Prep Time: Too little or too much?

September 21, 2006 at 5:30 pm (Game Design)

The first draft of Bloodlines is almost complete and I’ve printed it out into a binder to read, proofread, and just generally admire and revise.  I’ve realized something.  Something important, I think:

 A player can’t actually do anything with this book until he meets with his group.  In other words, the game has very little preparation required.  For some people, that’s a good thing.  For others, it’s a great thing.

Consider Dungeons & Dragons, the architypical Gamist game for most people.  Most of my players (including myself) spend from 20 minutes to an hour or two designing a character, exploring various options, tweaking various aspects, and generally interacting with the crunchiness of the mechanics.  In addition to characters, there’s new spell research to consider, new magical items, new monsters, and a host of ther aspects of the game that could be customized.  In addition to customizing though, there’s prparation: which monsters will you use?  What will encounters be like?  Which characters will be used?

 This has one major advantage:  A player has something to do as soon as he cracks open the book.  He can, effectively, start playing right away before he even meets with his group.  In fact, the more he does, the more that could potentially add to the experience later.  This goes for both players and GMs, novice or experienced.

Bloodlines doesn’t have that.   It relies too much on player-interaction for characters, themes, plots, and even setting.  Until the first session begins, the GM and players have no clue what the game’s going to be about or what’s going to be in it. 

A lot of Narrative games have this problem, but not all.

Consider Dogs in the Vineyard.  Prior to playing Dogs, there’s not a whole lot to do.  However, there’s still SOMETHING.  A player and GM (or just any two players) can get together to do the initiation.  Despite what the book says about group character-generation, there isn’t anything lost in that particular game if players generate their characters privately — it just makes them strangers when the game opens.  Since the game encourages conflict, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The GM, in turn, has the town to create and has rules for creating the basic Situation so he’s got fun stuff to prep.  So there’s stuff to do, at least, prior to playing. 

In Dogs, the preparation isn’t required (or even encouraged), but the option is there.  Many Narrative games don’t have this, including my Bloodlines game.  This is a problem.

If I ever want to sell a Narrative game, I want players and GMs to start interacting with it and getting a feel for the game right away.  If that means adding more Gamist elements or increasing the required preparation time, so be it. 



  1. Willow said,

    One thing I’ve noticed… the GNS labels aren’t particuarly useful to me in terms of leading my own game design. I think it’s best if you can express what you want without either of the big three words.

    Know what you want, and build your game to do that. Other people’s models- especially ones as abstract and contentious as GNS- are often a distraction.

  2. Willow said,

    By the way, if you’re looking for a second set of eyes, send me a copy of Bloodlines. My email’s over on my blog site.

  3. James Jeffers said,

    Your conclusions about Dogs in the Vineyard about 1) group-centric character creation and 2) pre-play preperation are alien to my experience with the game.

    Can you make up characters by yourselves, sure. I would argue, from my experience, that you’re missing out. You are also getting a set of results different than if you had done it all together, at the same time, in the same room. It is, in my experience, the difference between online multiplayer action in say, Quake, and being in a room playing the same in a LAN party.

    Can you jump into play without any preperation, I guess you could do this. I’d be interested to hear about how that went. I found myself committing maybe up to an hour getting the basic town on paper, adding and deleting and shifting people until something struck me as “Holy shit, that’s wrong.”

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