Help And Hope For Desperate GMs
We GMs may sometimes wish we could devote ourselves to nothing but campaign planning and evil schemes, yet real life intervenes all too often. The result is a frighteningly sparse or nonexistent set of campaign notes and the horrible sinking feeling that even if you pull off an astonishing feat of last-minute game planning, you'll never be ready on time. What's a GM to do?
Does anyone else remember the bad old days of the '80s, when D&D was the gateway to Satanism and gamers were suicide statistics waiting to happen? I thought you might. Anyway, some of you may recall that during that craze, there were rampant rumors of GMs so good they could demand weekly fees from their players in exchange for their storytelling and dungeon-planning expertise. Supposedly there were GMs who commanded enough money (or were good enough at extorting from their players) to quit their day jobs and devote all of their time to feeding the soul-sucking addiction that was D&D. Ask a real gamer to corroborate this rumor, however, and the sarcastic response you'll get is, "Where do I sign up?"
However much we GMs may sometimes wish we could devote ourselves to nothing but campaign planning and evil schemes, real life intervenes all too often. The concerns of work, school, family obligations, participation in community organizations, other hobbies, and the hundreds of other constraints imposed on us simply by living day to day take up a substantial amount of time, and rightfully so. Usually, we succeed at this precarious balancing act and have the week's adventure ready just in time for our eager players to devour. It only becomes a problem when some pressing real-life activity - a hellish week at work, a midterm exam, an illness in the family - throws us off our stride and takes away time we would otherwise have used to prepare for gaming. The result is a frighteningly sparse or nonexistent set of campaign notes and the horrible sinking feeling that even if you pull off an astonishing feat of last-minute game planning, you'll never be ready on time.
What's a GM to do when this occurs? You could always cancel the session - but most GMs are very reluctant to do that, at least in my experience. Most players look forward all week to their gaming sessions, and the last thing any GM wants to do is to let them down. It's a tough situation, and the solution will be different for everyone who faces it. But if you're caught between the rock of your players' expectations and the hard place of your own lack of preparation, help is on the way. Here are a few techniques that have saved me time and time again whenever I just can't get an adventure together on time.
My first suggestion may seem painfully obvious, but it's worth reiterating since it often has the best results. If you ever find yourself starved for ideas, go over the PC's backgrounds. This strategy works best if you're lucky enough to have a group of experienced, plot- and character-oriented roleplayers, since their character backgrounds are invariably laden with plot hooks just waiting for you to cast them around. Still, even if the PC's backgrounds are not quite that detailed or original, chances are that at least one of them will have a lost love, a distant parental figure, an estranged mentor, or someone else who was important to the character but, for whatever reason, has never put in an appearance in the campaign. Get a handle on that character, stat him up as an NPC, and come up with a reason for the party to run into him. Be sure you know how that NPC will react once he meets the party, especially the PC whose background he figures in. Does he wants revenge or reconciliation? Is he trying to tie up loose ends? Or is the whole situation nothing more than a serendipitous random encounter that reopens old scars or awakens old passions? Understand this, and you're in the clear.
The really beautiful thing about this strategy is that, although it requires a little more last-minute planning on your part, once it gets rolling it should write itself. Most roleplayers who take the time to write characters into their background know exactly what they'd do if they ran into those NPCs again; after all, if they found them interesting enough to write about in the first place, surely they'd like to meet them again. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they expect you to include them and validate all that time, thought, and effort on their part! The PC will probably have tons of things he wants to say or do to or with this artifact from his past, which will more than fill a normal session. The only trick is coming up with a way to introduce the character, which is something to which you, as a GM, should be no stranger. After that, let the NPC's reactions come naturally, and you should be left with a nice, neat session that ties up loose ends as well as makes your players happy.
Also, consider any long- or short-term goals the PCs may have. If you've been spending the past few sessions coming up with ways to frustrate those goals, here's a radical idea: Remove those obstacles altogether and let the PCs succeed. When you don't have to plan a dungeon full of traps or a villain's latest set of mind games, all that remains is the approach and the confrontation, both of which can easily be improvised. You don't have to let them defeat the Big Nasty or solve the main mystery, just take out a minor henchman or figure out something that's been nagging them lately. If they're anything like the gamers I know, they'll be able to take up plenty of time after their victory pondering the implications of their actions or their discovery. They'll feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment, and you'll be relieved that you gave them a good session on such short notice!
If circumstances don't allow you to play around with the PCs' backgrounds, never fear - there's a lower road you can take. In this case, set aside all semblance of shame and blatantly rip something off! Have you read a good book recently, seen an interesting movie, or even played through a halfway decent video game? If so, find a way to use it. Steal its characters, its plot, its themes, and its locations, and don't be afraid to make them your own. It doesn't even matter if your players are familiar with your inspiration. If they are, admit your minor act of theft and they'll probably be amused and play along. If they aren't, keep your lips sealed and they'll be amazed by the seemingly profound and inexhaustible depths of your creativity. Only you have to know the truth. I've done this both ways, and both times it worked like a charm. The first time, I set up a dungeon-crawl-like session where the characters took on the monsters from the "Alien" movies (an overused idea, I know, but it got the job done!), and the results were hilarious and memorable. The second time, I stole almost word-for-word the plot of a horror novel I knew none of my players have read and succeeded in creeping them out immensely with a powerful, angst-ridden session that the players later deemed one of the best of the campaign.
Have you considered all of these suggestions and determined that none of them will work? That's okay - all is not lost. When all else fails, stop worrying and go to your session as usual, either completely unprepared or with what you have done. Then, do the unthinkable: be honest with your players. Explain the situation and your utter lack of preparedness and let them know how this will affect the session if things continue as normal. I'm sure your players will understand and go along with whatever you can manage. If this happens, your session can go one of three ways. First, you can run through what you do have planned and then stop, effectively having a shortened session. Alternatively, you can fill up the remaining time (or just the entire session) with "downtime" oriented activities in which the players tie up loose ends and take care of less adventurous details such as seeking training for new skills, buying new and further developing relationships with PCs and NPCs. Or you can just let your players run loose, effectively creating a session that has nothing whatsoever to do with your campaign and which you have no control over, but which can still be a lot of fun.
To make my point in this case, I'm going to swallow my pride and tell you about the worst session I ever ran. It happened during the campaign I took both of my examples from earlier. Essentially, I'd had a weekend that had been completely swallowed by non-gaming-related social activities, which had forced me to spend the rest of the week catching up on the homework I'd neglected, and the session (which fell on a Thursday night) caught me by surprise. I had a blank sheet of paper with the words "Adventure Notes" written across the top, and that was it. Realizing I had no other way out, that night I sat down with my players, apologized for my lack of anything resembling an adventure for that night, and asked them what they wanted to do. They all decided to spend the session pursuing downtime-related activities. For most of the party, this entailed teaching one another some new skills and getting stinking drunk with a few NPCs. For one character, the night was particularly lucrative since it gave her a chance to smooth things over with her boyfriend's ex-wife, whom she had run into during the previous session. It was a very short session (less than 4 hours long), but it was funny, productive, and anything but boring. While no one would call it the best session we ever had, it was a lot better than you'd think a totally unplanned evening would be. So trust your players if you don't have anything planned - usually they'll manage to surprise you quite pleasantly.
If I've done my job correctly, you should go away from this article with plenty of contingency plans to follow in the event that you should ever find yourself inadequately prepared for a gaming session. Here's hoping I've given you a few tools to help you continue to balance your duties as a GM with the rest of your life - and that all of us can continue that balancing act until professional GMing becomes a feasible career option.