I was running out of time to prep my games. Sounds almost ironic from the guy who wrote Never Unprepared, but it was true. Things have changed in my life, and my ability to prep was straining against my dwindling free time. I had maximized the usage of my time, and I simply had less time to prepare than before. It was time to re-evaluate the way I prep and evolve my prep to meet my new life situation.
Prep-Lite you say?
Four years ago, I began to write a series of articles on a theme I called Prep-Lite, culminating with the Prep-Lite Manifesto. The philosophy was fairly simple:
- Rely on your Strengths – if you are good at something (i.e. descriptions), don’t write it down in your prep.
- Support your weaknesses – if there are things which you are less adept at (i.e. spell descriptions, names, etc), put them in your prep.
- They Can’t see your prep – it does not matter what your notes look like, no one ever sees them; break rules, ignore grammar, etc.
- Abstract mechanical elements – simplify complex mechanical elements into something more usable.
The goal of Prep-Lite is to trim your prep down to the essentials, while at the same time making sure you have what you need behind the screen to be comfortable running your sessions.
My Old System
After coming up with the idea four years ago, I followed this philosophy and was able to greatly streamline my prep to something more manageable. My prep had the following structure for a bi-weekly game:
- 1 week for Brainstorming, Selection, and Conceptualization – basically thinking about what the session would be about.
- 1 week for Documentation – sitting down and writing my session notes. Often doing just a little writing each day.
- 1 day for Review – a day to review my notes, look for gaps, touch things up.
Note- these terms are from Never Unprepared , where they are discussed in greater detail.
For the past few years this system has served me well, and has allowed me to get my games prepped while still being able to spend time doing other things – and without feeling rushed.
The past year has been one of the busiest years I have ever had. A number of things fell into place and new opportunities opened up for me including:
- Freelance Work – In addition to my contributions to Engine Publishing, I started to receive offers to write for other companies.
- Encoded Designs – I decided to open my own game design company to start developing some games I have been thinking about. That included doing a full PDF publication for Dangerous Space Jail (shameless plug).
- GMing a Second Group – When our last campaign ended, there was a gap in GM’s and so I agreed to GM a second bi-weekly group rather than letting that group go on hold.
- Podcasting – I got the opportunity to co-Host a weekly podcast, with a very good friend of mine. Having a college background in radio, I could not resist.
The end result, as you can imagine, is that my free time dried up. My past prep system was being encroached upon by recordings, writing deadlines, and games. Soon I was feeling the crunch to get something ready for both games.
In order to continue GMing the two games I had committed to running, my prep needed to undergo a change and evolve to meet my new lifestyle. I revisited the concept of Prep-Lite and began to evaluate what was in my prep, along with what could be changed. After some reflection I began to develop a new system. Here is how the system evolved:
Not All Games Were Equal
The hardest part of this journey was to realize that in my current situation, not every game was going to be good for me to run. Games that had complex rules, complex settings, or story structures that needed attention to detail (i.e. mysteries) were going to be difficult to prepare. I needed games which were lighter systems, and if possible minimized the need for prep by placing greater emphasis on the action of the players at the table. I found myself moving towards the following systems:
- Savage Worlds
- Apocalypse World Hacks
- Hillfolk / DramaSystem
What could go?
I began to look at what was in my current notes, with an eye on what I would be able to remove. My improvisational skills had improved greatly in the past year through my playing and GMing a number of the games listed above. With that increase in skill and confidence I dropped the following from my notes:
- Dialog – I am comfortable making up the dialog at the table.
- Detailed descriptions – no more descriptions for every room in a location; only important ones (see below).
- Solutions – I write down the problems in each scene, but do not bother to come up with solutions. I play off the players solutions.
What would stay?
Not everything I was doing was wasteful, and I looked over what I had in my notes and confirmed the following things needed to be included:
- Purpose – The purpose for the adventure and for each scene is always written out, to help me keep focus.
- Stat blocks – I don’t improvise the mechanical parts of an NPC well, so I still take time to make sure I have stat blocks for anything the players are going to run into.
- High-level descriptions – I dedicate a few sentences to each major location in the adventure so that I have a good mental picture of each area, allowing me to work them into both prepared and improv scenes.
- Scene List – I have a list of the scenes that I think may occur during the session. Each one gets a paragraph or two, depending on complexity. These scenes are not etched in stone, but are there to give the story direction.
What was added?
I also found myself doing a few things that were helpful, which I picked up from other game systems. I liked these enough to include them into my overall prep:
- Aspects – I now describe locations and NPC’s with 2-3 Aspects. I used to use one-word tags, but I find the Fate Aspect to be much more descriptive in such a small package. The Aspects conjure imagery and are a great short-cut for descriptions.
- Fronts/Agendas – Adopted from the Apocalypse World family, these are countdowns of things which will happen either during the adventure or across the adventure. They are basically an outline of what would happen if the characters do not intervene. They provide me a road map of how the adventure was suppose to go, and allows me to then make adaptations based on the players actions.
Making a few changes in what I was writing and omitting was not going to be enough. The biggest changes I needed to make were in the overall workflow for my prep. With the changes above, I was able to structure my prep into the following workflow:
- 5 days for Brainstorming, Selection, and Conceptualization – In those 5 days I think about the adventure and develop ideas. I can fit this activity in with things like driving to work, taking my daily walk, getting ready in the morning, etc. I then take a few minutes to write down a few notes.
- 1 day for Documentation – With the more streamlined approach from above, I can now get the information I need done in one sitting rather than a little each night. By the time I sit down, I have worked out the adventure in my head and I am just organizing my thoughts by writing out only the important material.
- 1 day for Review – Having sped up the other parts of the process, I thought it was wise to still take the day of the game to review what I wrote down and what was in my head to make sure it was sound.
- Move to OneNote – With the Mac and mobile versions of OneNote being released, I now have a robust tool that works on any platform. Allowing me to capture brainstorming ideas from my phone at lunch, or do my review on my iPad while watch TV during the weekend.
Did It Work
It sure did. Having used the new system now for the past few months, I have the confidence that my shorter prep cycle as well as the lesser amount of documentation is more than enough to run an enjoyable game. It has allowed me to juggle a very complex schedule at home, and still keep the commitments to the players in both groups.
Looking Around and then Within
Improvement occurs through periodic evaluation of the things around us, coupled with introspection of the things within us. All systems become outdated as things change in our lives, or in ourselves. When we notice that things are not working as well as they used to, we need to stop and look around, and then make adjustments to get things working smoothly.
Have you had to change your prep style due to a change in your life? What did you change? How did the change work, in the long run?