I have recently begun a journey, on which I like to think I am not alone, to drastically reduce the time it takes me to prep my sessions. In doing so I have compiled, and in some cases created, some tools for speeding up my prep and aiding me in the running of my games, while maintaining a complexity I like in the games I run. I have nicknamed this overall effort my Prep-Lite Manifesto. The first tool which I want to share with you today, is a template that has aided me in speeding up my session prep process.
A Little Background
Over the years, I have considered myself to be a pretty sophisticated GM, in terms of story complexity. I favor creating complicated plots with a lot of parallel plotlines, lots of back-story, detailed dialog, fully stat-ed NPC’s, etc. The majority of my plots are story-based and not location-based (like a dungeon). All of this, on average, would take about 8 hrs of work to brainstorm and produce my session notes.
To support this style of play and required prep work, I became rather efficient at getting all the prep done, as opposed to reducing the amount of prep I was doing. I did this by planning out my work and doing it over the time I had between sessions. This is not surprising, after all I am a Project Manager in real life, and we don’t shy away from work; we plan it out into manageable parts.
When I was young, single, without kids, and any serious job responsibilities, I was easily able to get 8 hours of prep done every week. As time has gone on, and I am now married, raising two young kids, and have more job responsibilities, that same level of prep has resulted into running a game once every three weeks.
Running a game every three weeks may be more than some people are playing, but I wanted to get back to running weekly. So I decided to figure out a way to speed up my prep times without giving up all of the things I liked about my current prep style. I decided to set a goal of 90 minutes of prep for at least 4 hours of play. If I could get my prep down to 90 minutes, I could run a game weekly.
This reduction in prep time was going to mean that more of the running of the game would need to be handled by improvisation. I am not against improv, by any means, but I have always resisted improv games because of some beliefs I had:
- It wont be complicated enough- I love twists in my game, and I demand plots that are not on rails. I did not think that on the fly I could come up with a good twist, and that my sessions would be predictable or worst that I would railroad my players.
- I suck at naming- I am really bad at making up names, and in improv I am going to make up some bland or stupid names, which is going to compromise the immersion in the game.
- Keeping it fresh- along the same lines, if I am always thinking on the fly, I might not think of the most creative locations, etc. I may repeat locations, or use more generic locations. It would be the difference between having a combat in “a warehouse” verses “a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, complete with vats of powdered drugs, etc”
The solution that I came up with would also have to address these issues, while requiring only 90 minutes to complete. I did acknowledge that there would have to be some lessening of complexity of my overall stories, but that could be something addressed later as i became more proficient at this process.
With only 90 minutes and 3 major concerns, my solution had to leverage what time I had and address the key issues during prep, so that I did not have to make those parts up during the game.
With prep time spent addressing the three major concerns, other things would have to be improvised during the game. I thought about my own skills as a GM and determined that there were some things that I would be comfortable with improvising, during the session. These things would NOT go into the writing of the template. They included:
- Detailed descriptions of areas
- Detailed descriptions of NPC’s
- Dialog between PC’s and NPC’s
- The transition between one scene and another
- Notes for anticipating players actions in a scene (if he does X, say Y)
- The opening and closing scenes of a session
As a creature of habit, I like templates. It’s a great tool for focusing my writing efforts, and it would insure that I did not miss any key issues. After some experimentation I came up with the following template:
This section starts with the Objective. It’s a single sentence that defines what the whole session is about. This is key, because everything else I write and any material I make up during the game, has to lead towards the resolution of the objective. So that I always keep it in mind, it is at top of my notes.
The second part is the Twist. The twist is some fact that adds depth and complexity to the Objective. It is often a secret that the PC’s will uncover in the middle of the session, which either complicates or alters the objective. The Twist helps to make the plot more complex; addressing issue #1 from above.
The opposition are the people or force that challenge the PC’s in the completion of the objective. I define the opposition with a few elements:
- Who- who are the opposition
- What- what object (if any) is the opposition interested in obtaining as part of the objective
- Motivation- why is the opposition struggling over the objective
The goal of this section is to force me to give depth to the overall story, and to further address issue #1.
Here I define at least three NPC’s, who may or may not be part of the opposition, who will appear during the session. They each have the following attributes:
- Name- this way I don’t have to make one up, and address concern #2.
- Role- what does this NPC do: shopkeeper, executive, etc.
- Tags- being short on words and time, what tags will best describe the NPC: portly, hostile, mysterious.
I don’t stat my NPC’s within the template. If the NPC has a stat block, I reference that page number. If the NPC has to be made from scratch (something that I will discuss in a future article) then I append their stat block on a separate page.
Here I define at least three locations that will appear in the session. The goal here is to make sure that I include more than one location, and that each location is interesting (addressing issue #3). My locations have the following attributes:
- Name- The boat house, the Wild Dragon Inn, etc.
- Location- where is this place located in the world: on 12th street, In the Cogs, etc.
- Tags- like NPC’s what tags describe this place:hell-hole, sterile, opulent
With an objective, opposition, NPC’s and Locations, it’s time to create the scenes. For a 4 hour session I budget only 4-5 scenes. One scene for the hook, 2-3 rising action, 1 climax, and possibly one conclusion (which can be blended into the climax depending on the story).
To create each scene, I mix and match my Locations, NPC’s, opposition, and details from the objective. This way I can be sure that each scene has something specific, and different, and that each scene supports the overall story direction.
My scenes have some structure as well. I use the following attributes to define them:
- Objective- Every scene must move the story forward and move it towards the resolution of the objective. The scene objective also lets you know when the players have reached the end of the scene.
- Location- This is the location of the scene, picked from the list of locations.
- Facts- A bulleted list of (only) important facts about the scene. These are things that typically ensure continuity between scenes, important clues, etc.
- NPC’s- Which NPC’s will be in the scene. Rule of thumb is that almost every scene should contain at least 1 of the previously defined NPC’s.
- Notes- This is for any special GM instructions about the scene.
Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is
So far I have had two opportunities to set up and use the template. I decided to run some Corporation  for some friends on a weekly basis. I gave myself only 90 minutes to fill out the template, and then we started playing. The template has done a great job of giving me a structured session in just two pages of notes. I felt very comfortable with the information written down, and the material that I was making up during the session. My players said that they did not really see a difference between my prep-lite sessions and other sessions of Corporation I have run; I take that as a good sign.
Lightly Prep With A Dash Of Detail
If you are a GM who feels like they are taking too much time at session prep, and are not quite willing to jump straight into the land of improv gaming, prep-lite is a nice middle ground, creating enough structure to frame out a good story, while being light enough to encourage your improv skills to grow.
Where do you fall in terms of length of session prep and what tools do you use to get your notes written?