If you’ve ever obsessively stalked me, you may have noticed an interesting pattern. Here at my bio, it states: “Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems.” And every year, I post a “garage sale” article of the campaigns that I thought up but never actually used for one reason or another. And of course if you just browse my general article list you’ll notice two overarching themes: Articles about making yourself a bunch of unnecessary work and articles about streamlining and simplifying other aspects of your work.
And so, after only twenty-four years of GMing, I finally had my Eureka! moment last week when I was having a flash of inspiration about yet another campaign I will never run.Â I thought: “Man! That seems like a Lot of work.” That’s when it hit me. There’s a LOT of work in GMing and the more work involved, the less likely it is that the work will be completed before the initial “honeymoon” rush of excitement about the campaign fades. The more work, the more likely a GM has of contracting GM burnout, the more likely they will just not bother, and the more likely that real life constraints will impact prep time.
Thinking on this problem, I realized that I had been working at making less work for myself with templates and similar approaches for years. What if, I wondered, I simply disallowed myself from doing too much work? What if I allowed myself only the bare minimum? This would necessitate a streamlining of my prep, cutting it down to the bare essentials. No longer would I have to worry about the population density of goblin tribes, because there just isn’t room for that in my notes!Â Thus was born the One Page Prep System. The One Page Prep System is simply this: You are only allowed to prep a single side of an 8.5 x 11 page for each session (or the electronic equivalent). This means you essentially are limited to a 5 room dungeon every session and NO campaign prep, because there simply isn’t bandwidth for anything more.
But, I quickly discarded The One Page Prep System (though you’re welcome to use it if you like) in favor of The Two Page Prep System. I probably don’t have to explain how that one works. Here’s why I like the Two Page Prep System better. First, it gives you more to work with while still not being an overwhelming amount of work to do. Anyone can knock out a pair of pages in a few hours. Second, it gives you more flexibility. While my general approach is to use one page for campaign prep and one for the session’s adventure, if I wanted to run a larger adventure, I could dedicate both pages to the adventure, and skip campaign development. If I wanted to re-use old material (the last session ended on a cliffhanger or the characters are revisiting an old location for example) I could devote both pages to campaign development.
Expanding the Two Page Prep System, either because your system is more complex than mine (I’m using Microlite20 Legacy RPG specifically for it’s simplicity), because you’ve “outgrown” two pages, or because you need, want and can handle more pages is easy: Add more pages! However, be sure to create essential pages (necessary to the session) first. That way if you decide you’ve had enough, you can just walk away, no regrets.
Here are scans of my startup prep for my current campaign (I’m actually running it! I’ve had a session! More on the way!) so you can see the system in action. Click through for larger size.
But Population Density is SOOO important!
Isn’t it awesome how the simplest ideas are the best?
That’s why I started using 5*8 Note cards for campaign prep. That size forces brevity w/o constraining it too much.
Isn’t also awesome how weirdly freeing self-imposed limitations can be?
I think I’m gonna try hard limit and see where that takes me.
Thanks for the article!
I’ve run some minimalist games in my time, but I think tonight will be the smallest prep I’ve ever done for a game. Fifteen bullet points, the remainder of the session has to be taken up by improvisation or player/world interaction.
Very nice. I dig the two page prep limit and think that is a great way to limit yourself to the essentials. I may have to implement it for future sessions.
This article (and some of the responses) kind of reminds me of the creative writing class I took in college, specifically, the poetry portion of it. Poems have an incredibly limiting structure based on the length of each line and the rhythm (or cadence) of the stressed and unstressed syllables in each line. How is this relevant? Once you’ve mastered the structure, it can be very easy to work within it to create a much more pleasing poem than if you had just slapped some rhymes down on a piece of paper.
In a more game related sense, I have recently been mentoring budding GM who has no idea how to either create a campaign or an individual adventure, and so I have had to really self-analyze my own methods for doing these essential tasks, and, although my own technique is very involved and uses up way more than a pair of pages, I have been encouraging him to be more simplistic, at least to start.
