Off the Cuff #2: Lazy GMing

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Off the Cuff


Game Masters for RPGs tend to belong to one of two camps: those who spend a lot of time preparing for each session, and those who don’t. I’m a member of the latter camp.

I’ve always been one to fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to doing anything that involves work. In high school and college, I rarely did my take-home assignments and never turned in a rough draft of an essay unless the teacher absolutely required it. Instead, I’d sit through class, absorb what I could, ace my tests, and churn out essays the night before they were due. Somehow, I’d still get good grades on the assignments I bothered to turn in.

I didn’t really know it at the time, but I was preparing myself for the way I would eventually handle GMing. I gather a bunch of details in my head, make a few mental notes about where I’d like to begin the session, possibly decide on a few encounters I’d like my players to have, and then show up to game day with my dice in hand and not even a page of notes to go on. Somehow, I still manage to deliver a great gaming experience for my players.

This off the cuff approach to running games has served me well over the years, and I’ve recently begun analyzing it a bit more. I realized there are a few reasons I approach GMing in this manner, and I’d like to share a few of them with you. Hopefully you can learn a bit about a new style of GMing, and maybe you’ll walk away with a few tips on how to ease up your prep time for your own games.

Reason #1: I’m Lazy

I’d like to think that I work hard and get a lot done with the time I have. In reality though, I like to make as little work for myself as possible. I don’t like to think of it so much as cutting corners as I do consider myself to be one who optimizes the use of his time. Optimally, I get my work done quickly and efficiently so I have more time to spend doing the things I enjoy.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most people value the ability to get work done efficiently. “Work smarter, not harder,” as they say.

As it applies to being a GM, smarter work means focusing on having a good gaming experience. To me, that means improvising and going with the flow of the game. Let the players do most of the work for you and you’ll discover you not only have less to worry about during session prep, your players will feel more invested in the game. This even works when running one-shot scenarios for players at conventions; it’s hard to know exactly what your players are going to do, especially if you’ve never played with that group of people before, but being able to roll with the punches means you don’t have to worry about your carefully-planned scenario becoming a train wreck.

How does a GM let the players do most of the work? Give them a few adventure hooks and see which one they bite. Let them run along the path they’ve chosen. Make sure they have plenty of questions to ask, and either have a few answers in mind or — better yet — improvise.

Eventually you’ll discover plot holes that arise from giving a string of conflicting answers. Most groups will have a player who’s good at coming up with crazy conspiracy theories about why the answers don’t add up. Listen to their theories, then reward the player by using them in your game. They’ll feel like they solved a puzzle that was there all along but in reality you just let them handle all of the hard work while you facilitated the events that tied everything together.

Reason #2: I’m Blind

I really enjoy being a player in pre-written adventures. I’ve been playing in Organized Play campaigns such as Living Greyhawk and Pathfinder Society since 2003 and have easily 300 or more published adventures under my belt as a player.  Unfortunately, I can’t be bothered to try to run a pre-written scenario. There’s simply too much box text to read, too many statblocks to manage, and too many points on the map for me to keep track of. I can’t do all of these things in my head, and I don’t even bother.< Many people love GMing pre-written scenarios because it means they don’t have as much prep to do on their own end — or so they think. Sure, they don’t have to create their own worlds, write their own adventures in advance, or create their own NPCs. They do, however, have to read the scenario, make sure they have an understanding of its flow, understand how the NPCs will engage the players and know what powers the Big Bad Evil Guy will use when it’s time to bring the pain. Often someone who GMs a published adventure will come prepared with all sorts of notes about the game which he or shee will reference during play. Then the players will surprise him and screw everything up anyway.

As someone with a visual impairment, I find it difficult to reference adventure notes while running a game. When running D&D or Pathfinder, I bring a laptop to the table to help me keep track of things like initiative and monster hit points, since keeping track on index cards isn’t really an option for me. The more additional notes I add about the game session and adventure, the more I have to multitask on the laptop and, ultimately, the slower things become.

When I run Psi-punk and other Fudge games, I just show up with my dice and a few ideas of where the adventure is going to start. I also have an idea of where I’d like the adventure to eventually end, but it doesn’t necessarily go that way (I normally only plan an adventure’s ending when running one-shots). I don’t even bother to keep track of NPC statistics, since Fudge is so simple (see “Why Fudge is a Great Accessible RPG“) and doesn’t really require it.

Looking at Other GM Styles

One of the most common responses I’ve read to the question “Why do you run pre-written adventures?” is a lack of time. Many GMs feel they don’t have time to prepare a great scenario for their players, so they prefer to run a game that someone else has already designed for them. They occasionally tweak things to their liking, but for the most part it’s an adventure on rails. When handled poorly, the players feel railroaded, like they don’t have any say in the adventure and that the game could continue just as easily with any other group of characters.

On the other hand, some GMs hate to run pre-written scenarios because, surprise, they feel the adventures are too railroady. Instead, these  GMs craft their own worlds and their own adventures. They may only plan one or two scenarios at a time, to give their players options and to be prepared to take the story in an entirely different direction if the players throw them a curve ball, but they still spend a lot of time preparing individual play sessions. They create statblocks for NPCs that may never be encountered or villains who are designed to be battled once and then destroyed forever. In short, they spend a lot of time preparing sessions that may not even turn out the way they planned.

My GMing approach is so entirely different though. Sure, I could choose to spend my time creating new worlds and writing new adventures (oh wait, I already do those things with the games I publish), but instead I take an approach like the one I already discussed above: an off the cuff, lazy style with limited session prep and maximum player investment. Being blind has actually helped me bypass the border of pre-written scenarios and prepping detailed notes and, out of necessity, led me to a style of GMing that takes a lot less time but is no less enjoyable.

Become a Lazy GM

If you find yourself frustrated by the way your game sessions have been going lately, take a step back and analyze your GM style. Are you spending too much time on session prep and too little time doing just about anything else? Are you being rigid like a rail or flexible like a contortionist?

If you find things just haven’t been going your way, consider an alternate approach: make your way your players’ way. Listen to your players, allow them to tell the stories they want to tell, and be there as a facilitator instead of a master.

What are your thoughts on becoming a lazy GM? Do you think this approach would work for you, or is the idea of not having anything prepared simply too scary? Let me know in the comments!

Series Navigation<< Off the Cuff #1: GMing Without BordersOff The Cuff #3: Prep for Improv >>