Reprint: This article was originally published 4/18/2008
I write too much.
This is not a new or sudden revelation. I've known since college that I could fill a notebook with ideas when preparing for a night's game of Dungeons & Dragons. I might write 12,000 words to describe a three-story arc adventure, and use 1/4 of what I'd written. That’s grossly inefficient, but it was no big deal. I had the time, what I wrote would eventually get recycled into some other adventure, and even if it didn't, that was ok too. After all, it's about journey, not the destination right?
Except now I don't have the time. The hours I used to spend crafting my Dungeons & Dragons campaign are gone, devoured by two fun little monsters for whom quiet time is the villain and bed time the enemy. What I used to spend three weeknights putting together must now be accomplished in an hour, two if I'm lucky. My initial solution to the problem wasn't a solution at all: I simply stopped game mastering.
But while I like playing the game, I love game mastering more. The desire to keep writing up new scenarios to be tested and destroyed every Friday night remains strong, inspite of my lack of time. Four years after my daughter was born, I’ve come to realize that the goal is to do more with less, to get as much of the essential guts of the weekly adventure down on paper as I can, and fleshing everything else out on the fly.
Thus, the Three-Page Manifesto.
Save time and energy by creating role-playing game adventures limited to three pages or less of text.
Every adventure document follows a similar structure:
Title & Dates (Real world and game)
Just the facts. This gets recycled into the header of the wiki entry chronicling the saga.
Previous Session Recap (150-300 words)
A summary of what came before, recapping the last one or two adventures, and touching on any necessary plot lines. This reminds me of where we are in the story, and hopefully helps spark ideas about what to do with the next night’s adventure.
Adventure Synopsis (150-300 words):
An overview of what should (or rather, what might) happen in that night’s session. I took this idea directly from Dungeon Magazine, which used the same technique to introduce each of its adventures. This is a crucial focusing tool; it lets you do all the brainstorming about the night’s session upfront, rather than having the adventure form organically as you’re writing it. That may work for novels, but you can’t afford that kind of meandering, time-consuming approach when you’re trying to put an adventure together two hours before your players arrive.
Three to Five Encounter Summaries (250-400 words each)
These are either role-playing or combat encounters. Each entry quickly sketches out what’s supposed to happen. If I’m introducing an important NPC, I add some flavor text and quick role-playing notes. If it’s a scripted encounter, I break out things into bullet points. If it’s a combat episode, I jot down some notes on the environment, maybe some flavor text, and then toss in some statblocks. If I want to make sure we can finish the session in one night, then I cap the adventure at three encounters, otherwise I might go as high as five.
This diet puts me on target for somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,250 to 2,500 words, and about two to three pages, maybe three and a half if I’m running long.
I’ve used this approach for the last 3-4 adventures I’ve run, both for Dungeons & Dragons and for Mutants & Masterminds, and it’s worked very well. While there’s still pressure to get the adventure done on time, by using these guidelines I can focus on what needs to get done, rather than writing pages upon pages of background that sounds good in my head, but ultimately hinders, rather than helps, my efforts to be a geek dad and still be able to spend a game session or two a month game mastering.