I prefer a loose outline that I can modify on the fly as play progresses. I do like world and location maps prepped ahead of time. Just about every NPCs is a adjective, noun, verb.A sneaky cutpurse that works for the red hand thieves guild.
If you go in with no plan, you end up wasting time generating everything at the table. On the other side, if you over-plan then you might as well write a novel instead because you're going to get annoyed when the players trample over your hard work.
I'd say it depends on the GM. Clearly you have folks who have crafted meticulously bespoke settings that they also run games in. Likewise you have folks who have no fear or problem with running a game with the barest of required detail and making up anything they lack on the spot. It comes down to your GM style, your player's play style, and what your players will tolerate on the spectrum of detail.
I think a lack of planning is more detrimental. IME, even people who are good at planning extemporaneously tend to fall back on the same old tricks when they don't plan ahead, so every game session starts to feel very same-y.
I may be guilty of overplanning, but I hate having nothing ready. Even if you are going to random table the whole thing, take time to personalize the tables and follow through on some of the results.
Overplanning. Good plans are like meat and should be served raw. More seriously, if you overplan you tend to marry yourself to a plan of action or storyline and tend to be less flexible and responsive to the players' desires and responses. And players are famous for being able to make your plans go gang aft agley.That said, there is a big difference between planning and preparation. Being prepared means that you are ready for any number of possibilities. [Of course this is also game system dependant. As the system gets more complicated the degree of preparation required to run a game generally increases. This is why D&D makes a nice sandbox game - with class and level you have basically described an NPC. Something more complicated, like Runequest needs more work/thought to generate sensible NPCs.]
I can only speak for myself, but over planning is the mind killer. I'm perfectly fine with have a few notes on NPCs, maybe a village or two, and a list of randomly generated names (cause PCs love to ask what someone's name is even if its the king's piss boy), and run a game. The interaction with the players build the world as much as I do. This works for me.
Underplanning, but you need to plan to have space for improvising.
To paraphrase, no plan survives contact with the players. Skeletal outlines only!
Wow, this is old school Tenkar's Tavern!
I don't think either is a problem. The answer lies within whoever is running the campaign. If one wants to commit the time and the effort, having those details can be really fun to have around; however, I prefer to go with the minimalist route for both the fact that I don't have the time or energy for all that work and the fact that I love the surprise of what happens when a random roll (for inspiration in order to make something up on the spot) suddenly paints a picture of my campaign world I never would have dreamed up while using all that energy to detail things out.
Overplanning. I've seen more overplanned games fizzle than underplanned ones fizzle.
It depends on the talents of the DM. I enjoy a lot of prep, but nothing ever plays out as I prep. Prep basically gives me more prepared cards to play. I'll happily without very much detail prep in the terms of lots of detail not central to the overall adventure area. I'm comfortable winging the details as I go. But for DMs that aren't, and get that deer-in-the-headlights look whenever a direction is taken that they didn't anticipate, it's often either increasing prep or pushing the players back to what was prepped. So those DMs should prep heavily.
I prefer to plan broadly. I have NPC's in generic form, at least in my head. I tend to draw town maps to help the players feel like they have entered a real place. It is best not to plan adventures too sequentially, or too scripted. Rather, have modules (in the literal sense of pieces that can be dropped in) ready to go so that players can experience a sandbox setting. Too much planning tends to hedge in the players and leave them feeling no sense of freedom, or that their choices matter.
What is far worse than over-planning is stalling. The game master does not have enough information, and nothing planned, so he stalls. It is frustrating, and it kills a game.
It depends on the Gamemaster. Those that excel at ad-libbing will find underplanning is a boon while those that love plotting out every nook and cranny available will never overplan enough.At least, that's what my experience and the excellent tome, Never Unprepared by Phil Vecchione, have taught me.Link to the aforementioned wonderful manual:https://www.amazon.com/Never-Unprepared-Complete-Masters-EGP42003/dp/098361332X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
I used to over plan and spend hours preparing. Then one right I wasn't ready so I hit up a generator that gave me three words. Those words were fairies, troll and harp. I threw together an adventure and my group and myself had never had so much fun. I sadly went back to over planning because I had a full campaign outlined. I would always look back at the night the troll played a harp that caused the fairies to fall asleep and danced on their corpses. When we ended the campaign I started a new one that took place 20 years later in the same world.I had the ground work laid out and half my player's had already spend three years there. Now I just show up with a map and ask them where they are heading. It's been the best campaign i have run in the 18 years I have been a DM. It's super exciting as a DM because i never know what's going to happen next. That said, despite running the world for 6 years there are lots of places on the map that don't have names. I create them based on the interests of the players. I had a lighthouse on the map, that's all it was. My players spent all session trying to get there. how boring would it be if it was a plain lighthouse? It was a steam punk lab with a giant robot to make the four hours of game pay off. It still comes up every other session or so. It's still rampaging across the wastelands where the capital used to stand.
