prepA few weeks ago I was preparing for running games at Ancon, a local gaming convention. A million things were occupying my time, and I only got two out of the three games written that I had to run. Waiting to meet someone at a table in a coffee shop, I decided to start taking notes for the final game I needed to write up. Having only my cell phone, I started writing a 160 character synopsis of what I needed for my game. My time got occupied right up to convention time and I never got back to fleshing out the game. With a table full of players new to the system, and whom I’d never played with before, I pulled out my cell phone and ran the intrigue heavy game off of those 160 characters. The players had a blast.

So, you may ask, what exactly is the point of that lead-in diatribe? Great games can be run with very minimal prep time. When it comes down to it, the game doesn’t exist on any piece of paper or in any published adventure, it really exists at the table between the players and the Game Master. Whatever goes on there trumps whatever was prepared beforehand in terms of fun and enjoyment. Thus, we the people running the games should put the focus on what goes on at the table and not worry about excessive prep. Not all games need it. Many gaming experiences will require, and be made better by, having every last detail laid out on paper beforehand, but not all.  So how do you get away with minimal prep and still have a really great game?

Plan Just What Is Necessary
A huge notebook full of details and information is rarely necessary to run a fun game. The basic idea of the plot is always inside the Game Master’s head (if they were the one who came up with the adventure idea), and enough of it needs written down that they can refer back to it and stay on track during the game. The amount that needs written down will vary by Game Master. Some people do better having lots of stuff fleshed out, some require very little. When you feel you have enough written down, stop. Sometimes less written is better. A nebulous idea inside your head is something that can gain form during the actual play and be improved by being defined at the table where you will be able to see the players’ reactions to it.

This was the text message that I ran my game from. It encompassed everything I needed to be able to improv the rest at the table.

NPC:Kng-Grds-Mrdr-Ambs-Nbl-Brstr Loc:Mus-Offce-Train-Port-Ship Plt:Brstr Infrm Mrder-FF get artfct-once got deliver-pursued/combat train/port-met by emp-reward

The NPCS: A King, the Guards, a Murderer, an Ambassador, a Noble, and a Barrister.
The Locations: A Museum, an Office, a Train, A Port, A Ship.
The Plot: A barrister gathers the PCS to investigate a murder of an ambassador negotiating for an artifact held in a King’s museum. The PCs get hired to free form acquire the artifact in whatever way they want for the ambassador’s country. Once acquired, they get the artifact that the ambassador was negotiating for. Once they get it they need to deliver it. They are pursued on the train they are traveling on and at the port they reach. They must get to a ship where they will be safe. They will meet the emperor who rewards them.

It is a pretty basic plot with a big chunk of free form in the middle. The main idea of it sat in my head, the txt message guided me and made sure I didn’t forget anything or veer too far off course. Any other details that were required, I made up during the game.

Improvise and Adapt
The key to running a game with minimal preparation is to be ready to improvise and adapt to what is going on at the table. The PCs had many routes that they could pursue after finding out about the murder and getting hired to acquire the artifact. They sat and talked about it and decided to try to solve the murder to curry favor with the King. I knew there was a murderer, but hadn’t yet decided who or how. I had some thoughts but never solidified anything. The barrister got the PCs into the crime scene with temporary investigative powers and they set about looking for clues. Based on the ways they searched, I made up clues that pointed to the person I decided was the murderer (one of the guards). Had they gone another way, I would have changed how things went. Had they decided to try to steal the artifact, I would have repurposed the guards as adversaries instead of suspects. Had they tried to negotiate for the artifact, I would have brought in the noble and the king and gone roleplay heavy. Had they decided to try to fight through and take it by force, I would have used the guards as combatants and ditched the other (now unnecessary) NPCs.  Not knowing the motivations and details of the various NPCs I didn’t feel restricted in their use. The artifact was the McGuffin and however they wanted to try to acquire it was how I was going to run with it.

The Players Have As Much Invested In Your Game As You Do, Use Them To Guide It
Part of improvisation and adaptability is reacting to the players. This means judging what they might find fun based on what they try to do. When my one player (a humanoid dog hybrid) used his incredible scent ability to investigate for clues, I had him make a roll and decided that the ambassador was killed with poison that was detectable by scent. When another player had a rare language that very few would know and slipped a word from it into interrogations, I decided that the murderer was from that country and with a bad roll would slip up and reveal himself. When a player in a later combat decided to sneak around the train and look for suspicious activity (having noticed they were being followed out of the city), I had him make rolls and come upon the group following them.

