The Lazy GM


I have to say I'm a lazy GM. I don't have the time or the energy to prepare a vast amount of background, labyrinthine plots, or hundreds of stats for monsters. So I spend an awful lot of time winging it during a game. My plots may be complex, and the background detailed, but this has little to do with the preparation I put in; mostly they are player lead adventures, and so I rely upon them for a lot of the inspiration and development of the game.

I have to say I'm a lazy GM. I don't have the time or the energy to prepare a vast amount of background, labyrinthine plots, or hundreds of stats for monsters. So I spend an awful lot of time winging it during a game. My plots may be complex, and the background detailed, but this has little to do with the preparation I put in; mostly they are player lead adventures, and so I rely upon them for a lot of the inspiration and development of the game.

Basically, I cheat.

I don't mean I bend the rules of the game we're playing, but I do use a lot of different techniques to make it look like I've spent a lot of time and effort on the adventure, when in fact all I've done is draw a pretty rough map. I expect most GM's have used many of these, but hopefully there's something of interest to you here.

I find it imperative to know the rules, the background, and what the PCs are capable of. Without this information it's particularly hard to wing it during a game. Knowing the rules well prevents those concentration-busting fumblings through rulebooks and supplements.

Knowing the background helps you to understand and role-play your NPCs much better; knowing what the PCs can do makes it much easier to come up with balanced challenges. All this leads to me being much more confident about what I'm doing, and gives me the time to focus on more complex stuff, like plot and characterization.

I do a lot of "kidology" behind the screen. If I've nothing prepared, I always have at least some notepaper and a pile of stuff that looks like it *might* be a huge hand-written adventure or two behind there with me. It gives the impression to the players the adventure is planned and they will have to think about what is going on. I've found however good you are at making things up on the fly, players will think more about something they think you've put some time and effort into. The more work, the more devious it's likely to be, seems to be the thinking. Or perhaps it's harder to take something seriously if you know it's not been thought through much. Whatever the reason, I find players are more interested and I'm more confident if they can't tell when I'm winging it.

It might sound sad, but I've even gone so far as to pretend to read something on a piece of paper to them just to keep up the illusion.

Use Your Players
If the players believe there really is a big plot afoot, they will try and figure out what is going on. They'll discuss it between themselves, and throw out ideas I can steal outright and pretend were in the plot all along. They also tend to ask questions about stuff they find interesting, making it much easier for me to keep them interested simply by listening to them. Thus NPCs who started out as bit-part players become important, and minor items they come across during the adventure turn out to be vital clues or plot devices, simply because the players get interested in them and because (dramatically speaking
At least) it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I've also found a lot of players will spend hours writing reams of background for their character. This is a lovely thing to encourage, as it gives you a pile of instant plot hooks, NPCs, and has the added benefit of rewarding the player who does it.

The Preparation of Prevarication
Because my games are usually player lead, I find when I do prepare something, I have to make it somewhat modular so it will fit in with what the PCs are doing and where they are.

I like to have a few ideas or mini-scenarios ready to slot into the adventure for when I get out of inspiration or want a change of pace. A few examples:

Shopping - Let your characters buy some stuff. Let them wander around a market, or come across a peddler specializing in something they are likely to be interested in. Weapons shops are always of interest, as well as bookstores, herbalists, antique shops etc.

Stories - There are never enough people telling stories in role-playing games. I
certainly don't do it enough. The advantages with stories are manifold. First you get to role-play an NPC telling something interesting. Second you get to give out background information in an interesting and "realistic" way. Third you can scatter a few plot hooks in your narrative. Get one of your "grizzled veterans" to relate one of their past adventures, or the local priest to retell a myth, or the bartender to tell a shaggy dog story. All these go a long way towards bringing the world alive, and can usefully fill up half an hour of
gaming time.

Found Stuff - Odd stuff, strange magic, interesting books, clues and complex bits of equipment are pretty easy to insert in any adventure, and can keep your players occupied for ages trying to figure out what they are and their significance.

Vignettes - Something I've often done is to write a short adventure-ette. Something interesting, but not designed to take up much time. Simple episodes, such as catching a small child thieving, or dealing with an aggressive (but harmless) drunk are minor challenges for most PCs but can easily lead to bigger plots. For instance, the small child is starving - what do the PCs do about that? Or the drunk is locally quite important - the way the PCs deal with him will have important ramifications later on.

Dream sequences - Maybe prophetic, maybe some sort of clue, maybe just a normal dream. They add flavor, and are pretty easy to GM, as the player(s) involved have little control over their actions - all you need to do is to tell them about it. They also have the beauty of being very flexible, as all you need is a sleeping PC!

I am too very lazy GM, but I don't pretend that I have anything ready. My imagination as a source of adventures is almost inexhaustible and I just wing it. Of course I have something planned before I start game, but absolutely nothing is written down before game session. Not even maps. Still - according to my best friend - I came up with very interesting plots and whole adventures, especially my NPCs are very interesting. I have to admit that sometimes happens mistakes but usually I am the only one who notices them and I notice them days after game (and I laugh at them).

