GM’s Advice: Two Things I Hate About Module Prep

For my Shattered Star campaign, I’ve just spent a rather frustrating couple of hours preparing the next module.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


Obviously as a GM, I spend longer than the players getting ready for each session. That’s fine and cool—it’s part of the GM’s bag. What I hate is unnecessary preparation. Or to put it another way, I hate wasting my time preparing things that should already be in the module.

Player Maps

Providing player maps with a module—particularly one with above ground or urban elements—is a great game aid. It makes things so much easier and it helps the players visualise the area. (Particularly, if like me, the GM has terrible drawing skills.)

The early parts of the adventure I’ve been preparing take place above ground. The module has a marvellous GM’s map and the web enhancement has a handy player’s version. In theory, I can hand out the player’s map so they can easily see they lay of the land.

However, while the player’s version of the map has had most of the GM features and all the tags removed a few remain—and they depict features the players really wouldn’t know about before the game begins. This means I had to correct the map using my excellent graphics manipulation skills. (On the plus side, it means I had a good excuse to learn some graphics manipulation skills).

Stat Blocks

In modules, I hate with the fiery power of a thousand blazing suns, this kind of phrase:

I’m a GM that likes to be prepared. I’m also a GM who doesn’t have infinite space behind his GM’s screen (which I love and wouldn’t be without).

So when I’m running a combat, I don’t want to have to be flicking backwards and forwards through one or more books. That way, confusion, disaster and (inevitably) mistakes and frustration lie. (It’s also not an ideal medium to record hit point loss, conditions and mark off expended spells, magic items or spell-like abilities). And it increases the amount of material I’ve got to drag to the game.

So, for every combat encounter I have to print out the relevant stat blocks. For the first section of the module I’m preparing I need to print out in the region of 20 stat blocks. That’s time consuming (and also sucks up a fair amount of ink and paper when printing direct from the various Bestiarys).

  • Pro Tip: Print out your module single sided. This gives you loads of space on the facing page of an encounter to make notes. I also cut out and stick all revenant stat blocks to the page so they are right there when and where I need them.

I understand why the designers have to do it this way (the twin tyrannies of page count and print cost rear their ugly head), but I’d rather pay more for a physically bigger module which includes all the stat blocks I need and save my (jolly precious) time.

What Do You Hate?

So those are my two most hated elements of module preparation. What makes your blood boil when preparing a module? Let me know in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

20 thoughts on “GM’s Advice: Two Things I Hate About Module Prep”

  1. Is this where I leave a sarcastic remark about PF monsters and cross-reference? I mean, even if you did have the full stat block in the module, you still have to cross reference spells, spell-like abilities, and what feat x and feat y does.
    4E got this right with its selfcontained monster write ups, 5e is back in the old mill, so I would like to hear your thoughts on this – how to prep effectively when using monsters with spells, spell-like abilities and feats etc.?

  2. Regarding monsters and their stat blocks: There are always notes you have to make. Maybe there’s a timing issue, you’ll want to focus on. Maybe there’s an odd disease. Maybe there are ideas for description that you come up with beforehand, and that you want to make sure to remember. Either way, those are for your file of notes. I make fold-up minis for the monsters – they’re also for the notes. As are illustrations I clip from the pdfs of my modules so I can make an illustration collection foreshadowing what’s gonna happen.

    For the monsters, I go to and copy the stat blocks. Saves on the colour ink.

  3. This may be digressing, but I’ve really started disliking running adventures because of the nature of how monsters advance in 3E/PF. Under 1E/2E – an orc was an orc. You could memorize the basic stats for an orc to the point where all you needed was the hit points (which many classic adventures listed). You could get good enough that ultimately all you needed the monster books for was the odd monster (like the Eye of Fear and Flame or the Silver Clockwork Horror).

    With the advent of 3E/PF – each monster can have a crapload of classes, templates, feats, and so forth that really make each monster as unique as the characters.

    The problem for me is as an adventure designer – I love the concept that monsters are as unique as characters. But as a DM running someone else’s adventure, I absolutely abhor it because I can’t memorize enough basic information to get me through the adventure without referencing something. And that’s just considering Core Rules. When you add in the metric craploads of optional material – it becomes impossible to have enough understanding to adequately run an adventure. The time required to gain mastery of the system grows exponentially with each supplement because you have to learn the rules and then learn how those rules interact with each and every other rule combination.

    Maybe I’m overthinking it, but for me this is a real problem that I have yet to overcome.

    1. This is one of the reasons why I’m running a core only campaign–as much as is possible. While I do use the monsters from the other Bestiarys–because they are in the module–I don’t have time to learn all the new feats, spells, classes, magic items and god knows what else that would turn up at the table if I opened up all the books. I’m also not a fan of stopping play just to look up a feat to see how it works. I’d rather actually play.

