What do you consider minimal prep? About how much time would you estimate you spend getting ready for any particular session. I’ve seen different GMs talk about this and have wildly differing senses of what that means. And for this I’m probably focusing on these tasks you mention- bookkeeping from last session and notes for the coming session.
As I wrote back to edige23, this was a great question and would make a suitable blog post for me. Actually, I think edige23 asked me TWO questions, namely what do I think is minimal prep, and how long do I spend preparing for a Session. I will try to answer both questions in detail, starting with the Minimal Prep.
How little do I REALLY need to do?
As a minimum, I could strip my prep down to just two processes;
By the term bookkeeping/admin, I mean keeping a record of Player attendance and the various game awards that were handed out to the Heroes as a result of the last Session. This is a simple matter of consulting the notes that I made during the course of the previous Session and then updating a spreadsheet.
I include this in my Minimal Prep category as these details need to be recorded each week, otherwise I will forget. These spreadsheets are my long-term record of the campaign, a big picture of the sequence of Sessions and the progress of the Heroes.
The second strand of my Minimal Prep is the Session Plan. This is a single-page form that I complete prior to each Session. This plan outlines the structure of the next Session, listing several ongoing plots that may feature in the game. With a lot of improv, I could run a Session from these brief notes. This would not be a great game, but by following the Session Plan, I would have a structure to work from and thus ensure that my improvisation would not be entirely haphazard.
Watching the clock
So how long does it really take to prepare for a game Session? I suspect that if you asked ten different GMs you would receive ten different answers. This is entirely subjective, but the real point of this post is to encourage you to think closely about how much time you take, and see if there is anyway to speed up the process, to ensure faster prep and more story.
Looking at my prep in discrete parts, these are the categories of work that I aim to do each week
- An account of the previous Session.
- I write two accounts, one short and one long. The short version is little more than a bullet-point list of people and places encountered during the last Session. This account is printed and brought along to each Session in a dedicated folder. The contents of the folder can then be used as reference sheets during subsequent Sessions.
- The second, longer version, is a prose account of the previous Session. I try to limit the length of this, so it averages out at perhaps six to ten paragraphs. This brief Chapter can note individual actions of Heroes, the highlights of the Session and a broader synopsis of events.
- Both accounts will be uploaded to the Campaign Wiki where they can be referenced later by both Players and GM.
- TIME. I aim to write these accounts on the bus journey home, so less than an hour total. As I have to take the bus anyway, this does not feel like it takes away any of my time. Editing and uploading are probably about 30 mins. Total = 90 mins.
- Bookkeeping attendance and character awards, as described above.
- TIME. Not a lot, as the spreadsheet just needs some numbers added to it, and I may need to think about the suitable rewards for the last Session. Total = 15 mins.
- Session plan
- Framework for the next Session, as described above.
- TIME About 30 minutes, including thinking up the next Chapter title and referencing various documents on my laptop to ensure times, dates and other details are consistent. Total = 30 mins.
- Planning the individual encounters that make up a Session.
- By choosing to run a mechanics-lite rules system such as HeroQuest 2, I gain a lot of time during this stage of the process. I have forms for different types of encounter, and thus fill in the blanks during this part of the prep. I also have many charts and tables to speed the process of creating names, personalities and abilities as required.
- TIME Highly variable, some encounters are only short and may take 15 mins or less to design. Other encounters can take a lot longer, especially roleplaying encounters that need many characters, or an extended contest such as combat. Each of these could take up to an hour.
- I guess that the average would be 30 mins per encounter. Realistically, I would hope to have five encounters lined up for a 150 minute Session. Thus, total = 150 mins.
- During some Sessions we do not work through all five encounters, for any number of reasons, and thus the prep burden for the following week is greatly reduced. However, the baseline of encounter prep time equalling game time is a fair one, as it tends to ensure that I have enough standby material to feel confident going into the Session.
- Overall, I probably could cut down on this area of prep, perhaps aiming at 75% of Session time, reducing my safety net. Yet, I still do not feel confident enough in my improvisational skills to risk that approach.
- Creating details for my hybrid published/homebrew setting.
- Another highly variable category. Some weeks I have neither the time nor the need to create additional setting details. Other weeks, I interrupt the encounter design to establish some necessary setting details, and then record them to ensure consistency.
- I regard time spent on the setting as an investment which will pay dividends throughout the rest of the campaign. These setting details may not affect the next Session, but they will shape the campaign forever. I aim to run a sandbox-style campaign, so there is no telling when the Players will focus on any one aspect of the setting.
- TIME. As an estimate, this would average out at 30 mins per week.
- Tinkering with the rules, typically to enhance the narrative and the options for the Players.
- Much as I love the HeroQuest 2 rules, I still feel drawn to add Rules Widgets.
- Again, some weeks I find nothing that I want to add, while other weeks there will be extra tweaks.
- TIME. I estimate 15 mins per week, although it was probably higher when I was starting out running HeroQuest 2.
- Charts and tables to ensure faster prep and more story
- As with the Setting work, time spent on my GM tools is an investment. Each tool is designed to fulfil a need with my prep, and as such greatly speed the process once they are complete. They do feel like an endless project, however, as I still have a list of tools I need to complete, or edit, even after two years of running my current game.
- These tools include names tables, such as the one I used for these Nomad names.
- TIME. Hard to judge, as working on the tools will expand to cover all the time I have available. It probably averages out at 60 minutes a week, often in small snippets.
So what have I learnt? The time breaks down as follows;
|Topic||Time in minutes|
This gives me a staggering grand total of 390 minutes, or 6 ½ hours! This is spread through the week, and often in small sections. Many of these timings are approximate, but it feels about right.
What does this all mean?
Given that this is all geared towards running a session which averages at 2 ½ hours, then the proportion of prep time to game time is not favourable. It is a good job that I enjoy being a GM, otherwise the amount of effort required would make it very unappealing.
However, if I focus on the work purely for the Session, then I can ignore the last three categories. This then gives me a total of 4 ¾ hours, which is more reasonable. Looking at my Minimal Prep, this comes out at 2 ¼ hours, of which 1 hour is spent on the bus journey.
So, I have effectively three different benchmark figures;
Minimal Prep of 2 ¼ hours
Session Prep of 4 ¾ hours
Ideal Prep of 6 ½ hours
Going into each week, I hope to achieve the Ideal level of prep, but this is not always possible. Real life is often a visitor, so compromises have to be made. Having worked through this process, I have provided myself with a sliding scale of prep needs that can help me to plan out my remaining time when problems arise.
This was the first time I had really examined my prep time in detail, and it was a very informative exercise. I would highly recommend that you do the same one week.
Having worked through my own work rate, I will be listening to the podcast to hear what others have to say on this issue. Share your prep timetables in the comments below.
EDIT – I have now had a chance to listen to the Play on Target podcast, and I highly recommend it. There is some very fine advice there from four experienced GMs. Although, the podcast does show that I am not as prep-lite as I would like to be. These guys are very minimalist for their prep.
Something for the Weekend next week, Chases in HeroQuest 2 Part 1, The Set-up