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Prep-Lite Philosophy

Posted By Phil Vecchione On June 10, 2011 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

In the past few months I have been exploring a new way to create my session notes which I called Prep-Lite. Now several months and sessions into this exercise, I have come to realize a few things about session prep, and am starting to see a general philosophy forming based on some common themes and techniques that I have used and discussed. Today I am going to try to put into words the core philosophy of Prep-Lite.

Previously on Gnome Stew

Not so long ago, I was a fairly heavy-prep GM, spending hours in coming up with the plot, NPC’s, maps, etc. It was not really a problem, as I had become equally adept at managing my time so that I could do all this work, in small bits over a week, and produce my sessions with regular frequency.

The challenge came when I wanted to be able to run pick up games. These would be games where I would not have the time required to do my normal prep. To meet that goal, I started to look for ways I could cut down my notes without compromising their functionality. I was not ready to go full improv, and I wanted some structure to my notes; so Prep-Lite was conceived.  (Note, it got a name because I am a former biologist, and biologists love to name things.)

Many Paths To One Goal

The first thing I have come to learn about Prep-Lite is that it is not a single formula. There is a single goal:  to keep your notes simple while being able to deliver the best game possible.  How a specific GM gets to that place will differ from person to person.  What I know is that to find that path you first…

GM, Know Thyself

Every GM has strong and weak areas. Some GM’s may be fantastic making up details of a dungeon room, or describing how the evil cleric looks. Others may be great at coming up with dialog on the fly. On the flip side, someone may be bad at naming people on the fly, panicking and defaulting to a handful of names, or they fumble critical dialog, forget to describe the details of a room, etc.  Knowing what you are good at and where you are weak is the key to knowing what should go into your Prep-Lite notes and what should not.

Support Your Weaknesses

Things that we are weak at we often fail to do well in the heat of the game. Whatever those things are we lack the ability to produce them on the fly, and when we try it either comes off poorly or we stick to over used examples. For me one of these things I am bad at is Weather.  In the heat of a game, if asked about the weather it is always perfect, sunny, not too cold, etc.  To make my games more interesting I want to have the weather vary, so in my Prep-Lite notes I add a spot for the weather so that I remember to think about it and put something interesting down.

Rely On Your Strengths

For the things we do well, we don’t need to write them down in our notes, because they come to us naturally. For these elements, they should either be eliminated from your notes, or reduced to the smallest shorthand or tag (see below). For me I am good at describing NPC’s, so in my notes I do not write a description of the NPC, but rather just a few tags that will jog my memory of my original image. In my notes then, I might include something like: elegant, cold, long black hair.

What The Players Experience Are Not Your Notes

GM’s who have not played in some time forget that the players do not experience your notes when you are running, they are experiencing you, the GM. The connection between GM and the Players is what creates the game, not what is or is not in your notes. Players don’t know how many hit points are left on a creature, they only know that you told them it fell to one knee and coughed up blood.

Players experience the game through the GM and not the GM’s notes, then the function of a GM’s notes are to keep the GM running smoothly so that the GM to Player connection is not broken (sometimes know as breaking the 4th wall). We have all been in that moment on either side of the screen where the GM is telling an engaging tale and then has to stop, and fumble through their notes to find some key piece of information.  At that moment when the notes are rustling, the moment is broken.

Because your notes are only for you they do not need to conform to any external guidelines like grammar, exact rules of the game you are playing, etc.  The notes need only to be in a format such that when you look at them, you are able to pick up information from them, and then create your scenes with your players.

Abstracting Mechanical Elements

Extending the thought above, when the players fight an NPC they do not know what the NPC’s exact skills are, its AC, etc. What they know are what the GM tells them about the outcome of the actions they take and those taken against them. In my article on Wireframe and Skins I talk about how to reduce NPC stats into several higher level groups.  I call this technique Abstraction.

Abstraction is taking a detailed element like a list of skills an NPC has, and pulling back a level to re-group the elements into a smaller list, based on some common element. In the case of that list of skills, one way to group them could be Combat Skills vs. Non-Combat Skills. Now instead of needing ranks for 20 skills, you need ranks for just 2.

I took this idea one step further and abstracted maps by grouping the map between important areas (where planned scenes will occur) vs non-important areas (empty rooms, bathrooms, etc).  In doing this, I could avoid drawing or buying maps, and rather reduce my maps for a session to a very simple drawing.

Nuts and Bolts Stuff

Aside from the more philosophical aspects of Prep-Lite there are a few style things I do in my game notes:

  • Bulleted Lists– as much as possible I record all relevant facts for a scene as a bulleted list. It forces me to keep things short, and I can use nested bullets for supporting details, etc.
  • Tags not Text– for NPC’s or a location’s description, NPC personalities, weather, etc. I use a list of tags and not lengthy descriptions. I can type them fast and they convey the key adjectives that I need to use in my descriptions.
  • Templates– to make sure that I stick to only what I need to write, I use a template with all the sections I have determined I need.

