I am a person who thinks a lot about game prep. At first, it started from a productivity angle, looking to be able to keep gaming as my “free time” was dwindling from a family, career, etc. Later, I thought more about game prep as a form of creative expression, or at least the prep for one’s creative expression. Over the years I have focused on different parts of the prep process. Right now I am fortunate enough to be running four different campaigns (I’m living the dream, 10-year-old Phil). This means I am doing a lot of prep regularly. In doing so, I am seeing what has become my secret weapon when I prep…conceptualization. So I thought we could talk about it…

Before We Start

Some of the things we are going to talk about come from my book, Never Unprepared: The Game Master’s Guide To Prep. The book is going to cover this in much more detail, than I can here. If you are interested. You can find the book in the following places: 

Enough shilling, back to talking about game prep…

What Is Conceptualization? 

Conceptualization is: “The act of expanding an idea into something that can be played, be it a scene or a full session…” — Never Unprepared p. 38

In other words, Conceptualization is how you take an idea for a story and expand it into something you can run at the table. My idea may be something like, “let’s do a heist in an aquarium”. But how does that become a full adventure? 

If you are from the purist ad-lib form of GMing, that may be all you need. Write it down on a post-it note and go and run your game. 

For those of us, who desire or need a bit more material to work from, we have taken that idea and grow it into something larger, more like a summary or synopsis. We can then use that to prep our game notes.

Why is Conceptualization Important? 

When you expand your idea into a summary you do so by internally asking and answering questions yourself. We use the classic Who?, What? Where?, Why?, and How? questions to flesh out our idea. 

Let’s look at the aquarium heist and expand it a bit. 

  • What are the characters stealing?  – A valuable statue that everyone thinks is a simple decoration.
  • Why are they stealing it? – It belongs to the people of a remote island and was stolen from them years ago. It should be returned to them.
  • Where is it? – In the bottom of the shark tank in an Atlantis theme display. 
  • How do the characters find out?- One of them takes their child to the aquarium and spots it.

With just that small exercise we know a lot more about the story we are planning to run. If we keep up this process we can build out the outline for the adventure and have a good idea of what kinds of things we need to add to our prep (i.e. stats for sharks, rules for swimming, holding your breath, etc). 

So the first thing that Conceptualization does is that it helps to shape the story we want to tell at the table. From just these questions, we know how the story will start, with a trip to the aquarium, and we know how it will hopefully end, with the return of the statue to its rightful owners.

The next thing Conceptualization does is that it helps to address logical holes in our story. Right now our idea is that this story is a Heist, something we want to happen during play. But there is a logical hole right now in the story. What if the characters were just to inform the manager of the aquarium about the statue? Perhaps they would just give it back and then there would be no heist. 

So we can use those same questions to help close up holes in our story. 

  • Why won’t the aquarium manager give back the statue? – The manager is a well-known gambler who owes a substantial amount of money, and if they knew about the statue they would get it out of the tank and sell it.

We can keep doing this in a cycle. Every time we run into a hole or gap in our plot, we can ask a question, think of the answer and incorporate it into our summary. The more we do this the better the quality of our story becomes. 

 The last thing that conceptualization does is that it creates a mental model of the session in your head. 

The last thing that conceptualization does is that it creates a mental model of the session in your head. This model greatly helps you ad-lib when things come up that you did not expect. By asking and answering all those questions, when the players eventually do something you did not anticipate, you have a solid idea of what is going on in the story and can use that knowledge to have the story react appropriately. This will make your ad-lib GMing skills sharp and make you more comfortable when things do not go exactly as planned. 

The What’s Going On Document

The full credit for this idea comes from the folks at Fear The Boot. The What’s Going On Document is a form of prep, where you write the summary for the story down before you start prepping your session notes. You are the only person who is going to see this document so you write it as if you are telling yourself what the story is going to be about 

The crux of this document is for you to tell yourself what is actually happening in the story, which is often different from what the characters will initially see. If the story is a mystery, then it explains the whole crime, clues, motivation, etc. If it is a heist, it talks about the target, the opposition, any twists, etc. It also talks about what will happen if the characters do not intervene. What will the opposition do if left unchecked? 

For me, this document does not have any mechanical elements to it. It is just the summary of the story as I conceptualize it. Often my version of this document is messy, with half-worked-out lists of goals, followed by several paragraphs of notes, then a list of names, etc. Again, no one else is reading it, and you are not running your game from it, so it does not need to be well organized or easily readable.

What it does though is it helps you get your thoughts down so that you can see them, read them, add to them, edit them, etc. This will help your process since you can get things out of your head and work with them, allowing space for new ideas, and allowing you to read through what you have to look for holes and gaps. 

In my most recent campaigns, I start every new story with a What’s Going On Document and I do all my conceptualization in that document. When I feel that the story is solid and the major gaps have been addressed, then I can create a new document and start creating the prep I will use at the table. 

Take Some Time

While you can do all your conceptualization in one sitting, I find it best as a process that you stretch out over a few days. What I like to do is to get the What’s Going On Document started and get a good summary written. Then for the next few days, I just think about that summary as I go about my day, and along the way, I will find a gap to close up or come up with a new detail, and I will then go back into the document and add that in. When I can do this, I often come up with a strong summary before I start to prep. 

If you can, adjust your prep cycle to give yourself this time. 

Try It Yourself

If you have not tried out this process here is how you can get started with it:

  1. Brainstorm an Idea
  2. Create a new document in the medium you like to work in (Google Docs, a journal, etc).
  3. Write down the idea
  4. Write down some of your goals or aspirations for the story.
  5. Conceptualize the story by asking the Who?, What?, Where?, Why?, and How? questions. 
  6. Stop and read what you have. 
  7. Ask more questions and add more material.
  8. Repeat until you have a sufficient understanding of the story and a summary you can work from.

Give It Some Thought

Out of all the stages of prep I am doing, the Conceptualization stage is the one that is yielding, for me, the best results for the time spent. Being able to take some time and think through the story’s details before I document my session notes, has helped me write more coherent plots and come up with more interesting twists and details. 

Do you conceptualize your ideas before you prep? How do you do it? Do you use a What’s Going On Document?  Do you do it just in your head? Do you do it all at once, or do you give it a few days to ruminate?