A few months ago, I started noticing a funny thing at the virtual table in my D&D 5e sessions: the ones I prep the least turn out to be our most fun and engaging. Even if I only manage to squeeze in 1-2 hours of prep, we don’t lose anything. In fact, when I prepare less, we get our most interesting worldbuilding and storytelling moments.
Not only that, but the most heavily prepped sessions often fall flat. They have their moments, but they take forever. Even though my players are too kind to say so, the sessions feel forced and clunky. Rather than engaging with my players’ choices, I end up grabbing their choices by the throat and cramming them into my micromanaged little world.
The flipside of micromanagement is “chaos management”—prepping nothing and winging it. Look, if you’re into that level of constant improv, more power to you. But even improv champions know that when you make everything up on the spot, you sacrifice depth and direction.
I want it all: depth, direction, and a game that runs fast and responds to players. It’s an open world, after all. My players should be able to go where they want and do what they want.
I’m here to tell you there is a way to have it all. And no, I’m not about to make some generic, middle-path argument about moderating between two extremes. I’m suggesting a strategic approach to game mastering and building worlds, using LegendKeeper. Using this approach your worlds will feel deep, even though you’ll have prepped almost no details.
Table of ContentsPart I: Confessions
Part II: Revelations
- A system for un-micromanaging your world using LegendKeeper
- Minimizing prep has added depth to my games (and made them way more fun)
Part I: Confessions
Boundaries & Uncertainties
Before we talk tactics, you have to understand Boundaries. Every predetermined part of your game is a Boundary. Some examples:
- published and homebrewed material
- every piece of world lore
- stat blocks, items, monsters, and NPCs
- system rules
- the letters, numbers, and images on character sheets
Boundaries tell you, “This is the way it is. Don’t go making anything up.” They get in the way. They stop me from doing things, which is exactly what walls of text and piles of maps do.
At the same time, Boundaries make the game function. They tell you what’s possible and what’s not. They can be frustrating, but they serve an indispensable purpose.
You also have to recognize the Uncertainties. Every part of the game you make up on the spot is an Uncertainty:
- unscripted dialogue
- fudged die rolls
- descriptions without prewritten text
- improvised answers to player questions
Uncertainties cause anxiety. It's the emotion I feel when I have failed to do any prep at all. My armpits sweat, my heart races, and I babble like a lunatic.
As unpleasant as these sensations can be, they're part of the thrill of an unpredictable, high-stakes encounter. Uncertainties can be nerve-wracking and unpleasant, but they are a large part of what makes RPGs fun.
So remember, anything you refer to or have to remember at the table is a Boundary, and anything you have to make up on the spot is an Uncertainty. Boundaries get in your way, but they also guide you when the game gets complicated. Uncertainties bring anxiety, but they’re part of the beating heart of every TTRPG.
The trick is to figure out when to use each tool.
Three Types of Micromanagers
Some GMs get wrapped up in world lore. They spend countless hours drafting backstories, histories, and mythologies their players will never encounter. Or maybe they will... in a massive data dump, only 10% of which they’ll remember.
This was me when I first started building Auklea (a fantasy version of Australia in a world increasingly controlled by an evil theocratic empire obsessed with “racial purity”). I jettisoned huge swaths of D&D lore for this campaign because, for me, those had too many Boundaries. I wanted the freedom to make things up myself. So I set about erasing deities, races, continents, histories, the nature of magic… I even erased the planes of existence from existence.
If I had designed the surface level of Auklea and left the rest alone, it would’ve worked great. Instead, I spent weeks building up new Boundaries to replace the ones I’d knocked down.
I built countless pages in my VTT describing all the lore and adventuring possibilities of Auklea. Later I moved every single page over to LegendKeeper. It was madness. I must have been in some sort of fugue state because I don’t even remember doing most of it.
When I finally got around to running games in this setting, all those pages and pages of lore slowed my pace to a crawl. I was constantly data dumping, looking things up, and boxing the game in with content that served no real purpose in developing an actual story.
Other GMs get obsessed with mapping out every location their players might go. This was also me. I started nesting maps within maps within maps in LegendKeeper, each of them bursting with pins. Pins to other maps, reams of world lore, rollable tables, and hidden items. You name it, I mapped it.
This created big problems. You’d think with all those maps, everything should run smoothly, right? You’re set up for combat to break out anywhere. You’ve got a gigantic, mapped world for your players to explore. It might sound freeing, but it turns out it’s not.
