Recently I was given a sneak peek at Engine Publishing / Gnome Stew’s latest book, “Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep, and asked to do a review. Now, I’m currently running a Serenity game – which has been great so far – but I admit that I’ve been very lackluster in getting those sessions ready (a common theme with my games, lately). Since the producers of the book claim that “[It] will help you prepare for games faster, avoid common pitfalls, and have more fun in the process,” I immediately jumped at the chance. Sure, I could do a review, but I was really more interested in seeing if it could actually help me prepare for my games better. Let’s find out…
At a Glance
- Never Unprepared – The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep
- From: Engine Publishing (enginepublishing.com) and Gnome Stew (gnomestew.com)
- Author: Phil Vecchione
- Publisher: Martin Ralya
- Pages:128, 9×6 (digest)
- Price: $19.95 print + PDF bundle, or $9.95 PDF
My Initial Thoughts
The producers of Never Unprepared have already come out with two well-received, high-quality role-playing game books. This (coupled with the truth that I am in dire need of a session prep attitude adjustment) has given me high hopes that the book will deliver.
Upon cracking open the PDF, I’m met with what seems to be a professionally produced book. The content is laid out nicely in a single column, Justified text format, with the occasional piece of art to break it up. We have Credits, a Table of Contents, a Forward, an Introduction, and a How to use this Book section. That’s all fine, but I wanted to get to the meat of the matter – I wanted to know how to prep my games better.
It wasn’t until I reached chapter 2, page 16, that I finally sat upright in my chair and began reading more intently. Up to this point I was a little let down, because it seemed that the book was going to be nothing but fluff. I don’t mind fluff, exactly, it just seemed like there was too much of it. Perhaps the author had to fill the book up to 128 pages for production reasons? I don’t know, but it was tedious. I really feared that the rest of the book was going to be filled with a lot of, well, filler.
So, my initial impression was not good.
The Rest of the Book
The book offers a step-by-step process of getting ready for your game session, beginning with Brainstorming. In fact, there’s a whole chapter on Brainstorming. This is the kind of stuff that I like. I like being shown and told what to do, and I like that it’s a step-by-step process.
Phil Vecchione’s concept of session prep includes five steps:
Each step has a devoted chapter of it’s own, and each chapter includes tips, tricks, ideas, solutions, and even your own personal skill assessment. I felt (after reading these five chapters) that I was finally starting to get my money’s worth (well, if I had paid for it, anyway).
The book goes on to include information on tools that you might use to help with your session prep (and ways to get the most out of them), and information on finding and developing a schedule to compliment your peak productivity. To be honest, I felt the author had some good ideas on utilizing prep tools, but the amount of effort Phil puts into helping you find time (or the creative energy) for session prep is not necessary. I found myself (once again) just trying to get to the next section. Don’t get me wrong, it’s obvious that Phil knows what he’s talking about, I just don’t feel that the section of time and creative management applied to me.
However, immediately after forcing my way through that section, I’m introduced to the chapter, “Your Personal Prep Templates.” If the step-by-step process that I mentioned earlier is the meat of the matter, the Personal Prep Templates are the delicious flavor. Of course, the book (as a whole) should explain how to better prepare for a session (and it does), but this section alone seems to provide half its worth. Earlier parts of the book help you prepare for the game, but this section helps you run it. Please don’t mistake those two as the same thing, because they aren’t. I guess I would say that the section on templates is a great little bit on how to improve as a GM, sneakily disgused within session prep. I don’t know what else to say about it. I simply found this section very interesting, eye-opening, and extremely useful.
The book concludes with information and ideas on how to prep using less-than-ideal time and situations, and helps you deal with prep under unusual circumstances.
My Final Thoughts
I was asked to do a review, but what I really wanted was to see if the book could improve my session prep, and thus, improve my game. So, I put it to the test. As I said earlier, I’ve been running a Serenity game with a minimum amount of session prep. I’ve been lucky in that my group has seemed to enjoy every minute of it, even though I have not. I’d forget NPC names, not know which direction to go with the story, and rely too often on food breaks to come up with ideas mid-game. You could say that if the players didn’t seem to notice and were having fun, then I’m doing fine. However, I don’t like the stress that comes with the uncertainty.
So, I spent some time preparing for the next session. I specifically followed the step-by-step method (Brainstorming, Selection, Conceptualization, Documentation, and Review), and then I spent some more time developing my Personal Templates. I wish I could tell you that our game was a raging success, but we haven’t played it yet. In honest truth, I’m simply really looking forward to it. I feel very confident, not that the session will run well, but that I will truly be the master of the game. I’m not really worried about whether or not the players will have fun (I think they would enjoy it even if I was completely unprepared), I just know that I will enjoy it, because I’ll feel confident that I’ll be running a good game.
As far as putting the book to the test, I’m confident that it passed. I am fully ready for our next session, and look forward to preparing future sessions. I seriously doubt there will be any more procrastinating or flying by the seat of my pants, because I feel that I now have the tools to prepare correctly, confidently, and to full effect.
I found Never Unprepared to be a long read. I found myself getting impatient at times. And I found myself thinking that the book could have been cut to half as many pages. It wasn’t until page 16 rolled around that I started to find it interesting, and even then there still seemed to be too much filler content continuing forward.
I found Never Unprepared interesting. I found myself saying, “I’ll have to try that.” And I found myeslf looking forward to preparing and running my next game. While different sections of the book will sing to different readers, I found two sections which seemed to have been written specifically for me. I would describe the five-chapter step-by-step process as the meat of Never Unprepared, but I would say that “Personal Prep Templates” is the section that solidifies its value.
I dare say that every GM could benefit from this book, and if I hadn’t gotten a preview copy, I’d buy one myself.