I was talking to Variant Roles friends yesterday about GM prep tools and thinking about the ones I have found the most useful.
Five Room Dungeons: This basically comes down to structuring encounters and making sure you have variety and some rising action with a climax. This incredibly useful tool basically means making sure every “adventure scene”: entrance, then a challenge (at least one of which should not lean towards combat), then some sort of setback, then the climax, then the revelation. I review this checklist mentally during every preparation session. Note that these don’t have to mean actual rooms, nor in an actual dungeon, and honestly you don’t even have to have five, so it’s a bit of a misnomer. Maybe you have other rooms or dangers along the way, or maybe the group finds a way to go around the setback and get right to the climax / boss / whatever. That’s something to encourage and reward rather than force them back onto the railroad!
Fronts: Someday I’ll try my hand at explaining these better, because the writeup from 2012 could definitely use some improvement. But the idea comes down to having multiple other forces that affect the current adventure in some way, and knowing how those things progress if the group does nothing about it. Maybe you have your main “bad guys” and you have one or two other factions that are involved and want something specific, and you can force the players to make hard choices about what thing to focus on and who to work with. That simple little thing creates so much dramatic tension that they’ll tie themselves in knots, and all you had to do was write a little list.
Secrets and Clues: I used to fret endlessly about how to make sure that my players would find the right pointers to the next thing. What if they miss a skill check? Even worse, what if they go to the wrong tavern (or whatever) and don’t talk to the specific NPC that knows the thing they need to know? Now I don’t worry about it, because I just have the list of information that will get them to something interesting. When they do something that would reasonably find something relevant – talk to an NPC who might know, or investigate a house where somebody might have hidden a note, etc. – and potentially succeed on a skill check, I can give them something relevant from the list. Usually, I still have ideas about where they should probably go and what they should do, but by not binding the information so strongly to a particular person, place, or thing, I can more easily adapt so none of us get frustrated.
Your mileage may vary, and I hope it does, because then maybe I can learn about some other cool stuff! Tell me about it!