Last updated on September 11, 2020
When I was in the 8th grade I was in a math seminar. In the afternoon, they had a team competition to build the largest free-standing towers from yarn and straws. Our team decided we needed 8-inch yarn lengths and we all set to work cutting out our own lengths of yarn. We each took turns grabbing for the rulers and scissors measuring out our own yarn and adding it to our supply pile. Building the tower seemed fun at first, but it hectic and it was taking forever to get our yarn cut. Just as we got the ruler lined up to cut our piece, someone took the scissors away. Time was running out and we hadn’t even started build the tower.
Suddenly, an idea hit me. I asked for the ruler and taped off 8 inches on the table. We could now use that to measure the yarn without needing the ruler. We could even have one person lay out the yarn and another cut it. It worked a lot better than our first idea. With a shift in what we were doing, we had a streamlined template that made the process quick and easy. Almost immediately we stopped wasting time on the materials and got to focus on actually building the tower.
Prepping for Prep
Our RPG prep can sometimes be similar to the yarn situation. We can find ourselves spending a lot of time scrambling around with materials without actually making progress. Preparing is supposed to make our play sessions better. There’s debate all over giving their opinions on how much to prep, how long, and to what ends. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much time and energy you spend preparing, your players only really care about the quality of the session. Just like at the math seminar, we weren’t judged on how long it took to cut out the yarn, just on the quality of the finished project. To get the most out of our prep, we need a template to streamline the process so we can focus on the things that really matter.
In RPGs, preparing can be tricky. You can’t know exactly what will happen at the table, that’s part of the draw of the game. If you try to prepare for every anticipated action you’ll run out of time, and probably not use a lot of the prep you are building anyway. However, as you play, you find there are patterns. Your players will be drawn to a certain play style, and you’ll find situations that work well for your table. These patterns tell you what is important to prep. If you collect these patterns into a structure, you get a template that describes the kind of preparation that works for your group.
Fundamentally, a template is a process that outlines the things that need to be done to deliver on something you want. By taking that step back, you can identify the things you absolutely need to prep for to deliver on a consistent and engaging session.
When built correctly, templates are like a best friend. Your templates will be there for you. They channel your creative genius when you’re riding high on inspiration. They focus you and keep you moving when your wandering mind stalls. They keep you consistent and accountable to what you know works. You need templates to get the most out of your RPG Prep.
Return on Investments
Building a template on top of your standard prep takes time though. Is it worth it then, putting energy into a structure 2 levels removed from the actual game? There’s actually an equation used in engineering that illustrates the concept of a template. The Return on Investment, or ROI, equation calculates the profitability of a project or venture as a percentage gain of the efforts invested. If the ROI is greater than 1, or 100%, then you made a profit on your investment. Here’s the equation.
We can extend this concept to prepping RPGs. Let’s assume profits gained represents the overall fulfillment generated at the table. We define the daily costs as the prepping investment made before each session, then call any structure developments (such as creating templates), the capital costs. Here’s what it looks like now.
Enhancing your Experience
I know measuring the “Fulfillment at Table” is subjective, but it’s a real phenomenon. Everyone, GMs and players, can do so much with their time, that there is a gigantic opportunity cost to engage in an RPG. Our time is precious. I want to be sure every time someone sits down at my table, they get an experience equivalent to, or better than, that of a dinner and a movie. While everyone can create an amazing session with little to no prep once in a while, a template can elevate the consistency and quality of a session in the long term.
The structure in a template is built on the trends you notice make the game better. You don’t have to wonder if spending extra time getting clever names is worth it, you know your players love it and it gives them a chance to engage with unique and complex characters. Your template is tailor made from your experience. You build in the features that help you consistently invest in the preparation that brings the most satisfaction and depth to your players’ games.
