I have recently begun a journey, on which I like to think I am not alone, to drastically reduce the time it takes me to prep my sessions. In doing so I have compiled, and in some cases created, some tools for speeding up my prep and aiding me in the running of my games,Â while maintaining a complexity I like in the games I run. I have nicknamed this overall effort my Prep-Lite Manifesto. The first tool which I want to share with you today, is a template that has aided me in speeding up my session prep process.
A Little Background
Over the years, I have considered myself to be a pretty sophisticated GM, in terms of story complexity. I favor creating complicated plots with a lot of parallel plotlines, lots of back-story, detailed dialog, fully stat-ed NPC’s, etc. The majority of my plots are story-based and not location-based (like a dungeon). All of this, on average, would take about 8 hrs of work to brainstorm and produce my session notes.
To support this style of play and required prep work, I became rather efficient at getting all the prep done, as opposed to reducing the amount of prep I was doing. I did this by planning out my work and doing it over the time I had between sessions. This is not surprising, after all I am a Project Manager in real life, and we don’t shy away from work; we plan it out into manageable parts.
When I was young, single, without kids, and any serious job responsibilities, I was easily able to get 8 hours of prep done every week. As time has gone on, and I am now married, raising two young kids, and have more job responsibilities, that same level of prep has resulted into running a game once every three weeks.
Running a game every three weeks may be more than some people are playing, but I wanted to get back to running weekly. So I decided to figure out a way to speed up my prep times without giving up all of the things I liked about my current prep style. I decided to set a goal of 90 minutes of prep for at least 4 hours of play. If I could get my prep down to 90 minutes, I could run a game weekly.
This reduction in prep time was going to mean that more of the running of the game would need to be handled by improvisation. I am not against improv, by any means, but I have always resisted improv games because of some beliefs I had:
- It wont be complicated enough- I love twists in my game, and I demand plots that are not on rails. I did not think that on the fly I could come up with a good twist, and that my sessions would be predictable or worst that I would railroad my players.
- I suck at naming- I am really bad at making up names, and in improv I am going to make up some bland or stupid names, which is going to compromise the immersion in the game.
- Keeping it fresh- along the same lines, if I am always thinking on the fly, I might not think of the most creative locations, etc. I may repeat locations, or use more generic locations. It would be the difference between having a combat in “a warehouse” verses “a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, complete with vats of powdered drugs, etc”
The solution that I came up with would also have to address these issues, while requiring onlyÂ 90 minutes to complete. I did acknowledge that there would have to be some lessening of complexity of my overall stories, but that could be something addressed later as i became more proficient at this process.
With only 90 minutes and 3 major concerns, my solution had to leverage what time I had and address the key issues during prep, so that I did not have to make those parts up during the game.
With prep time spent addressing the three major concerns, other things would have to be improvised during the game. I thought about my own skills as a GM and determined that there were some things that I would be comfortable with improvising, during the session. These things wouldÂ NOT go into the writing of the template. They included:
- Detailed descriptions of areas
- Detailed descriptions of NPC’s
- Dialog between PC’s and NPC’s
- The transition between one scene and another
- Notes for anticipating players actions in a scene (if he does X, say Y)
- The opening and closing scenes of a session
As a creature of habit, I like templates. It’s a great tool for focusing my writing efforts, and it would insure that I did not miss any key issues. After some experimentation I came up with the following template:
This section starts with the Objective. It’s a single sentence that defines what the whole session is about. This is key, because everything else I write and any material I make up during the game, has to lead towards the resolution of the objective. So that I always keep it in mind, it is at top of my notes.
The second part is the Twist. The twist is some fact that adds depth and complexity to the Objective. It is often a secret that the PC’s will uncover in the middle of the session, which either complicates or alters the objective. The Twist helps to make the plot more complex; addressing issue #1 from above.
The opposition are the people or force that challenge the PC’s in the completion of the objective. I define the opposition with a few elements:
- Who- who are the opposition
- What- what object (if any) is the opposition interested in obtaining as part of the objective
- Motivation- why is the opposition struggling over the objective
The goal of this section is to force me to give depth to the overall story, and to further address issue #1.
Here I define at least three NPC’s, who may or may not be part of the opposition, who will appear during the session. They each have the following attributes:
- Name- this way I don’t have to make one up, and address concern #2.
- Role- what does this NPC do: shopkeeper, executive, etc.
- Tags- being short on words and time, what tags will best describe the NPC: portly, hostile, mysterious.
I don’t stat my NPC’s within the template.Â If the NPC has a stat block, I reference that page number.Â If the NPC has to be made from scratch (something that I will discuss in a future article) then I append their stat block on a separate page.
