Monday, August 9, 2010

Saving Time - Part 1

If you're thinking about getting your kids into an RPG like D&D or Pathfinder, you might be wondering what kind of time commitment you're getting yourself into. To be sure, it takes a lot of time to prepare for and play an RPG. In fact, it's easy to spend more time preparing to play the game than actually playing it. The goal should be to reduce the ratio of prep time to play time as much as possible (I've read that 1:4 is a good goal). How much time you'll end up spending on preparation is dependent on several factors. In this and the next few blog entries, I'll talk about some of these factors and how you can safely cut some corners to save time.

For the purposes of this discussion it is assumed that the parent is serving as the GM (Game Master), and it's the parent's time we're trying to save. If a child is serving in that role, then I would argue that the more time spent on game preparation activities, the better. The educational and growth benefits are too many to list here.

Prep Time - The Campaign
For me, preparing for the game is often as rewarding as playing the game, so I spend quite a bit of time prepping for each game session. The biggest thing overall - though not the most time-consuming ongoing - is the campaign: the world the characters live in and their context within it.

I understand that creating something like this isn't for everyone. Who has time to draw detailed geographical and political maps, write histories, populate nations, generate economies, and create mythologies for an entire fictitious world? I used to, once upon a time, or at least I acted like I did, and that's why I didn't do so well in high school! Now, not so much. I have a life now. I had a life then, too, sort of...

One option is to buy pre-written campaign material. I don't have numbers to support this, but I suspect, based on what I have read on message boards, that this is the route most people take. You spend a little extra money, or in some cases not a little, but you get your life back, and you get a setting that someone else has lovingly crafted. The onus is still on you to familiarize yourself with the materials so that you can smoothly integrate the characters and the campaign world during game play and customize it for your kids' needs, but studying a campaign setting doesn't take nearly as long as creating one. Another advantage is that packaged, off-the-shelf adventure units ("modules") that are readily available are typically written to be used seamlessly in the context of a specific campaign milieu. So if you're using a packaged campaign setting and don't feel like writing your own adventures, just go down to your local game shop, pick one up, and plug it right in.

I'm a GM, though, and one of the things I like most about RPGs is that they give me an outlet for my creativity. So I create my own campaign world. If I had been more well-organized in my youth, I would have saved the best world that I created in high school and expanded upon in college. Sadly, I did not, and hundreds of hours of work are lost to the sands of time. Fortunately, though, I can still remember some of the better elements, and I do have experience with what's involved in creating a campaign. I can plow into the task with confidence, knowing which elements will be useful and which to avoid as wastes of time. I'll probably cover those and other campaign creation details in another blog. I also have the luxury of already having used a published campaign setting, so I had an idea what should go into a campaign before making my own. In general, though, you can probably get by with drawing a rough map on a scratch pad with some place name labels, and keeping an outline about what kinds of people or situations the characters may encounter there. Just enough that you're not totally caught off guard when the characters decide to visit a place. RPG rule books and game mastery guides often provide tables to help you generate some of the content, and the Internet has a wealth of suggestions for making this task easier. For example, here's a great resource called The D&D Instant Campaign Builder.

Finally, there's a third option: use a real-world historical time period as a campaign setting. Dark Ages France, ancient Greece, feudal Japan, and ancient Egypt all make great settings, and that's just for starters. The maps, histories, customs, styles, and mythologies are all out there already, and all you need to do is come up with a story or something for the characters to do there. Any canned adventures you use, though, will have to be modified by you before they'll make sense in the context of the chosen era.

You might be wondering: how much time will all this take? Let's see...balancing work, my marriage, the kids' game, and my other hobbies, I'm not left with much time for campaign creation activities. Left to my own devices I would spend about 40 hours in one spurt on creating the campaign, followed by one or two hours a week refining it as I go for fine details around current-game-relevant locations. But that isn't going to happen. Right now I'm spending about one hour per week on campaign-related activities, without the one-time, up-front, massive investment. I'd say this is about the bare minimum, and the same amount of time (at least) would be needed to study a canned campaign or a real-world historical period.

In my next entry I'll cover adventures.

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