Ah yes...the Lazy GM.

I'm also a lazy GM, but I mostly do that because I'm not horribly mean to my players. What do I mean by that?

Well, if I'm not lazy, I come up with specific events and specific solutions. The trouble is, my players don't get terribly excited by the events and never come up with my specific solution. And so I have to "plot hammer" or bring in an obvious deus ex machina.

So I quit that particular dead end. It annoyed everyone. Instead, I started reacting more to the PC's, bringing up situations naturally and - this is the important bit - NEVER having ANY idea how they should be solved. This improved things enormously. It stopped me from having to decide whether or not I should settle for a player's solution or insist on my (always PERFECT, of course) answer. More importantly, it gave the game a real feel of the Bad Guys trying their hardest, and the Good Guys innovating great solutions.

Actually, nothing has helped my games more than me deciding to be lazy. An excellent article!

Ahh, yes... I, too, am a lazy GM. Iridilate and Ozzie both mention things I do quite often during games. The most important (and fun), I feel, being: a) let the PC's come up with the solution - if you have no preconceived way of solving the puzzle, they'll be forced to come up with immensely creative ways to try and solve it for you. Then, you just sit back and accept the credit for a ingeniously sinister trap with a very difficult solution - and b) making adventures, plot hooks, etc. modular, so that they fit into what the PC's were already planning on doing. This way, they tend to feel more a part of the game world.

This style of GM-ing works really well with Amber (my game of choice), but I've run all sorts of other games with the same basic try-it-and-see/seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time style of running.

Of course, having stuff prepared in advance helps, and can only add to the game (and keeps up appearances for when you're totally bluffing, or making stuff up off the top of your head...), but it's certainly not absolutely necessary - you have your PC's, player's guides, and your own mind to draw from.

Oh, and that +5 keen, vorpal longsword that you mistakenly gave to one of your power-gaming PC's after their impromptu battle with the dragon? Well, since you probably just made/rolled it up on the spot anyway, with the notion that "this could be interesting...", odds are it's also got a nasty curse - which you will also make up at your own discetion...

- Rinnaldo

I've always found it's best NOT to even project the image of having prepared. :p Just writing down a few stats for the likely encounters to prevent confusion and a sort of over-arching plot, than letting the players do their thing has worked extremely well for me. In fact, I've had a few GMs who could never play a game without a written out scenario, and I must say they were some of the worst ones I freedom! Ad-libbing helps a GM to give the players the freedom to role-play...

Anyhow, great article.

Oh, well, I wouldnt precicly call winging it being lazy. In actuality, Every plot I've spent hard time and work and generally slaved over crashes down into minor details and gets caught up on itself as players have the inability to grasp the idea or deal with the information given. I think basing your subject matter around 'winging it' is generally better for all those invoved than something thats jud one lineir plot.

Personally, as of late with Shadowrun (I've got two going at once, diffrent groups, oi) all Ive done is selected a goal, given the players the goal idea, and everything from there on out is utterly on the fly.

I havnt even gotten through the core rulebook and I've already GMed fifteen runs with another dozen or so due for a campaign session or four...

I, too, am a lazy GM. Thankfully, my only PC is content to let me do whatever he wants with him. I only have about three pages of planning for the entire campaign, which has spanned about ten levels of his so far. It's worked very well, except when I needed to quickly come up with a name...of course, with tne new campaign we're starting, I've actually got to try and plan a bit. Oh well. It's not to bad, and this article reduced the amount of planning I've gotta do.

Me Lazy too.

Yep I do the same, I find politcal intrigue to be one of the best plots to wing with, and the conspiracies and ideas the players come up with are great to nick.

I'm runnign a D20 FR, Political Mysyery ATM. and every session the bad guy changes, well their idea of the bad guy changes. I know who's done it, as the only three chracters I worked out in advance, were a king, his secret Heir, and the Power hungry religious advisor (Bad guy all over him).

Now we have a council of 13 advisor to the king of a substantial city, the drow and Bainits working together to take over Farun, and the players have no clue who put the curse on the king and why and the person they thought they could trust has now vanished under mysterious circumstances.

And not a sewer, dungeon or rat in sight. There was a mad old guyt who always wanders in to a pub and shouts 'I'm looking for adventurers for all the gold and experience they can carry.' He is a man mad who breeds rats and lets them out in the sewer to piss of newbie adventures who get suckered in to killing them.

Any guess what, i've not read much beyond the first page of the PHB, havieng confidence in the system is not needed, when you know how to manipulate teh characters. Come to think of it they have had an easy life so far, I think I'll kill one of them to show they aren't immortal.



