Five Minute Prep Sessions

Preparing for playing roleplaying games is a is known burden for Game Masters. Ginny Di recently featured a video explaining her problems with GM burnout, and I’ve personally experienced similar things. As have my friends who run campaigns.

I don't really have a solution for this, but I can explain what I do more of these days. And that is “five minute prep” games. I have two skills that I use for running games on five minutes of prep, which are using random generation and improvising.

Random generation is maybe as expected, using encounter tables and adventure tables (such as those found in the 2400 micro games). What I typically do is create a pitch for a 2 hour session, which are typically simple jobs made complicated. This only takes a minute to roll up, usually, which sets the basis for the session. Following that, I set up a location that most importantly must feel real.

Improvisation comes in when the game is running. Typically I describe locations in a grounded manner that makes sense to me. I draw on real life experience when I can, and when that’s not possible I lean on media like tv shows and video games. It’s not important to go in overly detailed, but it is important to hand out some possible directions and landmarks that the players can focus on. Let's talk five minute prep! 

Image by Kevin Phillips, used with permission.

But first

Okay, so the “prep” part is incredibly simple. Answer the following questions:

What is their mission/job?

Bring a thing to a location? Kill someone? Find something? Protect someone? Steal something? The basic premise can be very simple, and let the following questions help flesh out the scenario.

Where do they need to do it?

This is setting dependent, but lean on what you have already in your campaign or what you’d typically find in your setting. Does the mission take the players to the slums, or at an abandoned temple in the forest? Is it a secure castle, or a freight spacecraft en route to Alpha Centauri?

Who do they deal with? (Come up with some personas)

If someone’s giving them a mission, it’s wise to come up with a persona that has either the motivation or social position to do so. A fixer, a political refugee, a shadowy spy or a criminal are all potential “quest givers”, but you could also draw in other types of personas such as friends or relatives of the player characters. Maybe the players happen upon the situation, so there’s no “quest giver”, but rather an opportunity to deal with a situation that could yield a reward.

What’s the twist?

The “twist” in this sense is not intended to be a narrative “gotcha”, but a dimension to the mission that adds a constraint, time pressure or resistance of some kind. Some of these things follow from the original mission statement, like “protect Alistair, the defector pilot” implies that someone is after them. Who is after Alistair? Probably black bag operatives from the government that Alistair is defecting from.

There are other ways to twist the mission too, like having the personas involved have some unknown issue, like being a traitor or not having enough money. Maybe they are trying to cover up evidence of their own crimes?

What is the reward?

Money and gear are typical rewards, but you can also reward them with gaining someone’s favor or setting up new opportunities. Other useful rewards could be allies and intel. Anything that can give the players a further leg up in the world.

If you’re able to write down a sentence for each question, you should be good to go.

Running locations

When running an improvised location, ask yourself: “What is typical for this kind of location?”

For common locations like restaurants, bars, stores, libraries or residential buildings, you can very likely make up something based on some real-life examples you’ve been to yourself. Just put it in the game. That way, you’re adding a pinch of verisimilitude and you’ll be comfortable describing directions and maybe even drawing a quick’n’dirty floor plan from memory.

For more exotic locations, you may be in trouble. Now you have to ask yourself: “what makes sense to have in this location?”

What’s in a spaceship? A dungeon? A biomechanical factory that produces genetically altered bio-warmachines? These are not easy to answer quickly, but you can take some simplified steps to make the space playable. You can start by drawing some simple shapes to represent the various paths in the location. Add rooms that make sense to add, like crew quarters for a ship, or a hatchling chamber for the biomechanical factory? Connect them together with corridors that are appropriate for the function of the location. If you’re not confident  with this approach, you can also just google “spaceship floor plans” and find a suitable image to run with.

The benefit of running an exotic location is that, well, they are exotic, so the players are likely going with the motions of what this place is. The goal is to make the place seem real in spite of its made up nature. So present them with layers of details to unpack when they investigate things.

A room might be immensely complex given its function (like a spacecraft’s bridge), but you do not have to convey the details of it, just the feeling of it. A brief explanation like “this room has consoles and seating for the command team” is sufficient at first glance, and then you follow up on cues from the players. If they want to hijack the ship, you ask them how they would go about doing that. Hacking the commander’s console? Alright, dive into that with the appropriate rolls and descriptions.

Running Inhabitants

Another layer to play is inhabitants and hazards. There are probably crew aboard the spaceship, or a waiter staff and cooks in the restaurant. Do you need the names and history of each character there? Probably not. Can you improvise some details about them? Very likely. I typically use donjon for generating characters - get a name, provide a brief description and set them on their way.

How do they behave? As you’d expect! The waiters will very likely approach the players and ask if they have a reservation. If the players are wearing guns in an obvious way, they will likely hesitate, withdraw or panic. The crew of the spaceship might assume that the players are guests, but they could also call in security or halt them depending on what kind of operations the spaceship is involved with.

When in doubt, make a reaction roll with 2d6: On 2 - 5, they have a negative reaction, on 6-  8 they are themselves uncertain and momentarily passive, on 9 - 12 they have a positive reaction of some sort.

In more complex and chaotic situations, I typically make “Luck rolls” (inspired by Chris McDowall’s work), where a roll of 4 - 6 is a good turn of events, while 2 - 3 yields a problem and 1 immediately turns the situation into a bad spot. If the players seem to have control, I roll twice and pick the best result. If the enemy is actively hunting them or the situation is actually a disaster, I roll twice and pick the worst result. From these results, I will often make changes to the situation that follows from the established fiction - no deus ex machina or quantum ogres.

Some more tips and tricks

Remember to stop and think. Take any amount of time you need. If you need five minutes, call a break and let everyone get a drink, etc. Just think through any given moment, especially if you feel yourself hesitating. You don’t need to say anything immediately, just stop and think, then talk. Showing your players that you need to think is also a good thing, actually.

Make it seem real. If the players stop to talk to a waiter, and suddenly asks them about something unexpected, answer the players as if the waiter was a real person. They could be anxious people stuck in a job, or maybe an aspiring actor longing for a breakthrough. Heck, they could come back later, find the same character, or maybe even stumble upon them later. Have a name ready, just in case. Don’t call them Justin Case.
Really, make it seem real. This may seem like a sort of nonsensical tip, but apply yourself when presenting a location. If the players are at an airport, what would make sense to find there? Business people hurrying to a closing gate. Noisy families with under-stimulated children. A tourist in a funny shirt who’s just annoyingly friendly. Airport crew. Etc. You don’t have to describe all this at once, just scatter them around as the players navigate the environment.

Don’t hesitate to use premade stuff, like Dyson Logo’s maps, or floor plans grabbed from a google search. I often use my familiarity with video game locations to draw on. The Dishonored games are especially useful for that.

Take notes. This loops back to my “seem real” tips. Actually make it “real” by noting it down and permanently adding it to your campaign. That way you’ve played to find out about a thing, and now it’s something in your world. Add the characters to random encounter tables, maybe loop back on a location later and just generally have fun with it. It’s a fun form of world building. 

Gather up useful tables over time. Make some yourself sometimes too and share them on your blog. The more you develop your toolset, the better. 

Also, don't panic.

Additional resources

Ginny Di’s video on burnout.
The donjon
2400 Microgames

If you liked what you read, have thoughts or questions, let me know at my community discord. Thanks for reading!

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