Towards Purposeless Prep

Been thinking about how to make the so-called “lonely fun” of prep more enjoyable as a GM and I’ve come to a couple of decisions. In essence, the trick is to make the prep for adventure as playful as possible. Make it more fun by treating it as an episode of play.

Building on Brown’s insights into play, the first decision I have made surrounds the idea that a key property of play is having, “apparent purposelessness”. Counter-intuitively, this means it’s far more fun to prep an adventure when you don’t need to than when it’s looming on the schedule.

Designing an adventure for the session I have tomorrow is work. I have a clear goal – to provide an entertaining session tomorrow – and so I set to with that purpose. I might draw and key a map, choose monsters, set up clues, whatever… but it’s all done on a schedule. For me, this is not much fun. It’s not playful. There isn’t enough time for creativity. I probably feel the pressure of time and worry that I’ll make mistakes.

Compare this with designing an adventure that maybe you’ll run sometime but which just as easily might not be needed. I find myself imagining far more playful scenarios and feel more creative energy. There is no time limit so I am free to wonder what if. I might scribble down a map, leaf through monster books, imagine elaborate clues, and more. But the fact that I am making an adventure for the fun of it changes the dynamic.

This explains why my best prep happens on holidays. When I am not scheduled to play, I am able to spend more time and better ideas flow. By the time these adventurous episodes make it to a table – sometimes months after the initial creative spurt – there has been time to polish them. Stuff gets tweaked and the adventure is always better for the effort.

Creativity needs space to get things wrong. When you are under pressure to perform, you don’t have time to get it wrong. I default to old tropes and things I know work: Goblins and Zombies instead of something custom or even something vaguely different. Games conceived while stressed feel less fun and players notice.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the necessary pre-session prep of getting ready to run an adventure and the initial design of that adventure. Separating the writing from the editing improves the quality of my prose. Similarly, separating the niggles of session prep from the wondrous imaginings of adventure design improves the quality of my Worlds.

I love to explore the medium of RPGs and imagine interesting places, people, and things. I like to create new experiences for my players to delve into and discover. It’s a much richer outcome when I feel free to move the ideas in any direction that appeals. In the end, it’s more satisfying for everyone when I can say, “Here, I made this for you guys.”

To that end, I am going to spend more time building adventures for no particular group, session, or campaign. I am going to imagine and create, leaving the possibility of play to be figured out later. I’m going to spend more time making scenarios that excite me and see if that improves the experience at the table.

Game on!

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