Full-time DM, Part-time Prep


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

Some players love to create elaborate backgrounds for their characters before the first session ever starts. These players are great, because they provide all kinds of hooks for you to play off of right from the start—you should definitely take advantage of that (don't forget to write those hooks down and put them in the box!).

For some players, however, this type of "work" is like pulling teeth (and not in the fun way). That's okay. Some players like to get to know their characters as they play them, after all.

Now, there is an instinct, while DMing, to view the creation of serendipitous background information on the fly as an abuse of the game. Certainly, some players will try to abuse such a system. And yet...I recommend that you quell that instinct.

You shouldn't be trying to squash such creativity—you should encourage it.

First of all, there's no such thing as a serendipitous background. Backgrounds exist to become relevant in a game. Furthermore, every time a player introduces a new background element to your game, it is an opportunity for you to reintroduce it later (as, you know, a hook)!

Furthermore, it encourages your players to think about how their characters fit in your world constantly. That helps them invest in your setting, which is crucial when you aren't doing that much prep for it!

So what if the bit of background seems entirely out of character? Opportunity! Remember that people are complex and work with (and possibly also against) the player to determine how and why this apparent contradiction came about (not necessarily on the spot). And definitely make a note of it, so it can come back to haunt the character later.

So, now that we can see reasons for encouraging this type of thing, how do you encourage it? The method is up to you, but ought to be fairly minor (if you expect to see it happen frequently).

I would suggest granting a floating circumstantial bonus to a relevant check whenever the player applies a known background element or comes up with a quick description of how some previously unknown bit of background might affect the current situation. Then, of course, I would immediately write down that potential hook for future use.

By "floating," I mean unattached, but finite. Without the finite limit, you could find that the more creatively abusive players will not only effectively have a +whatever bonus to all checks, but also take up most of the session getting it! Give the players a number of them for use in an adventure, session, adventuring day, encounter, or whatever other unit of time you think is appropriate and let their creativity determine when and how to assign them. All of a sudden, backgrounds become easy to generate, endlessly complex, and always relevant.
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First Post
Lesson 14: Look everywhere for inspiration.

Whatever inspires you (gaming material, or not), incorporate it into your idea mill. Especially look for short adventures or adventure seeds that you can cannibalize.


I'd say the easiest way to look for inspiration is to read. It can give you plots, settings, and characters to steal, and it's also system-neutral.

@Rune , I hope you don't mind. I compiled a PDF of all this stuff and am attaching it so it's all in one place because I thought it was such a great guide for all DM's new and old!


  • Rune's Full-Time DM, Part-Time Prep Guide.pdf
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These tips very closely match my own style of GMing, so to me they seem really intuitive, and it's exciting to see them articulated so well.

Let me add a few thoughts of my own.

1) You can go beyond refluffing stats. I play with "Schrödinger's stats"--they literally don't exist at all until you open the box and start combat. You don't need an AC until someone rolls a To Hit roll. Make up a reasonable one on the fly. You don't need To Hit or damage modifiers until someone gets hit in combat. Again, make up a reasonable one on the fly. You don't need hitpoints at all; if a foe is meant to be a minion, anything other than a totally whiffed damage roll will drop him. If not, gauge the feel of combat, and keep the monster or NPC antagonist up right up until the point where it'll start being tedious and frustrating that he hasn't gone down yet.

Stats are over-rated. They aren't needed at all in many cases, except for real showcase battles against "star" antagonists.

2) There's still a place for random encounters, especially of the kind described above. Raymond Chandler famously said something to the effect of, "when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns." I've done this many times; when the players seem confused, directionless, or unsure where to go or what to do, have some thugs attack them. Use Schrödinger's stats as detailed above. It's surprising how often that gets them to refocus. And if it doesn't, it's also a great way for the players to find some kind of clue planted by you on the bodies of the thugs/bandits/ninjas/whatever.

3) Tools, not rules. Although this was the motto back in the early days of 3e, it's surprising to me how often it's been overlooked and/or forgotten. I'd always run the game this way, and thought that doing so was common in "Ye Olde Days" of the hobby, so I was actually surprised that it even needed to be said in the first place. Rules are there to be a support to you. If they are the right tool for the job, use them. If not, keep them in your toolbox until such time as they are. Don't ever feel beholden to the rules just because they're the rules. If you think of them instead as the tools, it's a very freeing paradigm shift.

