Today’s guest article was written by reader Ryan Latta, who took Phil Vecchione’s Prep-Lite articles — and other articles about keeping prep light — to heart, put them to use, and wrote about the results. Thanks, Ryan!
I hate prepping for a game.
In fact, the more prep work I find myself doing, the less excited I am to GM whatever it is I’m prepping. Naturally, I was captivated by many of the articles here on “Prep-Lite” and began to apply as many of those principals as I could.
Let’s go over some of the things that resonated the most; how they worked and how they didn’t.
There are some great articles here about making the most out of index cards , and you can find some really inspiring stuff in those articles, but let me summarize for you: Use them all the time. Use them for your characters when you play, use them for items, use them for spells, use them for maps, NPCs, plot outlines, treasure hoards, notes about your players, and notes about the insanity your players inflict on your game. Use them.
Index cards really opened up a lot of doors for me as a GM. First, using them forced me to limit the time I spend on any single part of a game, because there simply isn’t enough room on one card for a lot of in-depth stuff. If there’s an NPC I need for a game, I don’t write paragraphs of backstory. I put a phrase, a sentence, or tags until I know who they are at a glance — just the barest amount of stats needed to get by, and if there’s something else important, I can squeeze that in too.
Second, keeping up with all of the cards encouraged me to recycle elements of my game. So my players see NPCs repeatedly, develop feuds with monsters who get away, and remember the names of people and locations. Lastly, every GM knows that no plan survives its players. So, the less I have written and prepped, the less I have to adjust or throw out when the players are having a good time.
It’s not all roses though: You wind up with a lot of cards, so you have to organize them. Fortunately, index card filing systems are sold at most dollar stores. I personally found myself categorizing my cards as: Plot, Enemies, and Maps/Items. That didn’t leave room for my cards that are notes about the PCs or anything else, so they just get lumped in. This system, while not perfect, does allow me to quickly pull the 5-6 cards I need to run a successful session.
Also, because you don’t have room for every detail you have to get comfortable making a lot of things up. This may be uncomfortable at first, but it will probably only take a session or two to get into a swing of making up lots of things in a session and keeping track of it all.
The other thing that drives me up the wall about prep is the internal debate about how to organize what actually gets written down. I’m nutty for templates and the quest for the perfect one can be an inhibitor to getting the job done. John’s article about the 3×3 system , and Phil’s article about clue maps (see below), became my inspiration.
The 3×3 system is organizing what you need into sets of three. So you may need 3 NPCs, 3 encounters, 3 treasures, etc. I started making a form I can fill out that does just that, but I found it didn’t capture what I wanted in my prep. It was great at capturing details, but not at the “broad strokes” that I was after. So I began using the 3×3 on the detail oriented cards. NPCs, items, locations, and so on will use the 3×3, but the actual adventure won’t.
Clue maps  are a recent tool, one that organizes the clues and information your PCs can encounter into a graph where one clue could lead you to another. This was fantastic for fleshing out the “What if…” part of brainstorming, and as a reference for a mystery/investigation game. So I ran a session that was a murder investigation using the clue map as my primary bit of notes.
It was wonderful at giving me the information I needed to help the characters navigate the web of clues to find the killer, but I was left in the dark when it came to things where the actual murder scene was, how old this NPCs was, and so on. These are all details that are easily made up on the fly, but it felt as though it lacked the cohesiveness that my normal prep would have provided. Now I use the clue map to brain storm and as a reference, which is wonderful.
So you made it this far, and you might be curious as to what my prep actually looks like. Here’s how it comes together.
Once I have an idea, I break it down into 3-5 loose items. You could think of these as scenes or encounters, but they’re basically any large item in the adventure that needs some notes. I found 3-5 is about right for a 4-hour game.
Then, I take an index card and use it for my plot outline. I write each of the 3-5 items into a simple, grammatically incorrect sentence.
After that, I underline, highlight, and rewrite in a different color words in those sentences that are critical for me to notice, remember, and make notes on. So this would be things like major NPCs, major enemies, MacGuffins, plot twists, and the like.
Finally, I flip the card over and put whatever notes about those items that I’m likely to forget, or make a whole new card to deal with it.
Here’s an example from the last session I ran:
- “Atlantis” raises from the sea.
- Gods pay a visit to tell heros to retrieve tokens from the Nemean Lion
- Secretary begs heros to humiliate boyfriend who dumped her
- At the party is the Nemean Lion with boyfriend and has a Pendant
- Firefight at the house?
And my notes for a puzzle trap:
- Dining room full of ghosts
- Table full of ethereal food
- Servant mentions that in the “Pig” is something useful, but the food will kill the living
- Inside is bolt of “Golden Cloth”
- Cerberus is outside barking
(Note: This puzzle took the better part of 25 minutes.)
From there I have more notes about stats, hidden agendas, and other oddities on the back or on other cards. This system works really well for me, and I hope it — or parts of it — are useful to you.
My question to you: What techniques have you found that changed the way you prep your games?