[Review] Never Unprepared, The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep

GMing is often perceived to be an arcane art, whose secrets are passed on via oral tradition, or through hours of experience by running terrible games until they become not quite so bad, to passable then finally pretty good. While some of us had to endure this sort of initiation (I know I did) it doesn’t have to be this way.

One of the most crucial steps in running a game is preparing for it. What’s funny is that so many of us GMs tend to not really give this step any decent amount of thought and attention.

Enter then, Never Unprepared, The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep from the fine people of Engine Publishing and Gnome Stew. In it, author Phil Vecchione delves into the nature of session prep working his way down from building an understanding (and therefore appreciation) for prep to the necessary tools and finally evolving your own style.

Phil doesn’t waste any time, immediately diving into a discussion of the creative cycle. I feel that this is a great way to start the book as many GMs (myself included) are unaware of how their creative cycle works, and how to get the best of it. Each chapter is overflowing with interesting advice, written in an accessible and engaging language that doesn’t burden one with needless jargon or academic discussions that serve no purpose but to stroke the author’s ego.

What I found great about Never Unprepared is that it’s not just a book that blathers on and on about a topic. Phil adds a few personal anecdotes of his own experiences, and reinforces the learnings of a given section with a Rate Your Skill Level exercise in order to evaluate your proficiency. Furthermore, each chapter also has sections dedicated to spotting when you’ve done too much or too little of a given phase in preparation, handy for finding out your weaknesses.

The second section of the book tackles the tools for GM prep, and discusses the pros and cons of working with the different brainstorming and planning tools available. While I know many GMs that prefer the old pen and paper methods, I rely on notes via Springpad and jotting down phrases on my smartphone when inspiration strikes.

One of the most compelling sections in the book is when Phil details the creation of a creativity heat map, a visual representation of when you are most creative. Ideas flow easily in certain times, and tracking them might give insight on when a GM can take advantage of these moments.

The discussion on personalizing your prep to your own style is very helpful as well. The author doesn’t go about telling you exactly what to do as much as he coaches you through a thinking exercise in order to form a methodology that works for you. The considerations raised were all eye-openers for myself, and I’ve been GMing for quite a while now.

The last part of the book caught me completely by surprise, a section on the Prep-lite approach. This section is one that I feel speaks to me the most. It’s not so much a more efficient means of prep, but one that helps make the most of whatever little time you have while delivering the same level of quality. It’s a nice (and useful) touch for those that don’t have the luxury of free time anymore due to our obligations and responsibilities.

I wish that I had this kind of book way back when I started GMing in college. Perhaps then I could have had more chances to actually run successful and interesting games that could benefit from more than just me yanking surprise after surprise from the top of my head in hopes that some sort of plot emerges from the mess.

Never Unprepared is a definite must-have for any GM. New GMs can learn a lot from this book, picking up the good habits that will serve them well into their latter years of GMing. I would go as far as to put it on the same level as Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering in terms of usefulness to anyone who takes the art (and science) of GMing seriously and is looking to improve his craft.

Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer would like to thank Martin Ralya for providing us with a copy of this excellent book.

4 thoughts on “[Review] Never Unprepared, The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep

  1. Thank you for reviewing Never Unprepared! Your reaction — wishing you’d had this book when you started GMing — was mine as well. I was thrilled when Phil pitched the idea for the book, and I hope it resonates with a lot of other GMs in the same way.

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