I'm running a game for Technical Difficulties next Saturday and three games at GenCon in mid-August. So this seems as good a time as any to talk about what I do to prepare to GM a game.
There's only a few systems I'm comfortable enough with to GM, but I don't regularly GM. So I don't have all the rules memorized at any one time and like to review some areas I know I'm weak in before GMing. Right now, I'm comfortable with A Dirty World (next Saturday), first edition Eclipse Phase (GenCon), and Red Markets (intermittently). I have the basic mechanics and expected genre/setting/mood of all three down (which is more or less my baseline for saying I'm comfortable with a system) but before a game, I like to review:
- the combat system in A Dirty World, both physical and social;
- hacking in Eclipse Phase;
- negotiations in Red Markets.
I think with time I'll move on to a more complex part of A Dirty World than combat. Not that there's a lot more to the system — I like A Dirty World, but it designed to do one thing (noir) and one thing only. So, not the most complex of systems. Hacking in Eclipse Phase and Negotiations in Red Markets are probably going to be the go-to review sections for a while though. Hacking because it's both complex and not used frequently in games I run. Negotiations because it's just different than other systems I know and the most complex part of Red Markets, period.
In addition to reviewing the system is the prep I do for the adventure. I typically run pre-written one-shots, so I'll have to write a new post exploring how this changes if/when I run a campaign (I have an idea...) But any rate, for one-shots, I like to review the pre-generated characters, read the adventure thoroughly, let it sit for an hour or a day, and then read it over again, thinking about how my players are going to something completely bonkers.
And then the day of, I'll have the rules books to hand, ready to go aaaaaaand everything flies out of my head. So I improvise the whole thing anyway.
But the prep work means the improvising happens faster (no 5 minutes of dead air and players twiddling their thumbs) and more coherent, because I know (theoretically) where I'd like everyone to go.
Not that they go there. Player Characters == Cats. First rule of tabletop rpgs, that is.