For me, I like to do all my session notes in Microsoft OneNote.  I have a template page created in OneNote that I use for each session.  It uses text boxes for each scene, with bullets and tables for tags.

Reflections on Prep-Lite

Prep-Lite is not a specific template or a specific way you take your notes, rather its a mind-set that relies on your personal strengths as a GM, and values your time by keeping your prep simple. It looks for simple efficiencies in bulleted lists and tags, and more complex time savers through abstraction of mechanical elements.

The goal of Prep-Lite is to give you the material you need to run your game smoothly and with confidence, without having you spend hours writing notes. It is also a system that grows and adapts, as your skills as a GM improve, you can drop parts of your prep. It is system neutral, allowing it be adapted to any game.

My own Prep-Lite journey has been enlightening, and has helped me save hours per week in getting my games prepped. How is your prep? Can it benefit from a little lightening? Are there things you could drop or abstract from your own notes? Do you use a template for prepping your notes?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Prep-Lite Philosophy"

#1 Comment By charlesXVII On June 10, 2011 @ 4:42 am

Nice article!
I am liking the daily releases!
I am going to try this method for tommorows game, I end up writing 10+ 10 font writing each session.

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On June 10, 2011 @ 7:50 am

I still find your prep-lite prep to be remarkably prep-hevi :D

My prep consists of writing down exactly nothing. Every game, I think of what my players accomplished the game before, and which direction they are heading, and I think of one roadblock to that momentum, and one face for the roadblock. Sometimes I have to come up with more than one, if I have PCs moving in multiple directions.

On the day, I throw the new conflict into the mix.

It helps that I don’t run D&D, though, or any other game with a lot of stat-blocks for enemies.

#3 Comment By DNAphil On June 10, 2011 @ 8:25 am

@charlesXVII– glad you like the Prep-Lite approach, and we are glad you are appreciating the daily posts again. We are working hard to keep the content fresh.

@deadlytoque– In my original Prep-Lite article, I did mention that this is an approach for the GM who is not ready for full improv. In 30 years of GMing I have never done a full, off the cuff, improv game. I am very flexible at the table, but I find that my prep sets the session up in my head so that I can be flexible.

Patrick Benson and John Arcadian are both excellent improv GM’s.

Consider Prep-Lite as the on ramp from writing tons of notes towards moving to an Improv style. You can eventually lighten your prep to the point of not needing notes, or you could settle in to a simple single page of notes.

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 10, 2011 @ 8:48 am

@deadlytoque – I’m with Phil on this one. I’m just NOT comfortable doing too little prep (and in the past I’ve had players comment on how my lack of prep impacts the game when I try). Could I get better at pure improve with practice? Sure. It’s a skill like any other. But I’m happy to just not have to write a mini novel every time I start a new campaign or get ready for a session for now. Some day I hope to start running completely improved games for random people at cons, my FLGS or even my local library to buff up my skills, but for now prep lite is a Godsend.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 10, 2011 @ 10:21 am

Thanks for the kind words Phil, and I will second that John is a strong GM with improvising. He runs a great prepped game too!

As an improv guy I want to stress that these prep-lite articles are good content to keep in mind when you are running things on the fly. You can use their core premises to do a quick mental prep at the table to keep yourself one step ahead of the game. You can adapt them to be done at the table while you are running the game, and thus shift from prep-lite to improv-ready with similar techniques.

Phil – You and I have to plan some double headers around this concept one day. :)

#6 Comment By Lise On June 10, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

I registered just to tell you how valuable these Prep Lite articles have been to me over the past year. I’m GMing for the first time in years, and I seem to be exactly the sort of person you had in mind, Phil.

I’m not running every week, but I do have a lot of commitments, and I’m pressed for time. But I’m also a stymied writer, who likes a lot of world details and flavor in my game. I don’t like coming up with names, locations, NPCs, etc, on the spot, but I also want to have a very open-ended game.

When I’m planning an adventure, I very literally pull up the very first Prep-Lite article and run through the steps there. Because of the type of game it is (my big inspiration was the TV show Leverage, so there’s a lot of setting up a situation for the PCs to get their clients out of, and then seeing what the players do with that situation), I often don’t have to do more than that – combining those elements often happens on the fly.

I’ve also kept in mind the advice given recently about essential vs. nonessential stats for NPCs, which has made a time-consuming process much much easier. I just did this for a bard NPC for my last adventure – I knew what his Impress was, but everything else was just a competence score. (Thankfully, FantasyCraft, the system we’re running, makes this easy, too).

So, thank you! You’ve really made my continued sanity – and my players’ continued enjoyment – possible!

#7 Comment By DNAphil On June 11, 2011 @ 9:39 am

@Lise – Lise, first thanks for signing up, and we hope to see more comments from you in the future.

