As you might remember, I am very lazy. I generally prefer to invest as little as I can, but there’s a method to the lazy: we don’t want to have an unfun game. Just an efficient one.

Here’s the basic template for my prep, or in other words, the things I usually make sure to have before the game begins, so that I’ll be able to improvise and have something to build upon as we play. This list is personally-tailored, as every GM has their own strengths and weaknesses; generally speaking, it’s best to prepare solutions to your personal shortcoming, so you’ll be able to cover them during the game, and trampolines for your strengths, so you’ll be able to heighten their effectiveness.

Recommended further reading: Never Unprepared, from the magnificent Engine Publishing line of meta-gaming tools. Informative and useful, if a bit long to my taste.

  • List of NPC names: I can never come up with appropriate names for my NPCs, which is why I tend to just ask my players for some. If the atmosphere I’m aiming for is mystery or suspense, though, I prefer having a few names prepared, so the players aren’t sure if the NPC they’re talking to was already established in the adventure or just made up on the spot.
  • Unique voices: If there’s a new character I’m about to introduce, and it’s an important one, I might try out a few voices and facial expressions.
  • Appropriate presentation: How will I set up the 1st scene? What’s important, what’s the atmosphere I’m aiming for, in this session? How should I tell this, what’s the delivery going to be?
  • Furnishing action scenes: I believe combat arenas should be interesting, which is why I make sure to think about some possible decorations or features for the action scenes I’m planning for the coming session. I don’t need a lot, just to have a few ideas; if we’re currently in an old and muddy town, I just try to come up with 5-6 things that exist or might happen in such a town, to throw in when needed (a pig crossing the street; someone pouring filth from the 2nd floor; barrels of rainwater; mud puddles; thatched roofs)
  • Possible rewards: I tend to be careful, regarding rewards. Money and useful gear can become either repetitive (boring), too useful (overpowered), or both; non-material reward that doesn’t come into play later in the campaign might feel useless. For these reasons, I tend to be stingy and hand out only interesting rewards; this requires me to make sure beforehand that I have a few ideas about what might make them interesting. I look for magical abilities my players will enjoy, or background details about the world that could be brought to the forefront.
  • Possible complications: Something big is about to happen this session, or maybe it’s the other way around and nothing much is planned; in both cases, I should have a few complications ready. Hey, isn’t Aviv’s character’s protege a kind of a street urchin, that gets into trouble? What sort of troubles will she get to in the grand city of Altdorf? Hey, didn’t Dassi’s character used to live here, in the College of the Gold Order? Let’s read again the answer she sent a year ago, when I asked them about “pranks they did in their youth”, maybe it’ll come back to haunt her.

I don’t actually go through this list every time, I just tend to be aware of it. Sometimes I barely need anything, since we’re in the middle of a well-established part of a published adventure; other times things are so complicated I even need to write some of this stuff down before the session (I hate keeping notes, it’s messy! And on PAPER!) because I know that without it, it’s gonna be a pretty blaaggggggh session.