Organization is one key trait for effective gamemastering. Every GM needs some kind of system to keep important information accessible during play. During session prep, a good format reminds us to vary our encounters. It may even help spark our creativity.
In this article, we’ll look at the IARR method: INTRO, ACTION, ROLEPLAYING, and REWARDS. Each row of the chart contains information about a single, possible encounter within a planned adventure.
Take a notebook and divide the page into four columns as shown below. (Click on the picture for a larger view). Examples of what might go into the blocks are also provided. One could do the same thing with a table in a word processing or spreadsheet program. (You don’t have to be a Luddite like me).
You won’t fill every box in every row. For example, in a negotiation with a high-level mage or star port administrator you may not need any ACTION. If the party has to get past a group of Black Puddings, there is little chance for ROLEPLAYING. That being said, filling in all of the boxes when possible helps round out your scenes and get more play time out of your prep time.
Let’s look at what goes in each box.
INTRO: What do player characters see, hear, or otherwise experience when entering a room or encounter area? If NPC’s are talking, jot down a snippet of conversation or two. This column doesn’t need to be in prose, a simple bulleted list is fine. That way you won’t forget to mention essential details.
ACTION: What is likely to happen in this scene? How will NPC’s respond if combat starts? How will they respond if things aren’t going their way? What physical challenges are present in the area and how might players overcome them? How might players get around any traps present? If you are going to use this chart as your session notes, you may want to put opponents’ combat stats or rules reminders in this box.
ROLEPLAYING: In this block, write any important information that NPC’s might reveal during the “talking” portion of the encounter. Will they fold and give up their cohorts if the PC’s win the combat? Will they taunt the PC’s with information if they are winning? Will they ask for a bribe if approached at the bar? And don’t forget to include talking statues, books, ghosts, or interactive computers in the list of roleplaying possibilities. Filling in this column helps avoid the “combat-trap-combat-trap” format.
REWARDS: What rewards will the players get from this encounter? List both tangible awards and intangible awards. Tangible rewards are the standard money, gems, weapons, and magic items. This is also where to list consequences for failure. What happens if things don’t go their way? Remember that villains can get rewards too, like prisoners.
No method is perfect. The first time you fill out the chart, it may be a bit of a mess. You’ll probably need to write a second draft to clean things up. Also, wait to revise the chart until after you draw or acquire your map. Maps often suggest additional encounters. Admittedly, it can be difficult to fit a great deal of information in these blocks. You might use the chart to write a traditional outline which gives more room for combat statistics and rules reminders. However, I still use the same four components in my outline.
Finally, be careful not to write a railroad. This format is a way to help you find things, and to make sure you don’t forget to give important details during a session. Players often approach the encounters in a different order or use different methods than you considered during the planning stage. As always, we try to remain flexible as GM’s.
If you are a visual thinker, this format will help you find your information fast. When using it for planning, don’t feel you have to work linearly. Fill in whichever encounters you have in mind. Others will suggest themselves, and you can fill in the remaining blocks. For example, suppose you have the culminating scene and one or two combats in mind. Write them down, then think about what traps the villains may have set, and any prisoners, slaves, or associates they might have working for them in the area.
There’s nothing new here. This format is one permutation of many, modified to meet my needs. Take a look at your favorite published systems and see what format they use. You might like theirs better, or want to make some additions to this one. This format is working very well for me right now, but that’s not to say it won’t change in the future. No matter what format you eventually use, your games will be more interesting for your players because you took the time to think deeply during the planning stages.
And you can always recycle those unused boxes next time. Let no Black Pudding go spoiled.
How about you? What format do you use? What changes might you make to the IARR format? Let us know below.
I like this, thanks for sharing
That’s a nice, easily referenced in the heat of a session format. I’m a big fan of bullet lists, and this format seems ideal for them.
Rewards are too often skipped, “eh, we’ll get to the loot at the end;” I like making it a major element here, so it can take its turn in the spotlight.
Thanks for the kind words. I always forget the rewards too. This system has been working VERY well for me. I do it almost naturally now.
Now I just have to try it using a Dungeon World homebrew Star Wars game and see how it works for that.
Good article. One suggestion, how about changing the acronym to something a bit easier for those of us with poor memories? You could have ‘START’ – Setup, Tactics, Action, Roleplaying, Treasure. A ‘Tactics’ column would allow you to split out NPC reactions and environment features like destructible scenery from enemies and traps, which would still be listed under ‘Action’. Treasure is a bit old school so the ‘T’ could be Tangible rewards maybe?
But this is a minor issue. ‘IARR’ works just fine in Cornish pirate dialect…
Mark, START is another great acronym. Use whichever one works for you. Especially if you don’t want to talk like the Flying Dutchman.
I’m always looking to boil down complex scenes into their quintessence, and this certainly fills a large gap in my process. Thanks!
Thanks themensch! Now, most of what I wrote here is just boiled down from a lot of other suggestions in a ton of books. But it is really working as a mental framework for me and I hope others can use it or some variant of it.
Innovation still counts as creativity in my mind. I’ve probably read many of the same tomes and didn’t extract the same points, and certainly not as elegantly.
Aww shucks themensch. Thanks for the kind words.