I have a list of the topics that I intend to cover here at Campaign Mastery that I simply add to whenever I have an article idea. Sometimes when I look at the list, though, I don’t feel sufficiently inspired to write about any of them – then what should I do? I have a choice – I can either indulge myself by writing about something else, or I can be a professional, suck it up, and write about whatever topic is next on the list.

The first choice is nothing but sheerest self-indulgence, but I am the boss and sole employee here, so I have that prerogative. But the second choice has more interesting ramifications.

For a start, you can make the professional choice in an amateurish way. That means, to put it in the Australian vernacular, doing a half-assed job just because you didn’t feel like doing the job at all. But let’s assume that if you are professional enough to choose the “responsible” course, that you are also professionally skilled enough and proud enough that you will do your best with the subject, whether you feel like writing it or not – and certainly well enough that the lack of motivation is not apparent to the reader.

That then leads to the more difficult question – will the article nevertheless be negatively impacted simply because it will be missing the passion and spark of inspiration that elevates it from the routine to the exceptional? That’s a thornier question, isn’t it? But its a question, like the initial one posed, that impacts RPGs in many different ways, and that makes it worth looking at.

Inspiration vs. Perspiration

There are a lot of ways to look at the question, but ultimately they will all boil down to the difference between Inspiration and Perspiration. I find that half the battle can be won by applying the principles of top-down design, which I discussed last week, to the task. Breaking a task down into its constituent smaller tasks may be perspiration, but it gives inspiration a chance to find a foothold and then spread to the entire task. When I’m writing an article, or a book, I’ll start by taking the subject and listing the subjects to be covered in each section, as I described in One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post. That not only makes it less likely that I will miss something, enabling a comprehensive examination of the subject, but it provides me with a road map, a path from A to B that – hopefully – makes some sort of narrative sense. I employ the same approach when I’m creating adventures for my campaigns, or – for that matter – when creating the campaigns themselves. I employ it when creating characters, especially to decide how extensive an act of creation is required. I employ it when shopping. In fact, I use it all the time, translating it by means of a Priorities Checklist. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

Hobby vs. Industry

The opposite of professional isn’t artist, as implied by the discussion so far – it’s amateur.

Players and GMs of my acquaintance used to be astonished at the level of prep time that I would invest in my campaigns, often going without sleep in order to be ready for the next game session. In fact, on a few rare occasions, I was so tired from the game prep that I wasn’t in a fit condition to run the game. Fortunately I’ve always been a night owl, and able to go long periods without sleep – though that capacity has waned as I have grown older. Probably the most extreme example was in 1982, when a week without sleep created the fundamentals of the Campaign Background for my superheroes campaigns – game elements that are still in use today. On the 8th day of that week, I ran the first session of the new campaign for about 18 hours (plus breaks) – three or four adventures, back-to-back. And then slept for 32 hours straight. You can get a lot done in 170-odd hours, especially with inspiration on your side! Of course, these days it would take me a fraction of the time – back then I had to hand-write everything.

What they didn’t seem to realize at the time was that I had set myself a standard that matched or exceeded the standard of published game materials that I had seen for other games, and was doing what was necessary to live up to that standard. I never viewed this as “just a hobby”. Over the years, I’ve learned to compromise those standards just a little bit, that you don’t have to do it all at once or in advance. But the fact is that five out of six of the people that I knew back then, most of whom saw gaming as “just a hobby” are no longer gamers – they have set gaming aside in favor of other activities. I’m still here. That either means that I never grew up, or that I turned at least semi-pro – arrogant enough, in other words, that I think that people will pay to buy something that I have produced, and therefore that I can make/supplement my standard of living with my gaming activities.

Do you see yourself, and therefore your activities, as being part of a Hobby or as part of an Industry?

A hobbyist studies things because they are of interest, and won’t study something if it’s too hard, or too dull. A hobbyist may grow excited over their web-page’s ranking in a search engine, or the amount of traffic that their blog is getting, but their primary purpose with that webpage or blog is self-indulgence, so they won’t dig deeply into subjects like marketing and SEO and site security, they will just pick around the edges at the interesting bits. They won’t establish firm policies.

