GM Advice: 7 Tips to Help You Prep Faster and Easier

When you a prepare for your next session do you practise “salami tactics?” (Hint – this doesn’t mean you beat your player with Italian sausages…)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


At first glance, a GM’s job is an intimidating, never-ending procession of time-consuming tasks. World building, stat block designing, dungeon preparing, session organising and more are all big jobs. Viewed as a whole, a GM’s task list can seem insurmountable.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The following strategies can help you never fail to prepare again.

  • Schedule Time: In conjunction with working in short bursts (see the next point) I also schedule time in my diary, around my family and work, to slave away on my campaign. Because it’s in my diary, I rarely get double booked.
  • Work In Short Bursts: I’m a busy chap and often I can’t block out three-hour blocks to slave away at my campaign. Instead, I work when I can. This might translate to ten minutes sorting out figures while my computer backs up or 30 minutes spent working on particular stat blocks and encounters. It I have a list of things to achieve (see “Make Lists”) I don’t waste a moment wondering what I’ve got to do.
  • Make Lists: I’m a huge fan of lists. They promote organisation and enable efficient working. For example, when I start to prepare a module the first thing I do is go through and make a list of stat blocks and figures I’m going to need. This makes searching through my figures boxes and stat block archive much easier and quicker.
  • Use Salami Tactics: By managing tasks effectively and cutting each individual job down into small bite-sized chunks a GM can quickly and effectively chip away at his preparation. I practise the art of incremental preparation (or “salami tactics” as I once heard it called). This means instead of setting myself gigantic tasks such as, “read and prepare a 32-page module” I work on a series of smaller, easier to achieve objectives that as a whole comprise the bigger, more complex task. I find this much easier and far less intimidating to do.
  • “Steal” What You Can: There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking elements of published adventures and campaign sourcebooks and making them your own. Maps, stat blocks, treasures and even whole encounters can be lifted wholesale, tweaked and then dropped into your own campaign. After all, for example, why design a gnoll fighter’s stat block when you’ve probably already got several examples in your gaming library?
  • Design Only What You Must: For me, design is beguiling. I’d love to spend a day designing loads of background information for my Borderland of Adventure campaign, but likely a lot of that time would ultimately be wasted. If the PCs are likely never going to visit a certain town or city, why bother designing it? Instead, I focus on only the parts with which the PCs will likely interact.
  • Prepare Only What You Must: The same is true for preparation. Sure, it would be nice to be able to sit down and prepare an entire module, but for many of us real life precludes such activity. Instead, when you prepare an adventure only work on the bits the party will reach. Of course, you need to know what is going on so reading the background, introduction and conclusion as well as any other relevant text is a great start. When it comes to actual encounters, though, I only tend to stay a session or two ahead of the players. Preparing the whole adventure ahead of time is pointless (assuming you can predict where the PCs will go next).

Help Fellow GMs

Do you have any other tips for incremental preparation to make a GM’s life easier? If you do, why not leave them in the comments and help your fellow GMs prepare better and prepare faster!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

8 thoughts on “GM Advice: 7 Tips to Help You Prep Faster and Easier”

  1. Some tips for organization…
    Ever read Agatha Christie murder mysteries? At the beginning of most of her books she has a listing of characters with a one or two line synopsis of each character that usually included a leading statement to make you wonder if they could be the guilty party. Use this to your advantage in gaming. I highly suggest spreadsheets, nothing elaborate. Personally I have four columns…the name of the character, notes, source, and then my one line synopsis….Example:
    Name GM Notes Source Synopsis
    Nevant The Assassin! Self Created Owner of Chess club, he knows everyone’s strategies
    Copy your sheet onto the 2nd page and remove the two middle columns. Now as you go you can sort your NPC’s alphabetically while continually adding to them. You also have a handy source document you can share with your players. The other nice benefit is less lost time trying to explain fantasy name spellings and or dealing with a players notes on a NPC being spelled differently from your own. You also have a nice handy list of your secret notes vs what the PC’s and general public know. As the game goes along your players can add notes to the “page 2” version. This really helps me keep track of what the players know versus what I know.
    Another tip for running consistent NPC’s is keeping one simple question in mind for every single one.
    What’s his/her/its problem?
    This really helps me stay on track with NPCs even after their problems change. I’m just trying to remember one thing, the problem that character has, also called their motivation. Even the most complex of motivations is pretty easy to decide what that NPC will do in a given situation but more importantly it allows me to maintain consistency with those characters actions.

  2. ive started to use the pomodoro technique for prep, as i tend to over engineer everything, and it keeps me more on track

  3. Your last point ,”Prepare Only What You Must”, has been a great guideline for me. Instead of trying to get EVERYTHING done before the first session, only preparing what I will actually need has really freed up my time. Thanks!

  4. Great article! Though, I’m not sure why anyone would actually write out stat blocks, when there are so many books filled with them. If I want to create a new monster, I will find one in the monster manual that is similar and just change the description. I can usually do this right at the table.

  5. Since picking up 5e I have been running a number of the hardcover adventures. I enjoy the storylines and they have been really good so far.

    To prepare I have started making a spread sheet that has 3 parts.

    1. Encounter summary, this includes xp, and treasure. Usually only 1 line per room or encounter.

    2. Encounter monsters with hit points, with space below to run the encounter. This about 15 per row and 5 rows per page. I go back and forth between rolling hp and using the listed hp.

    3. The last page are tent cards I designed to go on my dm screen for initiative order. These tent cards have attacks, damage, ac, and initiative. I pre roll initiative for each encounter and write it on the card.

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