Over at ST Wild Shannon’s asked about how much prep people do, which is a timely question because this past weekend I’ve been beavering away at the prep for my upcoming Traveller campaign.
The answer to “How much do you prep, Arthur?” is short and simple: I prep until I cease to find it fun to do so. Ultimately, I’m not getting paid to GM, don’t intend to sell the results of my prep to people for money, and have no plans to run it for random strangers at a con or something, so I feel entirely justified in treating the purpose of prep as a hobby rather than a profession. In fact, I would say it can be an aspect of play which, whilst it’s not a substitute for actual game sessions (because it’s a very different kind of play) can be enjoyable in its own right – and when it ceases to be enjoyable is when I cease doing it.
In some games, I don’t like doing much prep at all. For instance, in Unknown Armies I’m not really that interested in generating NPCs and scenarios in a game mechanically rigorous manner and prefer to just brainstorm weird shit to throw at the players. In contrast, Traveller is a game which from its earliest inception has made the process of prep an absolute joy, to the point where there are Traveller fans who are in it mainly for building cool starships or generating star systems rather than actually sitting down and doing any roleplaying.
Whilst I don’t go that far, I do find the process of generating star maps and worlds in Traveller to be a sheer joy, to the point where I’m willing to spend more time mapping out a single subsector than I am coming up with an Unknown Armies plot. With episodes of Close the Airlock! alternating with massive doses of Blake’s 7 in the background for inspiration I spent several intriguing hours cranking out planets and found it to be addictive stuff.
Although there are numerous programs out there that let you automatically generate Traveller starmaps, I actually did it by hand, using a suitable hex map editor to create the actual maps whilst rolling all the dice and taking notes on planets by hand. Even though this is a slower process, I think there’s genuine advantages to doing it this way beyond the sheer tactile pleasure of doing so: it forces you to devote a little concentration to each individual planet as you go along, which helps a lot when it comes to spotting planets which are likely to be allied or at odds with each other or designated as danger zones by the galactic authorities. On top of that, the Traveller planetary generation system has always been really good at coming up with distinctive, mildly bizarre worlds. Tiny anarchist communes on gorgeous, unspoiled garden worlds! Ruthless dictators lording it over the population of a world where the atmosphere will kill you and the oceans aren’t made of water! (Presumably they hold onto power through careful air and water rationing in the habitat domes…) Hideous death worlds which can’t possibly sustain human life without technological aids well beyond the tech level of the world, and yet are home to millions! (Aliens? Mutants? Condemned exiles? I’ll have to make a call at some point.) Billions of people living in a zero-G habitat attached to a tiny asteroid! Although you don’t get heaps of nutty results like this, you get enough that it isn’t too hard to find really interesting places for the PCs to encounter.
To give full credit to them, Mongoose’s modest additions to the system are excellently chosen and do a great job of following the design principle that generating this stuff should be fun. Embellishing the classic-era Traveller world generation system with extra details is nothing new – it’s a sport which began with the original Scouts supplement and reached its zenith with the World Builder’s Guidebook from Digest Group Publications (the most celebrated publishers of third party Traveller stuff). However, a sizable chunk lot of that material, whilst exciting for everyone who likes space stuff (yay! binary star systems!) and often presenting interesting scenario ideas and background flavour, is orders of magnitude more complex than the delightfully simple approach the Little Black Books offered. As in you had to deal with multiple formulas, some of which include square roots and stuff, which isn’t something I’m necessarily wary of given that I’ve got a scientific background and training but once you’re deploying square roots in anger I think it’s safe to say that the days of charming simplicity and ease of use have passed you by. Best to save such levels of detail for when you want to drill down and generate a whole lot of details about one specific star system, right?
Conversely, Mongoose have slipped in a grand total of two embellishments to the world generation system, none of which involve square roots and both of which generate instant flavour for worlds. The first is a quick step to ascertain the general temperature of a world, which obviously changes both the aesthetic and the gameplay when you’re looking at especially frosty or warm planets, but the second is the best: adding 1-3 factions opposing the current planetary government, each of which has its own preferred style of governance generated on the standard government table and a level of prominence randomly determined. This is a great idea because whatever outcome you end up with gives you a bit of instant flavour and ensures that even planets with utterly bland characteristics have potential adventure hooks – for instance, a world which is entered on the Travellers’ Aid Society as being ruled by representative democracy might, when the players get there, turn out to harbour a faction led by a charismatic dictator which is actually more powerful than the official government, which opens up scope for the players to try and stop Space Hitler in his tracks (or help him kick over Space Weimar Republic if that’s their bag). The embellishments to character generation seem to have been driven by a similar design philosophy of only adding to the system from the Little Black Book days of yore if the addition adds a large amount of potentially fun detail for a small amount of effort.
The other big reason why I find it more rewarding to spend time on this sort of prep is that the material I come up with is highly reusable. There’s no reason why, once I’ve finished cooking up Fringe Sector 13, I can’t run multiple campaigns and one-shots there; the effort I put in doing this prep now creates a bit of space which could be used not just in my next campaign, but in every single Traveller game I run henceforth, so 1 hour of time spent on this could yield uncountable hours of enjoyment later down the line.
More story-focused prep time like “exactly what sort of weirdness assails the characters in Unknown Armies this campaign?” doesn’t feel quite so reusable. Whilst I could run multiple groups through the same scenario provided that they have no players in common, in practice I never rerun homebrewed campaigns – once they’ve been run once, they become so inextricably bound in my mind to the original player group and characters that I don’t fancy rewriting history, and by the time a campaign’s wrapped up my GMing approach and interests have usually changed and moved on as a result of the campaign’s action anyway.
Conversely, running a new party in Fringe Sector 13 wouldn’t feel like rerunning any previous Traveller campaigns so much as it would be creating a new entry in a wider meta-campaign involving all the parties and player groups I end up running Traveller for; the action of previous campaigns might have changed a thing or two about the sector but there’ll always be way more potential adventure in there than any one Free Trader crew can exhaust. This is a kind of old school approach to campaigns, akin to the way Gygax and that crowd ran their D&D worlds, though D&D never offered up a setting generation system half as fun as this.
So, lesson for game designers and GMs alike: remember that prep ought to be a type of play too, and remember that recyclable prep is far more rewarding tha use-once-then-burn stuff. Designers would be well-advised to either make it fun to prep stuff for their games or easy to improvise stuff in-session if they aren’t interested in offering much support for the prep side of the GM’s game. GMs should consider what proportion of their prep time they want to spend on recyclable material and how much they want to devote to stuff which will only be useful for one campaign.
(In other news: having realised just how easy it is to run Traveller out of the book, and also having realised that the “you run a big top-of-the-line ship funded by a government” would mean the players won’t have any reason to interact with a lot of the fun stuff the book offers up like the trading system or messing around with getting the best performance out of a not-so-great starship, I’m now leaning back towards a more traditional small-crew-in-a-small-ship approach to the campaign. At least one player has been mentioning how keen they are on Firefly so I can probably sell the group on this.)