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?