4) Character backgrounds, as you point out, can be a great thing that drives the game, if done correctly. But, as you say, some players find the job onerous. One thing I've done with great success in the past is to borrow a concept from Spirit of the Century. Rather than asking anyone to create detailed backgrounds (although they still can, if desired) have everyone create a very quick and dirty summary of what their character's been doing for the last few weeks or so. This shouldn't be more than a paragraph or two; similar in scope to the blurb on the back of a paperback book. Then, write each player's name twice on little chits of paper, throw them in a coffee mug or something, and pull them out at random and give them to other players. Once every player has the names of two other PCs, have them in turn add a sentence or two on how their character had some kind of minor involvement in the past adventures described for each character.

This is kind of a fun little end of chargen mini-game in its own right. It gives you tons of hooks to potentially use, and since it comes from the players, they're pretty invested in them. Most importantly, if creates ties between the various PCs in their backstories, so that they're not just a bunch of random folks who are together against all reason because the structure of the game demands them to be. This exercise has generated so many roleplaying opportunities and great character moments and potential hooks in ongoing games every time that I've used it, that I now consider it mandatory for every campaign I ever run from now until the end of the time.


Once A Fool
[MENTION=67]Rune[/MENTION], I hope you don't mind. I compiled a PDF of all this stuff and am attaching it so it's all in one place because I thought it was such a great guide for all DM's new and old! If you don't like it, I'll remove it.

Excellent! It's great to see added utility! I find it especially awesome that you also included the Iron DM Anthology (links and all)!

If you don't mind, I'm going to link to your post in the first one!

Excellent! It's great to see added utility! I find it especially awesome that you also included the Iron DM Anthology (links and all)!

If you don't mind, I'm going to link to your post in the first one!
Glad you approve! I figured that if you linked it, it was relevant to the guide.

I'm absolutely cool with whatever you want to do. If you update the guide let me know and I'll add them to the PDF document for everyone. I'll also subscribe to the thread.


Once A Fool
Glad you approve! I figured that if you linked it, it was relevant to the guide.

I'm absolutely cool with whatever you want to do. If you update the guide let me know and I'll add them to the PDF document for everyone. I'll also subscribe to the thread.

Sure thing. I do intend to update, but only infrequently, when and if I think of something that ought to be added (so far, that's only been two lessons). I consider this to be more of a living resource than a blog.


Once A Fool
Lesson 16: Always build toward something.

I'm going to change focus now, just for a little bit, because so much of being able to run games with very little preparation is in the actual running of the games. The next few lessons will be aimed at getting your campaign to the point where it pretty much runs itself.

First of all, I will be assuming a desire to actually run a long-running campaign (and, for the DM who wishes to minimize prep, there is a solid reason for wanting to do so), but these lessons are applicable at any scale; they are just as appropriate for running a single session, as they are for running a campaign arc, an entire campaign, or even multiple linked campaigns!

Now, wait a minute! Did I just say a DM who wishes to minimize prep has good reason to aim for a long-running campaign?

Yes, I did. It may seem counter-intuitive, but prepping for a bunch of one-shots will result in way more time spent in preparation in the long run. You see, there is a certain point where the campaign progresses forward with it's own momentum and with the decisions of the players. If you don't want to be doing a lot of extra work, you ought to be trying to get the game to that point as soon as possible.

Obviously, a big part of this is maintaining player interest. That's were this lesson comes in. Always build toward something.

There are lots of little ways to spark your players' interest and imagination. If you've had success with little tricks like cliff-hangers, or improvisational meta-games, or player input into the setting itself...good! Use that stuff.

But, fundamentally, D&D is a game about progressing from one state to another, about standing up against and overcoming challenges (or failing to do so in memorably spectacular fashion).

It's about taking individual PCs, NPCs, plot hooks, adventures, misadventures, player expectations, and DM expectations, and building a party, a setting, a plot, a story and a gaming group out of all of those little pieces. Always build toward something.

Great concept, but how is that in any way applicable?

That depends. In the beginning of a campaign, you'll probably be introducing the setting and the tone of the campaign and watching as the players struggle to find their party dynamic. You can use this time to introduce thematic foreshadowing and challenges to the party's cohesion. This is best handled subtly, of course.

