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Why Using a Template for Game Prep is Awesome

Posted By Martin Ralya On December 7, 2010 @ 1:18 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

Along with DNAphil, I’ve recently switched to using a template for my session prep. Phil uses a template he created; I’m using the one from the Decipher Star Trek RPG Narrator’s Guide.

The Trek RPG template is really two templates: an outline for the episode (adventure) as a whole, which follows the three-act model common to Star Trek and many, many other TV shows (and movies, and books, and plays, and…), as well as a template for each individual scene.

With five sessions of this campaign under my belt, I’ve got a few observations about why template-driven prep is awesome — provided, of course, that you’re a fan of improvisation.

Why is that a prerequisite? Because one of the real boons of a template is that unless you create or use one that requires huge amounts of information, the template forces you to be sparse on the details. I love that about this GMing tool, but not everyone will.

Why Adventure Templates are Awesome

I’ve always had a troubled relationship with game prep, but not for this game. Part of that is due to going digital, but mostly it’s due to using a template.

It can still be hard to find time to prep, but I enjoy that prep. And so far it’s produced sessions that, apart from one misstep, have been a lot of fun. (The misstep wasn’t the template’s fault, it was mine.) Here’s why:

  • A template forces you not to prep too much. Over-prepping is a waste of time, and it always leads to trouble for me. If I’ve invested a lot of time in prepping any specific element of the session, I’m going to want to shoehorn it in even if events at the table actually suggest that it would be better to skip it. Using a template, I CAN’T prep too much, so I’m much more flexible and likely to make a better on-the-spot decision — and using it saves me time upfront, as well.
  • …but also not too little. By definition, an adventure template is a thing you fill in with the elements of your adventure. If there’s a spot to fill something in, you fill something in — and provided those spots cover everything you need, you know your prep is done when everything is a) filled in and b) looks like fun to play.
  • The right template is a powerful tool. The template in the Trek RPG is amazing. It makes it very difficult to write an episode that doesn’t feel like Star Trek, which is my principal barometer for whether or not the session is going to be fun. It also doesn’t take that long to complete, another time-saver.
  • Templates encourage modular thinking. As a married dad with a job, a side job, hobbies, and a vain hope that I’ll be able to squeeze in some sleep, modular thinking is the way to go for me. When I prep with a template, I get to eat the elephant one bite at a time: If I have 20 minutes, I can write a great scene; if I have an hour, I can probably outline the whole adventure. And when I come back to the template, I know exactly what I’ve done, what’s left to write, and how everything fits together.
  • My brain hearts templates. This is the fuzziest reason why templates are awesome, because they won’t work for every GM’s prep process. They fit my thinkin’ style and schedule better than any other prep method I’ve ever tried, but there’s no sure way to know if the same will be true for you — except trying out a template, of course!

I’ve never had so much fun with game prep as I do using the Trek RPG template, and I wish I’d started using it years ago. If you like three-act adventures, I highly recommend it. If you want a template that you can use with just about any RPG, check out the killer template that DNAphil created.

Are there other RPGs that recommend templated prep? Offhand, Star Trek is the only one I’ve run across that formalizes prep like this, but I’m sure there are others.

And what’s been your experience with using a prep template, if you’ve ever tried it before?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Why Using a Template for Game Prep is Awesome"

#1 Comment By MAK On December 7, 2010 @ 1:55 am

The Dresden Files RPG has a method to create scenarios that would work well as a template (although no actual template is provided). It is actually very close to DNAPhil’s template… As most of the locations and NPC’s are created together with the players at the start of the campaign and provided with short list of aspects (as are the PC’s), what remains for the GM is to mix and match these aspects to create the needed hooks and tensions to build the scenario. This method works in a kind of opposite direction from “traditional” method: the plot comes only after the hooks and characters are selected.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On December 7, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

I use prep templates for most convention games I run. It helps me to visualize the path and elements for a short game beforehand, and make sure that nothing is missed. When I run home games or longer campaigns, I usually us an excel sheet template that is very loose and can be updated as I go along. It helps me keep a lot of information organized in a very compact and easily navigable space.

#3 Comment By troy812 On December 7, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

Nice ideas.
After I read Wizard$ “Heroes of Battle” I started making more adventures like this or … actually more like a flow chart, but yea the same basic ideas.
This concept of “modular thinking” really helps me set up an “organized” game and concentrate on developing what needs to be developed.
Good article

#4 Comment By Zig On December 7, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

In my last campaign — a 2nd edition AD&D one — I started to templatize I guess you could say.

