Want to run a D&D game without any session preparation whatsoever? Or how about playing an entire D&D campaign without spending a minute on prep work?
It’s possible. And it can be a lot of fun.
I have been GMing completely prepless games for over 20 years. And every time I came across a challenge – whether it was running a riddle, murder mystery, or even an escape room – I created a tool for running that story without any prep work.
The tools in this article will help you to effortlessly deal with the unexpected in a way that is exciting and drives the story forward. If you like preparing your games, they will allow you to generate ideas quicker and better deal with situations where players do not follow your carefully laid plans. This article is also the first chapter to the Prepless GM – a complete guide to prepless gaming.
Playing D&D Without Preparation
Let’s address the oliphant in the room. The world’s most popular RPGs such as D&D, Pathfinder, Vampire, and Warhammer weren’t created to run without any prep work. There are other RPGs, like Fate core and Apocalypse world, that have been specifically designed for prepless play and do it very well. So why would you want to go completely prepless with games that weren’t designed for it?
The answer: Because you love these games and so do your friends. You own all the books and know the system inside out. But also because these games just become a much easier, spontaneous, and more cooperative experience if you run them prepless.
But in order to make them work as prepless games we are going to have to come at them from a different mindset. That means changing some of the ideas you are familiar with. But hey, it’s your game and you can play it any way you like. My advice: Adopt the ideas that work for you and ignore what doesn’t.
In this article I’ve laid out the general principles of running a prepless game. And we’ll look at the question system, which is my core tool for improvisational GMing.
The Principles of Going Prepless
Most RPGs revolve around following a predetermined storyline. This requires a lot of preparation on the GM’s part. With improvisational GMing the players and GM don’t follow a predetermined storyline. The object of the game is to find out what happens next. Everything happens at the table and players are free to take the story into whatever direction they find most interesting. It is a much more cooperative style of play where everybody shares in the surprises the game has to offer. So let’s look at some general principles or D&D improv.
1. Cooperative Play
Regardless of your GM style – players should be at the heart of any role-playing game. One of the core principles of D&D improv is shifting some tasks and responsibilities to the players. Why should you have to do it all, when there are creative, excited players at the table who can help speed up the game and are your best resource when you feel stuck? No book will tell you what your players like, only they can.
Not having to do it all means that instead of rummaging through stacks of papers GMs can really focus on the players. If there are five people at the table, the GM should be taking the spotlight about one fifth of the time. Nobody likes being a spectator to a ten minute monologue. Try to make every situation about the players and their characters. Then, let them roll with it.
2. Serve the Story
This is a very easy but profound guiding principle for both players and GMs. Ask players to think about the story as if they were collaboratively writing a great novel with their character as the protagonists. Their actions should serve the story and be fun for everyone at the table.
So if your parties rogue gets her shining moment climbing a tower undetected and a player yells ‘look a thief’ just because his character is chaotic, that’s not serving the story. Players should be free to do and explore as they please, but not at the expense of everyone else at the table. Ask players to think about how their characters choices affect the overall story.
The best players think beyond what their character would do and consider the entire story. For instance, characters can bicker or even not be on speaking terms. That could provide some interesting role play. But they’ll serve the overall story better if they don’t allow the conflict to escalate into a player versus player fight.
In my experience, 99% of problems and discussions can be quickly solved by simply asking “Does that serve the story?”. It is a fair question because everyone has taken time out of their busy schedule to play a game. And it makes both players and GMs aware of more helpful behaviour. Once players start asking themselves this question, the story improves. They will police themselves and give you helpful nuggets that drive the story forward.
3. Originality is Overrated
Some GMs feel they have to come up with complex and original storylines. But is that really what players want? Ask your players about the best moments they’ve had at the gaming table. It’s usually not something original the GM made up. Most players will talk about an unexpected situation nobody planned for or about defeating a giant or red dragon. Not very original, but clichés work, use them.
The bar for having fun and creating an engaging story is much lower than a lot of GMs believe. Stories don’t have to be super-complex or even original. They do have to be well told, immersive, and exciting. Improvising your D&D game really helps with these aspects.
4. Ideas are Cheap
When I talk to GMs about creating entire campaigns on the fly one of the most common responses I hear is that it is simply impossible to generate all the content needed to provide players with a rich world. What if you don’t have any inspiration?
In the words of Stephen King: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Generating story ideas quickly is a skill. It isn’t something that you have to sit around and wait for. With the right tools it really only takes a minute to generate a bunch of ideas on the fly easily.
Consider this: Your mind is brimming with ideas for great storylines. You’ve watched countless of hours of tv shows, read books, and played many a roleplaying game. All your life you’ve been absorbing stories. And now, all you have to do is stir up the information you already possess to generate story ideas. In short, the story ideas you seek are already in your head. You just have to activate them in ways that serve you.
Generating story content is easier than many people believe. But there are tricks to it. For instance, Stephen King does all his writing on the fly. No predetermined plot, no hours spent building an original word. He just sits down, asks himself an engaging question, and writes. And his stories are fast-paced, inventive, and engaging. Just the qualities that players want their game.