Instead of determining what encounters the players would face beforehand, I let them tell me what kind of encounters they would find fun by their actions. I knew there were going to be encounters, I had vague ideas of what they might be, but I decided on the when and where because of what the players did. I had to prompt them to action a few times by providing opportunities and asking them what they wanted to do, but I only followed up on the leads they wanted to pursue.

Players build their characters classes, skills, and special powers based on what they want to do in the game. Giving them the opportunity to do those things will make their character creation choices feel worthwhile. In a minimal prep game it also makes the players feel like they are affecting the story in a big way. I think players get a sense of joy when they overturn the Game Master’s carefully crafted plans with their unique solutions and characters. It feels like winning to circumvent obstacles, and letting players do this helps you create a great game at the table, even if you didn’t create it before getting to the table.

Gather The Tools That Will Let You Do What You Need At The Table
The first three tips of this article (Plan only what you need, Improvise and adapt, & Use the players to guide your game) are great meta-game thoughts, but the thing that makes all these techniques possible is to have enough at the table to support you as the Game Master. Whatever tools you will personally need to improvise have to be there in some form. Not planning out the details of NPCs means you need NPC stat blocks. Not drawing out locations means you need to build them (in your mind and at the table) on the fly.  Not having combats statted means you need something to draw encounters from. These are a few tools I’ve found that make running a minimal prep game much easier:

  • CONFIDENCE – This is the most important so I am putting it first. Be confident in your actions, even if you aren’t sure what is going to happen next. Acting like you know what you are doing, even if you don’t, conveys a sense that you do know what you are doing. Be fair, of course, but don’t let on that the situation is up in the air. Most of the time it won’t be, but if it is react confidently. If you screw up with some rules guffaw or forgetting some detail that you just made up on the fly, confidently take the blame and move on.
  • Names – I hate coming up with names. Some people like it, but names are often left to the end in minimal prep games. Having a laptop and bookmarks to name generators is a great resource. Also, the best 3rd party RPG purchase I’ve made in a while has been the Story Game Name Project. It is a big book full of names divided into various categories. I can usually cherry pick enough from this to build a believable NPC name with just a few seconds worth of work.
  • Tools To Make Maps On The FlyMaps, especially in combat centric games, are essential. Even when just used to represent an area that the PCs minimally interact with they give a focus to the game and make give a deeper feeling of preparation than might actually be there. Be able to build your maps quickly. I prefer Jenga blocks or Dominoes. Laying them on a grid makes things easy to be rearranged at a  moments notice. Plusthey have a nice 3D feel when they surround the players’ minis.
  • Notes – Taking notes at the table about your own game is essential. Since little of it was prepared beforehand, writing down the name of the NPC you just made up is essential. Things created on the fly don’t register as well in our long term memories as things prepared beforehand, especially when we get into the kind of reactionary mental groove that lets us run minimal prep games well. Writing it down in a notebook is the best way to keep on track. It also lets you see the game pre-play (with minimal prep) and post-play with what seems like a smorgasbord of detail, all of which was created at the table.
  • A system that supports the game master – Having a system that supports you even without a lot of prep will make things 100% easier. A system like this should provide a few of the following things.
    • Rules that are easy to adapt to new situations – It should be easy to make a roll for any situation. Whether this is specific rule that are easy to look up, a design philosophy that allows flexibility in character actions, or a mechanic that weighs specific skills and abilities as less important than relevant attributes the rules needs to be able to adapt to new situations.
    • NPCs or NPC stat blocks – It should have enough mechanical elements to create NPCs out of thin air.
    • Combat stat blocks – The Monster Manual, a chart of combat scores, index cards with enough combat info to wing it – anything that lets you pick a combat character and start running.

So how much prep do you think is necessary to run a good game? What is the least amount you’ve ever run with? What tools do you use at the table to support minimal preparation beforehand?

12 replies
  1. shadowacid
    shadowacid says:

    This is a great article, especially since there are always times when either the GM or a key player can’t make it but the rest want to still game.

    That’s why I always keep a copy of Explosions & Escapes with me. It’s only 3 pages and characters can be made in just a few minutes.


  2. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    The least amount of prep that I have done for a game was at a Role Playing Games Club meeting, I brought my 4e stuff and some pre-gen characters fro the players. I had no plot, not story, no world. I flipped through the monster manual and found Kruthik. I ran a game where the PCs were part of an adventuring company who got a contract to clear a nest of Kruthik out of the sewers by any means necessary. It was a blast.

    One player could not roll higher than a 10 and the other players decided that using him (a wizard) as a meat shield and as bait was a good idea because he couldn’t hurt the monsters anyway. They also got surprisingly in character having a tiny paragraph describing racial and class stereotypes.

