When Martin Ralya of Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing asked me to review Phil Vecchione’s new book, Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep, I got excited for a few reasons. 1) Gnome Stew’s previous books, Eureka and Masks, were both hits with me. 2) I already wanted the book (and to do a pre-release review, they gotta give you the book). 3) Conveniently, I’ve been going though session prep woes, and I thought this book would help. So I banged out a quick response (perhaps too quick), wherein I agreed to do the review, while attempting to not geek out. (I’m fairly sure I failed at the latter goal.)
[Spoiler Alert: I liked it. If you're looking for an up-down review and don't care about context, just go buy the darned thing. If you're only a little lazy, scroll down to my summary for a slightly more detailed take]
For awhile now, I’ve been going through a rut with my GMing. I get these ideas for campaigns, usually accompanied by what my wife calls “Ooh, Shiny” Syndrome (I like shiny new games). I come up with a basic premise with the notion we’ll make characters, and then I’ll start out with my premise, intening to keep the campaign going by utilizing PC backgrounds and in-game events–essentially improvising a whole campaign. This used to work for me–best I can remember–but these days, it always fails. It’s now failed more times than I can remember. Seriously. (And if you’re about to type some feedback about the definition of insanity, no need. I’m aware–accutely at this point.)
I then moved into trying premade campaigns. I tried modules. The results varied in specificity–I got bored with the content; the players disliked the content; the publisher didn’t complete the series. The end result was the same–failure. I thought Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Plot Point Campaigns would be exactly the cure. They combined the convenience of a campaign framework, with tools to keep the campaign going in my own style. For some reason, I’ve never been able to keep them going either. Recently, I’d finally come to the conclusion that I could not GM long-term games without preparing. Maybe I’d lost my mojo, or maybe I never had it and didn’t notice till my GMing “adult taste buds” kicked in. Either way, I needed to start doing setting prep. Problem was, I’d never done it before, and I had no idea how.
After the foreward (by the inimitable Sean Patrick Fannon), intoduction, and obligatory “How to Use this Book,” Never Unprepared is broken down into three main parts: Understanding Prep, Prep Toolbox, and Evolving your style. I’ll discuss each section below.
Phil opens this section of the book (which really is about half the book) by presenting his take on prep, his thoughts on why prep isn’t talked about more, and that it should be. He discusses what he thinks good prep is and why it’s valuable, and with the right tools, you, the reader, can find the same to be true.
Next Phil breaks the act of preparation down into five distinct steps: Brainstorming, Selection, Conceptualization, Documentation, and Review. If you’re not picking up on Phil’s methodical nature, that’s my fault. It’s apparent in the reading.
For each of the five steps, Phil shares his process through a combination of description and anecdote. For the most part it’s easy to understand and follow. Aside from the process, each section provides the why and what for of each step. Phil explains how too little and too much can both be bad and the danger of skipping steps within the process. He also provides self-tests which allow you to see where you’re at in each particular skill and tips you can use to get better.
This section starts out with helping you identify what tools will be helpful to you in your prepping endeavor, be they paper or electronic. Phil explains not to skimp on tools, as these can lead to you not using them and not prepping. He also goes into how each step can have different requirements for what makes a good tool. For instance, Brainstorming can occur anywhere, so a very portable tool is typically best, such as a voice recorder or smartphone app.
The next part of the toolbox involves identifying the best times to prep and how to fit it into your schedule. Phil walks you through identifying your free time and the times you’re most creative. He gives tips on how you can prep while you’re doing other things and how to identify the parts of prep you can still accomplish when you’re less creative. This section of the book makes me feel like the rest of the process is possible. I don’t have much free time, and throughout the book, Phil doesn’t try to create an illusion that prep doesn’t take a lot of time. Here he shows me I have more time than I think, and that gives me hope.
Evolving Your Style
This final main section of the book is about customizing Phil’s process to yourself and how to go with the flow when your process is interrupted. As a perfectionist, this section was very welcome. It gives a great starting point–Phil provides actual templates for your Documentation–and gives you tips on what you may need to add and what you can subtract. The theme of knowing yourself continues from the rest of the book, as he talks about finding and compensating for your weaknesses as a GM. He also brings up how the game itself and the style of your campaign may require different tweaks to your preparation. Shining a light on these things is definitely helpful. For example, I never noticed bofore now that I never really talk about weather in my games!
The next part of Evolving Your Style provides techniques for speeding up your prep after you’ve learned the process. Things like tags (concepts found in Eureka and Masks) are brought up here. There are other tips as well, like not worrying about punctuation and spelling or simplifying your GM maps. I was especially intrigued by how Phil uses flow charts to represent locations when a map isn’t wholly necessary.
The final part of this section discusses how to deal with Real Life Stuff™ getting in the way of your prep. Here Phil talks about everything that may provide a stumbling block to your preparation, from schedule conflicts to just not feeling like prepping, and he provides ways to either get around these issues, or at least minimize their effects–the understanding being “playing is better than not playing,” regardless of what per cent of yourself you were truly able to put into this week’s game. Phil shares tips about what steps can be skipped or minimized in the process and why. This advice will surely be invaluable to anyone learning to prep.
Phil Vecchione may be my gaming savior. I truly feel like I can follow this process and get my campaigns to a point where I can stay engaged, avoid painting myself into a corner, and make my quality match my expectations. Gnome Stew has hit another home run for the Game Master. Never Unprepared has earned a permanent place in my GM toolbox, right along side the likes of Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, Hamlet’s Hit Points, Play Dirty, Eureka, and Masks. Highly recommended.