Templates also offers the chance to experiment with the architecture of the central experience on a systemic level. By playing with the key components to focus on, you can explore depth in different areas, while maintaining the features your players love. Maybe including a visual flourish or personalized weapon can engage the social players in combat more. Perhaps ensuring you have smell based descriptions in your locations can transport your players deeper into the experience. Each feature can be easily used in your template to test what aspects of your preparation bring the greatest improvement to your game.
Passing the Breakeven Point
Looking at the equation again, after the initial investment into a template, we can actually save time, on top of standardizing the quality of our games. A good template automates the decision making that goes into your preparation.
Say you spend 1 hour putting together a template on the things needed to prep for a compelling session. When you start using it, you find it saves 10 minutes each time you prep. After 6 sessions, you pass the breakeven point and the template is now giving you back time, without sacrificing quality.
Personalizing with Templates
Utilizing a structured template can actually enhance the freedom and personalization of your game. The most effective templates are tailored to the GM to compliment their strengths, shore up their weaknesses, and deliver exhilarating games for their players. You can unify an entire theme across multiple encounters in an adventure through templates. Then, you can personalize each individual scenario to flex your creative artistry.
Templates in my Prep
I wanted to explore building a new template, from scratch, for the one-shots I was running for the convention. Since convention games are for groups I haven’t played with before, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look into the way I put together a template.
I began with my library of notes I’ve accumulated over the years from big names in RPG GM advice across the internet. I selected a small number of core components I wanted for my game.
Each scenario needed a central conflict, a core idea, and things to interact with. Characters needed unique names. Clues leading from one location to another needed to be distinct, formalized, and organized to be able to adjust to new players on the fly.
The template below is what I came up with when my module was finished. It started out at 3 pages, but as I engaged with the story, I realized only a few core features were critical to the experience. Through iteration, I built the following template
My Ravnica One-Shot Template
- Dramatic Question: What uncertain event will the heroes try to accomplish during this scene?
- Central Conflict: What are the major parties/ideologies at war in the scene?
- Core Theme: When designing the scenario, what ideas to I want to convey to the players
- NPC List: here I list all the major NPCs. I give the following data in 1-3 lines.
- Name, race, and profession
- Real world/literature analog I can keep in my head while roleplaying. Sometimes I can replace this with character quirks if I have a strong enough idea in my head.
- 2-3 sensory/Physical traits
- 3-5 words describing their mood and personality
- A short sentence about what they care about and what they fear, etc.
- A short sentence on the way they interact with any key story elements.
- A slogan, fidget, or mannerism I can use to hook the personality to.
- Location: I describe the location using 3 sensory traits, 3 words describing the mood, and any critical features such as landmarks, hostile enemies, or other mechanically relevant details.
- Clues/Features: Depending on the type of scenario, this section outlines the things the players can interact with while exploring the setting. This involved clues they can gather, ways to leave the area, and things to do to interact with the core theme and resolve the central conflict.
- Detailed Timeline: This included a step by step guide on the sequencing and triggers associated with a time sensitive event.
Using the Template
Starting with something, even if it was an unusable 3 pages, was key. I used the template to build the first scenario, then assessed what was important. With the completion of each of the 5 scenes, I removed unnecessary parts and emphasized others. It’s not perfect, but it met my needs, through it I gained clarity on the experience I wanted to provided to my players. I got to dig deep into themes without fear of losing it at the table. I got to focus on the names, sensory descriptions, and details to enhance my theme. It also helped me collect the key clues needed to ensure the story kept moving. Essentially, the template gave my preparation enough structure to work with all of the improvisations and choices the players provided.
Try it Out
The best template is a high-mileage, adventure specific, and highly personalized instrument. A template that puts in work is versatile, easy to use, and effective. Taking the time to build one yourself focuses your prep, saves time, and elevates the quality of your sessions. By taking the time to build and use mine, I was able to provide an authentic and fleshed out world for my players to play with and enjoy. Try out building a template for your next session prep. See what it can do for you, and let me know how it affected your prep and your game.