No Prep, No Problem

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Contrary to popular belief, GMs do not always need to have an intricate plan in advance. One day when I found myself in charge without any warning, I realized I would have to {cue dramatic music} “wing it.”

Blasphemy, you say! A GM cannot be a real GM without prepared material! The adventure would fall to pieces! Until that fateful night, I would have totally agreed with you.  Yet amazingly, this game went well. The D&D Police did not show up. Most relieving of all, my players did not even seem to notice.

The first thing I did was a dramatic summary of the campaign up to tonight.  Notes are invaluable but the GM has enough on their plate so have someone else take them each session.  I then told the players they had several minutes to discuss their plans amongst themselves. This gave me additional time to get myself situated behind the screen. This allowed me to setup a new plot hook that I created out of old campaign elements.  Campaign elements that were essentially given to me during the summary as well as listening to the players discuss their options.  Basically idea recycling can help compensate for lack of a formal prep.

Next I let the characters automatically run into a random encounter.  This was easy to implement, a fun combat for the players, and ate up some time.  Presented  the right way many random encounters can appear to be ‘normal’ encounters.  In fact, next time you are reading a module, be sure to check out those tables or any other optional side quests the writers took time to come up with as you can find worthwhile material in them.

Afterward, I was ready to move the plot forward.  The party had just retrieved an item from the city’s sewers for an NPC  (overthrown goblin king) who informed them that they needed to go back to that same area to get an additional item that was “necessary.”  The players weren’t happy about this, but the stubborn NPC (supported with the fact that he ‘happened’ to have enough power to back up his orders) made them retrace the path from the previous session!  So the right command by an NPC who can enforce their decrees if necessary serves as the in-game tool for manipulating situations to how you need them to be.

Finally, whenever necessary I threw in a few doses of the classic GM trick: ‘Fake Rolling.’ By this I refer to the age old practice of dropping dice behind the screen and looking down, but already having the outcome planned. No, this is not cheating. This is a discrete way to direct the outcome in the best interests of the game through a believable technique.  In the case of an evening you’re not fully prepared for, its an essential tactic to get you through the night.

A few tips for when you yourself discover that Murphy’s Law has decided you must wing it:

1) Have an intermission.  At a suitable stopping point, let everyone stretch, get something to drink, talk for a bit, etc. Call everyone back after you’re ready for the next stage.

2) Include home-made monsters for interesting game play and to create surprise. Shift a cliche creature into a “WTF is that?!” with just a few attribute changes.  Templates are invaluable for fast fixing. When players fight the unknown, they are a lot more cautious and combats will take longer.

3) Familiar territory can become unfamiliar territory with a simple eclipse or an earthquake.  Changes in the terrain or weather will add to delay, either through investigation or setting a new course around.

4) If it fits the situation, break out an actual in-game game such as Three Dragon Ante.  Have an NPC request a game, perhaps setting stakes that are too good to resist.

5) Likewise consider an in-depth roleplay over a meal.  Check out this recent DMing article, Gaming Goodies, for how to do that on a budget.

Hopefully this advice will be useful to you the next time you have to wing a session. It happens to everyone, and it will eventually happen to you. Just keep cool, announce an intermission, and if need be, have the princess fall down an earthquake-induced chasm after ‘rolling for it’ behind the screen. Yeah, that’ll keep ’em busy for awhile.

10 thoughts on “No Prep, No Problem”

  1. I am called Wing for a reason, actually.

    See, due to limited time and a rather limited attention span aswell, I usually have little time to prepare things propperly. Not to mention that my players never. EVER. do what I’d expect them to. Therefor, I wing it. Always. Though not entierly. I do what I call “floating DMing”. Namely, I aopt a few rules.

    I prepare for nothing specific. That is to say, I plan specific events that WILL happen. By preparing encounters and challanges ahead of time as well as the important story scenes I can allow the characters to run the game as they will and simply adjust and include theese encounters, challanges and scenes accordinly with no absolute planned order.
    If I planned for them to go on the river and be ambused by suahaugin and they decide to take another path towards whatever goal has been set, I quickly convert theese suahaugin to, say, kobolds, bandits, wild animals. Whatever fits the new path. Unless I allready had planned encounters for every type of travel. (which I often do) mind you encounters do no need to be fights. Skill challanges or other things the characters must overcome are encounters too.

