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High Value Prep

by Mike on 3 June 2024

"Get more out of your RPGs by preparing less."

This is the core motto of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master which follows with eight steps designed to help you get the most value out of your prep.

There's a near limitless set of activities we could work on when prepping our tabletop roleplaying games. Yet all of us have limited time to focus on that prep.

Where do we focus that time? What activities matter the most?

The eight steps are my best take on the areas most vital for running a great game – and even all eight aren't needed for every game. See Choosing the Right Steps for a discussion about which steps help with which types of games.

Today, though, we're going to look at the question of high value prep from a different angle. I don't know that I can help overlapping with some of the steps from Return but I'm going to do my best to take a different look at the problem.

Where is your time best spent when prepping your RPG?

The Characters

Well, shit. I already failed. Reviewing the characters is clearly the first step from Return but boy howdy is it important! The characters are the focal point of the game. They matter because their players matter. No one really cares that deeply about any given NPC but characters are the players' representation in the world. They really matter.

So what should we focus on with them?

Their backgrounds and stories. Who are they? What do they want? Where did they come from? What matters to the players about the backgrounds of their characters? How can we know this? Ask your players. Run campfire tales. Or just ask them about their character and what matters to them. Write it down.

Their mechanics. What do the players enjoy about their characters from a gameplay standpoint? Watch their behavior and see. What do the players get excited about using? What sort of fun mechanical effects do they enjoy? When they leveled up, what new things did they pick up? What new feats or spells or abilities did they choose? Ask them and write it down.

Their treasure wishlist. What sort of loot are they hoping for? What types of magic items make their character complete? Write it down and think about it while prepping your session's treasure hoard.

Character-focused secrets. Yes, another tie to one of the eight steps. When we're thinking about the characters, we can gain some efficiency by thinking about what secrets tied to that character might be revealed in the next game. Character-focused secrets are a great way to make our session richer and tie the characters closer to the game at the same time.

The Hook

Ok, I'm cheating a bit here too. The "Strong Start" is the second step from Return and what is a strong start if not a hook to draw the players into the adventure. But we'll take a different angle on it here. Yes, you want to grab the players and draw them into the game but you also want them to get hooked into the adventure you have planned. Focusing on a strong hook isn't a railroad. They should have choices about how they approach the situation, but you want them to at least follow loosely to whatever you had planned for an evening of adventure.

Think about the hook. Think about where it leads. Think about how it draws them out of our real world and into our fantasy world. How can you tie the hook back to the characters?

The Situation

Situation-based adventures are just plain fun. Pick a location and a map. Add inhabitants. Give the characters a clear goal. Think about potential complications. Set the stage for the adventure and then let it play out at the table.

Situation-based adventures break away from adventures focusing on a story or plot. With plot-based adventures, the story goes in one direction. Character choices have small effects but not big ones. Situations change that dynamic. You don't have any idea what the characters might plan. You might have thoughts about potential directions but nothing concrete enough to write out in an outline or build scene-by-scene.

Setting up a situation also covers other steps from Return including the location, NPCs, monsters, and probably some secrets. In this case, though, we're munging it all together to focus on the overall situation itself.

Spending your time thinking about the situation in your next session is time well spent. The more details you add – details not dependent on particular actions of the characters – the better.

The Next Adventure

When you're planning this adventure, think about what you need to put in front of the players so they can select the next adventure. I like to offer three choices for where they might go next. We often want to put these in front of the players when they're done with whatever arc of the adventure they're currently on but before they leave for the night so we know what to prep next. I talk more about this advice in Two Horizons Out. What's in front of us now and what's over the horizon? Where are things going to go next?

What Do You Need for Your Next Game?

What do you need in front of you when you're ready to sit down for your next game? Sit down and think about it. If you can, sit down where you plan to run your game and imagine your friends around the table (physically or virtually). Visualize that game, think about what you wish you had, and work on those ideas. Focus on what you know your players enjoy, what makes your game run smoothly and what you can put down that empowers the players to make interesting choices and show off their cool characters.

Focus on what matters for your game.

More Sly Flourish Stuff

Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Taking Notes During and After your TTRPG Session and The Vile Well – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 30 Lazy GM Prep.

Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

Patreon Questions and Answers

Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

RPG Tips

Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as RPG tips. Here are this week's tips:

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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