Overplanning is more dangerous for me. I find it very easy to work from a skeletal outline or a loose combination of basic ideas, while too much detail tends to diminish my ability to move the action forward. I have had bad luck with campaigns that were set up "too perfectly"; in practice, breaking their order down a little was necessary to obtain the kind of freedom we prefer at our table.But starting with a completely blank slate has its problems, too - if there are no reference points, it is hard to gather momentum. This is particularly relevant for some players, who are more reactive than proactive; but it also affects GMing. Pretty sure I have enough experience to improvise a passable campaign out of nothing by just staying two steps ahead of the players, but I'd rather make an effort and go beyond passable.There is a sweet spot somewhere in between where campaign materials are defined enough to have their own identity, structure and character, but they are loose enough to allow for extrapolation, combination and, if it comes to that, even a radical revision. Good game materials let you go off the rails and suggest ideas for the time when that happens.
Just an example. If a hypothetical setting book writes "The Lords of the Isles are driven by strange passions and vendettas whose origins are now mostly lost in a shadowy past" and "Great and silent stone circles, revered as symbolic sources of worldly and metaphysical power, have been fought over through generations in a multitude of petty wars", that tells us enough about the local political dynamic to build on.We do not have to know every specific lord, lady and bishop to have an idea how they might behave - many will follow custom in various ways, there will be a few who will reject it, or try to act independent of it - but most political issues will be governed by their relationship to these basic ideas. In an afternoon or two, you could sketch up a system of alliances and rivalries to last through an average campaign. Of course, if the players aren't interested in this aspect of the campaign, you can let it stay in the background and focus on something else, like sea trade and piracy. But the struggles of the nobility and the stone circles will be there nevertheless, and help define other aspects of the campaign. You can probably assume that piracy thrives during unstable times, and that there will always be someone to buy and sell, even illicit goods. At the same time, there might not be too much monetary treasure out there. The initial framework and assumptions can take the group, and the entire campaign, in many different directions.
Either extreme causes trouble.I say, plan broad and loose, giving the players options and filling in the details as one goes. Keep track of backgrounds, NPCS and events to use later too; the adventure hooks will write themselves. Don't make players write lame-ass backgrounds, that develops in game and having too much detail hamstrings you when better options inevitably come along. If they have a particular idea, great. Use it. Don't be a DM that expects deep narratives for the characters only to toss that shit out at the first session in favour of your own adventure ideas. Use it as a hook or even the first adventure focus.
Personally, I prefer to err on the side of overplanning. Mostly that means working out background information, like who is pulling which strings, and what those strings are connected to, so that when the players do something unexpected, I know what effect that will have in the world, so that it makes sense when compared to everything they've already experienced (at least when they finally get to pull back the curtain on a particular set of strings). I find that when I walk into a game underprepared, I do spend a lot of the player's time spinning my wheels while I invent details and agendas.
I greatly prefer overplanning and having details at the ready for most, not all, of what the party may do. That being said, the general feedback from my players is that those times when I didn't have things ahead of time and winged it were some of their favorite sessions.So my compromise is to have planning done on the basics of the "world" along with detailed planning of their home base location (if they have one). What's in that home location, NPC names and places, etc. Other locations outside the home base may have little more than a town name and maybe the name of one inn, and I fill in details from sessions if the party goes to those places.
My personal experience: I tend to overplan at the start, spending a lot of time gathering resources and filling in the details that are important to me, which is usually highly detailed encounter tables.Then, during play, I find I did WAY too much. But, prep before each session amounts to me writing a 2-3 paragraph recap of the previous session, finding a random table or already existing dungeon I'd already earmarked, and showing up to the game.Numbers: I spend probably 10-20 hours of prep before a campaign. I spend an average of 10-15 minutes of prep before a session, but sometimes it's as much as 30 min. and sometimes it's as little as zero (in which case I'm in freak out mode yet the session always ends up going just fine).
I believe in light/minimal planning, but there has to be something to riff off of - a map, a couple paragraphs of location description, some NPCs. My games which lacked any kind of detailed home base tended to fail, so I think that is the thing that most rewards effort.