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?