Along a similar vein to the comment in the Solo GM’s Guide that, “Everything is playing… but you don’t need everything,” I’ve been thinking a great deal about how true this of GM prep for a regular game.
An example: I sat down and was thinking about my Mystamyr game, musing about the possibilities open to me once the player characters emerge from the current dungeon. It’s likely their emergence will open up the play from a reasonably linear dungeon structure out into a potential hexcrawl (if they go searching) or journey (if they head for a specific already-known location). During my musings, I found myself flipping through the notes I have on various creatures who inhabit the area of Mystamyr within which the party is currently adventuring.
To my mind, this is all prep: thinking through the likely directions the party might choose allows me to think about signposts that would make the choices meaningful and less arbitrary; thinking about options keeps my mind loose and avoids prepping plots, given that I prefer to prep situations; this leads to thought about, “What is happening in the locale right now?”
Looking at creatures and considering options for inclusion on wandering monster encounter tables – even if I am not writing those up just yet – is all part of the prep process. Checking on a rule, weighing up the options, and imagining what might be happening is all prep. It’s not tangible, written-down, notes on a page prep but it is nonetheless prep.
I do this most days and have a tendency to discount it as “just thinking”. But of course, thinking is high-cost in terms of energy and high-value in terms of the payoff: when it comes time to write my notes, I am much more likely to be recording decisions rather than having to make those decisions.
On top of that, doing the thinking in small stints as part of my Tiny Prep practice makes it achievable. Three to five minutes spent looking up some creatures or thinking about five things that might be happening in the locale is very doable after a tough day at work.
More than that, a lot of the details get filed away and can resurface during session as improvisations. This is because my mind has been sown with possibilities long before I sit down with the players. That makes the experience at the table less stressful for me and also richer for the players.
Everything is prep for the busy GM. Don’t allow yourself to believe that you’re only ready when everything is written down and recorded for reference. In my experience, the stuff I write down is just the tip of a very large cognitive iceberg which has been gathering mass during many small moments of thinking between sessions.