A Professional is part of an Industry, sets policies and establishes business practices and does their best to live up to them, tracks rankings and traffic regularly, studies subjects that are relevant to their business as intensively as possible even if they are difficult or dull, and applies a professional standard to what they are doing. They may enjoy what they are doing (I certainly do) but they take it seriously, just the same.

There is, of course, a middle ground in which a lot of us find ourselves – the semi-pro or published amateur. They may contribute to a professional work, or self-publish something they think is worthwhile, but they don’t see a way to make a living from doing this full-time. That opens the door to other lifestyle choices – there remains enough of the atmosphere of “hobby” that gaming, and writing about gaming, can be set aside if an opportunity or need arises. And there are always exceptions to general rules like these.

The danger of becoming too professional is that the passion for the activity can be lost, and once that enthusiasm is gone, you are reduced to a mere craftsman, or a hack writer, churning out product for the sake of churning out product. The danger of becoming too much the hobbyist is that self-indulgence and artistry can overwhelm any standard of completeness. Spend all week creating one fantastic setting or one NPC and invent the rest as you go along, for example. No matter how gifted you are at Improv, sooner or later that approach will lead to a crash-and-burn. And the hobbyist can too easily set the subject of their hobby aside. Neither extreme is all that conducive to longevity.

So, the very fact that there is a choice to be contemplated – getting back to the original question – is an indication of intended (if not actual) longevity within the gaming industry/blogosphere. The professional will pick the next item off the list of scheduled subjects and write about it, no matter what – and the amateur (or hobbyist, if you prefer) will automatically turn away from that list of no entry on it is singing to them at the time, and write about something else.

Craftsman vs. Artist

Equally, but less obviously, the opposite of artist isn’t professional – it’s craftsman.

A craftsman improves his skill and ability by a study of technique and by learning from their mistakes and failures – if they learn anything at all. There is no shame in being a skilled craftsman. An artist, on the other hand, is driven by innovation and creativity; they may never be as skilled as a top-line craftsman, but they will redefine what is possible and what is not, expanding the landscape of creativity for the less-innovative that follow.

It’s tempting to equate craftsmanship with professionalism and therefore artistry with the hobbyist or amateur. Certainly, the respective answers to the initial question posed would suggest such an association. But there is a fundamental difference: whilst professionalism and hobbyist occupy different extremes on a spectrum, with a middle ground, craftsmanship and artistry are not mutually exclusive. The greatest artists are also craftsmen within their profession, and vice-versa.

Nor are these distinctions to be made in isolation. Professionalism leads the craftsman to a more rigorous, comprehensive, and studious enhancement of their skillset than is possible to the hobbyist, while lending the artist a discipline that might otherwise be lacking. The hobbyist approach permits the craftsman to focus proficiency on a limited range of their craft, where the sheer enthusiasm of the hobbyist can transcend the limits of what has been done before and achieve artistry, while it provides the freedom from a sense of obligation and responsibility that can stifle artistry.

To function at their best, any creative occupation – including being a GM – needs to occupy the semi-pro middle ground, employing artistry where it comes naturally and craftsmanship in everything they do.

All of which seems to only muddy the ground in terms of the original question, and its subsequent corollary – how much should the writer, or artist, or GM, focus on a dogmatic plodding by schedule and how much should they ignore the schedule and embrace the potential for inspiration? The solution should embrace the discipline of the professional and still leave room for the artist to come out and play.

Its all about choices

Variations on this question have been around in RPG circles for many years. The question of how to be a better player is an example.

Is a better player someone who works at the craft of roleplaying, who studies the game materials and rulebooks and spends long hours refining the character, characterization, and modes of expression of their PC, but who is rigorously mechanical and dogmatic in their approach, never really bringing the character to life at the game table? Or is the better player a consummate actor who brings the character to life with regularity, if necessary limiting the scope of their characters to fit within their range, while never really embracing the craft, the mechanics, of the game? The temptation is to give the nod to the latter, simply because we tend to respect inspiration and genius more than competence – but I think that is selling the craftsman short, and not giving him the respect that he is due. I’d put them both up on the same pedestal and have them hang off each other to stay balanced. In other words, a poorly-executed brilliant idea is not inherently better than a well-executed workable idea. The brilliant idea has more potential – but it squanders that potential.

