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Monday, July 11, 2011

How Much Time is "Too Much" in Campaign Preparation?

In the current table top campaign I am running, I am using the Cormyr area from Forgotten Realms (circa 1367 before the Spellplague, Shadowvar, and all that other nonsense which destroyed the setting in later editions.)  I initially chose this over homebrewing my own world for a myriad of reasons.  The players are all familiar with the Realms, so I don't have to spend a lot of time on exposition, but the primary reason I chose the setting is because it would be simply easier to use a pre-generated campaign setting rather than make one on my own.  I didn't have to worry about making a pantheon of gods, creating a map, history of the races, etc.  All of that information is available to me through the boxed campaign setting.  On the surface it sounded easy enough, but there was one fatal flaw in my plan; I tend to overprepare.

To some, overpreparation is not a big deal.  For me, spending countless hours pouring over royal lineages, history and current state of the cities in the setting, etc. is a time draining affair, and while I enjoy it, I'm no longer a teenager with limitless time to devote to the hobby.  In getting ready for the first session, I spent a great amount of time mapping out a sewer system for the city of Tilverton, and fleshing out important NPCs and solid adventure hooks within the city, all with the thought that the PCs will be spending a decent amount of time adventuring in or around Tilverton.

If you've read my previous entry on the first session of our game, you already know that most of that preparation was for naught, at least for a little while.  The PC's botched a raid on one of the thieve's guild warehouses, and had to escape under the cover of darkness in the back of a cart.  Hell, one of them actually got caught, and although he doesn't know it yet, he's about to be framed by the guild for the murder of a high ranking Purple Dragon officer in the city.  Needless to say, I don't expect them to return to the city, at least out in the open, any time soon.  Even now, they are out in the Stonelands area searching for a tunnel which links to the sewers of Tilverton, but they are only doing so in hopes of catching a certain shipment of supplies exiting the city rather than using it as a means of going back in unnoticed.

I have no one to blame but myself for this conundrum really.  I knew going in that there was a very high chance that the party would deviate from certain paths, and as a DM who encourages a sandbox style campaign, I was prepared for the consequences, but that doesn't make it any less irritating.  Not because they deviated, but because I can kick myself for pouring so much time into a campaign only to have much of it go completely unknown to the players.  They'll never figure out, for example, that there is a death cult operating from the sealed crypts in the sewers, or that the true leader of the guild is actually a beholder.  Sure, I could throw in some means to force them back into the city because "that's what I prepared them for," but I can't do that as a DM in good conscious.  Actions have consequences and there is a world working around the PCs, whether they exist there or not.  If they chose to never return to Tilverton, I'm not going to railroad them into going back.

A long time ago, I read through dungeonmastering.com's e-book "The Instant DM," and while there is a lot of really great advice in there on how to create a good campaign with minimal effort, they mainly advocate using pre-existing products (free maps, etc.) available on the web.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but I've never been a fan of using other people's works in my own campaigns.  Using a published campaign setting is bad enough, much less resorting to using pre-made adventures and maps.  That is not to say there is anything wrong with that, it just always feels as if I'm playing around in someone else's imagination when I center much of my campaign resources on stuff other people made up.  Part of the fun, for me, is crafting a campaign custom suited to the players in my group.  I want them to have a personal investment, and not just crawl through the Caves of Chaos because "that's the adventure we're playing tonight."

So, as has been the case in numerous games I've DM'd over the years, I spent much of the first session of our campaign simply winging it.  Not all of the time spent researching and building plots was lost, however, because it gave me a good base of knowledge from which to draw in order to wing the session.  So, do you tend to overprepare?  Do you often find yourself underprepared?  How do you effectively manage your time as a DM in campaign preparation?  I've found keeping around maps I've drawn which can easily be incorporated into the game as a nifty tool when caught off guard.  At the very least, it allows me to buy some time to think of something directly related to the adventure.  I try to keep a few of these handy with some very brief notes in case things go awry.  In addition I usually have several "regional plots" going on in the background for different areas, in case the PC's manage to find themselves in another part of the realm.

What are some steps you take to maximize the amount of time spent in campaign preparation, and do you, like me, feel that sometimes you spend too much time on it?