30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Ten

Ten solid days of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge in the can!

What are your tips for running a low/no prep game?

As I said in an earlier post, I’m not the strongest improv GM. I’ve become better over time, but I’ve bolstered my meagre improv skills by being hyper-prepared behind-the-scenes. Every once in a while, though, I’ll end up having to GM on the fly, mostly because of a lack of prep time for a session. And that’s when I fall back on my hyper-preparedness. I’m going to talk about Pathfinder because that’s what I play the most, but you can file the serial numbers off and apply these to other games.

My first tip, then, is know your resources. I have PDFs of all my Pathfinder books, and I have bookmarked relevant pages in all my books. The two big ones for GMing on the fly are the GameMastery Guide and the NPC Codex. Between these two books you have everything you need to make up NPC encounters off the cuff, develop plots, and set the scene for your players. If you GM Pathfinder, I highly recommend these two books. If you don’t play Pathfinder, your game likely has similar resources available, so track them down.

Other resources that will help? Pre-made maps. If you have to put an encounter together on the fly, having a collection of pre-made maps is a big help. Not only is it one less thing you have to come up with, but the map itself can inspire your encounter. You can get them from a variety of sources: Drive-Thru RPG, old issues of gaming magazines, table-top miniature games. Paizo sells a line of flip-mats and map packs for a variety of terrains and locations. I have never thrown out any map I have ever found (I’m actually a bit obsessive about keeping them), so my collection is vast enough I can usually present a unique location on demand.

My second tip, and this ties back to my world-building style, is let your players help. This is the time to ask your players questions about their characters, what they want, what they think is going on, where they want to go. This takes some of the pressure off you, and helps gives you ideas for the session. And because the ideas came from them, you know your players will be engaged. Engagement is big when you are improving a session; your players will be a lot more forgiving of the evening’s rough edges if they are into the plot. So don’t be afraid to ask them to help you.

My last tip: keep the session moving. If you haven’t had time to prep, this is not the night to engage the players in long research encounters. If they’re in the pub, have someone throw a punch. If they’re stuck in a dungeon and dithering, a secret door opens and goblins pour out. Keep the energy up, keep the party moving forward, keep the players doing something as opposed to talking about something. Of course, if you have a role-playing heavy group, then switch it around; this is the night to have extended NPC interaction. Know your group, and run hard with what they love.

What tips do you have for running with no prep? Drop it in the comments!