RUNNING ZERO-PREP RPG SESSIONS

I haven’t updated this blog since February. And this post has nothing to do with libraries.

2020 was not a good year. 

I spent most of it in lockdown because of the pandemic. I was separated from my partner for 8 months because of travel restrictions. Two people I cared about passed away. And I took a leave of absence from my Masters degree because I just couldn’t concentrate.

Roleplaying was one of the few bright points in a crap year. 

Despite everything that was happening, I still managed to run more roleplaying sessions this year than in the previous 3 years combined.

Partly that was just logistical: with Melbourne in lockdown, my friends were more available.

Partly that was technological: roleplaying works pretty well over Discord, I discovered.

But mostly it was a big shift in how I prepare for roleplaying sessions. My brain just wasn’t up to writing the level of detailed notes and handouts I normally do. So I embraced that, and practiced no-prep GMing.

How I got started

A friend ran some Call of Cthulhu over Discord, which got me thinking about running some roleplaying of my own on that service. But when I sat down to write something, I found it too hard to focus.

And then my copy of Wolfspell arrived in the mail.

It’s a game about people who turn themselves into wolves to complete some dire quest. But the nature of that quest is determined during character creation. Which means you can’t write the scenario ahead of play.

My big insight was that I didn’t have to. 

I’d been using the Hollow Woods cards as a creative writing exercise: draw three cards, one each for the beginning, middle and end. 

I realised that I could do something similar for Wolfspell: the first scene of the game would obviously be them turning into wolves. Then I could draw three cards for what obstacles they encounter on their way to complete the quest, with the final scene being the climactic confrontation.

It worked. It worked well enough that I decided to run more one-shot games using this sort of structure. I ended up ditching the cards and relying more on the setting to decide the encounters. 

Tip 1: Set a clear goal

A clear goal gives the game direction and excitement. 

If players are interested in achieving the goal, they’ll overlook a flubbed scene or the occasional plot hole, provided the adventure is driving them towards the big climax.

A clear goal also gives you, the GM, the information you need to start extrapolating the scenario. What’s the setting? Who is the main bad guy? Where is their base? What do the characters have to do to reach that base?

Most of the games that I ran were one-page RPGs that had the goal baked-in to the design:

  • In The Witch is Dead, a witch’s familiars try to sneak into a nearby village to hunt down the Witch Hunter who killed their mistress, and pluck out his eyes to bring her back to life.
  • In Sepulchure, a band of thieves try to sneak into the mansions of the rich high elves that rule the city to steal powerful magic relics.
  • In Lasers & Feelings, the crew of the scout ship Raptor try to defend the Consortium of Planets against dangers from space.

But here’s some general goals if you need help setting one yourself:

  1. Assassinate the enemy general
  2. Defend the outpost against invaders
  3. Destroy the cursed artefact before the evil sorcerer can use it
  4. Reclaim your ancestral treasure from marauders 
  5. Rescue the kidnapped princess/heiress/senator
  6. Stop cultists from performing the evil ritual

Tip 2: Use a five-scene structure

This is the core of my approach to zero-prep gaming. Once we have the goal and the setting, I slot in the appropriate elements for each of the five scenes below.

The idea is that each scene should take about half an hour to play through. It may vary depending on your group.

  1. Set up: Introduce the setting, the bad guys, and the goal.
  2. Travel through the wilderness: encounter a setting-appropriate obstacle
  3. Approaching the enemy base: How will the characters get past the antagonist’s minions?
  4. Climax: Confront the bad guy. Complete the quest.
  5. Outcome: What happens now that the characters succeeded or failed?

Tip 3: Slather on the aesthetic

Every setting has its own set of tropes and clichés. If you were making high art, you’d want to avoid or subvert them. But this is roleplaying. Embrace them! They will help orient your players to the setting and the genre expectations, and they’ll provide you with a list of locations and encounters to use.

Don’t forget the atmospherics, too: mentioning the woad on a Celtic warrior or the smoke circling in a jazz club help make the setting feel vivid and alive.

(Unfortunately, a lot of settings and genres have their share of racist, sexist or homophobic clichés. Skip those.)

It’s not strictly zero-prep, but I found it useful to write down a list of setting elements that I could throw in as needed. Here are some examples:

  • Siege of Stalingrad: Russians versus Nazis, ruined buildings, military camps, barbed wire, snipers, hunger, snow.
  • Hadrian’s Wall: Picts versus Romans, stone circles, Roman forts, ancient gods, battlefields, woad, ravens
  • Gothic Horror: innocents versus the depraved, creaking stairs, locked rooms, creepy servants, ghosts, candelabras, mist.
  • Space Opera: peacekeepers versus space tyrants, space stations, lost planets, starfighters, alien monsters, high technology, ancient alien artefacts
  • Pirates: pirates versus the Royal Navy, wild seas, desert islands, storms, sea monsters, treasure maps, skulls.
  • Noir: criminals versus the police, seedy bars, back alleys, car chases, betrayals, trench coats, jazz.
  • High Fantasy: Good versus Evil, forests, castles, magic swords, dragons, prophecies, elves
  • Weird Fantasy: the poor versus the rich, factories, temples, tentacles, crime, masks, masks, decay.

