Game-Mastering From the Hip
Or “Oh Shit, I’m Running a Game Tonight”
I have a confession to make, dear readers: last week I nearly fell down in my duties as a GM. I have a game scheduled for Friday evenings, and some members of my group were unsure whether they’d be able to commit. I knew this, and earlier in the week I had decided that if I more than two players showed up, I would run our ongoing campaign; if I only had two players, I’d do a side quest or one-off story. Then Friday came along, and I had prepared… neither. Yep. Totally forgot to do that whole “prep” thing.
To be fair to myself, I’ve got a lot going on right now between work and my personal life. Still, it’s my responsibility to be ready to game, and around lunchtime on Friday I realized I’d failed to do anything at all. Luckily for me, I’ve got some tools in my GM toolbox to help with these sorts of situations. While I don’t recommend always prepping at the last minute, I’ve found these things to be helpful when it can’t be avoided.
1. Always Keep Prep Light (Even When You Have Time)
This one is pretty self explanatory if you’re running games like Apocalypse World or Fate, which stress very light prep on the part of the GM. However, if you’re playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder this might not be so self-evident. Worry not, fellow storytellers! Even games like D&D; with its massive stat blocks and detailed maps; can be prepped relatively quickly.
If you establish a pattern of “light prep” as your normal habit, then its much easier to do things on the fly when you have to. You’ll feel less stressed, and be able to more quickly focus on what you need to do for your imminent session. Since I keep my own prep as light as possible, I wasn’t as worried about my Friday game as I might have been ten years ago, when I was meticulously planning for every possible outcome.
So what do I mean by “light prep?” Well, I’m glad you asked, imaginary person!
2. Write Clocks and Fronts, not Adventures
When I began running games, I would take the time to write out these grand story arcs, including painstaking descriptions of each and every room and NPC. Inevitably, my players would go in a totally unexpected direction; thus foiling my campaign prep; or miss most of those characters I had detailed so exquisitely. As a result, I just don’t do that any more. Instead, I rely on clocks and fronts to sketch out my adventures and campaigns.
If you’re not familiar with clocks, they’re essentially ways of tracking progress towards a goal. Essentially, they let the GM and players know how close something is to happening, or not happening. While I can’t take credit for them, I did do a fairly detailed write-up previously, and I recommend you take a look for a deeper dive.
Fronts are similar to clocks, but serve a different purpose. I tend to use clocks at a fairly granular level (unless I’ve got a compound clock going), where-as my fronts are at a more “macro” level. Fronts come from Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, and I tend to use the latter form. In a nutshell, a front is an abstract way of tracking the course of impending events, categorized by the type of event; the type of antagonist involved in the event; and what will happen if the event comes to pass. You can read more about them in the Dungeon World SRD. While those fronts are for a fantasy setting, the methodology is universal, and can be applied to any game setting.
Clocks and fronts allow me to craft adventures, or entire campaigns, with a minimal amount of investment. I don’t need to flesh out every possible path the characters can take, because I have a loose, adaptable structure in place to handle unforeseen events. Even with a loose structure like this, however, you’ll often need a map or something more concrete when the action starts.
3. Random Generators Are Your Friend
If I’ve got to pull something together quickly, I usually don’t have time to put together details like a dungeon map, or build a town or city. Often I don’t need this level of detail — maybe my “town” only needs a tavern or a temple, as that is the only place of interest for this session. Perhaps my “dungeon” is nothing more than a cave with one or two rooms, or a large tomb with some central focal point. In these cases, I can skip the maps all together. Recognizing when you can skip steps in prep is essential to going without said prep.
More often than not, however, the characters will be exploring some complex, or they need an idea of just where something is in a town, relative to something else. In these cases, I look to the internet to help me randomly generate things. There are plenty of resources out there for generating cities, towns, dungeons and encounters. While these might not produce perfect results, they are usually good enough for me, especially once I put my own spin or polish on them. The generators linked above are just a few I know of; there are dozens of such programs available for free use, and I encourage you to do so.
