GM Advice Full-time DM, Part-time Prep

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  1. #1

    Full-time DM, Part-time Prep

    I have a friend who has been thinking of building a campaign from the ground up, but he has recently had a baby and gone back to school. He has little time.

    Fortunately, I have been refining a style of DMing (and campaign building) over many years that requires--even encourages--minimal prep. I decided to type up a list of tips for him, and figured I may as well share them here, as well.

    If some of these concepts seem familiar to any of you, I wouldn't be surprised. One of my greatest assets as a DM is my ability to absorb good ideas from other DMs.


    How to build (and run) a campaign with minimal preparation:

    Lesson 1: Be organized.

    Lesson 2: Know the rules.

    Lesson 3: Reduce the bookkeeping.

    Lesson 4: Get your players to do the work.

    Lesson 5: Every element is an NPC.

    Lesson 6: Don't plot. Hook!

    Lesson 7: Never stat what you don't need.

    Lesson 8: Re-fluff and recycle.

    Lesson 9: Keep notes during play.

    Lesson 10: Don't use weird names.

    Lesson 11: Most battles should be skirmishes.

    Lesson 12: Listen to the players.

    Lesson 13: If the question is, “Can I do [something that's cool],” the answer is “Yes!”

    Lesson 14: Look everywhere for inspiration.

    Lesson 15: Encourage your players to develop background as you go.

    Lesson 16: Always build toward something.

    Lesson 17: Set the pace.

    Lesson 18: Embrace the surreal.

    Lesson 19: Trust your players to solve their own problems.

    Lesson 20: Name the party.

    Lesson 21: Be mysterious.

    Lesson 22: Make it personal.

    Lesson 23: Campaigns mean Change.

    Lesson 24: Monsters may wander, but encounters aren't random.

    Lesson 25: Get the dice to do the work.

    Lesson 26: Use your players' imaginations.

    ...So, this is my list of lessons for full-time DMing with part-time prep. Does anyone else out there have ideas or advice for campaign-building or running games with minimal prep?

    --Edit: Traveon Wyvernspur has attached a PDF of these lessons (current through Lesson 25) in this post, should anyone want a more-easily-printable version.
    Last edited by Rune; Saturday, 2nd November, 2013 at 04:54 AM. Reason: Update.


  • #2
    Lesson 1: Be organized.

    There are a few lessons that I consider fundamental to this style of DMing; without them, you will find yourself doing preparation that does not need to be done, or even redoing preparation that you have already done. In order to cut your prep, you need to streamline as much of your process as possible, and that starts with organization.

    This may seem pretty obvious, but, if you intend to run a lengthy campaign, you should keep it all together, in one place. This is particularly important for the DM who has little prep-time, because such a DM is most likely to work on bits of the campaign in a piecemeal fashion, particularly if inspiration strikes unexpectedly. This is all well and good, but do yourself a huge favor and keep it all in one place! Commit to this before you even begin the campaign, and you will save yourself a lot of headache (and extra work) in the long run.

  • #3
    Lesson 2: Know the rules.

    Maybe your players all want to play a light-hearted game and specific knowledge of the intricacies of the rules-set is not that important, because it just won't come up. That's great. However, all it takes is one rules-savvy player and your lack of knowledge is exposed. Does it matter? That depends on the player. The player might act as a repository of said knowledge in the game; if this is so, take advantage of this resource!

    If, on the other hand, the player is the type to look for any advantage he can get, your lack of knowledge has given him a pretty big one. In such a case, it is particularly important that you educate yourself.

    But it's important anyway. Why? Because the better you understand the rules, the more consistent you will be as the game rolls along and, believe me, if you are trying to streamline, consistency is your friend.

    If you don't like a rule, fine—don't use it. If you don't know every arcane minutia of the rules, that's okay, you can rule on the fly, and look something up later. But, the more solid your grasp on the basics (and the commonly used not-so-basics), the better equipped you will be to tinker with the rules, and to make consistent adjudications in play.

  • #4
    Lesson 3: Reduce the bookkeeping.

    The last lesson kind of leads into this one. Take a look at the rules. There are probably several things that jump out as tedious and time-consuming. Can you ditch them? Do they need to be replaced with something? How can you reduce the bookkeeping load both for you and your players?

    Right off the bat, I'm going to throw a proposal out here. Ditch the Experience Point system. It is cumbersome and, frankly, encourages a style of play (that is, combat-driven) that will make your life more difficult.

    Some DMs simply advance PCs whenever it feels appropriate. If you would prefer a little more structure, however, I recommend advancing the PCs in level as they accomplish quests (say, 2 major quests, with 3 minor quests counting as a major). There is some degree of tweaking that you can do here, as well. For instance, if you want earlier levels to come quicker than later levels, you could add 1 major quest to the total needed every time a level is achieved.