Which takes me back to the original question. Is it better to do a workmanlike job on the next article in the queue or to bring a spark of inspiration to something else, setting aside the scheduled article for another day? Assuming no other factors, and that both will be executed to the same degree of skill, the choice has to be the more inspired one – but it is a choice, and lets not hide from that fact.

Choices are nothing new. There have been choices made in the design, execution, and in the course of using, everything from novels to gamebooks to computer games – and to roleplaying games.

Either/Or or Not?

But there are still hidden assumptions to explore. The first is that it’s a black-and-white either/or choice. The second is that this choice has to be uniformly applied over the whole of a task. Both are false.

If there are relative degrees of artistry, and relative degrees of skill, then it’s no longer a question of one choice over another, it’s a question of doing the best job possible in the time available. It may be possible to do a competent but uninspired job as a first draft and save the real artistry for a second draft – if there’s time. And if a task can be broken into subtasks – and any task can – then the levels of artistry and skill required for a satisfactory result can be different from one element of the finished product to the next.

For any task, there will be essentials that must be completed to a minimum standard, and non-essentials that can be deferred or improvised as necessary. Making the right choices about how to go about a task – in this example, writing an entry to this blog and the choice of subject matter – is a Management Skill.

The Implications Of Limited Time

If it is accepted that there is not enough time to do everything to a standard of perfection, or as close to it as the individual can possibly achieve, then the choice of how well to execute each element of what lies before the author or GM or artist is also a management skill. In fact, if the task is properly defined, it’s the same management skill. It’s called Time Management and its something that a lot of people seem to struggle with. Especially GMs in terms of Game Prep.

The process that I use to manage my time, and especially to manage my Game Prep Time is a complex one. There’s an art to doing it well without spending a lot of time on monitoring and analysis – which may well be useful but it is unproductive dead time in terms of actually having what you need to run the game ready to go each week. And it’s a process that occasionally needs to be reviewed, especially if time starts pressing hard – which (if anyone has read the introduction to my Monday Articles for the last few weeks) it obviously is, at least in my case.

Since I have both the need and the inclination to carry out such a review, I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and talk about the basic process that I use, in the hope that other GMs out there will find it useful. This is my contribution to the art and science of Time Management.

Priorities Checklists: A Guide Through The Maze

Some people have likened the process of planning the use of one’s time to navigating a maze. While it may seem simple at first, there are all sorts of hidden traps and complications that must be avoided. I use a priorities checklist as my guide through this maze of choices. I then map those priorities to the available time.

So far, there isn’t a lot that’s new or original in that summation. That’s the basic approach to time management that has been used since Adam began playing with agriculture. Trust me – there are some innovations to come, buried in the detail.

1. Establish Definitions

The first step is to establish definitions for the different standards of work required. I use Summary, Minimum, Base Standard, Professional, and Artistry as the four standards that I work to.

  • Summaryis an idea in isolation.
  • Minimumis the bare minimum required to use the idea.
  • Base Standardis a normal execution of the idea. The minimum with a bit of polish and expansion, meeting an acceptable standard for personal use.
  • Professionalis the idea executed to a publishable standard so that someone else could use it. That requires considerable expansion over the Standard, which is for strictly personal use.
  • Artistryis the idea expanded, polished, illustrated and amplified, with frills and time spend applying whatever genius or inspiration one can produce. Deliberately looking for a spark of originality in the execution of the idea, and not being satisfied until you have it.

