Tiny Prep

I’ve been talking frequently about the concept of Tiny Prep in the podcast over the tail end of Season 11. One thing I noticed, however, is that the evolution of the idea began about two years ago and in all that time I haven’t posted anything clearly defining it on the blog. With that aim in mind, I thought I would collect some ideas together and share them.

What is Tiny Prep?

Tiny Prep is the simple idea of doing your GM game preparations in very small increments daily or, in my case, six days a week – being an Orthodox Christian, I always take Sundays as a day of rest and play stuff that isn’t my games run for other people, such as playing solo.

Tiny Prep was inspired by the work of BJ Fogg, the Director of the Stanford Behavioural Lab and discussed at length in his highly-recommended book “Tiny Habits”. Utilising the science of human behaviour revealed by BJ Fogg, I get to leverage the natural habit-forming processes of the human brain to increase my output of prep before games. The great benefit is that I now prep more material and better quality material for my games than I did before.

For my anxiety, this has helped me to at least two ways: firstly, I feel less pressure and stress around GM prep, which helps me overcome the procrastination that arises from fear; secondly, I enjoy the prep more and come up with more creative ideas, simply because I am not locked in a cycle of anxiety. I’d suggest that a third benefit is that I believe it’s helping me to shift away from some old, outdated beliefs I had about GM prep and embrace a much looser and more fluid approach.

How does it work?

Tiny Habits works by focusing on the Ability axis of the Fogg Behaviour Model. Because Motivation is so fickle, so variable, the suggestion is that we need to make the new actions we want to take as small as possible so that we can get above the curve in the graph and actually take the action.

I realised that I needed to create some small prep habits and I really had to wrestle with this one because I had many false starts. But, as of today, I can report that I have a method which is fuelling my solo gaming and group gaming prep in a reasonably consistent manner.

In 2020, during the lockdown, I wanted to create a map for a megadungeon so I began by linking a tiny habit to the action of going to the coffee machine and making myself a cup of coffee. This was a two to four times a day habit I already had in my life – and which I have now reduced by one or two cups a day through some behaviour design – but it was a great anchor for a new habit.

The Tiny Habit was this:

“After I turn on the coffee machine, I will add one room or corridor to my megadungeon map”.

That being said, I did begin a new habit in September 2021 when I began to blog daily:

“After I have finished evening prayer, I will boot up the computer and open the WordPress blog page.”

Notice the habit wasn’t to actually write anything. It was a Tiny Habit – to sit down, boot the computer, and open the WordPress blog page. Soon I was writing short articles daily, six days a week. This habit is still alive and kicking.

As with all habits, I do miss the odd day – especially when something disrupts the regular habit that anchors this new habit – but most days I write something. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to get written.

This proved the key to unlocking the Tiny Prep habit. Firstly, the Tiny Habit was:

“After you’ve posted a blog post, add one thing to your game prep.”

But this attempt failed. The reason was that, at the end of a day at work in a mentally demanding job, I didn’t have the mental energy to make decisions about what to prep. And so I invented the Daily Game Prep random table.

The Daily Prep Random Table

The Daily Game Prep random table is a 1d6 table, much like we use in our gaming. There are six entries and you roll 1d6 to select an entry. The new habit is:

“After you’ve posted a blog post, roll 1d6 on the Daily Game Prep table”.

Again, notice the habit began with just making the die roll. I’d look at the result and be free of the decision.

The table has six entries:

  • 1 is Write a Clue
  • 2 is Add one room to a dungeon map
  • 3 Add something to an NPC profile
  • 4 Add something to an item design
  • 5 Write down a consequence from last session
  • 6 Add a person, place, or thing to the world

This last one is simply to name a person, place, or something new in the world. You flesh them out with a roll of a 2, 3, or a 4 on the table.

This freed up my prep. At first, I found it was slightly too hard to think of anything but rolling the die was fun and made me smile. I would celebrate making the roll and my mind would start churning thoughts, largely subconsciously. After maybe a week, I rolled a 1 for a clue and found I could write down any clue – I didn’t know what the clue was for, but it sounded fun: “You find a single bloody footprint on the stairs. Just one footprint.”

I also realised that I could roll the die but if I didn’t like the result, it was ok to choose something else. This began to happen when I started a dungeon map. The next day, I’d be drawn to add to the map so I would do that. But it’s ok if that doesn’t happen too – I just roll the die. That’s the tiny habit.

I don’t manage that every day. When I forget to roll the die, the habit weakens a little. So, disruptions to getting to pray lead to not getting to blog and in turn lead to not rolling the tiny prep die. But, more often, I am simply so tired that I cannot even face rolling the die. So I modified the Tiny Habit to make it even smaller:

“After you’ve posted a blog post, look at the Daily Game Prep table.”

It’s on a 3×5 index card, handwritten, on my computer desk. This is enough some nights. Look at the table. Most of the time, this gets me to roll the die. Four out of six times, I’ll add something to my prep.

Campaign Logger

In recent weeks, I have begun to refine the habit to include the excellent online app, “Campaign Logger“. In short, I use this tool because it allows me to post short log entries and then automatically tags them. The tagging makes seeing the connections between prep entries easy. Additionally, I am beginning to use the Pages function to expand on key people, places, and things in my world. I wrote about Campaign Logger in another post, so I’ll just recommend checking it out.

The main piece to add here is to say that my Tiny Prep habit is developing. Once I overcame the “look at the table” level of difficulty, I became more consistent with the die roll. Now I am using Campaign Logger, it’s changed into being:

“After you’ve posted a blog post, open Campaign Logger and then look at the Daily Game Prep table.”

This is, technically, chaining in another habit but the practical upshot is that I am much more likely to write something when I use the logger rather than other tools.

And that’s the story in a nutshell. Hope it’s useful to someone else. Massive thanks to BJ Fogg for all his work!

Game on!

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