9 Ways to Prep For Sessions Faster
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1172
Brief Word From Johnn
A couple of quick notes before we dive into today’s tips on how to prepare for game sessions faster.
I was a guest recently on the Geezers of the Game podcast. We talk about my crazy origin story with RPGs amongst many other things. You can listen to that episode here.
And last night I was on a livestream with Zipperon Disney talking about GMing.
Zip’s YouTube channel has a few killer GMing videos, and I’m a huge fan of how he thinks the game.
You can catch a recording of the livestream here. Ok, on with today’s session prep tips!
In a recent Zoom call with Platinum Wizards of Adventure I read this in the chat log:
My biggest pain point: Prep Time vs. Game Time – I like preparing but I often don’t have the time.
I understand this dilemma.
While some GMs can improvise entire campaigns with just a packet of salt, a piece of gum, and a straw, I was born without such talent and must invest in pre-game thinking and writing.
However, through trial and error, I’ve learned how to prep to the point it has a big positive impact behind the screen during my campaign.
To me, that’s time well invested.
Because campaign prep shaves time needed for game prep.
Here are ways you can prepare for a great campaign so your between-session prep is much more manageable.
Through this idea, I can prep for sessions in minutes these days, if that’s all the time I can spare.
In the RPT archives is a two-part article that talks about session prep (part one, part two). Sly Flourish also covers the topic succinctly here with some great additional ideas.
But the notion of simply updating a few notes and you’re prepped is predicated on two things:
- You’ve got a detailed world
- You’ve got a detailed adventure
Great campaigns and adventures have foundations built on details and relationships.
Your plots need flesh. Your locations need bones.
So if you already have a bunch of details hammered out, it becomes easy to sprinkle new details into your notes and be ready.
I’ve learned the hard way from many failed campaigns that I am a better GM when I front-load my games with a prepared setting and plotline.
Armed with such details, plus good session logs, I can do some fast Loopy Planning and be ready for a session in minutes.
(Roleplaying Tips Patrons, you can watch a full tutorial on how to do Loopy Planning here.)
What I’ve done here is shift the time needed to prep my world and adventures from between sessions to before my campaign starts.
Many GMs have written to me mentioning they do this.
And like I said, I’ve learned the hard way that when I do not time-shift and do a ton of prep before campaign start, I’m feeling one step behind for the entire campaign.
Your action item here is to muse on your GMing style and figure out if you could time-shift prep, so that mid-campaign you still have a lot of material and details ready to deploy.
Eat Your Own Dog Food
By this I mean use the stuff you create.
I’ve written and read articles on both sides of the equation.
One could argue you should only prep what you need.
This minimizes time spent on material that does not hit the table, making prep more efficient.
One could also argue you should go deep into (time-shifted) world building and campaign building (or heavily study published world and adventure books you’ll be using).
This gives you amazing reference material to draw upon as you GM and prepare for sessions.
These days I’m somewhere in between.
I prep what inspires me.
Then I look for opportunities to bring what I’ve prepped into gameplay.
Inspiration + Drag & Drop gives me prep efficiency, lots of juicy details, and easy GMing without a script.
And if I’m making a skeleton or adding flesh to something I’m excited about, prep stays fun.
Further, I want to reuse stuff I’ve prepped as many times as possible.
After roleplaying Baron Alesandros of Taragorn six times, you’re practically Shakespeare with him the seventh. 🙂
This is what I mean by eating your own dog food.
Each reuse makes you GM the game piece better.
Repopulate dungeons after the looting has quieted down.
You not only save a bunch of prep time, but you roleplay or GM those game elements so much better each exposure.
Support your future self today. Create a cheat sheet, random table, or generator where you have improv troubles.
For example, I stumble with names.
I try to theme my names to roleplay cultures better.
When forced to make a name up on the spot, I’m likely to sputter something that breaks my theme.
So I create random name generators in Campaign Logger fast using the Campaign Generator Service.
Other generators I find useful:
- Treasure including cool details for special items
- 3 Line NPCs
- Encounter hooks and seeds
- Rumours and gossip
- Situations and random events
The best generators are my custom wandering monster tables.
These draw from my Cast of Characters — all the NPCs met or mentioned in my campaign, plus sandbox people, places, things, and events that I’ve prepped.
This way, I have a menu to pick from, or a fun dice roll to make.
And results serve to deepen my campaign and make it feel connected and dynamic.
I also add random flora and fauna as Dangers or Choices.
For example, I’ll add dire venus fly traps, then make sure I put these on my Knowledge Table so I can introduce them in advance via rumours and other hooks.
Generators save prep because you use them to improvise better.
The more you can improv, the less prep you need to do.
Master Specific Rules
Think about what rules come into play each session.
It’s the same ones, over and over.
Combat. Skill use. Defense like sanity checks or saving throws. Favourite spells and equipment.
And so on.
Though I have not measured this yet, I hypothesize that 20% of the rules in your books account for 80%+ of the rules used in gameplay.
Therefore, master that 20% so you can manage 80% of the time with confidence and fast refereeing.
For example, Conditions are under-used by GMs in D&D 5E.
Too often we default to mere damage.
But we can make adventuring much more interesting through traps, hazards, and foes that bequeath Conditions on the PCs.
This encourages players to come up with different solutions and approaches than their done-a-thousand-times hit point-defending actions.
So I bought Condition Cards and used them as flashcards to memorize those rules.