Tip 4: Set up an memorable bad guy

This is really an extension of Tip 3. But a striking, well-defined antagonist makes the game exciting and perhaps even meaningful.

One of the mistakes I made with that first Wolfspell game was that I didn’t introduce the antagonist until the climatic scene at the end, so the players didn’t really feel a connection with him. Now I try to have them appear in the first scene, as per Tip 2 above, so that the players know who they’re up against.

Need some help creating a memorable bad guy? Pick a Style and a Goal from the tables below.

Style:

  1. Rigid and military – military uniform, lack of emotion
  2. Decadent and extravagant – jewellery, ornate clothing/armour/spacesuit, exotic pet
  3. Suave and scholarly – dark suit, goatee, glasses, book
  4. Savage and angry – muscles, leather, tattoos, chains
  5. Disturbingly kind and polite – white clothes, broad smile, a cup of tea
  6. Strange and inhuman – face hidden by scarf or mask, tentacles, cyborg*

* Avoid the James Bond/Star Wars cliché of having deformity = evil

Goal:

  1. Amusement – they think bloodshed and slaughter is entertaining
  2. Civilisation – they want to impose law and order on the rabble and barbarians
  3. Despair – they are so heartbroken they want to destroy the entire world
  4. Envy – they want something that someone else has (a throne, a treasure, a love…)
  5. Faith – they want the world to worship their One True Faith
  6. Glory – they want to history to remember their deeds
  7. Greed – they want wealth and power
  8. Revenge – they want vengeance on someone who wronged them

Tip 5: Make the player’s choices matter

The five-scene structure could be pretty railroad-y if you’re not careful. Here’s three ways I introduced some choice for the players.

Which path do they take?

Give players the choice of which path they take through the wilderness in Scene 2. 

To cross the dark forest, do they follow the paved road (which might be watched), or do they follow the river (where they might get lost)? 

Do they fly their spaceship straight at the enemy space station, or do they try and sneak up on it through the asteroid belt?

How do they deal with danger?

Generally, there’s four ways characters can handle the dangers they encounter: talk, sneak, fight or run away. Let them choose and roll the dice.

I like to give out bonuses to dice rolls if the players take the time to describe how they rig the situation in their favour. “I throw sand in his eyes, and stab him while he’s distracted!” “I swing on the chandeliers to escape!”

I also play it that failing a skill roll means the situation gets worse, rather than an absolute failure: they try to sneak past the guard dogs but they step on a squeaky floorboard, or they try to shoot down the alien space fighters but the force field generator overloads. I let players choose if they want to try again, usually with some penalty, or quit and get the hell out of there.

The final decision: which side are they on?

The climax should be more than a big fight with the bad guy. Have the antagonist explain the conflict from their point of view, and make the players decide if they want to stick to the original mission or change sides.

Some examples:

  • The invading general explains the benefits that his civilisation can provide, such as medicine, clean water and education. Do the characters assassinate him, or join him?
  • The cult leader gives the characters a glimpse of the bliss and peace that her gods provide. Do they join the cult, or eliminate it?
  • The bandit king tells the character that their tribal elders killed his family. Will they join him in extracting revenge, or finish the job the elders started?
  • The ancient evil artefact offers unlimited powers. Do the characters destroy it, or use its powers for themselves?
  • The princess wasn’t kidnapped by the prince of the rival kingdom, she eloped. Do the characters bring her back against her will, or let love go free?

The limits of these techniques

These techniques work best with quest-style adventures. I haven’t tried running a zero-prep mystery game like Call of Cthulhu, for example. I’m sure there’s ways to do it, I just haven’t thought of them.

I also focused on games that were meant to be played in a single session. Some games ended up running for two sessions, usually because players got tired before we reached the climax.

Our Sepulchre game ran for 4 sessions, and grew from a simple fantasy heist to the epic return of an ancient nautilus god. I ended up doing some prep for that game, but it was usually half an hour before the session started, frantically scribbling notes and leaning heavily on the aesthetic to make the session come alive.

If you want more…

If you’re interested in more advice on running zero-prep games, take a look at The Prepless Game Master by Paul Camp.

I mostly ran one-page RPGs this year, because I feel very strongly that you shouldn’t spend more time reading rules than you do actually playing the game.

Most of the games I ran were by Grant Howitt and are available on his itch.io site, but we also squeezed in some Lasers & Feelings.

About davidwitteveen

IT person. Zine Maker. Level 0 Library Nerd. Doctor Who fan.
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