Full-time DM, Part-time Prep

Rune

Once A Fool
Lesson 25: Get the dice to do the work.

Now, I don't mean by using randmized charts (although, you certainly can get good use out of them).

I'm talking about a philosophical shift that could completely change your entire game. The general idea that I'm going to present here is one that I feel is fairly innovative, but it is certainly not my own innovation. Rather, what I'm going to present here is but a generalized distillation of rules that have popped up (in one form or another) in various different role-playing games in recent years.

The basic idea is to use the dice (or whatever mechanic is used) not (only) to determine a binary success or failure of an action, but also to drive the game forward by giving the players something to work with when they don't succeed.

In games where this kind of thing isn't already baked in, all you have to change is the way you see (and describe) things. Instead of looking at that binary action mechanic as a success or failure generator, consider that the character is attempting to control a situation in some way and that a good roll probably means that the character demonstrates or maintains such control. A poor roll means that the character doesn't. Now that could mean outright failure, but it also might mean some unforeseen complication has arisen.

And with that simple shift in outlook, you've opened up a world of possibilities in play. For one thing, it will help to solve a problem that many groups have with attaching dice rolls to social or puzzle-solving situations—that is, the breaking of immersion that happens when the dice don't reflect what was actually said at the table—or are used in substitution.

When you've divorced the pass/fail mechanic from the die roll, you open up room for the players' details and descriptions of characters' actions (and no, this does not mean acting) to determine success or failure. The die, then, becomes a tool for adding depth and excitement to the campaign through complications.

This is all good for any style of game, but it is especially good for a prep-light game. Why? Because of all of the opportunities that it presents!

It presents you the opportunities to spring hooks on the players and to create them! In so doing, it offers the players the opportunities to create plot. By doing these things, you all are afforded the opportunities to build the setting, which presents the opportunity of building immersion, which, of course, can be utilized to build interest in the campaign.

And all of this is being done in play, not in preparation! Just about the only thing you might want to prepare ahead of time would be a list of common complications you can draw inspiration from.

But, other than that, you're good if you just get those dice working for you.
 
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Rune

Once A Fool
Lesson 26: Use your players' imaginations.

I'm about to suggest something that is going to go against the instincts of many a DM. Traditionally, we've been conditioned to think that providing more details equals better DMing. Waste of time. And effort.

Details don't matter until they matter.

And, consequently, details don't exist until they matter. Now, I don't mean you shouldn't give any details! Rather, you should provide sparse details, but suggestive ones.

Why should you do this? Well, first, it makes improvisation easier and, if you're doing minimal prep, you're doing a lot of improvisation, right? But, even when you've planned an encounter or scene, creating a few evocative details instead of a set description provides flexibility in unfolding the scene that a set block of descriptive text simply doesn't. Not only that, but important details tend to get missed by players when they're couched amid a block of irrelevant details.

Most, importantly, however, when you give your players a few evocative details that only suggest the situation, you encourage them to ask you questions (which is good, because it helps you focus their attention) and it encourages them to use their own imaginations (which is awesome, because that's the point when it becomes their game instead of just yours!). Imagination equals buy-in. But it also means less energy spent on your part in creating the scene. That's a good thing.

Of course, conflicts of vision will arise from time to time. When this happens, it is important to roll with the players' interpretations as much as possible, because feeding their imagination is your primary goal. Shutting them down just sends the message that your imagination is more important than theirs and that is a message that runs counter to your goals.
 

doghead

thotd
Lesson 1: Be organized.

I am guilty of this. Or more accurately, not doing this. Most of my work is done on the computer, but I have notes on scraps of paper, in note books, in emails etc. I often find myself re-reading the IC thread to remember what went before.

For my last campaign, I started using the Enworld campaign manager with its associated wiki. There have been some hiccups, but i think it, or something like it can be a great resource.

And finally, if you know that you are not always going to have access to your computer, the internet when inspiration strikes, or time is available, have a handy notebook that you keep close by.

thotd
 

doghead

thotd
Lesson 3: Reduce the bookkeeping.

