Last week I was ridiculously busy. I was racing towards a gallery opening at work, getting the house reorganized after our epic Halloween shenanigans, buying birthday presents for my niece, working on the weekend, fending off a creeping cold and generally not doing any prep for my usual Wednesday game. By the time my group decided that we were absolutely going to play, it was already Wednesday morning. This left me with my lunch break to come up with a plan for tackling the night's adventures.
Now, I've done short-prep games before, but at less than an hour this was by far the shortest. I knew I needed to be fast and to prep ONLY THE THINGS I WOULD NEED TO SURVIVE!
I decided to stick with my typical strategy for quick-prep games and start with the characters involved. The previous session, my players had rescued a group of slaves from some hobgoblin mercenaries and had taken one of the hobs prisoner. I knew that the party would likely want to get information out of the various NPCs and to get the slaves back to safety.
The first thing I did was figure out the makeup of the group of slaves. This consisted of single sentence or even single word descriptions of their appearance, occupation and, of course, their names. I made sure to throw some variety into the group and to use the characters to establish some potential conflict points. How do the slaves react to their former captors? What condition are the various slaves in? I wrote some of these points down, but just kept others in mind. When nothing was written, I used the character's brief description to establish a likely personality.
and that was it. That was my prep.
Granted, certain other things made additional prep unnecessary. My players had stated their intent to retrace their steps through a previously traversed cave system, so I didn't need to plot out new locations. They had also left a couple obstacles in their path, including a cave full of previously turned undead.
By focusing on the characters first. The fast-prep game became a really engaging escort mission. Jittery slaves on the verge of madness tried to flee or went catatonic, the mercenary prisoner made an unsuccessful escape attempt, and the undead very nearly took out several of the players' precious cargo. I felt that creating varied personalities for each of the NPCs made all the difference in the world. The session wouldn't have been nearly as engaging if the players were simply escorting slaves 1-7.