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Thursday, June 11, 2015

How low, is low prep. Thoughts on the improvised game.

Give me a Players Hand Book and four players at the table with fresh new characters and I can run you a game.
Now. Right now.
4:54 in the afternoon on a Wednesday.
Will it be the best game the players the have ever experienced? Of course not.
Will it be the worst? Not likely either.

Somewhere as part of our  Hobby DNA we have been  ingrained with this  idea of "prep work."
That prep work is  absolutely essential for a good game. I don't always agree.

To run a game, a single enjoyable night of adventure, a gm can go with  little or no prep.

To run a campaign is a different animal all together. For a cohesiveness series of games, damn straight the gm needs prep. This post is not talking about that. *

I know my little list includes some points that are baked into and  eloquently codified in Dungeon World. I think the greatest strength of Dungeon world lies in its group world building. This is however different in that I'm writing about tips for a one off game under systems where the  Gm is normally expected to do allot of  front end work before the group hits the table.
The  answer to this post is not, "just play dungeon world it has rules for all this." The reason that is not the answer is because I would prefer not to have rules for all this. If I'm going to go by the seat of my pants I want the  wind in my face when I do it.. or something..

ENOUGH PREAMBLE!

Here are my own tips **** for improvising games.
Some of this will be better suited to some groups more than others, your millage may vary. Also some of this can be applied to any session, not just the full on improvisational one shots.