Here I define at least three locations that will appear in the session. The goal here is to make sure that I include more than one location, and that each location is interesting (addressing issue #3). My locations have the following attributes:
- Name- The boat house, the Wild Dragon Inn, etc.
- Location- where is this place located in the world: on 12th street, In the Cogs, etc.
- Tags- like NPC’s what tags describe this place:hell-hole, sterile, opulent
With an objective, opposition, NPC’s and Locations, it’s time to create the scenes. For a 4 hour session I budget only 4-5 scenes. One scene for the hook, 2-3 rising action, 1 climax, and possibly one conclusion (which can be blended into the climax depending on the story).
To create each scene, I mix and match my Locations, NPC’s, opposition, and details from the objective. This way I can be sure that each scene has something specific, and different, and that each scene supports the overall story direction.
My scenes have some structure as well. I use the following attributes to define them:
- Objective- Every scene mustÂ move the story forward and move it towards the resolution of the objective. The scene objective also lets you know when the players have reached the end of the scene.
- Location- This is the location of the scene, picked from the list of locations.
- Facts- A bulleted list of (only) important facts about the scene. These are things that typically ensure continuity between scenes, important clues, etc.
- NPC’s- Which NPC’s will be in the scene. Rule of thumb is that almost every scene should contain at least 1 of the previously defined NPC’s.
- Notes- This is for any special GM instructions about the scene.
Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is
So far I have had two opportunities to set up and use the template. I decided to run some Corporation for some friends on a weekly basis. I gave myself only 90 minutes to fill out the template, and then we started playing. The template has done a great job of giving me a structured session in just two pages of notes. I felt very comfortable with the information written down, and the material that I was making up during the session. My players said that they did not really see a difference between my prep-lite sessions and other sessions of Corporation I have run; I take that as a good sign.
Lightly Prep With A Dash Of Detail
If you are a GM who feels like they are taking too much time at session prep, and are not quite willing to jump straight into the land of improv gaming, prep-lite is a nice middle ground, creating enough structure to frame out a good story, while being light enough to encourage your improv skills to grow.
Where do you fall in terms of length of session prep and what tools do you use to get your notes written?
Generally I find the things I am comfortable with improving is everything you are uncomfortable with, and vice versa… So I am a little bit at a loss frankly. (Except notes for anticipation, I am good at thinking up consequences for unexpected things.)
So I am wondering how I would go about something like this. Really as of yet I don’t need a template, as I have a lot of time on my hands, but as I get a job and start Uni in the next year, I will quickly find myself low on free time, so I might need to move into something like this.
I eagerly await your follow up articles regarding this issue!
@Ben– So for some small touch of brevity, I did not want go into how I created the template, but let me see if I can explain how the template came to be.
I started with thing things that I did not want to improvise, and then from there looked at how to address each one specifically. So lets look at one of the things from my list of things I would improvise and I can explain how I would build my template to adress it. Specifically lets look at: The Opening And Closing of Scenes
So in this case, lets say that I don’t normally do a good job of closing a scene, that is I let drag on and on, with the players doing things that are not really moving the story forward, but because they are still doing things, I keep the scene running.
To address this, in my Scene section, I would add an element called: Closing. In this element I would always include a sentence that defines when this scene is complete.
For instance: This scene is complete when the Baron reveals the location of the hidden temple to the players.
So now when I am running the scene and improvising things, as soon as the Baron reveals the location of the temple, I know that I can wrap up the scene and move on to the next scene.
Ultimately what is in your template are the things that you feel the weakest about keeping track of in your head. You put thing things you are weakest on your template, and you improvise the things you are strongest on.
@DNAphil – Fair enough, that makes sense. Thank you for that one, I shall write a template ASAP!
What if my weakness is improvising dialog?
I’m typically okay at winging most everything else (give or take), but when it comes to interactions with NPCs, or even BBEGs, I can think of a million cool things to say before and after the game, but when I’m “at the podium” I always seem to freeze up, and my dialog is pathetic even at a Kindergarten level.
@Spitfire665- I classify dialog into two parts: Key Dialog and Fluff.
Key Dialog- These are the important things that an NPC has to tell the PC. Clues in a mystery, an important fact about the dungeon, the location of the space port. If your NPC forgets to deliver this information, the game my be impacted and may require a retcon, “Oh you remember the shopkeeper from an hour ago, when you were there he told you not to take the west route though the mountains.”
Fluff Dialog- This is the stuff the NPC’s say to sound like they are normal people. They grumble about their jobs, the weather, their spouses. What they say does not matter, its just there to round them out.
So in terms of a Template here is how I would address both cases:
Key Dialog- Dedicate a section of your scene template to dialog. In bullets list the key things that the NPC has to tell the PC’s. This makes sure you don’t miss any important facts.