(snip) ... 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. ...

I don't use XP for the reasons that you expound. But one up side of XP is that it gives the DM a mechanism for rewarding great play or participation. Perhaps a hybrid system could work for those who want to simplify things, but keep the XP system. For each major quest, the characters earn one half the XP required to level, for minor quests one sixth. Or something like that.

thotd

Edit: Just read #4 which essentially provides a similar reward mechanism. A more effective/useful/engaging mechanism than XP rewards as well, I think.

thotd
 
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Rune

Once A Fool
if you know that you are not always going to have access to your computer, the internet when inspiration strikes, or time is available, have a handy notebook that you keep close by.

thotd

Sorry for the delayed response (I've just now been going through the thread, making minor edits to the lessons and preparing to post a few more), but I just wanted to say that this is excellent advice and so obviously simple and useful that I regret not thinking to mention it, myself.
 

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.

So...

You received 1 xp for this lead post? 1 xp? I figured when I got to the end it would be so dense with xp that it might break the bottom of my web browser.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
You received 1 xp for this lead post? 1 xp? I figured when I got to the end it would be so dense with xp that it might break the bottom of my web browser.

Naw, there were a bunch of them, but that was before the Hack killed the old XP system and made them go away. Thanks for the new start, though! And the kind words. And stay tuned! I'm working on updating the Iron DM Anthology, and then I've got a few more lessons ready to go.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Lesson 27: Set nothing in stone.

The next few lessons are going to focus a bit on running the game and, particularly, on honing your improvisation skills to do so. Improvisation can be intimidating, particularly if you don't have an anchor to center your efforts on and ground them. The anchor is important. You definitely should have one. But that anchor should be the PCs. They are the only constant that matters.

To that end you should never consider any element you introduce or resolve as written in stone. Allow yourself room to change everything in response to the changing needs of the game. Especially, be prepared to respond to the PCs' actions, even if that means ditching, modifying, or replacing something you were looking forward to.

Of course, this all seems well and good, but why should you do these things, and how?

"Why" is simple. You want to give as much narrative control over to the players as you can get away with, not only to increase their investment, but also to decrease your workload. Every time you predetermine that something definitely is one specific way, you have answered a potential future question with a "No." And that can stop the flow of collaborative improvisation (in other words, "role playing") cold.

So, how do you leave room for change? Just don't create anything? Not at all! Go ahead and create to your heart's content! Just keep in mind that details don't matter until they matter. Don't just be prepared to change things on the fly - go ahead and look for opportunities to do it, especially when the players' ideas are better than your own.

Now, this doesn't mean you should throw setting consistency out the window; you're going to need that to keep your players' disbelief suspended. What it does mean, however, is that the world should react to the PCs' actions - sometimes visibly.

Of course, all of this is easier if you be mysterious in your descriptions. The more uncertain they are about the reality of their assumptions, the more room you have to surprise your players - or roll with whatever unexpected course they choose.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Lesson 28: Always leave an out.

It probably goes without saying that you generally want your significant villains to avoid getting boxed in by the PCs - or, at least, they probably want that. What you may not have considered is that the game will flow much better if you avoid doing the same to the PCs, as well. This doesn't mean you should never put the PCs into desperate situations, but that, even when you do, you should never narrow their options to the point where desperation becomes frustration. Desperation can foster innovation; frustration can only ever hinder it. And in so doing, it will suck the energy right out of a game.

Frustration is the enemy of improvisation, and, hence, the enemy of low-prep play. To that end, you should never engineer a scenario in which the PCs do not have a way to make progress - even if that progress is a retreat - nor should you require progression to go through a narrative choke-point.

In fact, you shouldn't require anything; that's just extra work you're putting on yourself! Remember, trust the players to come up with their own solutions and give them the latitude to do so! Save yourself from all of the extra effort that distrust entails!
 


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