5. Ask for Help
Even though you can create everything yourself, you really don’t have to. Players also have a well of ideas that they are willing to share. They can offer a suggestion without breaking character. This’ll give you an opportunity to respond. For instance:
GM: The name of the shopkeeper is… Uh… Help me out here…
PC: Bert Haggelflagel? Are you Bert from my hometown of Flugelstrumpe? You certainly look like Bert. But are you?
GM: Ah sure. Bert recognizes you. Ivo, is that you? You owe me money!
When players know helping is allowed, they’ll start helping you out whenever they can. No amount of great GMing improves a game as much as players working together to serve the story. Your players are the best resource for great ideas and should be invited to get involved. And the best thing, they are guaranteed to be excited about their own ideas. Inviting players to cooperate also lets you know their preferences. Avoid spending hours of prep work for your D&D game on storylines that they might not be interested in.
Of course, as a GM, you are still responsible for the way a story unfolds. You can regulate player input by the questions you ask. Which brings us to the next part of the first chapter of the Prepless GM; the question system.
The Question System
If you’re GMing without any prep work, you’ll need a basic core system for improvisation and moving the story forward. The question system will help you do that.
– The Question System –
“Think of a story as a series of questions to be answered.”
You can think of a story as a series of questions to be answered. Questions drive the game forward. They immerse players in the story. Whenever you’re reading a book you just can’t put down, it’s because the writer posed engaging questions you want to learn the answer to. Questions also divide a story into manageable chunks. If you feel overwhelmed, just ask a question and things will start falling into place quickly.
You can handle questions in four different ways. They work best when used evenly:
Tell the story: Answer the questions yourself.
Ask the players: Have players answer the questions.
Randomize: Answer the question by generating a random result.
Create a mystery: Pose the question, but leave it open for players to explore.
Tell the Story
When you are improvising, you’re constantly asking questions and answering them yourself. What kind of world do the characters find themselves in? What danger lurks just around the corner? Some answers are shared with players, while others are not. You choose which parts of the story to tell. Answering questions yourself gives you maximum narrative control.
Dangers of overuse:
• The GM must come up with the entire story.
• Players may feel like spectators.
Ask the Players
Asking players lets you share the creative load. It gives players limited control over their world and allows them to integrate their preferences and background stories. You can manage how much control you hand over to players by choosing the right questions. For instance, the question ‘what colour is the tower?’ gives a player much less influence than the question ‘what does this part of the world look like?’ Ask questions that match player development. If a player seems overwhelmed, ask simpler questions.
Types of questions you can ask are:
Description questions: What does it look like?
Speculation questions: Why do you think that is? What could be the reason?
Lore questions: What do you know about this?
Action questions: What do you do?
Character questions: Who are you? What drives you?
Choice questions: What do you choose?
Dangers of overuse:
• Players have trouble getting into character if they have to come up with the entire story.
GMs can consult a bunch of tools and tables for generating random ideas. The upside of using randomized results is that it will help you avoid getting stuck on the same ideas. Everybody shares in the thrill of not knowing what happens next.
Dangers of overuse:
• Randomly generating results sometimes yield weird outcomes that don’t fit the overall story. Don’t be afraid to ignore results or change them to fit the story.
Create a Mystery
Unanswered questions to be solved are what drives a story forward. They draw players in. You create a mystery when you pose a question to the players and leave it open to be explored. For instance:
– What happened to the lost people of Ta’al?
– Where is the Ruby of Return?
– Who killed the king?
Dangers of overuse:
• If you pose too many of these questions the story will lack direction. Have the players pick a couple they find most interesting.
An Example of Play:
How do you come up with questions for your improv D&D game? When you’re playing to find out what happens next, questions will come naturally. A lot of times you’ll have more questions than you can discuss. Just pick the ones that seem most interesting and try to divide the four ways you can handle them evenly. For instance:
Let’s say you want to start a new story by dropping the players right in the middle of the action. A good question might be ‘what dangerous situation does the party find themselves in?’ You choose to tell the story and explain to the players they are all dangling from a rope.
The next natural question that comes to mind might be ‘what is this rope attached to?’ You ask the players and one of them answers the rope is attached to an airship that is flying high above the city.
You might wonder ‘which city?’ and roll a randomized result to find out. After consulting a random table you tell the players they’re dangling above the sprawling capital city of Middleburg. Someone has stolen the imperial ship with the emperor’s daughter – who the players were assigned to protect – still in it. Players ask who would dare such a devious act. You decide to create a mystery by leaving that question open for now.
The question system can divide any story into manageable chunks and lets you move the story forward. The system also lets you deal with inconsistencies in the story in an interesting way.
When you ‘play to find out’ inconsistencies are more likely to occur. Maybe you accidentally use an NPC that died three sessions before, or a PC survives a fall that should have killed her. Don’t think of these inconsistencies as problems that slow down the story, but ask questions. That way, discovering how that NPC came back from the dead, or how a PC miraculously survived a fall could be the next chapter of your story.
Did you like what you’ve read so far? This article is only the first chapter of the Prepless GM; A complete system for running RPGs on the fly. It contains a ton of tools for running games without any prep work. And I’ve play-tested every one of them extensively. The Prepless GM can be used with any gaming system, D&D or otherwise. So check out the Prepless GM in our DungeonVault webstore.
By Paul Camp
Image credit: Forrest Imel