Let’s see how these apply to various facets of game prep:

  • Adventure Design
    Summary: A one sentence outline of the plot.
    Minimum: a breakdown of that one sentence into a step-by-step guide to what is supposed to happen.
    Base Standard: Add selected content to at least a minimum standard – flavor text, technical explanations, encounters, NPCs, Maps, Props, Research and Reference.
    Professional: Add all content to at least a normal standard and preferably a full pro standard.
    Artistry: Enhance all content with originality in every subitem. Include commentary, analysis, and thought-provoking concepts. The goal is to awe the players with genius, innovation, and creativity.
  • Flavor TextSummary: One or two key words.
    Minimum: A one-sentence description.
    Base Standard: A one-paragraph description.
    Professional: A more refined paragraph, with alternative perspectives as necessary. Everything needed to bring the description to life.
    Artistry: Poetic, lyrical, and literary embellishments embedded into the text without taking significantly more page space, and/or illustrations and/or props.
  • TechnicalitiesSummary: Mention the operating principle and fake it from that.
    Minimum: One-sentence description of the operating principles with any technobabble keywords.
    Base Standard: One paragraph description of the operating principles incorporating all needed technobabble. A note or two concerning any possible ramifications or consequences, especially if applied in general as technology.
    Professional: A page describing the operating principles, with technobabble, a one-paragraph history of how the operating principle was discovered, a paragraph explaining how it is employed and has affected various relevant social practices, industries, and management. Cross-checking to ensure that there are no inherent contradictions with the plot.
    Artistry: All of the above plus plausibility: graphs, pictures, formulae, etc.
  • EncountersSummary: Who/What and how many.
    Minimum: Add a page reference number to the relevant source material. Note any variations or differences.
    Base Standard: Where the encounter will take place, likely circumstances, flavor text to a minimum standard, notes for at least a minimum map and possibly even a standard map. Notes on which dungeon tiles etc to use and how to arrange them.
    Professional: Full stats, full flavor text, tactics, outcomes, variations, a map if necessary to at least a basic standard, how to vary the encounter based on party strength, a paragraph on any substantial campaign impact that the GM should be aware of.
    Artistry: All of the above plus professional standard map, and a discussion of any hidden layers of meaning/significance that can be exploited. Ways to enhance the encounter – suggested music, sound effects, props, staging, dialogue recorded by a voice actor or actress with appropriate accents (i.e. a third party). Ensuring that the encounter has relevance to the plot and discussion of how the different potential outcomes will alter that plot. Possibly Flowcharts. Oh, and everything to a higher standard. Plus ways to recycle/re-skin the encounter for use elsewhere. This is the standard I tried to achieve in the Lair descriptions in Assassin’s Amulet.
  • NPCsSummary: A name and a plot function. In a pinch, just one of the these.
    Minimum: Name, plot function, and a 1-line summary of personality. At least one point of uniqueness or distinctiveness.
    Base Standard: A paragraph of description, personality profile, objectives, any important stats or skills, any significant equipment, and how these are supposed to integrate into the plot. At least one point of uniqueness. Lately I’ve been including a character photograph or illustration most of the time, at least in the more modern games. At least a minimal character history.
    Professional: Standard, plus full stats and character history. Names of associated NPCs and the nature of the relationship. Ditto significant places or locations, with descriptions if not given elsewhere in the adventure. Usually, a photograph or illustration – absent that, a larger descriptive passage. Some notes on how to roleplay the character. Significant dialogue in text form.
    Artistry: All of the above. Professional artwork. Significant dialogue rendered by an appropriate voice actor. Notes on how to make the NPC memorable.

I could continue, but I think the point has been made.

2. List Tasks

If we’re talking about game prep, it’s usually necessary to at least outline the adventure to the minimum standard before a proper breakdown of the tasks can be made. Most of these will be of the who/where variety. If we’re talking about blog posts, a list of ideas is needed. A typical 1-line entry might read “Travel to the city Mint-Julep. City Guards at gates searching for AlphaThistle smugglers. Street Encounter. Watch Lieutenant. Accommodations. Innkeeper, barmaid, patrons. Show necromantic crystals to Temple Priest. Learn significance. Attack by Demons. Directed to Temple of Golgoth in Blubber for expert consultation.” This would synopsize the expected full day’s play. Each entry on this list generates a sublist of tasks:

