This post is an excerpt from The Best-Delayed Plans: The Game Master’s Guide to Adventure Prep.

Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games—games in the school of design of Apocalypse World—often outline moves and principles for Game Masters. While these are typically intended for use during play, they can also be useful in prep, no matter which RPG system you use.

Principles

Here are some principles to keep in mind during prep

  • Name everyone, make everyone human – From Apocalypse World 2: “The first step toward making your NPCs seem real is to name them… Every NPC who gets even a single line or a single significant on-screen action, give a name. Make your NPCs human by giving them straightforward, sensible self interests.”
  • Create interesting dilemmas, not interesting plots – From Impulse Drive: “Play to find out what happens…. Look at what has been established, and find conflicts that exist. When you add something to the universe, look at what it wants, and what it does to get what it desires, and how those desires conflict with other parts of the universe. Find the points of tension between groups, NPCs, and the crew. Think of interesting situations or dilemmas that bring those conflicts to light, and pose them in the form of questions…. You don’t want to answer these questions right now, though you may already have some ideas. The answers will solidify in play. People are pattern-recognition machines, and the dots will seem to connect automatically as you play and you and the players explore these interesting dilemmas.”
  • Respect your prep – From Stonetop: “Some prep involves possibilities: things that the PCs might discover, dangers that they could face, problems that might arise. This sort of prep lives in a quantum state. But until you actually use these ideas and introduce them to the fiction, these ideas aren’t true. They’re just ideas—ideas that help you punctuate the characters’ lives with adventure. A lot of your prep, though, involves making decisions—real, binding decisions about how the world is…. It might include decisions about what will happen if the PCs don’t intervene, or how an NPC would react to X or Y. This type of prep is part of the fiction already, even if you haven’t yet revealed it to the players. Make these decisions carefully and thoughtfully….. Then, during play, respect your prep. Treat it as fictional truth. Describe the world, portray your characters, and make GM moves with these decisions in mind. If you’ve done your prep well, you’ll find that sticking to it not only helps you portray a rich and mysterious world, it also (paradoxically) helps you play to find out what happens.”
  • Prep what you can’t improvise – Inspired by The Return of the Lazy DM. You may be very good at improvising locations on the fly, or you may prefer to find or create maps to use. You may be very good at making up voices in the heat of the moment, or you may want to make notes for what NPCs will sound like. Whatever you’ve found difficult to improvise is something you should integrate into your prep work, either once or as a regular part of your workflow.

Moves

While principles guide overall play, in PbtA games “GM moves” are the types of responses that GMs make based on PCs failing or partially succeeding at a task.

Here are some examples of GM moves from different games—

  • Announce future badness – From Apocalypse World 2: “The most important and versatile setup move. If you don’t have another move already at hand, announce future badness:
    • ‘Someone’s in there, you hear them moving. What do you do?’
    • ‘She’s about to figure out where you are. What do you do?’
    • ‘Dude, you have a split second before that thing gets its teeth into your arm. What do you do?’
    • ‘You hear a dog outside, sniffing and whining. A voice says, ‘you found something, boy?’ What do you do?’” [You can purchase Announce Future Badness as a T-shirt!]
  • Advance towards impending doom – From Stonetop: “Threats are prep: you write them up between sessions. When you write up a threat, you make real, binding decisions about it that require thought and care. Don’t do this during play…. Hazards are environmental dangers. They can impede or harm the PCs but lack initiative and intent. Hazards can’t really be fought and slain with spear and shield; they must be avoided, endured, thwarted, or overcome… Threats and hazards might have impending dooms, each with a series of grim portents leading up to them. When you make this move, you decide that one of those grim portents has come to pass, and show it to the characters.”
  • Give them a tough choice to make – From Impulse Drive: “A tough choice is when you tell them two dangerous or undesirable situations they’re faced with, and they only have the opportunity to stop one. The tougher the choice, the more intense the drama.” Since setting up true dilemmas can be hard in the spur of the moment, this may be something you want to prep. For instance, you’ll have part of a rickety bridge collapse, with two established NPCs following; the nearest PC can only attempt to save one—who will they pick?
  • Bring in backstories and world-building – My own move. Whether you’ve collaboratively built your world using Microscope, or created the world yourself, bring that history into play. Some of your players may have written elaborate backstories for their PCs and shared them with you; you may have developed backstories together during your session zero; players may have described their PC’s family, a guild they are a member of, the kingdom they fled from. Tie together loose threads. Be dramatic: bring in the lost father or sister, bring back the mentor presumed dead, have the villains threatening something from a PC’s background. As one of my players told me, “Great job pulling in our backgrounds. That was a literal game changer for me.”

Photo credit: From the Etsy shop, GiftYouEnjoy.

The Best-Delayed Plans book coverYou can download this and other essays in my free ebook, The Best-Delayed Plans.