Second, I am glad that Prep-Lite is resonating with you. I was very much like you when I started down this path. I loved writing my notes…and when I had the time, it was a lot of fun. But now with my free time very restricted (wife, career, kids), its more important that I get to play than sit and prep.

Good luck on your Prep-Lite journey, glad that it is helping out.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On June 11, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

I really enjoy your prep-lite articles too– though I really need to make a good template to make sure to cover my weaknesses. They are always so many glaring errors/notes mid-session, but remembering them at the end of the session–or, worse, a week later when it’s time to finish prepping–has proven more difficult.

#9 Comment By Knight of Roses On June 11, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

I try to take some broad sweep notes, put down some names I am going to use. If I expect combat, have the basic stats for the baddies available to hand. But, my games are mostly on the fly constructions in any case.

#10 Comment By rednightmare On June 12, 2011 @ 1:56 am

I think I’m gonna use these articles as well, but for different reasons. I mostly improv my games, due to not wanting to really sit down and prep alot, but I think I could use some prepped material, because I feel I’m missing some things. Prep-Lite might be just the amount of preparation I can get myself to commit to. :)

#11 Comment By Tsenn On June 14, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

@Lise: I agree! It’s a lot easier to let the players build a good story for themselves if you have a few handy bricks prepared for you to offer them.

#12 Comment By fink On June 20, 2011 @ 12:44 am

I have been using OneNote for a while and am interested in seeing what your page design looks like. Could you post up a screenshot or a sample file?

#13 Comment By Lordbasl On June 21, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

This is my first post here on GS.

There are some good ideas here!

Over the last few years, I’ve not had a weekly, or even monthly game — every six months or even less frequently. As a result, I would over-prepare to the point ob obsessiveness.

Now, with the potential for weekly games back in my life, I’ll work on a more “prep-lite” fashion and devote more time to detailing the game world at large.

My strengths —
I’ve been running the same game world for almost fifteen years and I know or can quickly come up with the names of places and important NPCs on the fly (and write them down for later use!). There is a LOT of detail out there!
I plant seeds and let the players run with them. For some groups I use a mission-oriented approach: the PCs work as Imperial trouble shooters. “The Empress’ spymaster wants you to head to Hostilestan and prevent them from attacking the Kingdom of Friends by sabotaging their war plan.

My weaknesses include plotting and coming up with impromptu stats for an encounter that the players drove. I will spend copious amount of prep time running down the major plot points and detailing a few combat encounters.

Next game session I will see what happens.

#14 Comment By Tamerlin On December 28, 2011 @ 3:19 am

Hi, I am new to Gnome Stew and I am learning a lot of things through this website and its links while trying to improve my gamemastering skill. A warm thank you to all the contributors.

Among the numerous things I have to improve is my prep. First, I don’t like that and, second, I myself have the tendency to overprepare my sessions.

With overpreparation come, at least for me, a tendency to stick to what is written (which is bad), a lack of spontaneity (which is worse) and, when I don’t feel at ease, some trouble to find back the right information at the right moment (which is worst).

On the other hand, I have came to realize that the best sessions I have ran were mostly improvised. As far as preparation is concerned, my goals are thus close to yours DNAphil, to lighten my prep while focusing on the elements I need during the session to improvise and get the game moving (names, short description/reminders…).

In other words, I need a foundation, a pattern, on which I can build my improvisation.

I have tested the 3-3-3 method but, as far as I am concerned, it works better as a guide or template for the brainstorming preceding the prep itself.

I have also tested Gregor Hutton’s “Four-point scenario construction” method but I think I am too a chaotic lot for such a strict method. I need more freedom, more leeway.

Your Prep-Lite appears to be the light, focused and adaptable structure I am looking for. Thanks! I will give it a shot when I prepare my next game.

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 28, 2011 @ 10:02 am

@Tamerlin – You and I sound pretty similar in this regard, and I feel the same way about lighter prep in general and Phil’s Prep-Lite approach in particular. You’re on a fun path, and I hope it works well!

#16 Comment By Tamerlin On December 29, 2011 @ 1:56 am

@Martin Ralya – Thank you for the encouragements.

I hope it works as I also know the “I’d rather rake leaves” syndrom. In order to run games I have to write, and I won’t be able to do it regularly until I find a way of simplifying and organizing efficiently the process.

I have generated an “Instant Game” (yes, I know that it is meant to be played without prep but it is not the way I use it) and the prep to come will be a good occasion to test the 3-3-3 approach for the brainstorming and Prep-Lite for the actual writing of the scenario.

#17 Pingback By The Legend of the Three Pillars On July 9, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

[...] be afraid to go off script. I’m usually a fairly prep-lite kind of GM anyway, so this isn’t a big revelation. However, if you do prepare a script or outline of [...]


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