  • Travel – Synopsis, Terrain, Weather, map.
  • Mint-Julep – Location, Description (distant), known facts, significant locations, significant inhabitants, rumors, main streets, districts, defenses, internal organization, Description (internal), politics & relationships, history, map.
  • City Guards – Organization, rank, commander, function, relationships, rumors, two specific NPCs – descriptions, stats, personalities, relationships, dialogue.
  • Gates at Mint-Julep – description, map.
  • AlphaThistle, AlphaThistle smuggling – Technical: description, source, effects, consequences/abuse, price, availability, restrictions, (in)famous smugglers, (in)famous users, rumors.
  • Street Encounter – Specific NPC – description, stats, personality, relationships, dialogue. Specific Location – description, locale, tactical considerations, map. Encounter specifics, tactics, objectives, significance.
  • Watch Lieutenant – Specific NPC – description, stats, personality, relationships, dialogue. Underlings – names, descriptions. Reaction to PCs.
  • Accommodations – Specific Location – description, locale, tactical considerations, map(s).
  • Innkeeper – Specific NPC – description, stats, personality, relationships, dialogue.
  • Barmaid – Specific NPC – description, stats, personality, relationships, dialogue.
  • Bar Patrons – Specific NPCs – descriptions, stats, personalities, relationships, dialogue.
  • Necromantic crystals – Technical: description, source, effects, consequences/abuse, price, availability, restrictions, rumors, Plot Significance.
  • Temple – Specific Location – description, locale, tactical considerations, map, significance residents.
  • Priest – Deity? Specific NPC – description, stats, personality, relationships, dialogue.
  • Demons – Type? Numbers? Leader? Purpose? Encounter specifics, tactics, objectives.
  • Golgoth – Deity NPC – description, portfolio, forms of worship, ceremonial role, reputation, personality, relationships, rumors, legends, dialogue. Stats? Plot Significance.
  • Blubber – Location, Description (distant), known facts, significant locations, significant inhabitants, rumors, main streets, districts, defenses, internal organization, Description (internal), politics & relationships, history, map.
  • Expert – Specific NPC – description, rumors, relationships. More next session.

A week? You would be lucky to get through all of that in six months! I count 138 paragraphs and at least 6 maps – and that’s counting the Bar Patrons as a single entity. It could easily be 150 or 160 paragraphs. At ten minutes each, that would take around 27 hours to get through – a 3- or 4-day week of full-time effort, on top of any regular job, TV, etc. And the maps.

Not likely to happen. And ten minutes is very much a moderate estimate – you could easily spend several hours on just one item listed. Creating a fully-fleshed out city in a day? Even that seems faster than is likely. On the other hand, some of those items could take only a minute or so – at least to do to a minimum standard.

That’s why time management is such an essential, and why GMs sometimes have trouble with it.

3. Prioritize Tasks – essentials, foundations, infrastructure, and superstructure

So it’s time to make sense of that long, long, list. I categorize tasks into the four types listed in the title of this subsection.

  • Essentials are things that are necessary, that I have to have in at least some form. I can improv my way around most things, so there aren’t many things that go into this category, but there are also a few items that I know are much, much better if I don’t improvise them, so they also go into this category.
  • Foundations are things that may not be necessary, but that I will get a lot of mileage out of. Places that I expect the PCs to return to, or NPCs that they will encounter again in the future.
  • The Infrastructure category is reserved for things that are neither immediately essential nor a foundation piece of the campaign, but that will have recurring significance. Organizations and Politics, Unique ideas such as “AlphaThistle” and “Necromantic Crystals” and the deity Golgoth. These are things that would normally be low priority but that will repay any time invested into them time and time again. These are items that it is important to get right the first time.
  • Superstructure is everything else. It’s material that might be nice to have, but that can be improvised around, especially if I find the time to craft a little stage direction.
4. Format of Four

Take a sheet of paper and turn it sideways. Divide it into 4 equal columns and head each with the 4 categories. Work through the list of adventure elements – not the longer sublist of tasks, placing each item in its appropriate category. These entries all refer to work to be done to the Minimum Standard.

