I ran across these three words randomly reading about how John Rogers uses notebooks to organize his life and plan things. In part of the thread he talks about how when planning his week/month he breaks it down into three questions: Must Do, Should Do, Could Do. He further explains he only puts 3-5 things in each, because otherwise he's making a To Do list not a plan.
Those words have stuck with me since. So much so it made me realize that with all the craziness in the world I forgot a Must (post for Monday! Sorry!). But it also got me thinking about how these questions in a sense are also a great way to organize preparing for your weekly/fortnightly/monthly session of gaming.
What do you need to do and have ready for your next game session? I've talked about this a bit before when I was reading The Lazy GM, but so much prep time is wasted doing non-essential stuff that doesn't actually help you with the core skeleton and structure for a session.
Remember, most sessions are 3-5 hours of play. In that 3-5 hours of play you're expressing a world and actions entirely by voice/text (and maybe some props) with 4-6 other people. This means anything involved is going to be a bit slower than in the real world. Fights are for sure going to slow that down.
With those restrictions in mind, what do you need to have ready for your next session? The bare bones minimum.
In my game for this Friday, I am currently running on Roll20 and my PCs are starting the session off in a combat we triggered at the end of last session. I need the battle map for that encounter, I need the NPCs/Monster stats for that fight. Finally, I need the victory/failure conditions for the encounter. Beyond that fight though what I need is a lot more vague. I need the key NPCs/notes for the plot line going on. But really that's it. That means that if all I have are those 4 things - a couple of which are only necessities because of how I've chosen to run this game, I could totally do Theater of the Mind in a pinch - I could run session.
Alright, now that I have my essentials out of the way, what things should I do? For game prep I consider this to be things that are high likeliness to come up. Things directly around what the PCs are doing, or things that the Players have said they want to do or get to as soon as they're done with the current thing. This can also be the first layer of 'dressing' you add to scenes and things of that nature.
For example, while I don't need to, I should review my setting notes before session so that I am fresh on the themes and issues I am trying to communicate. I should work out what is going on in the periphery around the PCs that is highly likely to impact them directly in the coming little bit. And I should have a quick sketch for what comes next after that fight with a victory or a defeat scenario.
Finally, what Could I do to make the session as good or prepared as possible? This is, I feel, where we can get into the things that sometimes bog down our planning. This is where you can do some extra world building that may never come up. This is where you can detail how dramatic and cool an entrance will be, the monologue a villain will give (if able), or work out neat areas and scenes going on for random catches if the PCs go in weird directions.
1-3 Things Per Tops
I know I'm saying this after having four "needs" in bold in the need section, but ultimately three of those are I need to be setup for the fight we're starting, but I broke it down. Remember, sessions are only 3-5 hours for the most part. If yours go longer, you may need more things but you should know that. The idea here isn't to bog yourself down but to plan and organize while leaving yourself plenty of room to pivot and improvise. Focus on the couple things you need to have a session, then a couple things you should prepare to make it a better session, and then a couple things you could do to give it a great shot at being a great session.
Be Honest About Your Strengths
The other thing here is to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses as a GM, and factor things in accordingly. For example, with L5R I could run encounters just off the fly without needing stat blocks or preparation. As such 'combat' stuff would never really be in my 'need' column to prepare unless it was a very specific fight (I flat out signified special danger for some fights by telling my PCs that an NPC had a fully built stat sheet) or was going to be the whole session (a mass combat.) However, in D&D 5e I don't have that ability. I feel really weird around building combat encounters, and as such they take more time. I don't feel safe just "winging" a combat encounter. I'm getting closer to that, but until then I lean more on my strengths (improving scenarios and plot threads) for session prep.
For me, a combat encounter setup goes into the Must, while the finer details for how a plot is going to move would be in Should or Could. For you it may be the opposite. The idea is to make sure you have the time for the things you need, and then the things that help most. But what takes you the most time - and is thus more likely a need - is something only you can know.
(We'll have a post tomorrow to make up for the missed Monday post. Sorry again. The world is wild.)