Initially it was creating forms in Open Office that I could use to much more quickly put together encounter stats, battle boards (my definition may be different than that of others. For me a battle board is a sheet with the important foe information and a table with hp’s and perhaps notes about weapons or other such.)

Then I used template documents that I could quickly use to fill out details, stats and a battle board for important foes as well as for groups of NPCs that would be significant opponents if the encounter turned to combat…and if not, the forms were a good place to stash notes about role playing them and what information they might be able to impart, etc.

Eventually, I started to get wise to actually trying to create a template in which I could quickly drop in the information, notes, stats, locations, battle board forms, etc. This way I could spend more time dreaming up a the session’s adventure and working on the various plots and uber-plot and basically dreaming everything up in my head which is the part of prep that I love so much.

The actual house keeping of putting it all together on “paper” (virtual, or in the long ago past on loose leaf and index cards…) and doing the mechanical work is what I hated. Anything I could do to make that easier and streamlined the better. Not to mention, the easier I made it on myself the more likely I was to actually prep that kind of thing rather than wing it which isn’t always the best idea (though I do get a kick out of winging it when necessary…)

Also, as mentioned in the article, I found one of the great things about trying to use a template is that I tended to focus my prep time a lot more on what *needed* to be done then and there for the game rather than go on grandiose plot planning that would cover the next dozen sessions. I think that helped me tighten my game more. It also led to less time spent on components that I never, ever got to use. I swear, there is nothing worse than spending a couple hours on an NPC group in an attempt to flesh them out and making them engaging for the players then to find you have no use for them…And might never have use for them. Talk about wasted effort and time. Time better spent tightening up what actually will be useful in the next session.

I had to put that game on hiatus due to my players well…Having more in the way of lives than I =)

Spouses (that didn’t both game…I had ones who did), kids, job responsibilities invading weekend time, other hobbies, etc. made it next to impossible to get the gang together.

At that time though I was seriously thinking of flexing my web development (LAMP mainly) and creating and application I could use for templating and easily make use of on the laptop. Plus having a database and applications to pull up information on all the various NPCs, PC data and history, campaign history logs, places, etc.

Never got around to that as the need wasn’t there.

Has anyone else built any applications to do templating? Are they helpful?

#5 Comment By BryanB On December 8, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

Templates sound like the ideal method for designing that 4-5 hour focused game session that one would run at a con or an RPG meetup.

I’m going to give it a try.

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 8, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

@MAK – That sounds eminently driftable, too. Someone should template it up (without trampling on their IP) and share!

@John Arcadian – Huh. I can see how Excel would work well, but it would never have crossed my mind to try it.

@troy812 – Thanks! I’ve never gone the flowchart route. I’m not sure I’ve ever run a game that screamed flowchart to me, though.

@Zig – At least for the STRPG template, there’s not enough to it for an application. Maybe for a more involved template, though?

@BryanB – Let us know how it goes! Combined with knowing my group well and playing a game that doesn’t require multi-hour combats, I’ve been able to keep sessions to about 5-6 hours. I could get down to four, but we have the time for six.

#7 Comment By shadowacid On December 9, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

I don’t really do a formal template, but when I type out my game notes I know that if I end up with more than 2 pages it’s too much for our usual 3-4 hour session.

I always try to make sure that there is at least one good RP scene, one good Twist scene, and one good action scene, unless I’m running a canned module or something like that.

#8 Comment By Squeejee On December 12, 2010 @ 3:34 am

I put together a template for a couple of game sessions, but I always felt like it held me back. Instead of making it easier to move from one part of the story to another, I felt limited by it – my players had to move to the next thing I had noted, or I would be back to making it up as I go. I’m pretty good at that though, so we went off the rails both times and had a good time.

I’ve found that it’s better to simply list the forces arrayed against the PCs and their goals, rather than plotting out events and specific dungeons. Not to say a couple generic dungeon layouts never come in handy, but by focusing on the enemy NPCs rather than events, you can let the story itself unfold from the PCs decisions, deciding what the big bad would logically do next in response to the PCs foiling their initial plans and letting the PCs have a chance to foil THAT plan.


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