Preparation is not a dirty word.

Crevice is a dirty word.
General Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth.


Okay, so Melchie was talking about security in that scene, but the principle is the same.

Welcome to the uncomfortable, damp, and only slightly being bombed dug out of the GM’s Roundtable of Doom for May.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Marc Plourde:

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?

Preparation.  My biggest weakness and something I’m trying to throw off completely.

Back at the Dawn of Time, or the release of AD&D 2nd Edition, whichever was sooner, I was a planner.  A preparer.  And a I had to have a complete collection. Didn’t matter what game I was playing, if I was running it I had to have every book released – even if there was nothing in that book I was going to use.  This very nearly cost me my marriage.

I would think through my games in detail, make notes, but – and this is the crucial bit – only plan out a single storyline.  When the players went with this storyline, things went well.  When they didn’t, my teddies were ejected from the cot and the game went downhill quickly.

Welcome, weary traveler, before you stand 2 doors.  Behind one is the path to the Sapphire City, behind the other is a tiger with a gun.

2 doors.  Easy to plan for.  2 possible eventualities.  But what if there are 3 doors?  Or 16 (one of which is made of marmalade.  Sorry, been listening to a lot of John Finnemore recently.  Very funny guy.).  Do you plan for all of them?

I found the answer on BBC’s “Only Connect“.  If you don’t know the programme, it’s a quiz.  Teams have to answer questions by finding the right connection between seemingly random clues.  Each of the first 2 rounds consists of 6 questions, the teams take it in turn selecting hieroglyphs and the choice of hieroglyph denotes which question they get.  So let’s say the first team picks the Eye of Horus.  They get whichever question was linked to that symbol.  Or “Question 1” as I realised it was.  It doesn’t matter which of the hieroglyphs they pick, they’re getting the first question in the stack.  And that’s it!


The party comes to 3 choices – 3 doors, if you will.  They debate, they cogitate, they question the guards (one lies, one tells the truth, one alternates between truth and lies) and they choose the middle door.  Whatever you’d planned to happen when the party goes through the first door they choose happens now.  If they’re in a bar and they need to get information from a patron, they get it from a patron – doesn’t matter who’s in the bar, the right person is going to be there.  And if they’re not there yet, they’re about to walk in the door.

This allows you to side-step entirely the appearance that your game is running on well-polished rails while keeping your game running on well-polished rails.

So far, my players haven’t noticed!

There are games out there that positively encourage this style of planning.  Any of the Gumshoe games from Pelgrane Press, for example, work on this principle – key clues can come from a number of different sources depending on where the players are and what they’re doing.  Oh, and their creature origin alternatives in Trail of Cthulhu are fantastic.


  1. Plan for the first thing you want to happen, not for every conceivable alternative.
  2. Don’t buy everything – you don’t need it.  And the games companies know this, that’s why the print runs for supplements and scenarios are significantly smaller than those for the core books.
  3. Listen to John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

I said before that I had to have everything to consider myself ready to run a game.  That pendulum has swung completely the other way.  I’m almost over-prepared if I’ve got my dice and more than a vague idea for what’s happening during this session.

Now go and read the rest of the Roundtable.  It’s well worth it.

+Marc Plourde at Nuts & Bolts #31 – Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #5 – Crossing the Divide

+James August Walls at

+Scott Robinson at

+Lex Starwalker at

+John Marvin at

+Evan Franke at

+Peter Smits at

+Arnold K.

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