  4. My gripes are along the same vein as the one mentioned about monsters. My problem is that in, for example, Rise of the Runelords, that reference is additionally abbreviated in a way that isn’t indexed. Nowhere is explained what the abbreviation stood for, so I couldn’t look it up. I found a statblock in a completely different book with a monster of the same name, but nothing else. Very frustrating for a game-OCDer.

  5. I’m running Shattered Star currently myself, and I’m curious as to what part you’re at (going by your Shattered Star journal on the sidebar, you’re playing around with an outside adventure after book #1). We’re on the second book, a little over half way through. The adventure itself has progressed at a better rate than the first book, but it has taken a lot more advanced prep time on my part because of the open-ended nature of most of the adventure.

    I’ve been playing on Roll20, and prep time is both easier and harder there. On the harder side, I have to upload the maps all in advance and draw out the line-of-sight lines (an optional, but worthwhile step), and then finally populate the areas with the various critters token on which I prep with basic stat information. It certainly increases the prep time, but once its completed, the actual playtime is much smoother. As for monsters, I put the basic HP/AC/Initiative in the Token information, while the rest of stats I keep on separate tabs in my web browser on my 2nd monitor. That helps alleviate some of the problems.

    The irritating thing I’ve had is actually not the stat blocks, but the lack of concise blocks of loot or Items of Interest for each encounter. I’ve missed (or nearly missed) giving the party items they won fair-and-square because of that.

    Anyhow, if you want to trade notes with a fellow GM on your Shattered Star game, feel free to look me up on Facebook (or you can e-mail me, but I don’t check my e-mail too often these days).

      1. My players have just visited the lower part of Jorgenfist, finding, that Nualia (being the sister of one of my players) is mythic by now (those giants shouldn’t have captured here below Windsong, where the group’s send here to be redeemed), and almost wiped out the whole level.
        Anyway – prepping Mokmurian alone is a chrushing.

        I use the iOS-App “PFR”. Pretty fast to look up rules!

  6. I’m running Rise of the RuneLords. I use Roll20 at the table, which as someone has already pointed increases prep time in some areas. For stat blocks I actually keep a spreadsheet up called my dashboard, and I screen grab the stat blocks from d20PFSRD so I have them all sized and arranged by fight, each on a separate tab. If there’s spells, I’ll grab those too and paste them below the stat block for the caster. The only book I keep in front of me, behind my screen, is the RotRL book. I don’t print anything anymore.

  7. Maps with 10 ft. squares. Maps that are too big to fit on a 24x 36 in sheet of graph paper. Seriously, tables that people play on are only so big. Break the map up into smaller encounter areas if it’s that big.

  8. Also I can handle references to external stat blocks, but it is super annoying to have an external reference to a stat block with a template. That makes me have to apply the template during preparation.

  9. We are also going through the Shattered Star Adventure Path and have just started the very beginning of the module last game session. I agree with you about stat blocks. I actually prefer to use the stat blocks on d20pfsrd at the table (on my smartphone), since they are hyperlinked, rather than printing them out. I have to research their abilities and spells anyway, so I bookmark the pages of the creatures I’m going to need as I’m researching. However, I will agree with Charlie Bell that not having a stat block for a templated creature is very annoying. Also, like Ryan Pfefferle, I missed giving the players a few items at the beginning due to unclear writing in the module, but I’ve found that now I know this is an issue, its easy to remedy.

    1. I agree. For example, applying the advanced template to a crocodile isn’t exactly the work of a rocket scientist–it’s just not work I *want* to do. I’d rather it was provided for me in the module and I just pay slightly more for the module.

  10. Well, it does not make my blood boil, but I appreciate portraits, or even better: portraits on physical cards, for each and every NPC the players encounter. Additionally, a great help to me is advice on the motives and behaviour of the NPC towards the players, spelled out clearly, not abstracted away into some background story that I need to extrapolate.

  11. What I hate?

    – “1 square = 10 ft.” maps
    – Statblocks stretched over multiple pages (even worse, if I always have to flip between pages)
    – Standard rooms description format! Why doesn’t it say, that there’s a monster right there in the read aloud section?! Why are traps at doors not described before the read aloud text of the room behind it?!
    – I would love to see more art depicting the adventure locale, not monsters or nps.
    – Statblocks, where it doesn’t clearly tell me, if the buffs are already figured into the stats or not.

  12. Last year I moved from being an all-paper GM to having everything on a small laptop behind the GM Screen. That way I can have the adventure notes as a PDF and reference PFSRD for stat blocks and feats and spells and whatever else without taking up any more space behind the screen. I do still reference the books from time-to-time (particularly for in-world content, since PFSRD is world-neutral). It’s been a godsend and I couldn’t imagine going back to a wholly paper system again.

  13. Player maps are useful, but not including stat blocks is the devil’s work. lol

    I have some published adventures where this has occurred, but never by choice.

  14. I use a spreadsheet and write out 3 main stats for everyone involved, hp, ac and initiative. I organise it by initiative and it make life relatively simple

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