There has been some discussion on the blogs recently regarding the value and practicality of preparation. Check out Roger, in The Mediocrity of Improvisation; Noisms, in Verfremdungseffekt; Courtney, in On the Preparation; and the RPG Site thread which prompted the Monsters & Manuals post. Roger makes the most direct claim for the value of preparation (which I think is indisputable):
In short, while improvised content can be wildly fun and creative, it usually also tends toward a middle ground of risk and reward. … As sole authority, there is a strong pull toward the middle ground – to mitigate challenges, to clip rewards. The lurking spectre in the background is that of the juvenile, “mad god” style of DMing, where party-killing traps and mind-numbing treasures are handed out, “just because.” Avoiding this spectre, you veer towards the safe and average.
If you are deciding what PCs encounter “just in time” (without rolling on a table, as populating an encounter table is a form of preparation), there is almost no way to be impartial. Your choice of kobold or dragon is largely a choice about whether you want the party to live or die. All of the linked articles above make valuable points, but don’t mention (at least explicitly) what I consider to be the main reason that preparation is necessary, and the main benefit to be gained thereby.
Much of the discussion around sandbox play revolves around the idea of making player choice meaningful (as opposed to railroading where you will tell your story no matter what the players decide, or using quantum ogres). For this kind of play to be fair, PCs must have a way to learn about the threat levels of their possible choices. Players cannot make an informed and meaningful choice if you decide what is present after they have already made choices.
Or, in more concrete terms, you can put Mordor on the map, which gives players a chance to learn about the danger through rumors or other clues, or you can improvise them walking into Mordor. Following Roger, this will either be bland (because you don’t want to kill them) or unfair (because they were not given a chance to assess the risk and prepare, or go somewhere else).
This very specific kind of virtue is not dependent upon the quantity of preparation. You can put in a lot of time into Tolkien-style world building and still not obtain the primary virtue available from preparation, which is threat level communication. For example, a very simple hex map along with four encounter tables (one for each compas direction) and a few lairs are enough for you to be able to impartially dole out info about risk levels if your players are curious.
If you put a little more work into it (maybe some history and upcoming events, to bring the temporal dimension in), your players can make even more sophisticated choices (do they want to attempt the mountain pass before the snows, or take this other lucrative job first?). If PCs still kick in doors without listening first (or take analogous actions in other environments), then what happens is on them, as long as the info was available for them to find in the first place.
Brendan, I like your point about allowing players to understand the risk of a particular venture.
But I don’t think that preparation is required for this. The last session of Polish Resistance(link below) was entirely dictated by player decisions. They decided to spend most of the session looting a randomly encountered tank graveyard. And I made it clear to them that this was risky in the middle of no-man’s-land and especially splitting the party to do so.
So risk can made clear at the time of the decision, and I think this is a more effective method than giving them a history lesson, then expecting them to remember it later-on!
When your players vear form the path, as mine are want to do on far to regular occasions, the preparation comes into play ion knowing your world, and knowing the danger levels, even of the players don’t, simply because they’ve chosen to purposefully head off into the unknown.
That’s true, but I’m not sure this is the same thing. How did you generate the randomly encountered tank graveyard? That system is preparation. The players presumably could have learned something about likely dangers beforehand. I agree with you that history lessons (infodumps) tend to bore players, but they are not required. More like “to the north be dragons”.
But if they had an equal chance of encountering that tank graveyard no matter what choice they made, then their choice was not meaningful. (Though it might create an option for a meaningful choice later, if the PCs decide to return to the tank graveyard later.)
Also, just to reiterate, I think it’s really important to separate game-focused preparation from how world building is more commonly approached, because the first is a high-payoff activity and the second is a low-payoff activity (though it can be fun too). It is the second kind of prep that can lead to history lessons. I wish I could think of a better term for the fantasy novelist style of world building to distinguish it from game-focused preparation.
This is the sort of thing that always used to come up in “edition war” comparisons of D20 and AD&D, as I recall. In particular, level draining monsters were a flashpoint for threat communication.
I am definitely a pre-plan dungeon master. I find the game runs smoother for me. But I do try to understand how the improvisation camp approach their games. Perhaps a better description for a certain kind of dungeon master would be reaction based. They don’t have to decide on if they should throw a dragon or a group of kobolds at the players. They set up a basically normal town, and the player’s choose a devious plan like rob a bank. The dungeon master does not have to plan too much, because he can rely on his real world experience (perhaps just based off watchingHollywood movies though) to make up what a guarded bank might be like.
I posted some similar thoughts awhile back.
You can communicate threat levels in plenty of time for the players to make meaningful decisions, even if you don’t prepare in advance. All you need is the desire to do so. If the players decide to take a detour into a valley and at that moment you improvise there’s a dragon in the valley, you have plenty of time to clue them in through everything from dragon spoor, to various inhabitants they could interact with, to glimpsing the dragon hunting. It’s only a gotcha if you make it one by having the dragon attack without warning.
But having dragons never attack without warning is exactly what Roger was talking about when he wrote this:
Avoiding this spectre, you veer towards the safe and average.
Also, by deciding “dragon” at the table and then giving them a chance to run away or whatever, it’s very hard to think more than one event out (does that make sense?).
I have more to say about this, but I need to take care of something else first.