  • Low Levels:
    • Improvising a game is easier if the character's are a lower level. Reason being  higher level characters need their challenges to be much vaster and more complicated than a low level party. A party of  15th level characters would by the time they get to this adventure, will be ingrained in the local landscape, well known, sought out. All of these things lead to great adventures on the campaign level, but on the one shot level it is much more difficult to give the game the kind of  gravitas a higher level party deserves. It's one thing to say, "Your old friend the Prince summons you."
      It is quite another when the group has been playing in the same world for a while and the prince is actuality an old friend with some known properties.
      Sticking with lower level characters  makes the one off feel like a jumping off point rather than one dimensional snap shot.
  • Read and ask:
    • Before the game starts read over all of the character sheets, take notes. Ask the players individually about their characters how do they picture them, who are they?
      Listen carefully and start to find connections. Do two of them mention a city? Perhaps this adventure takes place in that city? Is one of them on the  run ?
      Given enough time and few questions players who have these fresh new characters in their hands, will give a gm enough hooks to run several adventures. If one of those players has blacksmith as part of her background, let one of her former customers be the one to start the adventure by crashing into her home covered in blood pursued by assassins.
  • Connect: 
    • This goes hand and hand with the  above "read and Listen." Make sure to connect the characters back to whatever adventure the GM dreams up. Connecting  the player's vision of their character to the adventure at hand will create a bit of investment which goes along way towards making one off games enjoyable for everybody.
  • In Medias Res:
    • Start the characters in action. Nothing roots a party  to a game faster than a flight of flaming arrows. Or an ogre bashing in a door, or  a Kraken. Already someone is thinking  "Kraken attacks are cool!" And they are cool.
      Start the party in clear, immediate danger, their actions will tell  very quickly what kind of adventure they are looking for and what direction the GM should explore.
  • Paint the location Broadly:
    • In a one shot game specifics will kill a gm. Unless the GM is some kind of savant and can keep all of the  specific details in his or her head straight, eventual  the gm will mix up some detail. Guess what the players are crazy savants and they will call the gm out on any such mistake they make.
      "Oh really I thought Pollius was the mayor of the  other town, the one with the  7 horse fountain at the gate and all those pretty red flowers, but you just said he is the Sherrif? What gives?"
      As a gm when these mistakes happen the only responses are, "Sorry, I flubbed Pollius is the Mayor and  Demigorgon is the  sheriff." Or " Yes, He's Both."
      Neither one is a great answer, both break the flow of the game. Try to avoid the  whole thing by painting with broad strokes. This allows the Gm to only detail what has to be detailed as it comes up, and  will reduce the chances of unnecessary confusion. 
      • "You are in the fair city of Pan_Delver, the nearby river narrows here making this a fine area for water wheel milling. Speaking of milling, you can see smoke and flame rising from mill district, you can hear screaming.."
  • Think about TV.
    • Television, particularly American television often has programs that while episodic can each stand alone as an adventure in it's self. **Pace a one off like an episode of Magnum PI.
      I Call it the  Magnum rule(as of just now). 
      It goes like this Action, characters, problems, action, CHANGE, action, resolution.
    • The  show starts with some kind of action (In medias res remember), then the characters kibitz for a scene (HIGGINS!), a problem presents it's self, there's more action, the  problem changes unexpectedly, last action, the  problem resolves generaly with more kibitzing and  some good ole 1980's Magnum PI sexism, and chest hair.
      • You find a friends body on the beach, drowned and now being gnawed on by a shuaguin!
        You and the  party investigate.
        You find out others have drowned, Shaguin are afoot in the cove...
        Fight the Shaguin!
        Wait. It turns out the victims are being sacrificed too the sahguin by a cult? WTF Whose behind that.
        Attacked by the guards?
        The town Burger-mister is a shaguin worshiping  weirdo! Who knew! 
      • The point is the formula from just about any  action based, cereal TV show will work for a one shot D&D game with some tweaking. The  formula has been around for so long because it works. The opening action grabs people attention. The  Kibitzing develops characters and moves the  plot. The problem give the  payers something to work against, the change keeps people interest. It all works to make sure no one really has time to look away or change the channel, which in a one shot game is part of the challenge for the GM.
  • Use Monsters you know: 
    Familiar monster ..flesh golem
    • Simple enough. The GM should use monsters they don't have to look up. We all have a variety of monsters in our head that we have read so many times we can quote the relevant stats verbatim. Use them, or at least use monsters that you can aplly those stats to.
      • We know what an orc is. Will the players ever know or care if  the "fungoid mushroom warriors," have the same stats as orcs plus 1/2 damage form blunt, and a spore could save vs poison or take 1d8 damage?
  • Don't explain magic:
    • If there is a floating city in a one off don't spare any thought about why or how it floats. If teh GM says giant balloons ... fine what ever. Same goes for spells. use "spell like effects" often, just change the descriptions of a well known spell or make the whole thing up. Not every spell a monster tosses has to be in the PHB. Unless the characters have a legit chance of  gaining access to that spell it really does not matter exactly what it was.***
      • "The shaman waves his arms and speaks with a strange cadence, three ropes of green glowing energy snap viciously at your character,  you take 3d4+1 damage". 
      • That was magic missile with a strange description. It Auto hits, no save 1d4+1 damage, but the players woudl be like, "WTF was that?"
  • Roll with it.
    • The Gm has no Prep. That's not a problem that's a liberator.  Let the players determine what direction thing go. Run with them, not  at them. If every one is  having a good time and are engaged with the game, then things are working. Run with it. DON"T try to force the game in one direction or another. Without anything prepared to support a preconceived story line that tactic is just bound to crash and burn.
  • Take Notes /  leave things open ended.
    • A DM just never knows when her one shot game is going to grasp the  players so strongly that they want to come back to that place again. Use the one shot as a spring board to a more lengthy campaign one for which the GM will want to do a all that real prep work based off notes from a good improv game
As always thank you for reading.
Hope there is something to glean from all this.
-Mark.


*For setting up and running a long term campaign,  I would suggest checking out  Alexis Smolensk's blog "The Tao of D&D." He has put out more words about detailed world building than I ever could.

**This is because American media thinks we are all to dumb to follow a story form one episode to the next. So we get shows like Castle..and CSI.. and other absolute shit. (Post for another time.)

*** I make up spells constantly and sometimes the  players even end up having them, and it has never broken my game, some folks get to hung up on all that "But it's not in the book!! Balance will be destroyed!" drivel.

**** LOL, me giving out GM advice!  That's RICH.