Full-time DM, Part-time Prep

Thanks, again! I like the picture on the cover page. Is it your work, or is it picked up from elsewhere?

No problemo!

Yeah, it's pretty cool and I thought it was fitting for the subject matter. I found it a while back doing a Google search for things related to D&D/Pathfinder.

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Once A Fool
Lesson 21: Be mysterious.

Now, let's talk a little bit about narration. Assuming you are the DM, your voice is the voice of the setting. You set the atmosphere and the tone of the game. The way you choose to present that setting to the players will necessarily determine how the players perceive the world.

I recommend that you do your utmost to be mysterious. Why? For a couple of reasons, actually.

At its heart, D&D has, from the very earliest of days, been about the exploration of the unknown, whether that unknown has been the geography of the world itself, the intrigue of schemes and politicking, or the wonder of raw fantasy. Why is this so potent a motivator? Curiosity, of course! Presenting the world in a shroud of mystery will pique the player's curiosity.

Another potent reason to be mysterious is a little less obvious. Remember way back when I said you should be listening to your players to take cues on where to focus your prepping efforts? Introducing an element of mystery into your narration can help you do that.

You might have an idea what the answer to a question or the solution to a problem might be, but if you refrain from laying it all out in the open, you've given yourself an opportunity to let the players come up with their own conclusions—which gives you an opportunity to let them be (mostly) right about their speculations, while also throwing in an unforeseen twist.

So what does it take to be mysterious? If you aren't already practicing it, it might take a shift in philosophy—and a corresponding shift in habits. You'll have to pay attention to your diction and actively work toward being subtle.

Practice describing not what is, but how the PCs perceive it. Practice answering questions evasively—a "He doesn't seem to be lying to you," instead of "He's telling the truth." Practice, also, switching between mysterious and expository modes—hopefully subtly enough that the players don't notice the difference. And, of course, you most definitely should practice the well-timed "evil DM grin."

Before you know it, what might have seemed awkward at first will be second nature. Just...be mysterious.
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Once A Fool
Lesson 22: Make it personal.

If you want to run a game with little prep, you want your NPCs to be memorable. Not only are the players more likely to be engaged in a world with memorable NPCs, but you'll find that having forgettable NPCs means lots of wasted time rehashing details about NPCs in game. Ultimately, the players' tendency to forget the NPCs might make them harder for you to remember—which, of course, translates to more prep time when using them.

Of course, there are all kind of tricks to giving your NPCs personality, but nothing will make them more memorable than pure emotion. For now, I want to talk about just two NPC types: villains and friends.

Villains are villainous. Of course, they do awful things to the NPCs in your world. But if you really want to make your villains memorable, make sure they do bad things to the PCs. They don't have to be anything major—at least, not at first—but they should be entirely malevolent—either entirely unprovoked, or disproportionately unwarranted. Get the PCs to hate your villains and they will not forget them!

Okay, so that's easy, but what about friends?

Well, that's easy, too. All kinds of allies might provide services or help the PCs in exchange for something, but consider having some NPCs do good things for the PCs with no strings attached. Your PCs will probably react to this in one of two ways: they'll either like the NPC, or they'll be suspicious of the NPC.

Either is good for the game, because, assuming the NPC continues to do good things for the party, either the fondness will grow, or the suspicion will. This leaves your options open for a betrayal down the road, or continued friendship, or even a sacrifice on behalf of the party (which could be very interesting if the party was suspicious of the NPC!).

No matter what, that NPC will be hard to forget.
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Once A Fool
Lesson 23: Campaigns mean Change.

From the very beginning, I've written these lessons with the assumption that the goal is a long-running campaign. Why? One-shot games are plenty of fun, but they're more work in the long-run. Really. See, you have to recreate the context every-time you start up a new story and if you switch systems, your entire group will have to relearn or refresh your memories on a new set of rules. Every time.

On the other hand, a long-running game will keep the same rules throughout (usually!) and, just as importantly, provides its own context.

So, that means your goal is not to change things up, right?


Running a campaign means growing characters, the adventuring party, the campaign setting, even the very gaming-group over an extended period of time. Where one-shots are isolated depictions of a game at specific points in time, a campaign provides the entire experience of growth from one point to another, and all of the points in between! A campaign isn't so much about being heroes, but, rather, becoming heroes.

But how do you apply this concept to running a game without prep?

