GM Advice: Reduce Your Prep Time By Doing Half The Work
Prepping for a game can be a time-consuming process. There are notes and NPCs to consider, not to mention the plot, the location, and the enemies your player characters will face through the course of the adventure.
Sadly, we all don't have as much time as we'd like to prep the kind of games we'd like, with fully fleshed out features that jump off the page and into the minds of our players. But perhaps you don't need a whole lot of time to make a good game.
I am going to share with you the way I used to write my adventures and the way I currently write them. You'll see a drastic difference between the two, and it will become very clear how quickly I can now prep a game.
This is the story. It lays out the location, the conflict, and the enemies they will encounter throughout the adventure, as well as the goal and a few hooks. In the old days, I would spend a great deal of time, usually in the shower (where all my best ideas are born), plotting and thinking of a story, what kind of NPCs the characters would encounter, a setting, motives for the villain, and what creatures it had at its command. This often went hand and hand with flipping through a Monster Manual or Bestiary, hand picking the perfect monsters for the job.
When I had what I wanted, I would write everything down, making the whole affair look something like this...
Background (the old way of doing things)
"Now in glorious Paint-O-Vision!"
The Alcadian Valley is nestled between two formidable mountains; Hell's Craig and Havenspire respectively. The only way in or out of the heavily forested valley is a trade road that runs through a narrow mountain pass in the east and west, which takes three days on horseback to traverse. The people of Alcadian Valley are protected by a loose-knit militia consisting of men and women from a dozen towns and villages of varying size and population that run the length and breadth of the valley.
The village of Balventry is home to some 200 people, farmers mostly, that dwell along the southern foothills, just north of Hell's Craig Mountain. The people Balventry are living in fear, for a rash of disappearances, has spread across the valley. A dozen children from eleven different towns and villages have vanished from their beds in the dead of night, with little clue as to who has taken then or why. The only village spared from this tragedy is Balventry, which has garnered a great deal of suspicion from the grieving parents in the surrounding communities.
Little do the people of the Alcadian Valley know that their children are alive, at least for the time being. In a ruined keep built into the side of Hell's Craig Mountain resides the fiendish familiar of a long-dead wizard. Through deception and the promise of power, the evil outsider has gathered a tribe of hobgoblins to its cause and has sent them into towns to gather the children. The craven creature intends to sacrifice 13 innocent children in a ritual that will allow it to ascend into a higher, more powerful form.
To complete the ritual, the sacrifices must be made on the new moon, which is only a week away. With only eleven children in its clutches, it has resolved to double its efforts. Balventry has the unfortunate distinction of being the closest town to Hell's Craig Keep, and so that is where the fiend intends to secure the final two children.
Time Elapsed While Coming Up With A Concept And Writing It All Out: 2 hours.
"It's always the 'peaceful' villages. This is why I live in a city."
Hooks (the old way of doing things)
The following hooks assume the player characters are in the valley for one reason for another. They could be just passing through on the way to something or somewhere on the other side, or perhaps
1. A Parent's Plea: While resting in a town, they are approached by a grieving parent desperate to find their lost child. The parent begs and pleads with the player characters, offering them their entire life savings if only they would return their child, or at the very least learn of the child's ultimate fate.
2. Out Of Our Depth: The head of the local militia reaches out to the player characters and admits that his men are not prepared for this sort of thing. Most are farmers who can hardly swing a sword, but whoever the thieves are, they've managed to slip into town, and out without a soul noticing. The militia commander offers the character a reward for information that leads to the discovery and/or safe return of the children.
3. A Son's Sorrow: The player characters are approached by a young boy on either the road or in a tavern. He tells the characters that his father, a tracker, and hunter, volunteered to search for a missing child from his village. He was found two days later, brutally murdered. He begs the players to find his father's killer and deliver swift justice. He doesn't have much to give, only his father's bow, cloak, and armor (one of which is magical).
Time Elapsed While Coming Up With Character Motivations And Writing It Out: 30 minutes.
Total Time Elapsed: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
And we haven't even made it to planning encounters. That is two and a half hours just spent getting the story out of my head and onto the page. And you know what my players would do after I had written all this out? Ignore 75% of it. How could they know? They don't see my notes. After awhile I wondered who I was writing all this information for. After all, I am the GM. All this stuff is already in my head. Do I really need all that sitting in front of me?
That answer was a hard no. So I asked myself what I could to save time. First, I created a random table to help plot the adventure. Then I just rolled everything up. Here is what I came up with...
Background (the new way of doing things)
- Setting: Village in forested area (Balventry)
- Conflict: Ritual/Sacrifice (Stolen children)
- Primary Villain: Evil Outsider (Devil or Demon)
- Other Monsters In Area: Hobgoblins (under control/command of the primary villain)
- Location of Primary Villain: Ruined Keep
- Conflict Brought To The Attention Of PCs By: Villagers/Travelers
- Resolution If Characters Defeat Primary Villain: When primary villain is defeated, everything goes back to normal
- Resolution If Characters Flee: The Primary Villain is killed by another creature, that is more cunning and dangerous
- Resolution If Characters Die: The Characters are resurrected by the Primary Villain or its allies
Then all I needed to do was connect the dots.