    And I, as per my favorite rule of the PHB 4th, say yes. A player has a good idea? I say yes. Then quickly throw togather how that option would work in the loosely floating parameters I have allready made up and established.
    For example, My players were in a crook town and the resident articifier and alchemist suddenly decided to pick up new reagents and other materials. Now, I planned for this little hole of a city to lack most things and mostly just be a neglected port town and hiding hole for Pirates.
    but when the question was asked I realized: Hell yes there’s an alchemist. What, a rogue hole without poisons? So whent hey failed to find a appropriate salesman, I instead dropped a rumor in the tavern to be overheard, of a mad goblin having recently arrived, selling strange concotions and machinery. Of course, the player picked right up on that and sank alot of his gold into reagents and some utterly strange machinery that later played quite fun roles in the game.

    So there’s my example of how winging it can be an entire DMing style.

  2. I recently had a nice exercise in improv that turned out to be one of the most exciting sessions yet. The previous session had led the players to the big bad demon lord who made short work of them, stole an item, and then left them to be devoured by lesser demons. The battle was long and exciting and after they searched his throne room and picked up some clues. I then anticipated them to make their way out of the dungeon and continue on their quest (this was merely a speedbump). However instead they decided to investigate a large pit in the floor which seemed to be bottomless.

    Of course, when they asked, I said yes, you can go down this bottomless pit. however, it was only included as a trap to induce a team effort to cross.

    So as I was making up on the fly the chilling darkness as they decended for 2..3…4…5 hours down into the depths of the earth, i slowly grabbed my monster manual, and opened to a random page. “Devil, Cambion” Bingo! I started to describe the sound of swaying chains and their unusual behavior.

    Soon enough, the players got so scared that they were possibly approaching the underdark, they decided to return back up! no joke. (they are only level 2/3)

    Unfortnately the Cambion already knew they were there. It then turned into a Skill challenge dealing with the devil, asking to deal in order to save their lives.

    This was all carried out by winging it, and ended up being exciting for not only the player but me as well. By choosing a random creature out of the MM i was able to tailor the environment appropriately, and was full ready for a combat encounter. Alls well that ends well!

  3. After years of gaming I’ve become quite apt at winging it. I’ve gotten to a point that I don’t even need the books. I can call up rules and page numbers right off the top of my head. I also remember most of my player character stats, so I’m ready at the drop of a hat. Another talent I’ve developed over the years is always having a quick crawl or side plot on hand to throw at our group when time is short for prep. Oh and finally with the advent of modern tech… ie phone and tablets I have most of my stuff with me all the time any way.

  4. As a DM I wing it all the time, not for lack of planning, but because sometimes I simply fail to predict my players’ choices. I notice some DM’s really like to narrow player’s choices down and herd them in a set direction (which for a campaign is often necessary), but if you practice DMing by the seat of your pants enough, it gets easier, and I think you’ll find that players appreciate it a lot. It allows them to feel like they have complete control over the game instead of the usual, “Oh, that old man over there is waving at us? Must be a plot point, let’s go talk to him.” Instead they can feel safe saying, “I throw a rock at him and go find some halflings to beat up.”

  5. i have had GM wing it a lot the games are mosly good & sum times beter,
    ? i play a wild elf who has survival,&craft skills to make all his equipment for role plaing he eats what he kills are debate in game is what monsters are posin to eat ?

  6. I love ‘winging it’ as a DM! It allows me to put more focus on flexible storytelling and less on hard rules or quest rails. I used to do long, drawn-out encounters that were novellas in length. And as exciting as they were for the epic storylines, it quickly makes players feel restricted – and more prone to breaking the rails.

    Now, and prior to a session, I just quickly research a few elements of a game world outside my custom ones, and write a few lines to start off the adventure. I realize my long notes are better served in an actual novel (as I enjoy writing.) And I can always glean events from previous games as ideas for my novels which I feel would honour the player’s characters more than a railed campaign could.

    Along with my brief notes, I ask my players to keep their own jotted down, especially of where we last paused the game and what they were hoping to do next. This allows us all to prepare for the game, gets the mind in character, and buys me a bit of time to think up a few quick starter plots based on what they discuss was most memorable/exciting for them.

    I fake roll as well! I’ll won’t refuse a player’s chance to roleplay their character’s successes or failures – if they are true to the character, but it’s sometimes fun to decide a character’s fate based off of “High roll, passes. Low roll, fails.” This openness allows me to be the supporter of the story world, rather than the harsh rule-keeper.

    As a note for novice DM’s, ‘winging it’ gets easier with a bit of XP (time) and confidence. Read a lot of fantasy books to help get you immersed in the world/feel of a place if you feel you need it. You don’t always need to get everything perfect though! People generally love a story told with feeling, rather than absolute facts.

    Your article was a fun read, and makes me happy to see there are more DM’s going public about ‘winging it’ in their games. Thank you, cyberkyd. :D

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