Remember, you might provide the hooks, but the players provide the plot. This means that your players should be driving the narrative and that you will be playing a reactionary role. This, in turn, means lots of improvising on your part.

The following framework will help: Every scene that the PCs put themselves into, from the first introduction to the final denouement—like the overall story, itself—has a beginning, an end, and a period of transition in the middle.

You just need to figure out what they are, and, more importantly, how they flow from and lead to other such scenes.

Ask yourself, "What does this scenario begin in the context of the game?"

Is it the start of an adventure? The beginning of a rivalry? A friendship? A war? Whatever it is, if you've just created a hook, remember to write it down and save it for later!

Ask yourself, "How does this scenario change things?"

Does it throw a complication in the PCs' plans? Is it downtime used for training? Have past mistakes finally caught up with the PCs? Again, write any hooks down and file them away.

Finally, ask yourself, "What does this scenario end?"

Is it simply the end of the PCs' non-adventuring careers? The end of a dynasty? The end of the universe?

Asking what begins or what changes in scenario has obvious implications for the development of the game. In contrast, asking what has come to an end may seem a little irrelevant, but it's actually very important. It provides you an opportunity to examine how different elements of the game are being resolved—and answering this question can help you provide a sense of accomplishment and evolution for the players, all with minimal effort on your part.

Keep those questions in mind and much of your improvisational work will already be done for you.
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First Post
I think another important thing is choosing the right game. If you don't have a lot of time to prepare as a GM, then choose a game that's less rulesy or crunchy. E.g. D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder wouldn't be good choices. Not only do these types of games have a lot more rules to know and understand, but they also tend to attract more rules lawyer type players.

Find a game with a system that's easy to understand and easy to make rulings on-the-fly. Find a game that focuses more on storytelling and less on combat. Avoid games that use miniatures and such , again because they tend to be more rules intensive.

I used to run a lot of Vampire and Changeling back in the day (old WoD) for just this reason. The system was SO easy to understand, that I seldom if even looked up a rule, I'd just do it on the fly. All you had to do was find a relative attribute and ability, and bam, you had your dice pool. I think the upcoming Numenera game will be a golden game for the GM without a lot of time.


Once A Fool
Find a game with a system that's easy to understand and easy to make rulings on-the-fly. Find a game that focuses more on storytelling and less on combat. Avoid games that use miniatures and such , again because they tend to be more rules intensive.

These are good points. While it is certainly possible to run a prep-light game with complex systems, it generally defeats the purpose if you have to put a lot of work into jettisoning the clutter.

That said, I've prepped and run both 3e and 4e games (both systems with or without miniatures--without is definitely preferable for smooth play!) with the "streamlined sandbox" philosophy. It can be done, if you have a clear vision of what rules are standing in the way.


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

Building a world can be done in between sessions, but that's a lot more work than you need to put into it (though, if you like world-building and have the time, by all means, have at it!). It is entirely possible to create most of the world as you play.

Obviously, one way to do this is to use random generators to fill in the gaps as needed. You can also just make stuff up as you go along (and encourage your players to do so, as well).

The thing is, that kind of world-building can be very haphazard and lacking in depth. But it doesn't have to be. In the case of randomly generated results, some oddities could emerge. That's a good thing! If you take a moment to consider how an unusual result fits into the world, what was an unrealistic anomaly becomes an exception that establishes the norm. Everything has its place in the world, even if you just made it up on the fly. Finding that place adds a wealth of depth to the world you are building.

If you remember that everything is an NPC, consider that all NPCs have a purpose—a motive, or a reason for being. Every time you introduce something new to the campaign, think, why is this what and how it is?

Once you've got that, you just need to tie it all in. And you can do it in two ways that drive your game forward:

Everything has a hook attached. Figure out what it is, write it down, and put it in the box for further use! Not only will this potentially tie the newly created element to the campaign's future, it provides another course for the players to follow.

You can also tie your newly created element into the previously established campaign by pulling an old hook from the box and weaving the two together. This helps to reinforce the history of the campaign (as it directly relates to the characters) and, of course, also gives them an opportunity for action (or consequences for inaction).

All of a sudden, that simple roll on a random chart, or that off-the-cuff introduction of some minor detail has become a significant factor in the PCs' lives and that world you've been building a campaign around is just a little bit more layered and interesting.
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