- Why Can't Someone Else Do It? The community is cut off from larger settlements (Valley), and the towns are too small to defend themselves from large forces, so they band together (militia), but a small band of creatures can easily move around between towns, and the people aren't equipped to stop such a threat on their own.
- Why Is The Evil Outsider Stealing Children For A Ritual and/or Sacrifice? To become a greater devil or demon.
- What Threat Does the Villain's Success Pose: As a greater devil or demon, it will be far more difficult to stop, and in a
Time Elapsed While Coming Up With A Concept And Writing It All Out: 25 minutes.
Hooks (the new way of doing things)
Look at the player's character sheets. Ask them what their motivation for doing this consists of. Make up hooks on the spot that reflect the interests of the player characters.
Time Elapsed While Coming Up With Character Motivations And Writing It Out: 5 minutes.
Total Time Elapsed: 30 minutes.
Now that is a far cry from 2 hours and 30 minutes. In a fifth of the time, I have the same amount of material. And to be totally honest, the story doesn't suffer for this. In fact, it frees up the story to become as large or small as you want. It is completely malleable, ready to be shaped at a moment's notice. So often storytellers try to cram themselves into the story they are trying to tell instead of letting it unfold.
The best people suited for unfolding a story isn't the Game Master, but rather the players.
Let The Players Do The Work
This little meme right here holds more truth than many of the published game guides I have purchased over my lifetime. A lot of players think they need to take their cues from the Game Master, but in actuality, the story progresses in lots of fun and interesting directions when the GM starts taking their cues from the players.
In the above scenario for our little adventure here, the players will no doubt discover that children are vanishing. If they don't find out in one of the towns, they'll run across a militia man patrolling the roads. The town of Balventry is the only town not hit by these kidnappers, which is suspicious. The town is basically under lock down when the characters arrive.
Depending on how they play their characters, they will either be seen as saviors or suspects. Each perception carries with it an attitude the players will be met with, making their investigation either very easy or very difficult.
Players may want to set a trap for the would-be kidnappers, maybe going as far as to use children as bait. A lot of the story would hinge on how well that plan was executed. If they lose a kid, the town will probably want to tar and feather them... at the very least.
"As pleasant as it looks."
Let your players choose a direction to go in. Follow their leads. If they make smart choices, reward them. If they make stupid ones, ramp up the difficulty. If they try and take chances, don't dissuade them. See how it plays out, playing your end of the scenario smart. These risky endeavors can be a lot of fun, and should they succeed they will be indulging in the requisite amount of whooping and hollering. At that point, you have them completely invested in the game. And what did you have to do?
Watch them. No prep time required.
Let The Machines Do The Work
It is hard to fully predict what players will do, especially if you haven't played or run games with them for an extended period of time. I didn't really see any sense in creating a bunch of NPCs to populate the villages that the characters might talk to, so I decided that NPCs would be on a need by need basis, at which point I will probably use an NPC generator.
When they started heading out into the woods to investigate or track, there will no doubt be a skirmish or two with the hobgoblins that have been stealing the children. But with all that untamed wilderness nearby, it totally lends itself to a random encounter or two, but no more than that. Remember, everything in moderation. There are a couple of pretty good generators for cooking up random encounters that take no time at all.
Eventually, the characters will come to the boss of the adventure. I have a lot to say on the matter, but for the sake of keeping everything nice and simple, and prep time down to a minimum, we will be cutting corners.
"Like so much red tape."
I like my boss battles at the end of a dungeon, but making a dungeon can be such a time sink that any time you saved by cutting corners will be spent plotting, crafting, and stocking the damned thing. If we are going to reduce the prep time on this, we are going to need to reduce the dungeon. That is why I defer to the Five Room Dungeon method. You can see a better description here at the beginning of my article on dungeon design (if you haven't already found the link not so cleverly hidden in the text already).
However, we are saving time here. So let's say screw designing and drawing out the dungeon we want, in this case, the keep on the side of the mountain. Instead, let us place out fingertips on the tool that holds the entire span of human knowledge, where the discovery of all things is possible...
A quick image search for D&D keep maps or Pathfinder keep maps will give you a plethora of different maps to choose from. Since you aren't publishing this game, you can use just about any material you want. In the case of this adventure, we are just going to slap it on the side of a mountain anyway.
Now it's time for the boss. I have an old theory about bosses. They should be waaaaay tougher than the player characters, have a tactical advantage through geography or situation, or at least have a small army of minions at their beck and call. Whatever the case. I like to make the challenge hard for the characters. It is the boss, after all.
Selecting your boss may be the biggest time sink for you since you'll have to select the right one and determine exactly how you want to make the encounter difficult. Fortunately, you've freed up enough time to allow yourself to really give it your all.
So, there we are. Hopefully, this will shave some time off your game prep and allow you to do other things, like... gardening, or animal husbandry, or whatever it is people with real connections and feelings do.
Of course, I wouldn't use this method all the time. There is something to be said about a well thought out and composed campaign. But, when you are running low on time and game night quickly approaches, remember that time can be on your side... with a few shortcuts.
"Sad Minotaur is sad."
Roll well, me friends,
+Ed The Bard
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