Anymore, I’m pretty much an improv only Game Master. I like getting down and making an awesome, intricate, and detailed game, but so often those types of games just blow up when the players get into them. You either have to reign players in to preserve the spiderweb of the plot, or you have to help set it on fire and fiddle away. So I’ve taken to improvising as much as I can for most any game I run. It just works better and tends to be a lot more fun.

Still, I work better with a general plan in mind. Just that little bit of something on paper to give me some direction. To that end, I’ve been using a very prep-lite method that I call the 3-3-3 method. It is one of a multitude of prep-lite methods, but you might find it useful.

The Idea
The core idea behind the 3-3-3 approach is to get a very quick list of just things you need. You make categories of common adventure elements and put down 3 bullet points under each one. You make a category for places, and list 3 places that could show up in your adventure. You list 3 NPCs you intend to use, 3 rewards you can give your players, etc. You write down general things like names, a few brief keyword notes, etc. Don’t worry about the details, you can always add them later. When you are done, you have a sheet of paper covered with the basic organization of an adventure that is loose enough to handle player chaos without breaking, yet provides enough direction that you know what elements are in play. Here is my example sheet typed out. It took me about 5 minutes to write it all down, and I added a few notes when I typed it out.


  • Robert’s Bar – resistance HQ
  • Destroyed Caravan Site – ambush
  • Celestial’s Cave – deep underground, magical


  • At the bar – 6 enemies, Nar El Ghera
  • Ambush at caravan –resistance, Nar El Ghera, Lizards?
  • In the air against celestial – airship, chase, dire consequences


  • Robert – bar owner, resistance leader
  • Derjan – cowardly scimitar
  • Balar Hamri – Celestial


  • The Resistance – vs Nar El Ghera
  • Nar El Ghera Scimitars – militia group, controls area, corrupt
  • Magistrate’s Office – hired Nar El Ghera, unaware

Cool Things

  • Casablanca-esque feel – intrigue
  • Airship fight vs. celestial – fast paced
  • Epic, meaningful loot


  • enchanted bracer (+fire) – worn by scimitars, produces fire around swords
  • letter to deliver to general – exposes scimitars
  • Armor of A Great Warrior – cool reward, unrelated to plot, drive ancient feeling

I know more of the details in my head so this will act as a shorthand to kickstart me if I lose track at the table. If I need more detailed adventure design, I’ve got a good starting point to write out the details without overburdening myself all at once. If I wanted to take more space, I could do it on a full 8 by 11 and get a lot more of the juicy details in there.

Another important thing to take in when using this prep method, is that you can write down more than you will actually need and use the bullet points like islands that you can modify on the fly, instead of a static linear road that the PCs move down. I’m yet undecided whether the Ambush at the Caravan will be carried out by resistance fighters, the Nar El Ghera Scimitars, or a tribe of lizardblooded who are unrelated to the resistance but might be coerced to join it if the PCs choose diplomacy. I just know that it is a planned combat and I can modify or ditch it depending on how the game goes. The rewards are the same way. I know that the enchanted bracers can be scavenged from the Nar El Ghera, but where they will find the armor is still up for grabs. It will depend on what turns out to be most fun once I actually run the game.

5-5-5 or 3-4-7-2-4-9?
Of course 3-3-3- is a catchy name, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t expand the number of bullet points or the types of categories. I wrote down what was useful to the system and game style I was running. If I were running something different, I might have more NPCs or more Fights. I might also add in a category for Plot Points or Schemes, or I might have Skill Challenges and write out the rolls required, etc. 3-3-3 is perfect for a one-shot adventure, but you can get the outline for an entire campaign this way in a very short time.

So There You Have It
3-3-3 adventure prep, a quick little tool to shorthand out an adventure. The best thing I find about this method is that it prevents me from getting bogged down with too much plot. I get the elements of the adventure down so I don’t forget them, but I can still organically create the game at the table. I don’t get bogged down in the details and I can generally find any stats I need from a sourcebook for the game system I’m using. What do you think? Would this be enough material for you to run an adventure from? Do you use any shorthand methods like this?

20 replies
  1. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    I love this. I started doing something similar without even knowing it. My players in a skypirates game would bicker over details one minute then have a hive mind and be completely unified when given a hard choice.

    To combat this I would only prep loose details or throw more complex things at them with so many baited hooks the players had to bite one. The baited hooks felt forced so I began to improvise based off the players and a sketch of what I wanted to happen.

    Your 3-3-3 plan is a cleaner version of my sketched out ideas for a session, I think I will start using this. I also really like how fast it can be done, something very helpful for anyone with a hectic schedule.

