The Scramble (How to Run a Game at the Last Minute)

Posted on September 21, 2012 by

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I’ve been busy.

That’s not an explanation for my lack of blog posts, it’s just a fact.  Nobody likes being too busy to do the things that they enjoy, especially for us gamers who get into a habit of being able to sit around a table and roll some dice once or twice a week.  We get used to the regularity of doing one of our favorite things, and to go without is a sacrifice that few of us feel like making.

So what do we do when there just isn’t time to put anything together?

We make it up as we go.

Now for those of you not aware, Gamma World is a little bit like Dungeons and Dragons on acid.  In the year 2012 (uh oh) at the Hadron Particle Collider, something happened.  Nobody knows what it was, but this moment became known as “The Great Mistake” and collapsed every possible alternate reality into a single one.  Now anything is possible on the world known as Gamma Terra, a land where dinosaurs walk side by side with ghosts and spacemen, where people are made up of so many different parts that any mad scientist would be proud.

You roll two character classes/races at random and go from there, the rules are a dumbed down version of 4th Edition in a great way, and everyone usually has a blast.  Our previous characters have included a sentient tree, a cryokinetic yeti, a giant ghost, even a telekinetic swarm of rats, all created minutes before the game with the aid of lady luck.  It’s pure madness at its best, but somebody still has to run the game and make sure that there’s a story for people to follow.

Which means that, unfortunately, some prep work still has to happen for the storyteller.

So how do you run a game with the minimum amount of preparation?

Rule One – Plot and Characters

Before starting the game, you need to have a general idea of your plot from start to finish.  Know how the game will begin, and know how it will end.  Everything else is simply gravy on the cake.  You can always throw more encounters into the mix if you need some filler in the middle, but the start and finish of a game are where the majority of your story lies.  Plan a couple of key story points that will come up about midway through, but don’t worry about it too much.  For a shorter game, a weird story can be a lot of fun, but it can really be as simple as rescuing a princess from a dragon if you’re pressed for time.

Now come up with five characters that the players will meet over the course of your game.  At least one should be a villain, maybe they’ll have an ally or two, perhaps you need a nice shopkeeper for them to buy supplies from. Flesh these five characters out and let all of the others be a sea of empty faces.  Throw your generic voices and characters at these people, and you’ll be just fine.

Rule Two – Don’t Design Encounters

Seriously, a rule so good that I use it for all of my games.  Spending time balancing encounters and designing monsters is the number one place that most DM’s could afford to shave some time off of their game preparations.  I know how much fun it can be to fiddle with monster stat blocks and powers and such, but it’s largely unnecessary if a Dungeon Master is willing to compromise the mathematical integrity of their game in sacrifice of the story.

You start with what I like to call the Test Encounter.  Throw a number of enemies at the players with what you think are totally average stats, hit points, and damage for a group of that level.  Pair them up so that they fight a group roughly the same in number as themselves.  Based on how easy or difficult this encounter is for the players, you can then adjust future fights for whatever difficulty you like.

In subsequent encounters, you can just use the stats that you found to be about right after the first fight, but here don’t be afraid to improvise.  I think that this enemy should cast spells, and this one should throw nets that immobilize players, and this one should have more damage but a lower to-hit.  Use the same damage numbers from before with slight tweaks.  Trade hit points for damage, armor for accuracy, throw weird abilities in wherever you like, because that is the real secret.

Monster stat blocks, while a lot of fun, fail to take into account that a monster can do more than two attacks.  An enemy with a spear could attempt to trip the players, an enemy with a gun could pull out a grenade or shoot a barrel of volatile chemicals, a ravening cyclops could tear down the columns that support the ceiling.  The greatest failing of 4th Edition is that they have removed all of the improvisation from games and replaced it with a set of hard numbers.  Forget that, you’re the Dungeon Master, do what sounds cool.

Rule Three – Trust the Players

Now normally telling a Storyteller to trust his players is a great way to get a game derailed and messed up in a serious way, but when you’re in a crunch for planning time, letting the players make their own choices is a great way to fill some of that time during which you would just be throwing improvised encounters at them.  Roleplayers will fill time by asking questions of the other players and your NPC’s, kick-in-the-door gamers will actively seek out more combat, giving you one less thing to worry about.  As long as the players move through your loosely designed plot points, who cares how they get there, right?

Of course, you may still need to keep them moving forward, which isn’t as difficult as it seems, you just need to reverse the playstyle.  Threaten the roleplayers with combat and make the door-kickers roleplay until they progress the story looking for another fight.  It’s that easy.

Rule Four – Have Fun

A game of pen and paper roleplaying is worthless if everyone isn’t having a good time.  Don’t stress out about your game, because that’s a sure-fire way to be a miserable DM.  Do what feels right, make stuff up as you go, and you’ll come out on the far side with a satisfied grin on your face.

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