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Prep-Lite in Review

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.

Index Cards

There are some great articles here about making the most out of index cards [1], 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 [2], 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

Clue maps [3] 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:

  1. “Atlantis” raises from the sea.
  2. Gods pay a visit to tell heros to retrieve tokens from the Nemean Lion
  3. Secretary begs heros to humiliate boyfriend who dumped her
  4. At the party is the Nemean Lion with boyfriend and has a Pendant
  5. Firefight at the house?

And my notes for a puzzle trap:

  1. Dining room full of ghosts
  2. Table full of ethereal food
  3. Servant mentions that in the “Pig” is something useful, but the food will kill the living
  4. Inside is bolt of “Golden Cloth”
  5. 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?

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Prep-Lite in Review"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On July 30, 2012 @ 9:56 am

I use index cards in my Savage Worlds games but not as you do – I reproduce the character portraits from the end of a campaign book (such as red sands) as individual index cards for fast reference as a way of not having to flip back and forth in the book. I can also take a generic character and make a named recurring NPC with such a card.

For my self-authored Delta Green stuff, I now use Scrivener, an authoring tool, both for producing the scenarios and as a fast-lookup database at the table (using my laptop). It has made the construction and navigation of the torturous twisty paths of the several intertwined plots a lot simpler than it was using OpenOffice Writer and the light of Lovecraft in my eyes.

This means that my plots are now quite complex, and that in order for the players to stand a chance of unfolding them they need something similar of their own, which I provide in the form of a 3ft by 4ft whiteboard for them to scribble on in glorious four colour dry-erase pen.

It provides a neat focal point and is very popular. Some games can have an hour or more discussion over the details of what is on that board, and the players do it all in character.

But I have the debatable luxury of two hours plus commuting by train in which to gussy up stuff for this game. It is anything but “prep lite”.

I also do one-off demo games and convention scenarios when asked and for that the most useful prep tool I devised for this was a spreadsheet for building Savage Worlds pregens quickly.

Savage Worlds characters aren’t hard to make, but if you must make a couple of dozen they can start looking the same. The spreadsheet allows me to play awsome “what if” games that can be done and done over in the same time it would take me to build a character manually. The sheet keeps track of point spends as I make them, shows me only the legally available edges (unless I unset a switch) and warns me of various costly overspend conditions that arise.

This I use for all my Realms of Cthulhu, Deadlands:Reloaded, Space 1889:Red Sands, Necessary Evil, Solomon Kane and Just Plain Savage Worlds characters. (Sundered Skies and Slipstream functionality is being added as soon as I can find time).

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On July 30, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

I love 3×5 cards and use them for everything. For White Wolf, Spirit of the Century games, and low level D&D games, I was able to boil NPCs and monsters down to a 3×5 card.

For Spirit of the Century, 3×5 cards are great for scenes, particularly for listing Aspects that can be assigned to typical zones within an overall setting. (So for a 1920s lively market town, I had port-wide Aspects listed, from which I drew/extrapolated specific Aspects for individual scenes and zones within scenes.)

One useful trick: hole punch the corner of your NPC index cards and group them with binder ring clips. Keeps them in a consistent order, organizable by ring [monsters, NPCs, scenes, etc.], and you can always open the ring and spread out NPCs/monsters during a fight.

#3 Comment By shortymonster On July 30, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

Looks like I’m heading to grab some index cards then. I’m all about keeping the workload light, and everyone seems to think that they’re the way to do this.

Luckily, my note taking and written plans are always pretty spartan so I’m used to thinking on my feet already.

#4 Comment By recursive.faults On July 30, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

I wrote this article, and wanted to add that since writing it another person in my group wanted to DM, and has started to embrace a lot of the techniques I used as well.

Also, I planned an entire dungeon crawl using these techniques. It was my first dungeon, and I found that trying to plan a dungeon on index cards was problematic. I wound up with way too many cards to keep track of.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 30, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

I bet a laptop plus Scrivener would reign things in enough to make running a dungeon crawl using mainly index cards workable. More options, nothing to shuffle or drop or mix up, etc.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 1, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

I’m glad you like the cards; they really got me out from behind the computer screen and back into interacting with the players.

I did a dungeon crawl on index cards plus a few sheets of graph paper. A rough copy of the dungeon level was scrawled on one card, and basically looked like lines connecting numbers. Each numbered room had a card that listed what was in it. Each trap and type of critter had a card, too. As the party maneuvered, I’d grab the cards for Room 5, Orcs, and Pit Trap, and get ready…

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On July 31, 2012 @ 8:37 am

Misusing Scrivener is a great way to discover what a real point-in-time virtual index card manager and browser should look like.

But I agree with Martin here. Scrivener is a great tool for the GM even if you don’t take a laptop to the table, especially if you have over-arching plotlines and recurring NPCs to keep track of. I join the chorus of people urging everyone to take a look at it.

#8 Comment By Gamerprinter On July 31, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

Well obviously I must be a strange bird, and opposite to you in regards to the fact that I love game prep, I really do. To the point that I’ve become a 3PP for Pathfinder so I can design my own published adventures and supplements. I’d rather quit my day job and just do game prep – if I could live on it.

I use laminated cards with brief detail on each PC, NPC and mosnter stacked in initiative order, so I just glance at the top of the stack and see whose going next. Then put that card to the bottom, and the next person’s initiative is current.

I use 3×5 cards for some things, and keep copious notes in a notebook.

Sometimes I completely detail several playing sessions only to discover not being able to run them for one reason or another, and then it becomes ready use materail for a possible adventure publication.

Really every private game session I prepare, potential could be a publishable product – so I maintain great detail on my game prep.

#9 Comment By JDSampo On August 6, 2012 @ 8:34 am

I use Evernote which allows me to jot down prep pretty much everywhere I happen to be. I can work on my phone, on my lunch break at work, at home on a laptop, whatever. It’s all synced in a central place. At the table I reference the notes on an iPad. Interestingly, my notes are electronic but they’re little more than virtual index cards.