    With this simple substitution, we eliminate the need to figure out how much XP a party earns, how to divvy it up, how many combats you need to plan for so the party can level, and how to advance the PCs if they take an approach that isn't combat. These things may not seem significant, but they add up, and they eat away your prep—and playing—time.

  • #5
    Lesson 4: Get your players to do the work.

    Now that you've got an idea what kind of mechanics you're going to support your campaign with, it is time to start in on the setting. And, you know what? Your players can—and should—help with that. What you need to do is provide incentive to do so.

    This is how I do it: Whenever a player takes it upon himself to do something outside of the game that could potentially enrich the play experience (make a map, NPC, prop, or whatnot), I award a point that the player may use with any PC in any game I run to alter fate in some way--turn a hit into a miss or vice versa, turn a hit into a crit, throw in a plot-twist. This awards the players according to their initiative (as opposed to the PCs' initiative ) and has the added bonus of helping the entire party be more survivable (which, in turn, makes my job easier--it's like rewarding myself for getting them to do prep for me!).

    It comes down to this: The more minds that are excited about the campaign setting and actively working to embellish it, the richer it will be—and the less work you have to do to get it there, the better off you will be.
    Last edited by Rune; Saturday, 4th February, 2012 at 12:31 AM.

  • #6
    Lesson 5: Every element is an NPC.

    Everything. That abandoned village the PCs just came across? NPC. The pile of loot they've been after? NPC. That forest fire bearing down on them? NPC.

    What does all of this mean? It means that a little personality will go a long way. The better your players remember things, the more sparse your notes can be.

    More importantly, if you are going to do as little preparation as possible, you will not have detailed notes on many of the elements in the game. Therefore, you need to make what notes you do have count. Think about these elements as characters and it will be much easier to bring them to life. As with any NPC, you should be thinking, “How will the PCs interaction with this character matter?” When you get down to it, that's all that ever matters.

  • #7
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    Limitation breeds creativity.

    DMing without prep makes you a better DM, regardless of whether you start prepping again in the future or not.

    Enjoy your game...
    "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose"

  • #8
    Lesson 6: Don't plot. Hook!

    Seriously. The more detailed your plans, the more clever your schemes, the more dastardly your designs, the more time you have wasted! Your NPCs should most definitely have diverse motivations and (sometimes) complex objectives, but you, the DM, should not! The players will subvert, dash, and render obsolete any such attempts.

    Instead, throw out lots and lots and lots of hooks. Write these hooks down (on separate index cards, for instance). Keep them all with your campaign stuff (a box is good). If the PCs don't bite on the hook, make a note on the card, stick it back in the box, and pull it out to complicate their lives later.

    This is the core philosophy that drives this DMing style, so I will reiterate: Every hook that the PCs ignore is a potential complication down the road. Create plentiful hooks; they will not be wasted.

  • #9
    Lesson 7: Never stat what you don't need.

    But, how will you know what you need to stat? Chances are, you have a pretty good idea, already, but if you are in doubt, you do not need to stat it! Even when you do need to stat something, you only need to stat what you need! It sounds so intuitive, but, seriously, if you let yourself, you could easily sink more time into creating stat-blocks that will never get used than into any other aspect of campaign-prep.

    But, what if you need combat stats for some NPC you didn't bother to stat out? Fake it. There are a few different ways to do this effectively. Two of them will be described in the next lesson, but there is one thing you can and should do before you ever begin playing.

    Create or acquire some generic templates of creatures/NPCs that you can quickly adjust to fit your needs on the fly as the need arises in play. These should not be detailed; just enough to get by with.

    This is a minimal amount of prep that you should do before you start the campaign and again when the PCs level. The small amount of prep can—and will—save the day at some point.

    With this as a fallback, you should have no reservations about giving as few things as few stats as possible.
    Last edited by Rune; Saturday, 4th February, 2012 at 12:23 AM.

  • #10
    Lesson 8: Re-fluff and recycle.

    Two other things you can do to help you put together an unexpected combat are also useful tools all-around, so they get their own lesson. Take a monster out of the monster manual. Great. Now you have stats, but how does it fit in? You could just drop it in, but if you use it a lot, things could get old. But, re-fluff that monster over and over again, maybe make a minor mechanical adjustment, and you've got a different experience, every time.

    What about that NPC that you actually did have to stat out. Now that he's dead, you're done with it, right? Not so! Keep those stats handy; they, too, can be re-fluffed.

    The more time you save with these creative adjustments, the less time you waste reinventing the wheel.

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