Preparing for a game session can sound like a lot of work, but I have learned that if you treat it like work then that is exactly what it becomes. Of course prep always takes time, just look at all the things you may need for the session: maps, monsters, NPCs, locations. The list goes on and on for what you need to be ready for, but that doesn’t have to be tackled every single time you get ready for a session. Here is the process I go through to prep for my sessions, with tricks that help me make sure the heavy lifting is spread out and a little easier.
It may sound odd that the first step that I take in preparing for a session is to be prepared, but it is a very important one. I keep different campaigns in different folders, and I separate various document types. I keep arcs together and staple all the associated sheets when one finishes. This includes printouts, monsters, maps, and prep notes. Those arcs are kept in order so access is fairly simple and linear. Anything continuously helpful is kept on the other side of the folder along with session notes. Things like NPCs, calendars, gods, and organizations all can be found here, grouped together. Simply having an organized system makes things accessible during your prep and speeds things up.
Have Lists At Hand
The other part of being ready comes as lists of things. Have tables of names, places, denizens, and organizations handy. It may take some up-front work, but then there is no need to prep all potential encounters each session. Instead I am ready with these lists to avoid the effort of coming up with a lot of specifics for each session. Those details can fill themselves out later. I just make a note right on the sheet when I use one up so that I can add it to all the other notes, and so I don’t recycle the name again. I frequently update lists with footnotes about what they were used for, and I reprint those updated versions as needed. Then, for example, the list of names to use on the fly slowly turns into an NPC reference sheet.
Accidental Planning Is Best Planning
One of the biggest parts of my preparation is all the processes that happen on accident. There is a writer’s trick where you keep a notebook or note card with you at all times. When you see, hear, or think of something, you write it down. Whether it’s on a scrap piece of paper, in a notebook, or on my phone, I always write down my ideas. Some of the best ideas that I have had for campaigns don’t come to me while I’m planning. Instead, my subconscious has tackled the problem and lets me know, usually at a super inconvenient time. When that happens I’m thankful that I had that paper. Later, I compile those ideas somewhere or file them away where I can get to them during prep time.
Cleanup And Assessment
At this point, despite organization efforts I have a bit of clutter. The old arc may not yet be stapled together or the new one probably has sheets floating around. Notes could still be in pockets, on my phone, or at my desk. The key is to clean things up first. Re-organizing stuff is always the first step. I set aside what I don’t need, find what I do, and take a look at things while doing it. This serves as a reminder of what needs working on and subconsciously organizes those things in my head.
Once that is out of the way, I tackle prep by finishing my assessment of what has been going on. What happened last session? Did I make any notes for things to be figured out for this session? I’m notoriously bad at remembering that one, but assessing the campaign helps create a sort of waypoint for moving forward. It also sets a point that you can look back to. Every few sessions, in fact, I try to take notes on the game so far, or the arc so far, to really drive that remembrance home, and to give myself a cheat sheet.
“Actual” Prep Time
At this point I’ve done no prep for the upcoming session. Not technically anyways, but I am in a good situation to move forward. I take out notes, ideas, reference material, and a notebook. Most of the time I hand-write my prep notes, and generally speaking I don’t prep for each session specifically. Instead, I tend to prep for mini-arcs. I do this because the players always do things in a shorter or longer time than I anticipate. So prep might be a meeting with people, potential directions moving forward, and the initial stages of each of those. Or, it might be a festival and what happens before, during, and afterward. Sometimes it’s a more extensive arc with details that get filled in as the PCs make real decisions.
Regardless, I always start with the beginning. The things that happen first, the things I know are going to happen. Generally I group certain things together by what they are related to: an NPC, a location, or an event. Combat and noncombat encounters generally get their own grouping as well. Each of these has bullet point notes: feelings, goals, likelihoods, comments, knowledge, available wares, page references, names, etc. Then I spend time finding the right monsters and marking page numbers. If a map is needed, I will spend a good amount of time to make a map (I’m a perfectionist here).
Once all of that is done, however, the prep work and notes are taken from my notebook and moved into the campaign’s folder. Then I put it all away and completely ignore it, but we’re not done there, I still need to mentally prep.
Getting In The Zone
As a student I learned that studying the night before a test can be bad. Well, doing it right up until you go to sleep anyway. That’s how nothing sinks in. Prep for a game is the same way. Rush to do it the night before and you may end up doing more improv than you meant to. You might forget an important detail you meant to include, even if it is written down. It also doesn’t help to think too much about the session between prep and play. Letting my subconscious do that is something I try to facilitate.
I also need to get excited and energized. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes you’re just in a mood. That’s another reason I put it all away and ignore it. So I spend some time, if I can, listening to music or watching a stream or something like that. Something that helps me get my geek on, makes me want to just sit down and play D&D. Getting excited and ready to play is as much a part of prep as the actual story work!
But It’s Never Done
For me prep is never really done, it’s a continuous project whose goals change each time I play. Prep is staying organized and having backup solutions. I need to make sure I’m as mentally ready as my notes make me seem. The actual prep work just involves putting varying pieces together and making things make sense. Sure I could have tried to share the secrets of having all the information you need, what that information is and how to find it. Picking the right monsters, naming things, or having the perfect note style. But none of that really matters, when I prep. What really matters is keeping the insanity of my players and their goals in line with my world and the story I hope to help tell. For me, prep is all about keeping things in order between each wild ride and that means sharing how I go about that whirlwind. Actual session prep is only a small part!