Session prep sheets-- another easy tool.
Once a game gets rolling, I introduce plot elements. Some of these players grab onto and some they don't I think the trick is to be willing to shift your focus and your game depending on the desires and interests of the players. Either they'll eventually get back to the story you have in mind or else they'll find something better. In the case of the latter, you should let them. If they're enjoying themselves and have some feeling of progress there's no need to railroad them. Now players can waste away a session doing what would appear to be stupid stuff, but the key is to know if they feel that the story is moving forward. Mind you all of this approach makes the gamemaster's job more difficult. I do a lot of rough sketching of ideas, coming up with plots and so on, but I have a tool I use to plan for a particular session. I found it on someone's blog/site four+ years ago (I need to find that again so I can give credit where credit is due). It is a list of questions for planning-- under each question you give three answers. If you know me, I've probably already foisted a version of this on you to look at. Here's a completed example from my Exalted campaign:
CRUX SESSION 11/3/05
*On table-- Flickering Knife, Serpent Murders, The Chains, The Gangs, Stealing Items, Money
(I like to note at the top of these forms the major plots in play. That way I don't forget them and I can think of how to work in them into the answers below)
Three conflicts that might happen in the game
1. Tension between followers of Sharpened Though and Oaksaint Vross
2. Tracking the Bloody Hands: drips of blood
3. Chase after Flickering Knife-- Interrupt the Gatetakers: shadowed, wet street (might note the flickering from their bond)
(I read conflicts as any significant challenge, be it combat, problem solving, chases or whatever)
Three interesting NPCs who might be encountered
1. Skycast Red: Spirit Bringer
2. Glain Kolath Bloom/Varya Jestkind: in force
3. Mardos con-Vardos
(If I have an NPC list I'll just put names here-- sometimes I'll also note a topic for them to bring up or a place where the PCs might run into them.)
Three interesting locations the PCs might visit
1. House of Repugnant Depths
2. Street of Mercenary Gods/Listening Grifters (or *Theater, Poets Guild, Oil makers, Confectioner's)
3. Painters' Household: Kenobi Wailingsong
(As with NPCs, these things are often just short-hand because I've written about these places elsewhere. If not I'll tuck in some sensory details)
Three "tone-setting" events for genre-flavor
1. Particularly bloody duel between Northerners and Dragonblooded troops (why in city?)
2. Last day of the month, food/flowers set above the front door
3. Theater Spectacular
(The idea being that each session should remind the players of the distinctiveness of the game they are playing. So in this case I have something that reminds them of the local politics and the Exalted world, something that references local customs, and something that reinforces that this is an urban game.)
Three plot-moving revelations that might occur
1. Ledaal Jyumei lives-- darkened alley, finding the ring
2. That the Sorrow Weed comes from (XXXXX)
3. Murder Cults for the Spirits
(These are elements that impact the big picture story. They're the one's I'd like to move forward on or which seem to be top of the players' minds at the moment. I won't always get to any or all of these things, they just serve to remind me not to be too static. In the example above, I don't think the players have actually had that answered directly, but it hasn't had that great an impact yet).
Three seeds to plant for future development
1. Soldala Hush-- her messengers tied to something unusual
2. Fayt Abandoned, Azeries, Master of Talons (Song of Sorrows) meeting
3. Another piece of the Metal body or evidence of its growth: theft from crafter
(Starters for new trails or investigations for the players)
Three recurring threads to weave back in
1. Return of the Seven Fiery Devils-- their interaction: Hodo Shan, Kan-taze, Midikano, Son of Stone and Wrath
2. Spotting/Interacting with Hesaal Chain
3. The Show in Day Quarter: Dragonblooded rivalry
(Elements from the previous session or earlier that need to make a reappearance so they're developed or not forgotten)
Three puzzles, dilemmas or moral choices
1. What are the other groups of young Dragonbloods doing?
2. Location of the other hearth?
3. What about the portrait?
(I usually use these to note unanswered questions or mysteries hanging over the group. Sometimes I'll come up with a small ethical choice situation, but more rarely)
Three strokes of luck (good or bad!)
1. Spotting a craftsman of skill in Dusk Quarter
2. Identifying a runner for gangs
3. Invitation to meeting or party
(I often find this the hardest thing to come up with. Ideally this would be a place to note opportunities to present or punishment/consequences for bad rolls or bad decisions. Here I've noted three strokes of good luck. I sometimes use these to reward players who roll extremely well on incidental rolls. There's nothing worse than rolling critical successes on a spot check where there's nothing unusual to see).
Something novel for each PC
*Kiir: following up from her email
*Illathin: Dojo appointment...perhaps hint about Final Sky, Shaded Mind of War
*Lupita: What about the stone-- will she use it to craft?
*Mahiir: New spell gained
*Zhu du Fan: Streetwise-- following up on questions submitted regarding gangs
(This wasn't in the original document I modeled this on. I use this for catch-all, especially if I haven't done a list of “Three Things” for each PC as I mentioned in my previous post).
As with the Three Things prep sheet, what I call the Trinity or Triad sheet has material that can carry over from session to session. After a game, I'll check off those elements I did use or which no longer have relevancy. It usually takes me about an hour to prepare one of these sheets for a game. It can often be my only prep for a session. If I can get a good four hour session out of that, I consider it a success.
This prep format has other tangible benefits. It allows me to organize and prioritize my ideas and plans. That makes going back to review previous sessions easier. It also keeps me from overplanning and spending too much time. Limiting yourself to three things means you come up usually with three solid concepts. On the other hand, I'm not married to what I have here-- the material is flexible and no session has ever truly survived contact with the player characters.
Tomorrow, my batch NPC system and the Neural Tarot.