The Seven-Sided Die

Is D&D possible without session prep?

Posted Sunday October 26, 2008 at 08:09 PM

Doctor Checkmate makes an astute point: "Buying product after product has always been the methadone to treat the addiction to play." I need to take this to heart, considering the state of my wishlist.

However, playing more often isn't an available solution, so what's left? I suppose just self-control (and a tight end-of-year budget) will have to suffice. In theory I'll have more time free to play and prep for play in the new year. Until then, my best bet looks to be finding a free or public-domain no-prep collaborative game that I can play/run with my current group. On the other hand, the AD&D 1e game I'm currently running is a lot of fun and I certainly don't want to back out on it already.

Does anyone have any tips for running D&D (of any edition; I can probably adapt anything) with no or next to no session prep? The one lone dungeon that I've had on the drafting table for the past two months is still giving me conniptions for lack of time to flesh it out.

Comments (11)

Mad Brew

Sunday October 26, 2008 at 09:27 PM

I have ran entire campaigns without any prep time, just flying my the seat of my pants the entire time.

I haven't ever put thought on how exactly I do it... mostly it is a combination of knowing what the players like and drawing from years of reading novels, comic books, and watching movies.

The trick is making up monsters as you go. I used the idea of Minions in 4e when 2nd Edition was still in its prime, so I just roll with it.

I just make sure the encounters last as long as they need to. Meaning, they sap the characters for as much resources as necessary.

I lean heavily on the theory of "moving at the speed of plot" which means things happen when it is convenient for the story.

It takes a while to adjust to running things on the fly, but with practice you master the method.


Sunday October 26, 2008 at 11:30 PM

Yep, totally possible :D

The key is to.... uh..... prepare for it. Prepare to be unprepared. Yeh, that makes sense. I'll explain.

1) Know your Monster Manual. I don't mean you must possess deep knowledge of all the stats, but know what works well together, and learn how to find things, fast. Work out some encounters on scratch paper (even something as simple as "4 goblins" written on a piece of paper helps in the middle of a scenario).

2) Choose 4 or 5 monsters as your favourites and use them wherever possible. What you choose will say a lot about your comfort zone, and when you're running without prep, that's exactly where you need to be. If you pick Dark Elves, Spiders, Giants and Trolls that's a very different playstyle to Zombies, Vampires, Gnolls and Kruthiks. Pick one or two wildcard monsters - one that doesn't fit the mix. That'll generate interest. Why're the Gnolls consorting with Vampires, and what the heck to the Kruthiks have to do with it? That's a campaign, right there.

3) If you're planning a campaign and know it's going to mainly be prep-free, consider running an urban campaign. Cities are like big continually changing dungeons full of recurring NPCs (invent once, use repeatedly), twisty alleyways and Nest of Evil at Every Turn. Or something. Either way, it sure beats inventing a dungeon every session.

OK, I'll shut up now. Hope that gives food for thought :D


Monday October 27, 2008 at 12:12 AM

I think every Gm should be able to run a game from time-to-time without prep. Otherwise, what point is there in playing?


Monday October 27, 2008 at 01:43 AM

Most of the time I play without prep. Usually it's because I play very narrativistic games. For example, I don't give XP. I just give levels when I feel like it's appropriate. I also don't keep track of loot – I just ask players to come up with lists of level-appropriate gear they want, and I'll have it shown up whenever appropriate. Or sometimes I just shower them with money and tell them to go the Sicily Mart and load up. It also helps that I have photographic memory and can commit a lot of information to my mind. For example, I can run the formulas for 4e monsters in my head and come up with a creature on the fly, with level-appropriate hit points and powers and the like, without ever touching my books or putting a pen to paper.


Monday October 27, 2008 at 02:16 AM

Creating a thematic set of monsters is a good tip, thanks Greywulf. I'd been pondering creating random encounter tables for the regions the PCs were near, but I dreaded juggling things to give myself enough time to sit down with the Manuals and a set of blank table templates. Having a few stand-by adversaries would work well for this campaign, too. I think the lesson here is that I need to scale back my prep expectations, not completely abandon them.

A city campaign is a possibility. I'm pondering proposing a switch from the current campaign to a Waterdeep/Undermountain campaign, just because there's so much material at my fingertips for such a game. I do so like having PCs fall through invisible portals and find themselves in the Realms.

