Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Zero-Prep Pathfinder Revisited

My Pathfinder post generated a couple of comments that surprised me so maybe I failed to communicate well in that one. I thought it was worth it to try again.

In my mind there are two kinds of prep for a game: campaign prep and session prep.

Campaign preparation is what I do before a campaign actually starts. Things like this:

  • Choose a system to run - D&D, Star Wars, etc.
  • Choose a setting to use - Greyhawk, Star Wars, etc.
  • Figure out the general situation for the campaign - 1st level? Name level? Rebels? Imperials?
  • Round up players - not always as easy as we might like
  • Figure out a time - maybe the toughest part of starting it up
  • Prepare the details - NPC's, maps, monsters, vehicles, organizations, etc.
Every campaign is going to require some of these if not all. Even if I know the system and the setting by heart and plan to run completely seat-of-your-pants I still have to get some people together. 

With some games I may want to lump character creation in with this too - if the players know the game and the setting they can make characters ahead of time and Session #1 can jump right on into things.
See that? I don't have to do that anymore - I don't even use a screen for the Pathfinder campaign.

Session preparation is what I do before each session, such as:
  • Checking where we left off last time
  • Statting up the opposition for the next run if I haven't already
  • Mapping any areas they might get into if I haven't already
  • Printing out whatever notes I need to run things efficiently
  • Reminding the players of any major events or complications that are still hanging out there, if they need to level up, if a new player is joining, any of that kind of thing.
If I am running a published adventure I may include re-reading the relevant part of the adventure as part of this too.

So how does the zero-pathfinder thing play into this? From my previous post:

  •  First, you'll need the first volume of one of the adventure paths. 

Right, because writing my own isn't zero-prep. Running an AP saves me a ton of effort in session prep and gives my players a shared experience with other Pathfinder players. This is really a campaign-prep level item as you're only going to do it once to begin with. Now granted, if you continue all the way through there are typically six volumes in a full Paizo adventure path so you would be doing this again but it's not per-session.

  • Second, you should pull up the d20PFSRD, a really well-done, thoroughly hyperlinked version of the open Pathfinder rules. 

This is just an aid to running a session. There's no real work here -it's just opening a tab on your browser.

  • Third, download Combat Manager here

CM is also an aid to running the game during a session. You do it once, ever. You're good to go other than the occasional update. Again, there's no work here.

  • Fourth, get PCGen here or HeroLab here. PCGen is free, HeroLab is not but I think it does some things better than PCGen. Have your players create their characters in their tool of choice and send you the file.

Upon further review, the DM doesn't need these - the players do. So cross this off the DM's list. They just need to send you a character file so you can use it in Combat Manager. You want to see their character in advance, right? They can drop the file into the same email that describes their character. No extra work for you.

So sure, you have some campaign prep before you launch the campaign - I don't see a way around that most of the time. In this case it's "get an adventure, read it, tell your players". But the session prep is almost nil - the adventure provides the situation, the maps, opposition, and the NPCs. CM lets me run all aspects of combat in a very crunchy game with no paperwork. The d20pfsrd site lets me check rules details quickly and efficiently as they arise.

The "overhead" of running a game - stats, bookkeeping, initiative tracking, condition tracking, all of that kind of stuff - just melts away. I do keep a notebook open to jot down who was present, the date, cool stuff that happens during the game, and just anything interesting I might want to know later, but I don't have to refer to it at all for mechanical stuff.

Heck, all of my monsters are getting individual initiative rolls in my Pathfinder campaign and I can't tell you how long it's been since that was a regular practice here. Sure the players always have individual initiative, but usually the monsters have been side or group initiative, at least since 3rd edition. Now, after 14 or so years of that, if 10 Fiendish Vultures swoop down on my heroes in the devastation of Kenabres, they're not acting as a huge block - I roll for all of them. Because I can.

I know not everyone likes published adventures, advantages or not. I've used quite a few over the years, the past 14 or so in particular, though many of them were converted to systems other than the original. I find them to be useful tools for almost any campaign.

I know not everyone wants gadgets at their table, though I have relented on this in the past two years myself as laptops and tablets and phones are pretty handy for some games. When I run Labyrinth Lord I don't need a combat tracker - the game is so simple that it doesn't add anything to the experience. When I run ICONS I use a tablet as I have most of my material for that game on PDF. ICONS also has a nifty character generator/creator which is certainly not essential - I just like the character sheets it puts out. For D&D 4E games a lot of my players use electronic character sheets because they make it easier to track power usage and conditions and I have no problem with it. It all depends on the game. If there was program like Combat Manager for Hero System, I would run a lot more Champions than I do.

It doesn't really need a character builder but the output just looks good. 

If you are OK with published adventures and you are OK with using a PC at the table, then there is a lot of opportunity out there, especially with  a game like Pathfinder. Anything that lets me focus more on playing and less on getting stuff ready to play is a win in my eyes.

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