much irrelevant. So this section of the book while interesting I've found pretty much impossible to put into use for myself. Maybe at some point I should write a book: Chaotic Preparation: The Complete Guide to Game Preparation for Shift Workers.

So overall I was very impressed by the book. It had an immediate impact on my game preparation and an immediate positive impact on my next gaming session. While I've found it hard to implement everything in the book, the small steps I have taken have all showed noticeable reward. Based on this I've decided to continue trying to adapt more and more of Phil Vecchione's preparation methodology. Heck maybe some day I'll even figure out that lunch time on Midnights is the best time for me to draw maps. I strongly suggest this to anyone who ever plans to run an RPG. Even if you can't use anything in the book, the act of reading through it and questioning yourself along they way is well worth it. I can almost guarantee you are going to get a lot more than this out of the book though.

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