Recently, I gave a GM friend advice that she should be able to fit her entire scenario/session notes on a single note card. I’ve been playing this way for years, trying to boil my preparation down to the bare essentials. To help enforce my one card game prep methodology, I built a template!
The idea behind this template is that there are five key point that a GM (in my opinion) must have to be prepared for a scenario. Note that these key points are specific to the Game Master’s perspective. To the players, as the games is being played, the story unfolds in the typical Introduction, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, and Resolution format.
Name: Just a place for the name of your Scenario. Not critical by any means, but very helpful to have a pithy name to show what can be done.
Change: From a game prep perspective, I feel this is the most important element. This should be 1-2 short sentences stating what change will happen to the game world due to the events of this scenario. Some examples:
- The Ooka-ooka tribe will finally be able to harvest their fields now that those pesky kobolds are gone.
- NeoNET will be exposed for creating the CFD virus to the world, causing tremendous hits to their profits.
- Middleton High School will return to normal after the dopplegangers that have eaten and replaced the varsity cheerleading squad have been defeated.
- Azazoth the Horrid will be called from the Dungeon Dimensions and consume all human minds as a delicious snack.
Background: A place for GM seekrits! This is where you put what’s really going on. The big things the PCs don’t know at the beginning of the scenario. I keep this field small because it is super easy to overdo. Essentially, if it’s more than three sentences, it is overdone. A couple I’ve used:
- The kobolds pestering the Ooka-ooka tribe have been enslaved by the vengeful pineapple tree spirit. Dealing with the spirit directly, while sparing the kobolds will lead to a future alliance.
- NeoNET, in concert with Celyder, developed the CFD nanovirus as a means to healing a great dragon. But the virus got out of control! Now the nanovirus is taking over people in the NeoNET network and turning them into zombies.
- Dopplegangers have taken over the Varsity Cheerleading Squad! Their cheers consume the psychic energy from the crowd, most of which they eat, but some of which they feed to the team! What’s worse, the Coach knows all about it!
Hook: Much has been written about hooks. This should be a one sentence summary of what will get the players started towards your Change. Examples:
- The PC Nina Tinselbottom, of the Ooka-ooka tribe, had her grandfather kidnapped by local kobolds.
- The Shadowrunners are approached by a man named Mr. Johnson, who wants to pay them to break into a local NeoNET research facility
- The General Student Club notices that the Middleton basketball team is terrible during practice, but supernaturally good during actual games. Perhaps it’s dopplegangers!
Clues: This does not necessarily mean literal clues like a Scooby Doo mystery, though it could if you are running a mystery solving game. Clues in this context are things you have prepared to help players get from the Hook to the Climax while participating in your Change. They should be general reminders of where the PCs can get guidance about their next step. You could alternatively call these complications, as also enrich the story. I prefer the word Clues though, as it better delineates the intention of helping the PCs move the story.
Rather than isolating specific scenes, have a list of 2-3 clues. Here are examples of three clues from a recent Fate game:
- Pastor Mario knows that Gabriel has been using occult rituals. He has pictures of two pages of a book in Arabic. Translated, the pages make little sense, but seem to combine astrology with early brain surgery. Mario never turned Gabriel in because he knew about the Pastor’s secret…
- The local Autoduel gang, the Worgs, are currently being paid by Gabriel for protection of his survivalist compound. PCs can find this out by either investigating Gabriel’s finances, or stumbling into an ambush.
- Azazhoth’s hunger for flesh is witnessed when the party approaches the survivalist camp to find one or two cultists eating a live possum.
In the scenario, the Change is that Azazoth is called into the world. The Climax is a confrontation with Gabriel at his compound during the summoning ritual. You can see how each of the clues is designed to entice the players to move towards this climax.
Climax: Keep this pithy. The bulk of your writing should be in the Clues. Nearly all stories have a climax. In RPGs, this happens during a confrontation. Just one sentence is enough to remind you. Something like these:
- Invade the kobold’s lair, discover that they are enthralled by an evil forest spirit, and decide to battle the kobolds, the spirit driving them, or both.
- Come face to face with the great dragon Celyder, and try to get out of the meeting alive.
- Fight the doppleganger/cheerleaders during the Big Game against Central High.
My goal over the coming weeks to to create a number of these one-card scenarios and post them here for people to use. I particularly like the constraint of keeping these elements on one card. It helps me keep things from getting too complex, and thus unwieldy at the table. My experience has taught me that in role playing games a concise plot, executed well, far outperforms a deeply crafted plot that your players will inevitably throw to the winds.
If you’re interested, here is a PDF form of the above card you can fill out and print!
Story Based Prep – Fillable v1_1