Mr Micawber and Game Prep: Trimming Your Schedule
Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.
This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM. http://talesofagm.com/
This week I want share with you a breakthrough I stumbled upon for speeding up my game prep. The secret to this faster prep routine was to abandon writing the prose accounts of each session. It was a shame to lose this feature of our campaign, but I was struggling for time, and something had to go. Subsequently, my prep became so much quicker. This change to my schedule reminded me of Mr Micawber.
The character Mr Micawber appears in the novel David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. Mr Micawber suffers from poor money management, but has some famous advice for young David:
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
To put Mr Micawber into context, I should note he was describing the pre-decimalization currency of Britain. I cannot explain this arcane system here, but the essence of the quote is that sixpence under budget equals happiness, while sixpence over budget is misery.
Mr Micawber on Prep
Doubtless it is possible to paraphrase Mr Micawber to apply his message to many topics. As you can guess, I shall be butchering Dicken’s prose to apply to GMs everywhere:
“Weekly schedule three hours, weekly prep time two hours, fifty-five minutes, result happiness. Weekly schedule three hours, weekly prep time three hours, five minutes, result misery.”
My Faster Prep
There lies the change in my weekly prep from misery to happiness. Not so much in the removal of ten minutes from the prep time, but in the abandonment of the prose session reviews. This removal has saved me more than just ten minutes, but the principle remains true.
Essentially, I was trying to do more than my schedule allows, and I doubt I am the only one. I still like the idea of having prose chapters to describe what happened in every session. There are many of these on the campaign Wiki, and it is a shame to lose the continuity.
Yet, it is a question of priorities. Were these essays really worth the effort? Probably not, no. I am not sure who else was reading them. Was it worth keeping these chapters part of my schedule at the risk of greater stress and possibly GM burnout? Definitely not. Will the experience at the table suffer for the lack of these chapters on the Wiki. Clearly not.
The Benefits of Faster Prep
There is more to gain from trimming my prep schedule than just managing my stress levels. Having some free time each week allows me to look at other issues surrounding the campaign. I now have the time to consider some wider issues, and work more on the background to the setting. World building is always fun and can improve the experience at the table, but it does require a lot of time.
Furthermore, I can work on some of my tools for improv gaming, which will also impact what happens at the table. Assorted charts and tables can all help to speed up subsequent game prep, but they too require a time investment to create. Or perhaps I can use the time to read through more of my backlog of pdfs, which will also have a positive impact on my game when I find useful Rules Widgets to adopt.
Timing Your Prep
If Mr Micawber’s famous adage speaks to your experience as a GM, then perhaps it is time to take a close look at what you actually do to prepare for a game. Use a stopwatch, and record how long you spend doing all of the various GM tasks through the week. After a session, then review your record of game prep activities, and see how much of it made it to the table.
Previously, I reviewed my weekly routine, and it was quite a surprise to me. I am sure you will be likewise surprised about where your time is spent through the week. With this information to hand, now comes the tricky part. How much of your weekly prep is making it to the table? How much of it seems to be just make-work?
Trimming Your Prep
This type of self-analysis is not easy, but can be worth the effort. If you goal is to enjoy being a GM, and not stress every week about completing the necessary game prep, then you may need to trim your prep routine. Take your time about this, if you need to. I spent several weeks mulling over what to cut from my routine, before finally discussing with my Players what I wanted to change.
Obviously, anything that strikes you as merely make-work is an easy target to remove form your weekly prep routine. Focus on the correlation between time spent on an item and how much value it adds to the game. How well does the time spent in preparation match time at the table?
Efficient working methods are always preferable and can reduce the time needed. However, the bottom line may be that something has to be discarded. Of course, you can always reinstate any abandoned task if it becomes clear you are now missing something you need to run the game. Tinker with which options to discard to achieve a sustainable level of prep.
The process of adjusting well-established prep routines can be difficult. However, if your current schedule is causing you problems, then this is a clear sign that you need to trim your routine to bring you onto the right side of Mr Micawber’s maxim. I have found it far more pleasurable to be in time credit, not time debt. I am sure you will too.
What parts of your routine have you been able to abandon? Share your experiences in the comments below.
For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.