It is interesting that Unabashed Gaming mentions bullet points, because that’s what I’ve been telling my ‘student’ to use. “List all the things the adventurers will notice when they enter the room in short sentences or phrases, you don’t need a detailed, flowery description of everything…”
I think I might try this method once or twice, just as a challenge (kind of like writing a sonnet, you do it just because)…
This article speaks directly two my interpretation of the two forms of writing: those who are architects and those who are gardeners. While there are substantial differences between writing a story and GMing, there are a lot of similarities, too.
I’ve had a lot of experiences like those mentioned by Matthew. Take some awesome ideas, work on them a bit, play through some bits and throw out the rest. Sometimes those games work great, sometimes they fall through. Unfortunately, my preferred style of GMing requires both a lot of depth and the use of sandboxes (or multiple sand pails.) As I’ve matured, I’ve found that while more prep is not better, more *precise* prep is. That is, anticipating ahead of time what groups will want to invest attention and time into, and filling in those blanks while leaving the rest of the details a little hazy.
Also, here’s where I got my quote from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/749309-i-think-there-are-two-types-of-writers-the-architects
Ten pages and hours of prep work seems to go out the window within the first five minutes of gameplay. My players dismantle any amount of plotting and planning I put into a session. If I want the party to go east, they’ll go west. And if I try to salvage any of my prep work, I run the risk of railroading my players and the whole gaming session goes south.
So, I’ve taken on a minimalistic approach as well. I’d rather spend my prep time developing strong, believable NPC’s and potential story hooks. I also like to draw up generic maps on graph paper for myself. It gives me a sense of place to work from at the table.
I have to say, my best reference book is Masks, which I discovered last month. This whole GM thing takes practice, improvisation (which is a challenge for me because I’m a bit reserved and shy). But as a newer GM, I’m getting better the more I continue practicing.
Less is always more.
Your minimalism is impressive, and I applaud that. Mine is not, but I thought I’d mention what I do, similar to this.
I’ve gotten to using something like this for session prep. I use a sheet of lined paper, placed in front of the campaign binder. Side one is my “clean copy” of the expected session outline: Reminders, fight 1, stuff to be found, fight 2, etc. Actually, those are mostly reminders of stuff I have written down elsewhere, acting like links for my brain. That takes up a quarter of the page.
The remainder of that page is my notes on what actually happens– awesome events by particular PCs, how NPCs react to things, and what they might do later, and so on.
The back side of that page becomes my prep “to-do” list for the next session. I usually start putting items on that as soon as I get home from the game, before going to bed that night. It starts with, “Total xp”, “set calendar for next session”, and the basics like that, but moves on to, “What will NPC X and Y do now?”, “set up the bandit camp sketch map”, “Stat bad guy squad #9”, “what’s a good treasure to put in there?” and things like that. I usually fill up the page, as this flows into an outline for the next session, as well as items to set aside for later. Little boxes next to each line tell me which ones I’ve checked off, and which still need to be done. Once I’ve decided what the next session should look like, I start the outline mentioned above, for the next session, on another sheet.
I came to this same realization about a year and a half ago. I love to GM, but I would typically find myself typing 12-20 pages of notes for a game session. The amount of work involved seriously limited how often I could run a game. I also noticed that I never read my notes during the game because who has time to find anything in all that mess? I eventually realized that this obsessive over-preparation was simply a crutch to bolster my confidence, and I decided to give it up and just have fun.
So I created a 2-page template, which I print on a single double-sided sheet of paper. Since doing this, I’ve found that I now use my notes – I can find what I need during the heat of battle – and my session prep time is typically about an hour instead of 12-16 hours. I have a lot less stress with prepping a game each week and more time to brainstorm and come up with fun stuff for my players to do.
What does your template look like, Mike? Would you mind sharing with a new GM like me :)?
This is great. I generally only plan the “next scene” nowadays anyway.
What does your template look like, Mike? Would you mind sharing with a new GM like? 🙂