Mar 29

Minimal Prep and Time Requirements


I received the following comment from edige23 as a response to my recent article about Juggling Time.


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.


Minimal Prep

How little do I REALLY need to do?


As a minimum, I could strip my prep down to just two processes;

Session plan


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


  • Write-up
    • 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.
  • Admin
    • 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.
  • Encounters
    • 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.
  • Setting
    • 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.
  • Rules
  • Tools
    • 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.


Total Time

How long?


So what have I learnt? The time breaks down as follows;


TopicTime in minutes
Session plan30


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.


If you want to explore the topic further, edige23 was involved in the creation of a podcast dealing with this topic. 


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.


Happy Gaming


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


1 ping

Skip to comment form

  1. I think there must be different types of GMs. For you it seems you are a tool-based GM. Me, I was a setting-based GM.

    When I ran my campagins I spent most of my time of game prep creating the world. I did not focus on story or encounters. I did write up what happened in my session and maybe some admin.

    I spent way more than 6 hours a week on this (being a collage student helped).

    Somewhere I have the maps I created and all the other work I did for the campaigns.

      • Phil on April 6, 2014 at 9:24 am
      • Reply

      Hi Winston,

      Yes, I am sure that there are different styles of GM.

      I am absolutely a story GM, and my prep is focused on the story. Of course, I do put in time on the setting, but this is story-driven, in the sense that generally I create setting to fulfill the needs of the immediate story.

      I am sure that when I had more time, many years ago, I would create more of the setting. I too have folders of game material, or at least I used to. They may have been culled for space requirements. However, after so much effort, there was a lot of material that was not used. I felt secure as a GM as I knew that wherever the Players went, I was prepared. As I lack the time, then I need a more prep-lite approach. Focusing on the story does reduce the amount of time that I need.

      Horses for courses, as they say.

      Thank you for commenting


        • Jon on April 10, 2014 at 1:43 pm
        • Reply

        Like me, you seem to spend a lot of time on getting the story continuity straight. Making sure that you pack in as many references to villains, plots, schemes, etc. going on as possible. That takes a lot of writing and rewriting.

        Some GMs ad lib a lot. I can ad lib a story, but the less I prep, the more it tends to be light on details, miss a lot of opportunities for connections, fail to convey information in the best way, get pacing all screwed up, and have odd discontinuities in the story — “that doesn’t make sense” or “why would he..?” moments.

        I’m with you all the way.

          • Phil on April 10, 2014 at 2:32 pm
          • Reply

          Hi Jon,

          Thank you for commenting on the article.

          Actually, I think that your campaign sounds a lot more closely structured than mine. I find that my Players struggle to keep track of much more than a couple of plots, so I try to focus on running just a few at a time. I like to weave story elements back into the plot as much as I can, however. This is often to give the appearance of a bigger plan, when there may not have been one all along.

          Given that I struggle to find the time to write my prep in the first place, I certainly do not have the time for re-writes. I admire your dedication to a tightly crafted plot.

          All the best

    • Iona on January 8, 2016 at 12:02 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve never timed my prep but I’m very curious what numbers I’d come up with. I used to prep between one and four hours a week (estimation), with the large difference in time coming from me having writers anxiety and procrastinating and feeling stuck. However, this prep left me unsatisfied as it involved no bookkeeping and not enough detail. The result was that I could run the game but I’d feel less relaxed about it and the result of that was that I couldn’t respond to whatever new and crazy my players threw at me as well, so less fun for me and the story suffered too. That said, my players still enjoyed the campaigns and adventures.

    I’ve just started a new campaign the first adventure of which I created using Johnn’s workshop. That was definitely more work per session but I hope to be able to only spend an hour prepping and bookkeeping per four hour session for the duration of the adventure, after that it will depend on whether the players explore new or already prepared territory. I have no idea how long creating regions and npc’s will take me and how long coming up with plots and forming those into adventures may take. Either way I feel a lot more confident with my prep now and my enjoyment levels have gone way up, resulting in me having more in game energy left to act out NPC’s better and to come up with cool ways to allow player actions to influence and complicate the game.

    By the sound of the other comments I’m a very prep light GM and I’m very curious how far I can distil it down by timing things and streamlining my prep, but this time without sacrificing my own fun.

    Something else I noticed is that the players don’t directly notice the difference between a solid and not so solid preparation. They did notice that I seemed more confident and they really appreciated the maps but they didn’t see it as a day and night difference compared to my older prep style even though for me it was. I do think that they will notice the raised quality bar over the long term but this shows as many things before that how we experience the game as game masters sometimes says very little about how the players enjoy the game.

      • Phil on January 8, 2016 at 1:48 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Iona,

      I really believe it is worth timing your prep over a week, just to understand where the time really goes. Since writing this article, I have cut about two-thirds of the prep, partly due to creating setting details with the Players during the game, and partly due to better improvisational skills.

      How you feel about your prep is an important consideration. If less prep makes you feel anxious about the game, and you can afford to invest a lot of time in the prep, then keep to the longer prep. Even though the impact on the Players was less, if it significantly alters your experience at the table, then the additional time is worth it.

      As ever, there is no absolute correct answer to this issue.

      Many thanks for sharing your thoughts

        • Iona on January 8, 2016 at 5:59 pm
        • Reply

        Agree ^^

        On the topic of creating setting details with the players: if you haven’t checked out Dawn of Worlds it’s worth checking out:

        It’s a gamesystem purely meant to help you create a world together with your players. I find that it does require some hacking, at least with my groups I’ve completely replaced the third phase with a ‘come up with potential plots/problems for various regions’ phase. Following the third phase as written is an option but then you and your players need to be down with the posibility that one race might take over the world an crush a bunch of other races. That aside it feels like a fun and easy way to do world generation as it’s completely cooperative.

          • Phil on January 8, 2016 at 8:42 pm
          • Reply

          Hi Iona,

          Thanks for the link, I will take a look at the game.

          I had planned to use Microscope to generate broader setting details, once we start a new campaign later this year. Maybe I need to change my plan.

          Many thanks for sharing

  1. […] Minimal Prep and Time Requirements […]

Leave a Reply