5. The Essentials

You may notice that I have made no attempt to schedule or control my time expenditure at this point. Nor is that about to change – not yet, anyway. Before I even think about worrying about scheduling, I do every Essential item to a minimum-standard, crossing them off the list as I do so. On a big adventure, like the example shown (which has two cities in it), that might take an hour; most of the time, it will take under half that. Remember what Minimum Standard is – the barest minimum needed to be able to use the item in play. It’s something better than Summary, but it’s strictly limited. Using the improv techniques that I’ve outlined from time to time under the heading “By the seat of your pants”, that’s a very low standard to meet; nevertheless, once it has been achieved then I have also achieved the absolute minimum needed for play. Only then do I worry about time and the management of it.

The equivalent in terms of Blog postings is, “Have I given someone a commitment that article X will be published on this date? Are there promotional campaigns or subsequent articles that relying on it? Is there a deadline that has to be met?” If the answer to any of those three questions is yes, then I have to turn professional and do the best job I can at the time. Only if the answer is no to all three can I set the schedule aside and choose the topic that I’m finding more interesting on the date concerned.

And it’s the same thing when I go shopping. Buy the bare minimum essentials first – then I can think about luxuries.

6. Extend the Checklist

The next step is to reappraise the Essentials that have just been crossed off the list. Draw a horizontal line across the page beneath the last item on the list. This divides the page into 8 areas, at least four of which are blank and at least one of which has been completed (the one in the top left). For each of those essentials, how high a priority should a refined version – to Base standard – be?

This is where the power of the system begins to show itself. It’s fairly probable that some of the Essentials to be upgraded will fall into the first, second, or fourth categories, and some may even fall into the third. Instead of being all concentrated together, in other words, they have now become distributed across all four categories. What’s more, there is a somewhat inobvious order of priority – it’s 1,3,2,4 across, and do each row before starting a new one. (Strictly speaking, it should be 1,2,3,4, but because items in the “Infrastructure” category yield game benefits for even longer than the items in the “Foundations” category, they get a bump up the priority ladder.

7. The Process

That, then is the process: Do each item in each box, in the order specified by priority, to the required standard. Cross them off, then reappraise and relist each one at a new priority for the next highest standard.

Extending the table to its full size gives something like the example shown.

  • Do box 1. Relist items in boxes 2, 12, 7, or 17.
  • Do box 5. Relist items in boxes 1, 11, 6, or 16.
  • Do anything added to box 1. Relist items in 2, 12, 7, or 17.
  • Do box 10. Relist items in boxes 1, 11, 6, or 16.
  • Do anything added to box 1. Relist items in 2, 12, 7, or 17.
  • Do box 15. Relist items in boxes 1, 11, 6, or 16. That completes the entire top row.
  • Do anything added to box 1. Relist items in 2, 12, 7, or 17. That completes that box, once and for all.
  • Do box 6. Relist items in boxes 2, 12, 7, or 17.
  • Do box 11. Relist items in boxes 2, 12, 7, or 17.
  • Do box 16. Relist items in boxes 2, 12, 7, or 17.
  • Do box 2. Relist items in boxes 3, 13, 8, or 18.
  • Do box 7. Relist items in boxes 3, 13, 8, or 18.
  • Do box 12. Relist items in boxes 3, 13, 8, or 18.
  • Do box 17. Relist items in boxes 3, 13, 8, or 18.

… and so on.

This sorts items into priority sequence as you go, prioritizes essentials, then long-term assets, then reusable assets, and lastly nice-to-haves.

Note that you don’t HAVE to relist an item if you don’t think you’re going to need it to the next standard up the hierarchy.

Sooner or later, you will either run out of time, or run out of things that need doing. Any remaining time is yours to expend as you see fit.

The 40:40:20:10 rule

This is more commonly known as the 80:20 rule, which states as a general principle of time management that 80% of the work requires 20% of the total time required, with the other 20% of the work requiring the remaining 80%. I’ve also heard it expressed as 75:25, 70:30 and 90:10. My corollary to this rule is that half of the 80% of work is not actually needed, anyway, at least not when it comes to RPG prep, and this half only takes half as long as the other half of the 80%, or 10% of the time.

The system of task allocation I have described above completes a flat 40% of the total work to a summary standard or minimum standard, then selectively targets the remaining time – however much it might actually be – in taking items up to Base Standard. It gets maximum return for the initial 10% of the total time required to do everything and then pinpoints the most productive way to expend whatever is left.