The idea, though, is that you're working on building two things: a feel for what the campaign is going to be about and a feel for how the PCs are going to fit into it.

Later, when you have lots of plot hooks flourishing, and still more laying dormant, when the PCs' actions are starting to reveal consequences, and when the PCs have some goals in sight, you should be aiming to build a sense of progress for the players.

Some of this is easy. As they pursue their goals, they will naturally feel a sense of progress, or ought to have a clear idea what immediate obstacles prevent that progress. But even down-time can be used constructively. Guide the players toward planning their successes during these moments with gentle (and, again, subtle) nudges. This is especially useful if they have become frustrated or lost.

Remind them that they still haven't discovered what that doppelganger was doing in the guise of the Cardinal. Point out that an all-out assault on the necromancer's forces is bound to fail, but they do know a crazy smite-happy Paladin of Legend, don't they?

Still later, when they are finally hot on the heels of the villain who has evaded them for months (or years!), the game will have plenty of momentum going for it. At this point, you're trying to build a climax (as opposed to an anti-climax!). Throw in close calls, suspenseful situations, situations that require distasteful solutions. Build up the desire to shut that villain down. Then, when they're ready—when they can't suffer that villain to exist a moment longer, that's when you unleash all hell on them!

And, once it's all over, it's all over, right?

Nope! Wrap that story up, sure, but take some unresolved threads and build toward the next one. You don't have to play it (and, even if you do, it doesn't have to be with the same characters), but dangle it out there, anyway. You never know what'll come out of it somewhere down the line.

Always build toward something.
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Once A Fool
Lesson 17: Set the pace.

This next bit of advice is closely related to the last. In order to keep things running smoothly, and to keep player interest, you've got to set the pace!

Seems simple, right? And, really, it is. There's no need to be dictatorial about it, and, in fact, you'll be well served by merely offering a subtle nudge once in a while.

But what pace to set?

Generally, I view each session, adventure, or campaign in three vague stages—the early-game, mid-game, and end-game. Each of these stages represents a separate focus for the game and, consequently, each will want a different pace.

As mentioned in the last lesson, the beginning of a campaign is generally characterized by a focus on introducing the setting (and foreshadowing of themes that the campaign is likely to explore) and finding the party dynamic. Because this is so, much of the tension of the early-game will be arise from the party itself—whether internal (as the party tries to learn each other), or external (as the party strives to make its mark in the world).

For this reason, I like to let the players generally set their own pace in the early-game, only nudging them forward when I feel that they've started to flounder. This does mean a large amount of off-topic chatter slows things down, but I'm okay with that.

I view it as an emulation of the down-time spent by the PCs in taverns or around the campfire that only occasionally gets played out. More importantly, it helps to encourage a bonding—particularly important, as I also spend the early-game presenting racial, religious, or cultural conflicts to the party (when they, inevitably, contain such diversity).

By the mid-game, though, the focus has shifted more toward accomplishing goals set by the party, so, while I still can usually get by with letting the players maintain their own momentum, I do occasionally have to remind the players what their goals are and what resources are at their disposal. I am far more likely to interrupt off-topic table-talk in this stage of the game.

By the end-game, it's an entirely different picture. At this point, I'm doing everything I can to tighten the tension and build toward that looming climax. When I remind the players of things at this point, it's usually about how dire their situation is, or how villainous that villain really is. Also, especially, I'll remind them of any missteps they've made in getting here, and how awful it is that they've come back to haunt them. This may seem like taunting, but that's okay, too, as it kind of gives the villain a vicarious voice. More grist for the motivational mill.

So, really, it's a simple matter. Start out loose and gradually tighten things up. You don't have to tell them when it's time to move on; all you have to do is focus their attention a little bit along the way.
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Wednesday Boy

The Nerd WhoFell to Earth
Does anyone else out there have ideas or advice for campaign-building or running games with minimal prep?

I find that speaking with my players about what their characters plan to do in an upcoming session helps cut down on what I need to prepare. Obviously their intended direction can be derailed during the actual session but if they tell me they intend to get information from their contact, buy supplies for their task, and break into the warehouse stealthily, I know how to focus my creative energy for the session. Otherwise I end up guessing what they'll do next and planning contingencies that may never see the light of day.

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