Fluff- In this case, I would do two things. First I would make a separate list of the types of things people make small talk about: sports, weather, aches and pains, etc. Then in either scene template, or my NPC section, I would list a few of these general things that the NPC might say in passing.
Finally as a little exercise, when you are along driving in your car, pick a few things off the list of Fluff terms, and just talk to yourself in the car. Get use to rambling about how your knee always aches in the rain, and that good knees are wasted on the young. The more you practice making that small talk, the more easily it will come up when you see the category in your notes.
I’m working towards the same goal but from the opposite direction. I love to improvise, but have found myself prepping more and more as I GM for more groups. A little bit of prep can pay off big, but a massive amount of prep is usually never really tapped into at the table.
This template is the sort of thing that helps you to focus on the right things to prep: those items that will come up at the game table. Improvising the rest is easy once you start to practice those skills.
Thanks for sharing this Phil!
@DNAphil – thanks. I’ll try that.
I’m definitely not a “small talk” sort of person, so that’s probably why I keep falling short in the fluff realm.
That’s usually where I freeze up. My NPCs don’t have a problem getting info to people. I just fall into this rut of having “the most helpful NPCs ever” because I’m so bad at small talk and such. I get kidded all the time about having bipolar dwarves. They’re either colossal jerks, or overly helpful. And that usually just reflects my mood at that particular game night.
This may not fit really into your topic at hand, but what about monologuing? Or trash talking?
I just finished prepping for my first Star Trek session this weekend, and the Decipher Trek Narrator’s Guide includes an amazing section on creating episodes using the three-act model.
Guess what it features? Templates! 😉 Their model breaks each episode into key scenes of a few different types, and then providing a template for each scene.
The scene templates are remarkably similar to yours: purpose, action, characters, location. I found them incredibly easy to slot things into, and I feel comfortable with what I’m leaving out — they’re pretty brief notes, but I think that’s all I’ll need.
This isn’t “Hahaha, Star Trek did it first” so much as “Great minds think alike” — your templates sound extremely well-suited to what you need them to be (and do).
It’s very cool to see how you got there, and the process you went through to identify — honestly — your strengths and weaknesses. I also like your session structure. Very cool article all around!
Fantastic article DNAPhil!
I wish I had read this article yesterday. I am president of my school’s RPG club and this would be a perfect thing to show the new GMs. What to prep and how to prep it. I will defintely show this to the club next Friday at our weekly meeting.
I came to a similar conclusion, for similar reasons. I was just writing way, way too much, using maybe 1/2 of it, and archiving the rest. I might end up re-using some of it later on, but more often than not I’d just move onto the next adventure.
With the day job, marriage and kids (and more recently, the kids extracurricular activities), it just wasn’t sustainable, no matter how much I loved it.
I took a similar tact with my “three page manifesto”…
… but my focus was on getting the word count down. Giving myself some targets — 250-400 words for the adventure summaries for instance — really helped me focus on getting to the guts of the adventure more quickly. Once I’ve got the skeleton down — with NPC names, terrain notes, skill challenge details, etc. — I put together the combat encounter information as an appendix. The goal is to get the whole thing down to under 3 pages (minus statblocks) and get the design time down to 60-90 minutes.
A nice side effect of all this is that I have more time for the other aspects of game prep, like pulling miniatures for combat, setting up the game room for the night’s session, and even trying out new game mechanics.
Anyway, great post, and great idea. I think every GM should challenge themselves to cut their notes down to the essentials at least once. 🙂
I love this idea for using templates I have always had trouble with organizing my games but using this I think that my games will feel a whole more structured thank you.
I will however say one more thing the improvising your maps should be thought about. I have no skill in making maps on the spot for encounters so I make a lot of maps in advance or grab some online.
I have started working from this template with all my games now! It has really helped me organize without over organizing (which I have a tendency to do).
One piece that I found useful for me is to add a goals/motivations/subplots field for NPCs. When running a sandbox game, the same NPC may show up in multiple games. Having the motivations field adds fodder for future plot hooks that may not be used in every game. It also helps me deepen the NPC and have other bits to interject to squash that ‘everything in the story revolves around the PCs mission’ vibe that sometimes creeps into games.
I use a DM Toolkit for the iPad to organize my games. It works in part as a database for all the relevant pieces, that can be cross referenced. In this case, I have NPC, location resources. When I create a story, I make scene resources that cross reference the NPC and locations. It works very well for revisiting old locations and NPC and staying organized and consistent.
Thanks again for the template and ideas!
“If the NPC has to be made from scratch (something that I will discuss in a future article)”
Did the future ever arrive? I’m interested in reading this.