Wyatt, that's an interesting point. I'm running the game with player-centric EXP systems that make it much easier for me to run a game without worrying about advancement and other non-story considerations.

Hi GameDaddy. Can I assume that you're a gamer and a parent both? :D I'm particularly interested in perspectives of other parents, both because of the huge difference children make to available time, and because of the opportunities to game with kids.

I don't have any trouble running a session without prep form time-to-time. Winging it is actually my preferred GMing style, but that's harder to do for some things (like dungeons) than for others. The current challenge is that I have next to no time to prep so I'm looking for ways to continue playing a D&D-style game with no prep at all, for any session.

My biggest challenge is those damned dungeons. I love 'em, but creating a compelling dungeon is a lot of work. I may go the Undermountain route as I mentioned, or I might lean on Mr Gygax's extensive random-generation tables in the 1e DMG. I'm going to have to chat with my players to see how they feel about the pros and cons of those options.

Dr. Checkmate

Monday October 27, 2008 at 03:15 AM

In the absence of regular play I create. I go through phases of, "whats the point," but I always come back. Either that, or I play Fable 2 for something like 12 hours straight.

All my earliest games were free wheeling affairs combining BD&D with 1e. I've no new advice to add, but you seem to be on the right track now!


Monday October 27, 2008 at 10:25 AM


In fact, this is almost how I always do it. Generally, the evocative campaigns (at least at my game table) are those that have the flexibility to go whereever the players want. The trick is to set up the world, its major players, and a few major events ahead of time and set them to a campaign timeline. I usually do this once at the start of a new campaign, and then adjust and fine tune it as the game progresses. One-time prep I guess, then fly-by-the-seat of my pants the rest of the way.

Going without a plan requires good record keeping. What was the name of that NPC they just met? The off-hand ad lib comment the Duke made, what did he say? will it affect the game in the future? etc etc.


Monday October 27, 2008 at 05:45 PM

I agree with the several good points above, with a caveat: keep notes!!!

I usually give a level at the beginning of the campaign to both scribe (journal keeper) and party leader. The scribe is the more important of the two.

BSing your way through a campaign is not terribly difficult, you just need a concept (temple-raid, guild milk run, roadside ambush) ans throw it out there. See, this is where you have LESS problems than using canned adventure, as the party can truly never derail if there is no rail to begin with.

With 4E, I have found that all I need is a concept, the MM does a wonderful job of giving me a large number of baddies to work with. Pass one critter up for another? Make the other the next encounter!

It takes getting used to...and several back issues of Dungeon magazine too :)


Monday October 27, 2008 at 07:41 PM

I agree, good notes makes a huge difference. It helps too, to be able to look down at my notes when I wonder "what next?" and be able to see connections. Sometimes all it takes to create interesting complications is to grab an existing NPC that I can reintroduce in a new role. "Oh, that mercenary captain that you bumped into on the road? This town's new Istan priest looks just like her!"

Dr Checkmate, your School of Entertain the GM is another great article, and it reminds me of how I used to run games. It's funny that the more I know, the more it gets in the way of just having fun.

Thanks everyone for the feedback. I have some thoughts and possible directions now, but keep it coming!


Monday October 27, 2008 at 09:10 PM

I'd recommend the following games: Inspectres (zero prep) Primetime Adventures (~30 minutes of prep) Donjon (~1 hour of prep)


Tuesday October 28, 2008 at 02:03 AM

My group was sold on InSpectres as soon as I described it, so I think that's definitely in our future.

Right now I'm trying to puzzle out how to continue running the AD&D 1e game I've started while having nearly no time to prep before sessions. If I end up switching to another system it will be a very different campaign set-up anyway, so converting isn't an immediate solution.

I do like Donjon and have a PDF copy that I got bound at the printshop, but it's a bit on the silly side for the current campaign's purposes.

That said, I do like the idea of running a swords and sorcery miniseries using PTA. I always wished there was something like that on TV when I was a kid, so why not make it happen at my kitchen table?

I'm also considering Savage Worlds after reading about it at Dr Checkmate's blog and a review at RPGnet. It sounds like it can do the D&D genre well while being simple to run, prep, and—most importantly—wing it.