8. Budgeted Time

Sometimes, I know that a task is going to take longer than normal. Sometimes I know it will be much faster than most. It’s relatively easy to make allowances, shuffling slow items down the priority list for greater net productivity, and fast-tracking items that will take substantially less time.

To find out how much time we’re allowing for a standard task, count up the number of tasks. Divide the total time available by that task-count, and multiply by 60% (I’ll explain that in a minute). Then round down. That’s how long you have to complete the average task on the list. (If I have 6 hours prep time, that works out over 18 items to be 12 minutes each).

The average task has 160 (total subtasks) / 18 (total tasks) = roughly 9 tasks. So anything with 18 or more is significantly longer, and anything with 4 or less is significantly shorter. But what if a subtask is a map, illustration or prop that is going to take substantially longer than the 90 seconds or so per subtask that is the average available? Take it out and list it as a separate item. That means that you’ll at least get most of that task done before time runs out.

If a task is going to take substantially less time than average, move it up a row, but leave it in the same column. indicate the difference in target standard with an abbreviation appended to the title. In the case of our example, several of the tasks fall into the faster-than-most category, including – once the map is excluded – the gatehouse at Mint-Julep. “Travel” and “Expert” are others. So “Travel” might be listed as “Expert (Min)” and listed in the Summary row instead of where we would expect to find it.

If a task is going to take substantially longer than average, it becomes important to estimate HOW much longer it is going to take. Every second doubling moves it down a row, every odd doubling moves it into one column lower in priority. So, if a map is going to take 90 minutes, and our task standard is 12 minutes, that’s 12×2=24 (1 doubling); 24×2=48 (two doublings); 48×2=96 (three doublings). So up across two columns (1 and 3) and down 1 row (even doubling).

The exception is when that task is initially listed as an Essential. It doesn’t budge from box 1 in this instance.

  • If the task was originally in box 1, the extracted subtask moves to box 6 and then to box 11, then down one to box 12. Except that it doesn’t move from box 1, because that tags its priority as an essential.
  • If the task was originally in box 5, the extracted subtask moves to box 10 and then 15, and then down a row to box 16.
  • If the task was originally in box 10, the subtask moves to box 15 and then to box 1 (lowest number of the next row), and then down a row to box 2.

…and so on. The net effect is to lower the priority of the subtask to a row that is more commensurate with the time that it is going to take, but to prioritize it within the box in question to at least some extent, because it will be amongst the first things listed there.

9. Allowance for Inspiration

I said that I would explain that 60%. Well, half of the remainder (roughly 20% of the total time available) is set aside as Inspiration Allowance. If you’re working on a minimal description and get a really cool idea for the personality, or the appearance, or a magic item, or whatever, this affords a limited amount of time to at least make some notes on the idea. It probably won’t be enough to fully develop it, unless you want to risk shooting your whole allowance in your first breath.

If I’ve got 6 hours allocated for game prep, 20% of that is 72 minutes. I’ll normally take notes on the idea (probably only using up a couple of minutes of that time) and list further development of the item as an Infrastructure item in the appropriate row. Which means I’ll get to it If I get time.

10. Contingency Time

The remaining 20% is contingency time – an allowance for delays, mistakes, distractions, or foolish optimism. It’s probably not enough to fully protect from any of these, but its better than nothing. At the end of the development, if there’s enough time, I can come back to it.

The press of time

Knowing that you only have X minutes – in the case of the example, 12 – to get em>something down on paper has a salutary impact on time wastage. you don’t let yourself get sucked into wasting time on detailed non-essentials; instead, you’ll hit the high points and keep going. As a result, working in this fashion is usually a lot more efficient than simply carrying out the task through to standard Y – whatever that happens to be set as – would actually be. So you are more likely to find the time in prep to make those little touches that elevate an adventure than you would otherwise be.

“I’ve got an hour to work on game prep, I can afford 5 minutes on this” is a far easier sales pitch to oneself than “I’ve got 7 minutes to get this part of game prep done, I can afford 5 minutes on a side-issue”.