  2. Trace
    Trace says:

    This is good. I’ve not done exactly this, but I will try it. I may use index cards instead of a legal pad, but the theory is the same.

  3. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    Can we please have a second article (or series of articles) on what drives the decision as to how many bullet points you aim for in various systems, and could it cite explicit system examples? I already know that for D&D you have picked three as a good number, but I don’t know if that decision was driven by player count or some other rule-of-thumb you’ve found useful.

    I think every GM shorthands adventures in some way, from annotating the text to index cards with notes and memos-to-self to these nifty bullet points, but I think the interesting part of the 3-3-3 adventure design process has been hand-waved for brevity and I’d very much like to see under that hood.


  4. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    @Roxysteve – This would be so cool. Advice about how different systems somtimes require a different type of adventure/mission is something that is not often discussed. I know some member in my role playing games club have been struggling with adapting to the style of game as they try different systems. This is often wrose for the GM. I don’t prep Mouse Guard the same way I prep D&D or Savage Worlds and none of them are like playing Vampire.

  5. samhoice
    samhoice says:

    I run D&D 4e, and while the players always give me a chance to improv (that’s the nice way of saying it) I try to do a more detailed prep. I think I might have a shot at winging a story, but would you still prep the combats? I guess my concern is that the game would grind to a halt while I prepare some notes on how to run a battle… I’d be flipping through the books trying to figure out a balanced enemy group, learning the monster powers, etc.

    Any suggestions on how to be prep-lite and still run combats that make sense in the story that emerges?

  6. danroth
    danroth says:

    I usually run off of modules (I don’t feel like I have the time to put together a halfway-decent adventure), but I think I’ll give this a shot next time.

  7. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Razjah – I had much the same experience when I started becoming a prep-lite GM. Too many detailed plans derailed in the name of fun, I decided to just shoot for fun. I tend to run a lot of games straight improv, but this system is a nice little shorthand that can be ditched at a moment’s notice.

    @Knight of Roses – This is definitely one of those things I figured that people were doing already. The quick shorthand notes about a game. I’d love to see a giant GM roundtable with people tossing out the kind of simple non-system ideas they use for organization. I’m willing to bet that we come to a lot of common ground in the process.

    @Trace – Yup, the beauty of a shorthand system like this is that it becomes incredibly portable and adaptable. I use a lot of index cards in a paizo customizable GM’s screen.

    @Chris – Glad you liked it!

    @Roxysteve – I’m not sure if I can wring a second article out of the idea and feel that it has enough meat, but I’ll look at it. There might be merit to examining it through the scope of different systems. As I write this, I can see a lot more merit to doing that. Thanks for the idea! The example wasn’t actually for D&D, it’s for another system, but 3 is was just an easy number for the one-shot I ran. I’ve run this before with a 5-7-3-4 architecture for a murder mystery. It was 5 places, 7 NPCs, 3 possible combats, and 4 possible endings depending on what clues the players felt were most important. I’d say the number of bullet points you use should be however many feel right.

    @Razjah – I’m going to take that as a second vote for another article. I’m going to look into making that happen.

    @samhoice – I’ve only run one game of D&D 4e before my group decided it wasn’t for them. That game was out of a module. I’d prep the combats beforehand for something like 4e definitely. Even if it is just using an online tool to get the stuff printed. When/if the combat came up I’d just grab the combat and run it. Also, if the combat didn’t fit where I thought it was going to, I would save it for later and see if I could reskin it thematically to see if it fit something else. The guards in town were negotiated past, so their stats get used for the unexpected bandits that the PCs get to track down. I wouldn’t sweat the details too much if the combat stays fun.

    @danroth – I’m glad you like it and I hope it will be of use to you!

  8. recursive.faults
    recursive.faults says:

    I have a pretty basic question about this method. Before I get to it I do want to say I do like where it’s going.

    My question, do you pick these 3 things at random? Or do you have more of a vision of how it all flows and you distill it all down into your 3-3-3 format? I’m sure it’s a mix, but I want to know how you come up with your 3 things.

    I personally would add another category. Something along of the lines of, “Fact/Fiction” and put down 3 things, some may be true, some may be false, but at least you know what they can learn for next time, regardless of if it’s true.

  9. Tsenn
    Tsenn says:

    I call it the Rule of Three, and I can happily use it for darn near everything. Want a range of possible encounters? Make up three, one line each. Need to detail an NPC? Look, major personality trait or motivation, quirk. Done! Having this as a structure to stick to makes it easier to add to and can save you writing pages that don’t get used. For top level planning, I tend to lay out three NPCs, three motivations and three locations, then work on angles to involve the party.

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