TTRPG’s—even D&D—are often at their most engaging when you go mapless. That’s because maps are (say it with me) Boundaries. Not only that, they’re Boundaries that come with more Boundaries of their own. Maps give the sense that everything the players can see is visible on the map. That lack of freedom (an Uncertainty) keeps players from interacting with their environment and making surprising decisions.
Maps play similar psychological tricks on GMs. When I was in my manic mapping phase, if the party headed someplace I hadn’t already put together, I’d lose my bearings.
One time, I spent days building a meticulously detailed dungeon. I gathered maps for each floor and even a few specific rooms. Every anticipated moment of in-game time was on a grid and populated with tokens. Except I only had time to do this for the first floor.
Sure enough, within one hour of being in that dungeon, my players wanted to go to the second floor. I blathered for a minute about the stairs and the masonry. Then I panicked and said, “No, you can’t do that yet because I don’t have it prepped.”
At that moment, I conveyed a very wrongheaded idea. My players could only do what I had already anticipated they would do. I was limiting their choices in a game all about players making choices.
Looking back, the goal of mapping an entire continent down to the smallest detail was always unattainable—not to mention weird and obsessive.
This form of micromanagement is like my over-prepped dungeon map incident but on a grander scale. These GMs might be more machine than human. They feel the need to outline every possible party decision in advance. Like a perfect algorithm, they want to have a prepared answer for every question.
I used to do this too but to a lesser extent. It’s far too exhausting. The pointlessness becomes clear as soon as your players do something you hadn’t thought of–which they do at every single game.
Micromanagement Breaks Games
Exhaustive chronicles of world lore. Google Maps-level cartography. Comprehensive prediction of all possible outcomes. These approaches to game prep are impractical and likely impossible.
Not only that but striving for that level of completeness can actually make your games worse. These approaches consumed far too much of my time. They made it feel like the majority of the game was happening away from the table, where no one but me saw what was happening.
Meanwhile, at the table, I’d be so focused on staying true to my micromanaged world that my brain would break. I’d get flustered trying to find a piece of information that I could have easily improvised. While flustered, I’d lose all ability to respond to my players’ actions.
Not that it mattered much. My game was so scripted that it often felt like players didn’t have the agency to do anything I hadn’t already thought of. All my predictions would become self-fulfilling prophecies. I’d think, “The party will probably do X or Y.” If they did Z instead, I’d find a way to turn that Z into an X or a Y. My scripts weren't even conscious decisions. They were the subconscious results of over-preparing. They prevented my game from growing and taking on a life of its own.
Because the problem at the table was subconscious, being able to say “I have a problem” wasn’t enough. I needed a new approach to game prep. Something that would help me feel prepared without locking my players into predefined scripts.
Here’s what I came up with.
Part II: Revelations
A system for un-micromanaging your world using LegendKeeper
The key is to prepare tools that will help you make things up without breaking consistency. You should not rely on extensive documents to tell you what to say when something happens.
Here’s what my 1–2 hours of prep per week looks like:
- Shuffle through my handwritten post-it notes from last session and update my slapdash reference pages with all the stuff I made up. (5 minutes)
- Create a Session Notes page in LegendKeeper. (15 minutes)
- Create a Session Outline Board using a LegendKeeper Board. (10 - 20 minutes)
- Prepare short pages and maps in LegendKeeper of people, places, and things my players are likely to encounter. Keep descriptions vague! (30 - 60 minutes)
I'll walk you through each step in turn
Step 1: Update reference pages with post-it notes from last session
Time spent: 5 minutes
This step is absolutely essential. I know it looks unimportant, but updating notes and writing good recaps are the kinds of Boundaries you need to maintain consistency in an open world of Uncertainties.
Step 2: Create Session Notes page
Time spent: 15 minutes
This will be my main outline for the upcoming session. Here's the structure at a glance:
- Right Now
- First Encounter
- Reference Links
- Link to Session Outline Board
Recap: 5–10 sentences recapping information from previous sessions relevant to the current one.
Right Now: 1–3 bullet points summarizing the current situation or context my players need to understand before their first encounter
First Encounter: Bullet points (often 3 or fewer) written in Pidgin English laying out the main beats of the first encounter.
Notice that the descriptive text block takes up most of what’s written down for the encounter. That’s because it’s a great big set of Boundaries, and Boundaries take up space (not just figuratively, in the game, but often literally on your computer screen). I include text blocks and the like for only 3 reasons:
- They’re great fun to write.
- They contain truly essential information.
- I want them to stand out to my players.
In this case, I did it for all three of those reasons.