Subdivided tasks

When relisting a task, I will often subdivide it into subtasks and list those as having different priorities. Knowing that the poor quarter starts at Falchion Street (main thoroughfares) is probably less useful than knowing that the population are prejudiced against Elves following a misunderstanding in a war 20 years ago (History).

11. Dependencies

Another benefit of this approach is that when one task is dependant on the completion of another, at least some work has been done on the dependency. This is usually enough to get on with the dependant task, making additional notes as necessary regarding the parent task. The focus is on doing just enough to get on with things and not using up all the available time polishing one item.

But all this takes time

Yes it does. It took a good 30 minutes or more to break the task list in the example down into subtasks, and it will take time prioritizing and relisting tasks. Just a few seconds per item, but these can add up. This has been allowed for in various ways within the process:

  • Available prep time is not measured until AFTER the list of subtasks is generated and the initial set-up of the table, AND the minimum-level prep on the essentials is done. It’s not so much how much time you have available for game prep, it’s how much you have left after doing what absolutely has to be done.
  • In allocating time units for tasks, the time is rounded down. This leaves a few seconds here and there to consume in management tasks.
  • Managed time is far more efficiently used than unmanaged time. Trust me – you will get more done in less time than it would have taken to achieve satisfactory prep if your time was unmanaged.
  • Finally, whatever management overheads remain can be soaked up by the contingency allowance.

So don’t be scared of the time aspect of actually managing your time.

On A wing and a prayer

I also want to emphasize that it’s a lot easier to improv if you have at least some basic notes to work from. I’ve been able to run entire adventures based on nothing but the task list. Again, I commend the By The Seat Of Your Pants series to your attention if you want some hints on how to cope with this lack of prep:

The Accumulation of Capital Improvements: +N to Longevity

Think about this for a moment. Ten minutes a day spent on developing campaign resources and reference material for 2 years equals 7300 minutes which is over 121 hours or 5 days straight. Or more than three weeks of nine-to-five effort.

Two hours a week for five years equals about 3,650 hours, or 152 days straight, 24/7 – or about three months of 9-to-5 work.

An hour a day for 20 years – about the average I’ve put in on my Fumanor campaigns – is about 7305 hours, or getting close to a year of continuous 24/7 effort, or about three and a half years working on it as a nine-to-five job.

Some people have privately expressed awe at the depth and sheer quantity of material and background that I have been making available in the Monday series on Orcs and Elves. Including downloads, but not counting the different versions of the downloads, it now totals about 76,000 words or 152 pages of text – with more than 16000 additional words to go out next week. It’s analyses like those offered above that explain how it’s possible to accumulate such totals. If I were to add up all the material done for my Superhero Campaign, it would easily top 3000 pages, or one and a half million words – not counting the articles here at Campaign Mastery.

Time spent working on your campaign’s concepts and deep background is like investing in capital improvements for your campaign. They not only add up to ridiculous totals in a surprisingly short span of time, they cross-pollinate. It gets easier to do more because you have more original material to draw apon, and because you’ve gotten into the habit.

I want to make this point in another way, before I move on: You have two months to prepare a new campaign. How many hours a day do you have to expend to get to a total equivalent to one full working week – 40 hours (for convenience)? Two months is a smidgen below 9 weeks of 7 days each, or 63 days. Call it 60 days. The answer: just 40 minutes a day gets you a working week every two months. Or six working weeks a year. Or more than a year’s worth in a decade. People tell me they don’t have time to do campaign prep, and I have trouble accepting it.

Of course, if you want truly obscene numbers, apply the minimum wage wherever you are to those numbers of hours, and you will gain some appreciation of just how valuable your campaign prep is. Here in Australia, the minimum is a bit over $20 and hour. So 7305 hours invested puts the value of the Campaign at approaching A$150,000. Given the current exchange rates, it would top the US$150K mark easily. And that’s without spending one cent on it.


I use a similar prioritization approach to everything that I do. Game Prep. Writing. Shopping. TV viewing. Holiday Planning. Why? Because it works, and helps keep me organized. So if game prep is a problem for you – or you simply want more time to spend on it – try applying some basic Time Management to your prep activities. The results can be breathtaking.

Choices. We all make them. One of the keys to success is not to make them blindly.

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