Types of Preparation

Download a draft PDF of my session document

What makes up the work that a referee does when preparing to run an RPG? Here is a taxonomy that I find useful for evaluating the utility of published products, and also for deciding how to spend my own limited time. I cover the categories from the general to the specific.


Atmosphere includes the kind of things that will define a setting at the highest level. Preparation at the this level is like basic scientific research. It is necessary if you don’t want stagnation, but is not very useful when the rubber meets the road in actual play. Luckily or unluckily, the vast majority of published RPG material is atmosphere. For example, most published tabletop RPG settings fit here. They are very far from being play-ready, though they might have some good ideas. Most game entities (the contents of “splatbooks”) also fit here, and include things like monsters, treasure, and spells. Even most modules are better situated here. Fun pleasure reading, interesting ideas, but often not so good at the table. I don’t want to denigrate atmosphere too much; you need to get your ideas from somewhere. But reading a module or game setting is often at the same level as watching a movie or reading a novel.


At some point, you need to start deciding where things exist in the campaign world. In the simplest case, you don’t need to do much work here; a town and a dungeon are enough for traditional D&D. Genre expectations (e.g.: generic Tolkienized medieval fantasy, Gotham City) can do much of the work for you, assuming that you don’t require your setting to be unique. The standard tradeoff here is approachability versus specialness (the same tradeoff exists for base rules and house rules). This level, for me, is no longer about general info (that would go above in the atmosphere category); the point of this is stuff that PCs might interact with at a macro level, both in spacial and relationship terms (e.g.: north of the kingdom are mountains, the guild of thieves seeks to steal the secrets from the council of magicians). There are few examples of published setting material under this definition. Most published “settings” are 90% atmosphere with 10% actionable setting info mixed within. I’m still not sure what the best way to store and reference setting info is, especially for use during the game. Character generation rules (or creation of pre-gens), selection of base system, and house rules all also fit here, practically speaking.

In an old school style game, this will likely be a site to explore, but it could also be something like an NPC relationship map. It must allow players to make low-level tactical decisions. In terms of published RPG material, the module is the most obvious analogue, but I’m coming to believe that the one page dungeon is a better model. Unfortunately, historically most published examples have been flawed by verbosity and linear story-based presentation that do not allow player choice to have much influence over how the game plays out. Verbose modules can still be valuable, but as atmosphere as described above.
This phase doesn’t have a published analogue that I have seen (pointers welcome!), and so it gets far less attention than it deserves. For many people (myself included, until relatively recently), this phase entails a few hastily scrawled notes, maybe a map, and perhaps some refresher cram-memorization if running a module. However, I find that I have been able to run games much more effectively given a slightly more structured approach. Specifically, I need to be able to track time and monster health. To assist with this, I roll up a set of encounters and hit dice beforehand (inspired by Jim’s DM prep posts over at Carjacked Seraphim and Courtney’s session tracker over at Hack & Slash). Turn sequence and hit dice are randomized before every session. This means that during play, I only need to check things off. It is surprisingly freeing to have this info predetermined, and I highly recommend it. Before I did this, I was unable to reliably track time. Afterwards, it became trivial. In addition to this tool, I sometimes create a list of more complicated encounters, compile a list of names to use for improvised NPCs, and have a section to note down treasure or “important things” discovered. This document is still a work in progress though, and I assume it will continue to evolve.

3 thoughts on “Types of Preparation

  1. Ramanan Sivaranjan

    How do you know how many monsters show up per encounter on that page (assuming each encounter is a star in the time tracker)? It looks like a great system. Tracking time, how long torches last, etc, is one of those things none of my gaming groups were ever good at (or bothered with).

    1. Brendan

      Yeah, the stars represent turns with encounters.

      I have been including a # appearing stat in the random encounter table associated with whatever zone is being explored. If I’m crafting a more complicated encounter beforehand, I might just pick the number based on other encounter details, or also roll it based on the # appearing.


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