This had the added benefit of helping me adjudicate spells, monsters, and items that mete out effects as Conditions.
Take a moment today to list out rules that required research or caused friction during the last couple of sessions.
Note rules you stumbled over and made you less confident.
And add mechanics that stumped players when running their characters.
Then study those rules.
Make cheat sheets, flash cards, notes in Campaign Logger tagged with ~, and page references.
Study these rules for five minutes a day.
Over time, you’ll master all the problematic rules in a methodical, prep-light way.
This will improve your refereeing, increase your confidence while improvising, and make your adventure mechanically interesting and robust.
Build Your Own World
Homebrewing means you internalize the ideas and details.
If I read something, I might remember 10% of it a week later.
But if I create something, I might always remember it.
When homebrewing, a conversation carries on in your head. You compare ideas, think about what would work best, and flesh out details until your creation fits your vision and need.
Guaranteed, your mental gazetteer will fill up with wonderful knowledge and inspiration about your campaign setting.
Whereas, if you merely read about a world, chances are you always need to reference the book(s) to find answers you would’ve remembered if you were their creator.
In addition, a homebrew environment lets you make up what you want on-the-fly without worry your world logic will break.
If using a published setting — and this has happened to me a lot — if I make something up during a session rather than taking the time to research it, I have to scramble between sessions to repair damage I’ve done.
For example, one time I placed a siege at the foot of the wrong city in the Forgotten Realms. We played that way until I realized my mistake.
To repair the mistake, I needed to change the region up. The ancient rivalry became moot for my plot because the bad guys were besieging the wrong place — a place that had none of the rival peoples.
In my experience, homebrewing is a ton of fun and a great aspect of the hobby many GMs enjoy.
My belief is, if you don’t homebrew, you are missing out on half of what makes GMing so awesome.
And by creating your own world:
- You gain greater control over your campaign
- You can improvise and tell your own stories with having to look over your shoulder all the time worrying about canon
- You build up your creative muscles to make life richer and your games deeper
World-building requires some time-shifting. But once you have the core built out, you can add details through gameplay and those 5 minute prep sessions I talked about.
And with a basic core created, you’ll save on prep time because you’ll have more info in your head to draw upon. Better recollection and deeper contexts. You’ll be able to “think” your world much better.
Build Your Own Adventures
If you homebrew adventures, you get the same benefits as building your own world — only the benefits multiply.
During sessions we make more decisions about the adventure than we do the world.
As players explore, trigger encounters, and plan their actions, you’ll be asked many questions, need to make up stuff on the spot, and be required to stick within tighter constraints imposed by your plot than by your setting.
But if you’ve created the adventure yourself, you have better recall, an internalized understanding of the adventure’s logic for easier improv, and much greater agency to respond when players go off-plot.
Running published adventures to me often feels like studying for an exam.
Whereas creating my own adventures feels liberating and satisfying.
My method of homebrewing adventures makes it faster to build your own story than trying to study, figure out, and memorize a published module.
Create a Source of Truth
Something that used to slow down my prep was finding the information I needed to be ready for next session.
I’d have notes, ideas, details, and decisions written across multiple notebooks, apps, Post-Its, and loose papers.
When I consolidated everything into one place and declared it my single Source of Truth, my sense of organization and ability to find key material spiked.
No more frustration under the deadline of a looming session.
No more panic at the table trying to find that certain detail.
I produced Campaign Logger with my business partner and friend Jochen Linnemann for this exact purpose:
Get all your world, adventure, and session notes into a sleek app you can master in five minutes.
Leverage a digital app so you can search, filter, edit, sort, move, bookmark, and build all of your campaign details into a Campaign Bible, or World Bible as we called it at BioWare.
Whether you use Campaign Logger, Google Docs, Microsoft Office, Notion, GM Binder, index cards, World Anvil, or other solution, get all your information into a single Source of Truth to make life and prep a whole lot easier and faster.
Book a Consistent Time in Your Calendar
Before you can turn an activity like game prep and creation into a daily habit, you need to carve out space for it.
By default, every one of the 1,440 minutes that you receive each day is already allocated for.
Even if it’s just Netflix and fiction as fallback boredom relievers, there’s something already slotted in every portion of your day.
So we need to carve out time to make prep happen.
Just five minutes a day will have a big impact on your campaign prep in a couple weeks, a month, a year.
The small things you can achieve during a TV commercial break add up into amazing game creations over time.
Our first step is to decide when to slot in our campaign prep.
We must be strategic here because we’ll need to move something around to make this possible.
What I like to do is work from a daily trigger.
What’s something that happens every day that you could tether to your new behaviour?
For example, I work on RPT every day. So I tack on 5 minutes of game prep at the start.
I consistently get some campaign prep done that also puts me in the best mindset for writing GM tips, books, and courses.
By tying your prep time to a daily trigger, you build a prep habit faster and easier.
You perform the prep more consistently to earn that cumulative effect of preparedness.
And you beat the biggest GM bugbear of them all…. Procrastination.
It’s Your Turn
Time-shifting, re-using what you’ve created, and rolling your own instead of using published materials are big ways you can shave down prep time between sessions.
Putting all your information in one place will also save you time and anxiety by having everything you need at your fingertips.
And turning prep into a five minute daily habit will ensure you can squeeze prep into your life and have it make a big impact on your GMing over time.
I hope these tips help.
Try them out yourself, and let me know if you ever have any questions.
Have more fun at every game!