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What if you\'re not prepared?
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[#] What if you\'re not prepared?
10:47pm EDT - 9/19/2014
  I think we've all been in this situation before(those of us cursed eternally to GM, and never to play, at least). Maybe the game hasn't been on our mind all week, maybe we've been distracted, maybe we've got ideas but none of them are quite polished enough to use for this session or maybe the ideas we WERE going to go with were simply reliant on the presence of the player who had to go ahead and work overtime or get sick this particular session, but we don't want to make the others miss a game just for that.

But it's only a couple of hours till gametime, and you're not prepared! What can you do?

Why you should be prepared

There are some things that are relatively easy to improvise, especially if it's a game that runs a lot more on thematics than on crunch, for instance like FATE, or if it's a game heavy on social stuff. But some things always require preparation, for instance combat. An improvised fight can either be a meaningless hour of mooks running into the players and being unable to harm them, or it can be a "CR 4"* creature pulling a total TPK(Total Party Kill) on a 10th-level party simply because you forgot to actually run the maths on its stats and abilities.

A dungeon crawl, of any sort or by any theme, can also quickly turn into a lot of oddly identical rooms and choices on whether to take the left or right turn fifty times in a row if you didn't actually prepare any content to fill it(or maybe if you didn't make a map, but one of the players IS mapping, he may come to the conclusion that they've wandered into some sort of wormhole or singularity because by now they've passed through their own route ten times without seeing the same things).

You may be introducing a major character un-statted, expecting him to make an epic escape or simply talk with the players(leaving you time to stat him properly for a future session), but when the players throw a punch out of the blue, and he's got no character sheet, you have to decide if he demolishes them out of hand or whether they just stab him, get away with it and you have to revamp your entire plot.

*For those not familiar with the D&D editions between 3rd and 5th, they used a theoretical system, "Challenge Rating" or "CR" to judge the strength of a creature. Unfortunately this CR was only loosely based on anything, and made a lot of huge assumptions(players always have a mage and cleric, for instance), not to mention was instituted for most creatures in a vacuum never considering splatbooks and supplements past the core three(PHB, DMG, MM), and ended up being about as useful as tits on a bicycle. A CR1(intended for a 1st-level party of four people) creature could utterly demolish a group, five times above that, while a CR10 creature could likewise be stomped by a group of 2nd-level characters.

So what do you do, then?

In short, the answer is to distract them. Most players tend to have a lot of easy triggers you can pull to give them the fast food equivalent of gaming. Something that doesn't leave them particularly filled over the course of the campaign, and which they'll get sick of if overfed with, but which they'll happily gobble down for a session every now and then and compliment you on.

Of course, it's also about knowing your players, depending on how much initiative they actually take in situations, it may be more or less easy to distract them. Players that take a lot of initiative and like considering choices and options and making plans are the easiest, while those that stare blankly into the air without clearly labelled options A and B(don't introduce a C or they'll probably panic) are, perversely, almost impossible to befuddle.

Each experienced GM probably has his own methods for distracting the players, but I find that there's a short-list I can make use of in most cases...

Shopping Trip

One of the most "classic" NPC's(at least to me) in just about any setting or story with even the faintest fantasy twinge is someone the players might recognize as CMOT Dibbler from Pratchett's Discworld books. In other words, a highly charismatic bullshit artist who will attempt to flog non-flying magic carpets, magic lamps full of nothing but spiderwebs and enchanted swords that couldn't cut toast to the players, but who does it with a smile and never gets offended if the players call him out on his bullshit(but does lament that they're leaving his 1d6+2 children, wife and assorted livestock to starve. Reroll the number of children for each lament, even if it's the same salesman).

In most cases, players get mesmerized by him, wanting to see what the next thing is, curious about whether any of the items actually have any use, even if unintended(maybe the magical sword isn't merely blunt, it actually sucks so hard that it makes what it touches harder to cut, could have defensive uses!), and are of course on the lookout for a bargain. Have him pepper the conversation with a few "facts" about what exciting origins these items have and you've got future quest hooks(especially if he offers to sell them totally legit maps to these not-at-all-tapped-out sources of artifacts).