  3. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    While I’ve run some strong sessions on the strength of a paragraph outline and a source of stats, I rarely do so as a one shot. Once characters are established and the players have been working on a plot for a while, there are weeks where no prep is necessary– but a lot was done previously, so it’s not really a no prep situation.

  4. evil
    evil says:

    This was a nice article, especially if viewed from the lens of a novice GM who is starting to get into the flow of it. It’s a great idea to always have a few set pieces ready to go in your head, just in case, because I think we’ve all been in the position where we’ve run out of material but we want to keep going.

    In answer to the closing question, I was once challenged to do this with zero prep work. I had one ten sided die, two sheets of paper, two pencils, and two players. We created the game from scratch as we went, and it worked wonderfully once we got over a couple of bumps. In that case, the game was all about player reactions to situations that I made up on the fly. I’d suggest everyone try it at least once in their GM career, just to test their own abilities.

  5. ggodo
    ggodo says:

    @Razjah – I did something similar except my kruthik were in a manorhouse whose mirrors had another world in them. Saved on maps big time, and I had and interesting dilemma with the artifact powering the weird mirror thing,. I just assumed the players would take it, or smash it, then leave, instead they used the mirrors to move it through into the other world, all because the fighter thought it was shiny.

  6. Nephlm
    Nephlm says:

    The last few games I’ve run I didn’t even know what genre it was until I set down at the table and talked it over with the players.

    In addition to the things you’ve mentioned I have found the following useful:

    * Kicker – One question that has to be answered for each character is ‘what just happened that can’t be ignored?’ Thus the game starts in motion with stuff the character cares about.

    * Quests – In my game there is a certain economy that allows the players to define quests. When they accomplish the quests they get xp. Thus the players telegraph this is what I want to do, this is what I think is cool.

    Those two things and crunch lite system and you don’t have to do much more work as a GM then the players have to do.

  7. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    Least I’ve ever had prepped was for Mouse Guard, I think. I had 4 words, one for each of the two hazards, and two more for a possible twist for each hazard. That was it (and that’s typically all I have, unless I’m really hammering a player’s Belief, Goal or Instinct, then I’ll note particulars of those hazards). I run about as minimal with Burning Wheel: Just one sheet with the three players’ BITs on them (Beliefs, Instincts, Traits). That’s it.

    As an aside, this is one of the most fundamental, utterly important things a GM can recognize:

    Players build their characters classes, skills, and special powers based on what they want to do in the game.

    GMs, learn this. If a player has an ability or weird idiosyncrosy, they want to see it in play at the table.

    Well written, John! Great article.

  8. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @shadowacid – Thanks! That is definitely true. There always seems to be someone missing from the gaming group, especially as more and more responsibilities creep into our lives.

    @Razjah – That is one of the key reasons I find myself going back to dungeon crawlers like D&D time and again. The amount of investment prior to game play can be minimal and it comes out fun. I’ve seen a lot of players get into pregens like you describe. People can discover the character as they play them, without being as worried about bringing out the elements of the character they so lovingly crafted. Without that sense of attachment to how a character should be portrayed the story tends to flow more freely. I bet the wizard’s player had fun “being the meat shield”, even though they might not have built a character that fulfilled that role.

    @Scott Martin – Doing this with an established group is definitely a lot easier. Especially when you are in the middle of other game events that provide some structure. I have to admit that I do this a lot more than I would like with my group. Many of their adventures are piece-mailed together on the fly.

    @evil – I’ve never done the create the whole game as a GM like you describe, but I have done it as a player. Two buddies and I were on a couple of day trail hike and decided to play a very story based game on the fly. Two d10s (dice I love) and a clear box to “roll” them in and we were set. The rest was all in our heads. I’d second your suggestion. Having to push yourself like that breaks boundaries that you set for yourself. It is like the first time skydiving; falling afterwards never seems like such a big deal.

    @ggodo – How did you react to it being moved into another world? Players always do the unexpected, and I tend to wonder if there isn’t, in published adventures, a sense of “punishing” the characters when they do something unexpected like that. I.e. the artifact explodes, the players are trapped, etc. I notice that GMs with improv adventures tend to go with the unexpected and run with players’ odd actions like this, continuing the adventure in a different way instead of causing a detrimental effect to get them back on track.

    @Nephlm – What system are you running this in? Unrelated, the question mechanic reminds me a lot of the way characters are made in Dread. Questions define certain events that occur, but the players’ answers define their characters.

    @Rafe – Thanks Rafe! I agree that “Players build their characters classes, skills, and special powers based on what they want to do in the game.” is definitely a key note of this article. I may have to turn that into a separate article on its own. I’ve not played Burning Wheel yet, but I know it supports this type of game well. I just got into reading Mouse Guard the comics and may have to pick up the RPG to play with some friends who also like the comics.

