The 5 Steps of Minimum Prep GMing

I was recently given a challenge. The GM for my regular 5th Edition game session was taking a break, and I offered to run a one shot. I ended up having less than 24 hours to prepare and needed to make use of the same characters and world we’d been playing in (in addition to looping in the GM’s character, a pact of the book warlock styled after a lovecraftian ‘mad scholar’). Due to family and job obligations, I had -effectively- 2 hours to try and get everything set and ready. The session went great, everyone had a blast, and I thought I’d share my methodology for getting this done.

To Module or not to Module?

The simplest solution would simply to have been to buy a pre-published module. But I usually don’t take the easy way out. Thankfully, while looking at appropriate 5e modules, I saw this one which granted me the strong premise I needed which spirited me away to step 1

1. Start with a Strong Premise & Reason for the PCs to Immediately Get Involved

In my case, I cribbed the premise from The Acropolis of Voor Daray from the Primeval Thule setting by Sasquatch Game Studio: monsters have been appearing, demanding tribute for a long dead Sorcerer queen. My solution for this was a different bunch of adventurers basically restarted an automated monster summoning process and the party (as capable of magic and magic attacks in a magic poor world) are one of the few nearby assets who can get through the creature’s resistances. Other aspect that I needed to facilitate was roping in the new PC, the aforementioned mad scholar. Well, he’s the foremost (if crazy) expert on the dead sorcerer queen hence the PCs are directed to him.

2. Outline – Don’t Write!

With a strong premise and a clear, immediate need for why the PCs are getting involved, it was time to outline (not write) that adventure. Outlining is the way to do home games even if -as a professional designer- I tend to try and ‘write’ as much as possible to make transition to publication as simple as possible. In my case, I filled in the following index cards:

  • Rumors: What the PCs might have heard before getting the call.
  • Hooks What a relevant NPC would/could do to get the PCs together and moving in the right direction.
  • Investigation Nobody knows where the the Flexual Ossuary – the Inverted Ziggaraut of the long dead elven sorcerer queen Takkain is, but I jotted some notes about how they might uncover its location.
  • Random Encounters Because travel would be involved, and I love random encounters.
  • A Card for Each of the dungeon rooms What is the purpose of the room, what’s in it?

I made heavy use of Arnold Kemp’s ‘things that should be in every dungeon checklist’ to do this.

3. Prepare handy reference material – Tools: Online SRD, Laptop, Pinterest & Tablet

For the fifth edition monsters, I utilized the SRD to copy-paste the creatures & hazards I wanted to use into a single word document. I find scrolling (or using ctrl f to navigate) a lot simpler than looking up monsters in the manual or even looking them up online (and I never rely fully on having wifi access). I also utilized pinterest to quickly find evocative reference images for the monsters, NPCs, and settings of the adventure. My stat reference material I keep on a laptop (my equivalent of a GM screen) and the reference imagery I put onto a tablet that I can pass around/easily show the players. (You could easily put this all on one device, or even print everything out, but I find printing out material slows things down compared to easily shifting through digital files I’ve downloaded).

4. Bring Props (That Won’t Slow Things Down)

The props I brought were some cool/interesting coins (retrieved from the bottom of my recently burned ‘Coins of the Forge’ candle), Harrow Deck, my box of minis which is a legion of unpainted reaper minis (didn’t have time to select specific minis, so just brought my whole heap), and my dry erase map board (drawing maps slows the game down a scootch compared to being able to put pregenerated maps on the table, but I like the flexibility of being able to draw environments as the players find them, and I’ve never had great success printing out maps).

5. Be ready for the unexpected

My players totally skipped/missed what I thought would be the most obvious path of inquiry, and we ended up skipping a few dungeon rooms to fit the adventure in the allotted time. This happens, and -if you understand your adventure/dungeon throughline, you can *usually* adapt/cut fluff to get everything done on time.

Conclusion: Always Remember Your GMing Principles – What Are you Trying to Do?

Everyone had a fun, satisfying time at the table which is always the most important thing. But it’s vital to understand that different players find different things ‘fun:’ some people love intricate combats, some love a heartwrenching interaction with an NPC, and so on. Personally, as a GM, I’m not rules biased or roleplaying biased… I’m flow biased; I like when one thing naturally leads to another, and I like there to be ready space for player agency (ie, nobody hogs the spotlight and nobody -not even me as GM- derails the adventure). In this particular case, I wanted to get the PCs through a satisfying story in the time allotted which meant which meant asking for time commitments (setting the expectation that we’re starting at 6pm sharp for a group that is normally often late and often prone to some meandering discussion before play starts), a little nudging, and -perhaps most importantly- it meant cutting some (what I thought) were fun bits and simplifying a combat or two.

But what about you, do you have any stories as a player or GM about less prepared sessions that went great? That went horribly? Sound off in the comments.

If you want more thoughts on game design, check out my essay collection Design Notes.

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