Even if you don’t want to randomly generate your adventure map, you’re still able to build one quickly. Instead of painstakingly illustrating some dungeon map, build a flow chart instead. Game masters such as Steven Lumpkin use this method to create complex, interesting adventure locations in a fraction of the time it takes to draw and define things the way a published adventure might be.
Once I have my clocks or fronts ready, and my dungeons and cities laid out, it’s time to populate them with meaningful NPCs. Thankfully, that is almost as easy.
4. Sketch NPCs, Don’t Define Them
Much like campaign arcs and maps, I like to keep my NPCs and adversaries lightly defined (are you noticing a pattern here?). Not only does this cut down on my prep, it means that if I need to create a character on the fly, I don’t have to worry about writing some complex backstory my PCs aren’t going to care about.
When prepping for a session, I usually create any known, major antagonists or supporting characters first. If I don’t have an idea for them already, I’ll once again look to the internet; in this case, a character trait generator. Clicking through this program a couple of times usually yields some interesting personalities, and I’ll use those as guideposts when I play the character. I also always come up with a desire for the character; at least one motivating factor that fuels him. This gives the character impetus, and lets me focus when interacting with the PCs. If that desire or motivation can be used in opposition of something the PCs want, even better. Usually this happens anyway; the evil wizard wants the Scepter of the Jackal God to raise an undead army; but sometimes it isn’t as self evident.
For throw-away NPCs or weaker enemies, I usually just give them something they are good at, and something they are bad at. When they are doing what they’re good at, they get a bonus to their rolls, and when they are doing what they’re bad at, they get a minus. If you’ve played Fate Accelerated, this will sound familiar to you.
If I’m playing a crunchier game like D&D, these sorts of traits and motivations won’t be enough. After all, that evil wizard is going to need some spells to throw around when the fighting starts! In this case I usually just delve into the Monster Manual or look online for something close to what I need, and adjust a few things to make it work with the game or session I’m running. Why do the work yourself, when someone else can do it for you?
And speaking of someone else doing the work…
5. Let Someone Else Do the Work
It’s no secret the internet has been a boon to RPG and tabletop gaming. Never in the history of our hobby has so much material, and so many players, been made available to us. On top of that, the RPG community is often one of the best to be a part of, with fellow gamers contributing all kinds of stuff — free of charge — for their fellow players. To those people I say “thank you,” and I will happily enjoy their generosity.
Random maps not your thing, or not giving you what you need? Google it. Or, if you’re a paying member of Roll20 and running an online game, take a look at their asset market place. While you might not find exactly what you want, I promise you’ll get close enough.
It’s all out there, you just have to go and grab it (and give attribution, when required)!
Avoiding Prep Is Not Failing to Prep
Before I wrap all of this up, I want to take a minute to talk about the difference between failing to prep and avoiding prep. Last week, I failed to prep; my week got away from me, and I had to prioritize other things ahead of my gaming session. This is not the same as avoiding prep, which I’ve also done at times in the past.
If you find yourself not wanting to prep, or actively finding other things to do instead, it might be time to take a break. Generally, I’ve found myself avoiding my game prep when I’m fatigued; either I’m bored with the game, or just need to step back from GMing and recharge. If this is happening to you, listen to that instinct. You won’t do yourself or your players any favors by “slogging through it.” Trust me.
Last Minute Prep Success!
Thanks to the things I outlined above, my session last week turned out well, despite my failing to prep. We had two players, and so I was able to have a fun little diversion that turned into an entertaining supernatural murder-mystery. This week, things will probably go back to the already in-progress adventure, but I’ll still be using the methods I’ve described here, because that’s just how I prep. I’m confident that you, too, can use these methods to ease your own prep and make your games more adaptable and fluid, even if you do your homework better than I do!