  9. GiacomoArt
    GiacomoArt says:

    This sounds very much like my method of game prep: define a hook; doodle some images of random elements I want to include; and get psyched up for whatever mood the adventure is meant to evoke.

    To go all out in adventure prep, I borrow a page I picked up from West End’s old Star Wars RPG, and write out an introductory “script”. The publisher would tack a page or two of scene-setting narrative and dialogue onto the front of each adventure for the players to read in-character, like a move script.

    To be quite frank, those canned adventure scripts stunk big time, but it was because the authors just couldn’t plan for who would be starring in their adventures. When you’re writing generic dialogue for “Rebel 1” and “Rebel 2”, it’s nigh impossible to come up with worthwhile snappy banter, much less create any emotional investment in the characters.

    On the other hand, if you’ve any talent for writing, preparing an introductory script for your own group of PCs can be a powerful tool. It provides free license to railroad the plot just long enough to get things going. I’ve never met a player who minded my puppeteer-ing her character for a couple of pages of action-packed prologue where she got to do cool stuff and spout personally tailored quips while the world exploded around her. I suspect that’s largely because my players know as soon as we hit that cliff-hanger moment where the script trails off in ellipses, I have no emotional investment in what they do next; they’re truly in charge of writing the rest of the story. There’s just no hemming and hawing about, “What’ll we do today?” because they’re already rocking and rolling.

  10. Nojo
    Nojo says:

    I love GMing mystery plots, and used to think they always required a ton of prep work.

    A mystery involves A: The mystery itself, which is unknown to the players at the start. B: Players uncovering the mystery. and C: Players dealing with the (often violent) consequences.

    I’ve found if I know my mystery itself (A), I can let my players tell me how they uncover it (B) and solve it (C). Anything they try either works, or fails with a side effect that points them at another option or two. All that can be made up on the fly, with most of the heavy lifting done by the players. The GM just controls the pacing.

    You don’t want everything they do to work as intended, but you do want to reward any good idea and keep the game moving. If the players are stumped, an NPC can kick in the door, guns blazing, who leaves a few clues to get the players back on track.

  11. David Rutz
    David Rutz says:

    While this is a late response to this (it was linked in a Friday Gems #42 newsletter I get), I hadn’t realized that I have turned into a 100% minimal prep GM. My group has 4-5 GM’s and we switch off after each adventure (been playing with the same group since 1997!!!!!), and sometimes even different genre’s – 3.5 DnD, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars, and other short lived ones. And while I used to be a heavy pre-prepper and had to have all the monsters, all the NPC’s, all the locations, maps and building ready to go – life and jobs and marriage and kids – all just kept taking up more time, and even thought I wanted to GM – there wasn’t enough time to do all the pre-work.

    Somehow it had been timed just right where we ended the previous weekend session on an awesome “to be continued” cliff-hanger, where they had just finished fighting their way through a castle dungeon to get to the vault/treasure room. That next week, I just go so busy, I couldn’t prepare what I used to normally do for the big ending fight. All I had was – the big bad guy and his minions were in the vault waiting – and the “bad guys” were come-to-life statues that would protect their liege who was the bigger statue that came to life (which none of the PC’s knew, because the previous long dead owner never got to tell anyone before he and his old kingdom were defeated). So they thought they were just going after a huge priceless statue.

    Now out of that paragraph description above, I only had Vault room – living statues defending big boss statue at the time I was driving over to game.

    I WAS worried and I tried to get there early to at least be able to get some stat blocks for the monsters (combination Stone Golem with Metal Golem, and some caster golems etc. etc.), and the rest I basically made up as they went along. Do the golems come to life when someone gets close? Do the golems come to life if you touch something? But as we were playing, the rogue rolled high enough to un-trap the doors, and the wizard beat the spell pen roll to remove the magic, and the rogue then finally unlocked the doors, not one of them stepped into the room – and it hit me…they come to life when the first person steps in the room. The rest just flowed after that – riddle on the back wall, that had the “secret word” as the answer to deactivate the defenders (which they didn’t solve, the brute forced their way to victory). So out of one sentence of a plan – I was making stuff up as we went along, and they and I had a blast.

    I started to do that regularly, and they have had a blast playing ever since. We just went through a whole long adventure where the only things “planned” were the big world events. Everything else hinged on what the players did. (Now I do at least try to create the monster stats beforehand, so I can add some spice and tweaks to them – to surprise the players when the Stone Golem can do something other stone golems can’t do. Along with a bunch of pre-made “generic” bad guy and monster stats if I have to pull something random out. Human fighter – change weapons, add some hit points, add some natural armor, add a tail swipe attack – and you have a tough skinned lizard warrior.)

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