How Long Do You Spend Preparing for an Role-Playing Game Session as a DM?

I know this question is difficult due to differences between various game systems. Some games simply require more work to create NPCs or monsters for the encounters. I pride myself on my preparation efforts and I know that preparation pays off in a better experience for my players. I know this because I ran games without my usual preparation to mixed results. I am curious to know if others need the same amount of preparation as I do for a good gaming experience. I usually spend about one hour of preparation time for four hours of gaming.  Does this seem like what my readers require or am I at the low/high end of the spectrum?

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

8 thoughts on “How Long Do You Spend Preparing for an Role-Playing Game Session as a DM?

  • September 28, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    I think I’m closer to the reciprocal : 4 hours of prep per one hour gaming. Much of that is “amortized” prep, general world building and setting creation that will be revealed over several games. Also, I think the shorter the gaming time for the group, the more time I need to prep. A leisurely paced game has a lot less direct GM involvement than one that I need to keep fast-paced, such as one on a tight schedule. There’s less room for meaningless digressions when we have two and a half hours and then won’t play for a month. Something memorable has to happen to avoid spinning wheels, starting from scratch in PC planning at the next session or spending half the session summarizing the previous session.

    In my home game, we would generally play for six hours. The first hour would usually be small talk (and waiting for the stragglers). The second hour would be accounting (shopping, advancing in level, etc.) The third hour, the group would be roleplaying, but low-key, long-term business (e.g., checking in with NPC allies). The fourth hour, they would get wind of some crisis brewing. The fifth hour, they would plot among themselves ways of dealing with the crisis. The sixth hour, would be carrying out the plot. So what I need to prepare is: some background events (what is happening with their allies?),
    and a crisis to deal with.

    In my “away” game, I run about 2 1/2 hour sessions about once a month. There, I can’t wait for them to leisurely make enquiries until they learn of an issue, I have to find a way of having the issue grab them by the collar in the first 1/2 hour or so. Then they have an hour to investigate and plot, and an hour to resolve things. It’s at least as much prep as the six hour game.

  • September 28, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Actual, structured prep time for me hasn’t changed much over the last few years. I usually spend about four hours a week, an hour or two a couple of weeknights leading up to the Friday game. When I was DMing 3e, most of that prep time was spent on crunch. Now I DM 4e and Savage Worlds, both very effortless on the crunch front, and most of that four hours goes to story, world detail, NPCs and the like, which I much prefer.

  • September 29, 2009 at 12:50 am

    DMing 4e, and my own (rules-light) homebrew rules, prep time works out pretty much one to one. However, my prep time usually comes in a burst of creativity (or massive reskinning of published material). One prep session usually being worth two 4-hour game sessions. This is not to say I prep for 8-hour stretches, as a burst can cover several days of available opportunities.

  • September 29, 2009 at 1:13 am

    The campaign my players are currently playing through runs to over 100 hundred sides of A4 in my scrawling hand writing so far and is yet to run out, I have three major dungeons to pen yet. Each session pushes the player through about twelve of these pages (on average) and takes about the same length of time to write as it does to play. This is because it is combat and puzzles that slow down play, and some improvisation with roleplaying does too. An example: I can write a paragraph that is an introduction to a fight in ten minutes but the fight itself might take 45 minutes to play out.

  • September 29, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I tend to have a .5 ratio of prep/game time. We only game for 2-3 hours at a time, and I put in about an hour a week of preparation.

    Most of my time is spent scaling adventures down since the dungeons we go through take too long for us to complete with the amount of time we (don’t) spend each week.

  • October 1, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    I carry around a spiral notebook with me just about everywhere and write down ideas when they come to me, this averages to about 5-10 minutes a day. I run a game biweekly that lasts between 4-6 hrs. So all in all I have a 1:6 to 1:2 ratio of prep time to actual gaming.

    I run 3.5 with the E6 variant rules so most encounters are at lower levels where planning is easier.

  • October 14, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Hmm. Never measured, but I generally run between 4 to 8 hour games once a week (or twice, depending on the schedule) and I tend to do between a half-hour to an hour prep each week for both of the games I’m actively running now. I’m running two DnD 3.5 games in the same game world, so some of my worldbuilding counts for both games at the same time.

    When I’m running World of Darkness, my prep time is much, much less. A few sentences scratched on a sheet of paper and I’m good to go. I find WoD vastly easier to play by ear than DnD is however, since I’m dealing with a dark reflection of the real world, not a fantasy world that I’m building from scratch and largely on the fly.

  • August 1, 2010 at 6:39 am

    The 4th edition DMG, page 18, instructs you on what to prep if you have only one hour to prep (definite encounters, published adventure), two hours (“possible” encounters and improvisational aids), three hours (new encounters that appeal to one specific player, minor quests) and four hours is as high as they go. Therefore I’d say one hour of prep per session is about the minimum and the amount I would prep for a four-hour session (6-10 hours) is insane.

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