If you've spent as much time lurking in the cranky morass that is RPG.net, you know that, like the seasons, certain questions and topics come around again and again. Sometimes with depressing regularity. It doesn't matter what shiny new game Jason Morningstar's just come out with, there is always someone that wants to complain about the rules in Rifts and hash out ideas for "fixing" it.
The question I'm coming around to, the one that people always seem to be asking and wondering about, is: How much prep should I do for a session?
I gave some thought to this after talking with my friend Colin on the weekend. He was surprised when I said that for my Rocket Robin Hood game Sherwood, I had actually been doing a fair amount of prep ahead of the sessions. Yeah, despite the fact that it's a light and frothy game full of zany chases and sword fights and rocket bikes, that's a game that's taken me a fair amount of heavy lifting, in a narrative sense, to get off the ground.
I had come to Sherwood having just taken an extended absence from the Big Chair, and part of doing more formal prep was getting my head back in the game. The more I have on paper for that game, the happier I am. And Sherwood is what I think of as a "B" game, a side project -- something that's more of an amusing sidelight to the main events of games like Sunset Empire or Shadowrun: Disavowed.
Yet, for some of those more "meaty" games, I am perfectly comfortable with a half page of scribbled notes in my spiral-bound notepad. Often, for those games, I will scratch down some ideas for a handful of scenes that could happen, any ideas I have for some choice dialogue, and notes for anything important that needs to play out (like a scene requested by one of my players in our "Next Time On..." segment at the end of an episode).
For me, the answer to the Eternal Question is this: Do as much prep as necessary.
Early on in a game, I do a lot of preparation and research for the campaign as a whole. For Sunset Empire, I kept reading until I felt I had a good enough grasp on the world of 1884 London to fake the rest. For Shadowrun, I read my way through enough of the 2nd Edition sourcebooks that I had my head in the world of Seattle 2055, and I could start assembling my own vision of that world. Once that early work is done, I don't need that much work to maintain the flow and consistency of material, and more of my prep has to do with thinking about play (and recording it in my journal) and responding to what the players are pursuing / interested in.
For a one shot, I often do a fair amount of formalizing things on paper -- I actually wrote quite a bit of material for the Slasher Flick one-off I ran at STRDEXCon, for example. I think part of that (which is probably of a piece with Sherwood) is "writing myself into the world", if you can follow that. Once I've got it firmed up in my head, less prep is necessary. When I run a Firefly one-shot at a con, I can fall back on the work I did running that game as an ongoing feature. It's a world I'm comfortable returning to.
For me, the question boils down to this: How much work is necessary in order for me to feel comfortable running this game and make it fun for everybody?
That's the tipping point on prep for me.