Minimal prep seems to be a bit in vogue these days: for some people there are practical concerns like time, and for other people it’s just their preferred M.O. for running a game. I tried to adopt this GMing style for a time, but ultimately decided I enjoyed the art of prep too much but also that I ran better sessions when I felt like I knew what I was doing. Still, there are enough times that you find yourself running a game on the spur of a moment, or when life happens and your prep time gets cut short, that it’s good to have a backup plan to keep the game going.
I’ve talked about how I follow the rule of three while planning for the whole campaign or an individual session, but the principle can be applied to minimalist prepping as well. When I’m crunched for time, there are three essential story elements I’m looking for plot, characters, and setting:
For plot, I want to make sure I can come up with an “inciting incident,” “plot twist,” and “climax.” If each can be considered an encounter, I can probably get around an hour of each each, and then mine intermediary or interlude scenes before and after the plot points for another fifteen minutes a pop, giving me a full four hour session. For characters, I want to make sure I have at least one antagonist, one ally, and one neutral party who could flip either way. And for setting, I’ll examine my characters and plot for memorable locations that will really highlight the action or add an element of challenge, so that they become characters in themselves. It can help to mash-up two different concepts, like canyon and urban for cliff-dwellings, or ley lines and subway station, to lend each location more dimensionality.
If you’re really feeling stuck, try to search the notes you’ve taken from previous sessions. Find the unfininished plot threads and figure out how they have progressed since the last session. If you keep a binder of unused prep or another folder of inspiration (Pinterest works great here), now’s the time to find a purpose for the material. If you’re really in a bind, there are plenty of books and sites with ready-to-use plot hooks or one-sheet adventures that you can raid and reformulate as necessary.
Look to the storygames genre of roleplaying games and you’ll see that the narrative responsibilities become more spread out and shared by the group.
Some indie games have taken a cue from this, including Houses of the Blooded, where “success” on a roll allows the player to narrate the outcome, while failure means the GM will narrate the outcome.
Bigger company games have begun to head in this direction as well, including the roleplaying game line I work on at FFG: Star Wars. We encourage players to contribute to the collaborative story at the table by describing what multiple Successes or Advantage and Triumph mean for their character. The GM describes Failure, as well as Threat and Despair.
Besides from transcending purely binary results like success/fail, the narrative dice also help get the players involved, which means they’ll feel more comfortable driving the story, which helps relieve some of the pressure off the GM and give her more plot threads to run with.
But you don’t need narrative dice in order to share the story–empowering players can be done in any system, so long as the GM encourages players to pursue their own roleplaying agendas and keep saying “yes, and…” It’s certainly easier when you have experienced role-players at the table who have also had a hand at GMing, but you can begin to foster these habits in any player, no matter how new or veteran.
This is by far the most important piece of advice. I really do think the key to running a good improvisational session is to not be afraid of it, because your fear and anxiety will be what throws you, just like in any sports match. Try to relax and just have fun with it. Nobody’s grading you–it’s just a game.
What do you do to make a low/no-prep session run smoothly? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on house rules. Thanks again for reading!