Anymore, I’m pretty much an improv only Game Master. I like getting down and making an awesome, intricate, and detailed game, but so often those types of games just blow up when the players get into them. You either have to reign players in to preserve the spiderweb of the plot, or you have to help set it on fire and fiddle away . So I’ve taken to improvising as much as I can for most any game I run. It just works better and tends to be a lot more fun.
Still, I work better with a general plan in mind. Just that little bit of something on paper to give me some direction. To that end, I’ve been using a very prep-lite method that I call the 3-3-3 method. It is one of a multitude of prep-lite methods, but you might find it useful.
The core idea behind the 3-3-3 approach is to get a very quick list of just things you need. You make categories of common adventure elements and put down 3 bullet points under each one. You make a category for places, and list 3 places that could show up in your adventure. You list 3 NPCs you intend to use, 3 rewards you can give your players, etc. You write down general things like names, a few brief keyword notes, etc. Don’t worry about the details, you can always add them later. When you are done, you have a sheet of paper covered with the basic organization of an adventure that is loose enough to handle player chaos without breaking, yet provides enough direction that you know what elements are in play. Here is my example sheet typed out. It took me about 5 minutes to write it all down, and I added a few notes when I typed it out.
- Robert’s Bar – resistance HQ
- Destroyed Caravan Site – ambush
- Celestial’s Cave – deep underground, magical
- At the bar – 6 enemies, Nar El Ghera
- Ambush at caravan –resistance, Nar El Ghera, Lizards?
- In the air against celestial – airship, chase, dire consequences
- Robert – bar owner, resistance leader
- Derjan – cowardly scimitar
- Balar Hamri – Celestial
- The Resistance – vs Nar El Ghera
- Nar El Ghera Scimitars – militia group, controls area, corrupt
- Magistrate’s Office – hired Nar El Ghera, unaware
- Casablanca-esque feel – intrigue
- Airship fight vs. celestial – fast paced
- Epic, meaningful loot
- enchanted bracer (+fire) – worn by scimitars, produces fire around swords
- letter to deliver to general – exposes scimitars
- Armor of A Great Warrior – cool reward, unrelated to plot, drive ancient feeling
I know more of the details in my head so this will act as a shorthand to kickstart me if I lose track at the table. If I need more detailed adventure design, I’ve got a good starting point to write out the details without overburdening myself all at once. If I wanted to take more space, I could do it on a full 8 by 11 and get a lot more of the juicy details in there.
Another important thing to take in when using this prep method, is that you can write down more than you will actually need and use the bullet points like islands  that you can modify on the fly, instead of a static linear road that the PCs move down. I’m yet undecided whether the Ambush at the Caravan will be carried out by resistance fighters, the Nar El Ghera Scimitars, or a tribe of lizardblooded who are unrelated to the resistance but might be coerced to join it if the PCs choose diplomacy. I just know that it is a planned combat and I can modify or ditch it depending on how the game goes. The rewards are the same way. I know that the enchanted bracers can be scavenged from the Nar El Ghera, but where they will find the armor is still up for grabs. It will depend on what turns out to be most fun once I actually run the game.
5-5-5 or 3-4-7-2-4-9?
Of course 3-3-3- is a catchy name, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t expand the number of bullet points or the types of categories. I wrote down what was useful to the system and game style I was running. If I were running something different, I might have more NPCs or more Fights. I might also add in a category for Plot Points or Schemes, or I might have Skill Challenges and write out the rolls required, etc. 3-3-3 is perfect for a one-shot adventure, but you can get the outline for an entire campaign this way in a very short time.
So There You Have It
3-3-3 adventure prep, a quick little tool to shorthand out an adventure. The best thing I find about this method is that it prevents me from getting bogged down with too much plot. I get the elements of the adventure down so I don’t forget them, but I can still organically create the game at the table. I don’t get bogged down in the details and I can generally find any stats I need from a sourcebook for the game system I’m using. What do you think? Would this be enough material for you to run an adventure from? Do you use any shorthand methods like this?