Despite largely being a fantasy archetype(in my experience), he can, of course, also be jammed into sci-fi games, where he'll offer to sell them totally-not-stolen starcruisers and ancient alien doodads that will make the players young, virile and immortal. It's a bit harder in modern games(if there's no occult element), but it can be done.

Generally, the ease is that you can simply keep making up new products until the players get tired(which will probably be half a session if you play it well), and that each product is simply something that they want or might be interested in(vorpal swords in D&D, plasma guns in WH40k, a kebab not made from dog meat in a modern game), but with some sort of obvious, unmentioned flaw that is entirely obvious the moment someone uses it/holds it/looks at it(the sword can't cut hot butter, the plasma gun emits copious amounts of thick, greasy smoke when you press the trigger, the kebab is, in fact, made of plastic). As soon as the players point it out, the merchant offers them a discount or tries to explain away the flaw(It can cut anything BUT butter, just try it somewhere far away from him, the smoke will clear up in a few minutes, plastic is actually more nutritious than meat and vegetables).

Then when the players discard buying the item(or buy it heavily discounted, perhaps with a look towards scamming someone else), he brings out the next thing in his repetoire and laments for his starving children again.

Potential Crisis

This one is a bit simpler and a bit of a mindfuck, it doesn't always work, but when it does, you'd be surprised at how it can throw the players for a loop. It works best when the players are currently in the middle of travelling from one place to another with NPC's along, and it works simply by putting a potential crisis on the horizon. It could look like a natural disaster, it could look like an obstruction or it could look like enemies.

But it's not clearly ANY of them, and the players have to choose whether to delay themselves or head straight through it(and maybe the delay heads past/through something ELSE that looks worrying). Now, the trick is to get them trying to decide which option they'd rather take, or what to do to ward off danger. What they don't know is that no matter WHAT they do, they'll have made the right choice for avoiding danger, so they'll argue, they'll debate, they'll try to use their skills for more info, they'll ask NPC's(who will, of course, only contribute to the gridlock by supporting whichever argument is currently losing).

When they finally make up their mind, biting their nails... it'll turn out they were right, they'll be relieved, high-five and feel good about themselves. By then, of course, half the session might have passed and you might be able to go, "Gee whiz, guys, I'd love to keep running, but this seems like a decent cliffhanger and the next bit is something I'd hate to interrupt halfway through... how about we pause here and tackle the next part with a full session?" Players never seem to recognize that this excuse is almost always because you need to do more planning.

The Sims: RPG

Some players love to play with dollhouses.

Give them property, ANY sort of property, and they'll want a map. Then they'll try to decide what to do with each part. Where can they put a winecellar? What sort of drapes will the big window on the bridge of their starcruiser need? Should the necromantic chapel be lined with femurs or ribcages?

The ease of messing with this one is, again, down to player personalities, they have to actually enjoy this sort of thing, and also down to whether you can reasonably introduce any sort of property to them. Sometimes it's easy, for instance if someone's got some Manse-rating in Exalted and never bothered to stat it out because he just wanted the goddamn hearthstone, or if it's assumed that everyone's got a home in a Modern game but never expected their apartment to be particularly relevant.

But a few oblique questions that might suggest someone's going to get attacked in their apartment will get them started down the road on what they've got in their home, what it looks like and how they could best fortify it against zombie hordes.

This sort of thing mostly works well in the first few sessions of a game, however, and is hard to sneak in later. But hey, sometimes we need this sort of thing in the first few sessions.

Be a man, admit you forgot to prepare, postpone the session

Ha ha ha. I'm such a funny guy.

When have any of us actually done that?

Thanks for tuning in to yet another of my stupid rambles, and if you want to tell me how awesome or stupid I am for writing it, pop on to the IRC.



1 Nyahrlop
02:52pm UTC - 9/22/2014 [X]
I hate to do this, especially since it'd distract from this article, which is awesome, but i have a question.

I tried to get the irc to work but it did not, so i can't ask there. But i keep running into archived threads where all the previews are just images of text saying, sometimes stretched do a ridiculous degree. The images are there if you click them, they'll pop up full sized in a new tab, but still, its odd and seems random which will/won't.

2 Best GM
02:12am UTC - 9/30/2014 [X]
If I do this every session, does this make me a bad person?


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