Writing encounters in this choppy way keeps me from getting carried away. Here, I wanted a rich and thoughtful description of the transition into this strange place and some horrific imagery I took from Aboriginal Australian mythology. I also wanted to make sure I hit a few specific beats during the encounter. Aside from those guided parts, this 15- or 20-minute sequence was mostly an improvised set of interactions between Adno-artina and the party.
Reference Links: I include handy links to reference pages. I can hover over them and use LegendKeeper’s peek feature to see essential PC stats, the party’s to-do list, rollable tables, etc.
Finally, I'll include a link to my Session Outline Board which is described in the next step.
Step 3: Create Session Outline Board
Time spent: 10 - 20 minutes
The board is a quick-and-dirty flowchart of how I expect the session to go. It also includes a link back to the Session Notes page (from step 2) and the same reference pages from the Session Notes. LegendKeeper makes it super easy to link everything together quickly.
The flowchart is important, but you wouldn’t know it by looking. The chart looks slapped together. That’s because it is. I make it that way because it's for my eyes only. It’s also vague and written in Pidgin English because why more words when less do good?
The chart has a few text boxes with simple phrases to jog my memory. Sometimes a box connects to one other box. Sometimes it connects to two or three. I never add more than three branches per text box, because too much flowchart breaks my brain. Complete scenario mapping is exactly the kind of micromanagement I’m trying to avoid. Remember The Computer? Leave that work to videogame programmers.
Step 4: Short pages and maps for people, places, and things
Time spent: 30 - 60 minutes
Finally, I spend anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour slapping together pages with vague descriptions of people, places, and things my players are likely to encounter.
If the party’s heading for a dungeon, I find a good map, make an Atlas page, and replace a text box in my Session Outline that says “Wexfordshire Secret Prison” with a link to that page.
If I expect them to find a certain item, I make a quick-and-dirty Wiki page of 1-3 sentences for the item and put a link to it in the Session Outline.
Same with NPCs they’re likely to meet. 1-3 sentences. Link them in the Session Notes, maybe also in the Outline.
Same with “planned” encounters I expect to run. 1-3 sentences, plus normal encounter info like XP and treasure. Link as needed.
I also predict monsters they might have to fight. Usually, I grab an existing stat block and reskin as needed, but once in a while, I’ll have to make a new one. This is always the longest part. Custom stat blocks usually have to be more than slapped together.
Just enough prep for people, places, and things
If I make a LegendKeeper map for a dungeon, I’ll pin some pages with vague descriptions of its characteristics, rooms, and a few keyed encounters. I might also pin a page with some general lore about the dungeon, but nothing detailed, and I strictly limit the number of pins. Details and screen-crowding are your worst enemies when running the game.
Even for things like magic items, detail brings problems. If I can’t scan a page and know within five seconds what I need to describe or explain, it’s too detailed.
Among my players, I’ve developed a reputation for looking up magic items designed by WotC and saying things like, “That’s too long and annoying. A Portable Hole works the way it does in the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.” The result? The Portable Hole is way more fun to use, and no one ever has to look it up. If there’s a specific question about, say, the depth of the hole created, I make up something that sounds reasonable, like 10 feet. Then I add that to the Portable Hole page after the session’s over, or I ask a player to do it.
(By the way, after I wrote that, I looked it up. 10 feet is exactly how deep WotC says a Portable Hole goes. There’s a lesson here about how most TTRPG rules can and should be intuited rather than looked up during games.)
Minimizing prep has added depth to my games (and made them way more fun)
My system for game prep pushes me to keep my session notes brief and vague, with exceptions for corners I can’t cut (eg. stat blocks). I still use all my creative energy, but I use it at the virtual table. The story emerges from my decisions, my players’ decisions, and dice rolls at the table. My new approach feels more fun for everyone than the micromanaged stories I used to run.
If you believe my players, my games feel deep and well planned–even when most of what they encounter doesn’t exist until I make it up the moment they encounter it. I’m now free to improvise most of what happens while following a few simple, easy-to-remember Boundaries. Carefully selected Boundaries help to maintain consistency in the things I make up, while still letting me indulge in the occasional map or descriptive text block.
I've shared what works best for me. You might want to change what resources you prepare to better suit your own strengths. It's important to figure out when you need Boundaries and when you need Uncertainties. If you do that, and if you keep your prep down to around 1-2 hours per session, I'm willing to bet your games will be faster and more fun.
You might hesitate at the thought of prepping less, but my hunch is that you're better at improv than you realize. Humans are wired to tell stories. We're better at it than any other animal. We do it all the time, whether we're aware of it or not.
So give it a try. You're playing a game. If you flub something here and there, your players will forgive you. Have fun, knock down some Boundaries, and revel in the Uncertainty.