The Process of Prep – Three Stages

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about how I tend to break down prep for a new one-shot game. I’ve come to think that there’s a fairly common process that produces the best results, and when I don’t follow it I don’t end up with a convincing finished product. This usually means that my creative juices fizzle out and I end up wasting whatever time I’ve put into the project already. So, here are the three stages:

1: Cogitation

This is usually done in an armchair or sofa, with a cup of tea (or something stronger) and some source material – a supplement or reference book, or even the RPG rules I’m using. I spend most of my time here reading and thinking, and avoid making too many notes, but I do sometimes jot things down if I can’t remember links. These are always pretty rough, and usually on whatever scrap paper is to hand.

For simple settings or areas, it’ll just be subheadings and bullet points. When I ran Vampire Dark Ages set in Constantinople, the labyrinthine factions of that city led to a mind map over an A4 sheet that laid out everything. Either way, this is something I do with a pen or pencil, never on a laptop or tablet.

2: Imagination

Following the first stage, I’m ready to actually get an idea of the one-shot and what it will involve. This is usually done at my desk, or dining table, with a notepad and pen. I’ll look at, and think about, my stage 1 prep and try as early as possible to constrain what the game will be about – even if that’s just one monster, NPC, or area I want to feature.

In a game of Ironclaw I’m half way through prep for, it was a rumour of a buried sword in some dangerous swamps; in an Eclipse Phase game I ran at the Furnace convention a few years back, it was the conceit that all the PCS would shift morphs half way through the session into combat-ready synthetic bodies.

Once the constraints are set, I sketch out areas, encounters, and possible threads, writing them down into the notebook. This stage is written neatly, and in one of several notebooks; where stage one is often scruffy, this is neat, and sometimes colour-coded. These are notes that I save and look at again.

I also sketch out what I want my pregens to look like at this stage, so I can make them on autopilot in stage 3.

3: Preparation

This is when the laptop comes out. I take all the stuff from stage 2 and try and work out how it interacts with the system. This part can feel like the heavy lifting, so I try to have done all the creative work first so I’m just building with system now. Obviously with some systems this is easier than others, and it’s independent of the complexity of the system; 13th Age, for example, is a very crunchy system that gives lots of support to make this stage easier.

I’ll make pregens here, usually last, and then do a quick stress test if there’s time that all of them have plenty of stuff to do in each scene, and modify them if necessary.

I’ve found that by breaking down my prep into these three stages, I stand a much better chance of completing my prep to the point where I have a finished one shot ready to go. What are your creative methods?

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