Last week I wrote about some tools for making sandbox games easier. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but this fits neatly into Monte Cook Games’s New GM Month, a feature they do every year around this time that is a real benefit to up-and-coming gamemasters for any system. While I don’t really recommend sandbox-style games for the beginning GM, I thought I’d follow it up with some advice for GMs of all levels.
The advice here will be news to some and helpful reminders to others. The unifying theme here is pragmatism: like MCG’s Charles Ryan says in his latest article, it’s not always feasible to spend a ton of time prepping for a gaming session. Sometimes, you can spend lots of time finely working the specifics of your setting/adventure/mastermind into a creation you are beaming with pride over. Other times, you realize in a work meeting that you are running a session that evening and you need to come up with an idea.
This article is about the latter. If you want your players engaged in the setting, you need to create that engagement. Rather than phone something in, here are a few highly-efficient means for creating engagement quickly.
Steal, Steal, Steal
A lot of people talk about the pros and cons of prepublished adventures (the Angry GM, Sly Flourish, and the Chatty DM (twice) to name a few) but I’m not really talking about those. Sure, if you’re pressed for time then you can turn to an adventure from Dungeon magazine, an “instant adventure” from Weird Discoveries or Strange Revelations, or something designed for a con like Million Year Echo. All of these are straightforward, detailed, and designed to be picked up quickly. If you’re in a pinch, they can save you a lot of last-minute panic.
I’m not really talking about using something completely prepackaged, though. You can take these adventures (or something far longer in scope like Red Hand of Doom or the Dracula Dossier) and chop them up into the bits you like and the ones you don’t. This can recycle something your players might already know (or that you have already tried out) and it can create an adventure that fits into a bigger campaign. Don’t reinvent the wheel: if you read something you like then pull it out, trim it down and start from there.
Goals Not Plots
If you’re used to reading published adventures or running things that you’ve looked out from every direction, you’re probably used to caveats and back-up plans. Players are unpredictable, so you need to think ahead about the possible ways they could take an adventure off the rails so you aren’t caught flat-footed, right?
Nope. If there aren’t any rails then they can’t leave them behind. Don’t think about your adventure plan as a plotline that you need to detail and build. When you have lots of time on your hands that’s a good way to create an adventure plan but when you’re pressed then skip it. Think about the major points of your adventure, the goals you want your players to reach. They might be literal goals for the players like “break up the cult of evil in the sewers” or “recover the data from the Imperial agents.” You might also come up with some things you know will make the adventure memorable like “gunfight in the saloon” or “chase across the snowpack in snowmobiles.” You might also have things that you know will set up later things you are planning like “introduce secret traitor.”
Once you have your goals as free-floating points, you have the skeleton to an adventure. Sketch out a few ways to get from Point A or Point B or just let your players find the way. You can help yourself organize this stuff by writing each goal on a sheet of paper or an index card then slip them off to the side behind your GM screen once their finished. Keep notes on how things end up connecting so that you can detail more when you actually have the time to plan.
Keep Extra Material Around
This happens before you’re stuck for time so go ahead and do it now! Go through your favorite adventures and highlight your favorite NPCs or copy their stat blocks over to a document file. Do the same for locations, items, names, descriptions, foods, and whatever else you like and want to make sure you don’t drop in a session.
When you’re hardpressed for time, shuffle through to your favorite description and paste it into your plan. Mix-and-match if you want, taking the description of that NPC you like, the stats from that other one, and the headquarters base from a third. You can also use these things for the goal approach discussed above then this is also a bank of material to draw from.
As an example, your players might be headed towards a marketplace confrontation when you can introduce the biological weapon that you know will play out in the later campaign. To get there, though, you need some frustrating smuggler or thief that they can chase there. Good thing you marked down the human trafficker from Dracula Dossier as a fun NPC to pull in, so flip to that part of your document/notebook and run with it, crossing two goal index cards off at once.
In the end, you’re creating a fun experience for you and your players. If you are seriously short on time and/or inspiration, think back to the last couple session and remember what parts your players really enjoyed. Did they have fun beating up that one NPC and humiliating him into running away? Bring him back and have them finish the job. It’ll be cathartic and fun and no one will be mad.
You’re an entertainer and a storyteller so just have fun with it. When it comes down to things, there really isn’t any prep that decides the fun parts of the game session because it all happens in the moment at the table! The more you can do to facilitate ahead of time the better, but you aren’t dooming yourself to a dud session by running short on time any more than you’re guaranteeing a blockbuster session by spending eight hours prepping.