We're in danger of mixing up two things here. Being lazy is not good in a DM. As a player I can generally detect it, and I find it insulting and annoying. However, Winging it is an essential skill for a DM, and a DM who can do it well is priceless. But with two provisos.
First it has to be done well and fairly ie the DM should react with a reasonable response to the players ideas, and not allow his/her own personality to dictate the results. Secondly, It also helps if the DM has a solid well defined campaign so that he has some base for his improvisations.
The best DM I have ever played with had these qualities. He had a solid campaign and allowed the players to do what they liked using the campaign as a base. When I did something clever, he reacted sensibly and let me profit by it. When I did something silly, my character sufferred. I remember when I tried to drag 200 troops and 2 trebuchets though kobold infested forest to attack an orc lair. The DM slowed us right down and we were in danger of losing the whole force, but then we got clever and bribed the kobold chief. He let us through the forest and we sucessfully completed our attack. all this was done by player led improvisation. But it was not sloppy or lazy.

Long live the Improvising DM !
PS. Don't get lazy.

I never prepare for GMing, except by writing down a few lines about who, what and when. The more papers I have to shuffle around, the slower everything gets. During the game I write down a few names and such, just in case the PCs meet the same NPCs again.

I find the most difficult part of winging something is remembering what happened afterwards. Too often I have to ask my players "Refresh my memory..what did you do?" This is why I appreciate players who write *everything* down. Saves me the effort. Thank your players who do so...a random name or event here and there can produce excellent side plots or twists when you need one.

Patrick has a good point about the problem of remembering exactly what happened when you are busy 'winging it'. I've found the best away around that problem is to not distribute experience, honor, glory, etc. during the session.

Instead, send off an email to the PCs with a list of their significant actions and the positive or negative 'award' for each action. If they did something heroic you forgot about, they will let you know about it in hopes of getting a higher award. If you forgot about a negative action one of them did, one of the other players might 'helpfully' point it out.

Mark Harm - Marketing Director
Rampant Mouse Medieval Latex Weaponry

What's the point in planning?

All you need is a few ideas and a quick mouth to make it look like you planned it all along.

Besides, the game never goes the way you planned it. You can't write a plot and storyboard and expect the players to follow it. Part of you duty as a GM is to make the world that your gaming in react to the players actions. I've heard this statement from a GM many times...

"Sure you can...but...there could be repercussions."

I'll be specific here. There's "improvisation" and then there's "winging it"

In an RPG with a good dose of game in it, such as D&D or Earthdawn - I don't like DMs that make it up on the fly - not one bit. The reason is that I and the other players enjoy the sense of being tested, of using their resources against an exterior and somewhat objective challenge and claiming victory. Adventures and stories that rely on total arbitration from the DM remove control from the players (sometimes without them knowing it-for a while), and also

Adequate planning to helps to keep the story tight. Too often I've see plots spin way out of control with Byzantine complexities and subtleties that no reasonable person would ever grasp - it happens when people make it up as the go along, and don't have time to edit out the second best ideas. Everything goes into the pot, and it makes a sloppy mess. Keep it simple, keep it clean, and make sure the chapter has an ending. That all comes through planning.

On the other hand, careful planning of the plot and game gives the sharp GM more leeway to improv characters and discussions when the time comes. You can really give your NPC's a personality if you can think on your feet.

So - improv.
Bad with plot and game.
Good with character and dramatic moments.

So - improv.
Bad with plot and game.
Good with character and dramatic moments.

I don't know. If you plan out a big ol plot, it seems too much like railroading the players. Unless it is just what happens in the background, and the specifics change as a result of character actions. Which seems a bit like improvisation to me.

Now for specific challenges or encounters, I agree, too much on the fly just muddies the water. You need to stat up the baddies, be clear about the mystical defenses and misdirection. And design the puzzles before hand. If you do it on the fly it will not hang together well. plus it forces some rigor on you as the GM, if you've got it all written up you are less inclined to fudge for your players- which reduces the challenge and satisfaction of an adventure IMO.

Characters, especially bit players, I do often improvise, but I find that is not my strong suit, so the bit players rarely develop into more. I only manage to play up the well thought out and described NPCs, but my old GM was an NPC savant, every NPC was vibrant, idiocyncratic and memorable. Man I wish I could do that.

Anyway, I find that I really need to plan characters and drama or I just cannot pull it off, but I can let the plot take care of itself with no problem at all. I guess it depends on what your better at as a GM.


Says John:
If you plan out a big ol plot, it seems too much like railroading the players [...] I really need to plan characters and drama or I just cannot pull it off,

Says Nephandus:
Railroading? Not I don't know how the game will turn out - just what choices they will face, and what the basic conditions for victory are. I have been accused of it by one player though - an "Artiste" and former DM - who always had insanely elaborate resolutions and plots planned for his character, complete with resolutions, challlenges, and roles for me and for the other players though - which would facilitate his characters story. When I did not indulge these distractions - he did indeed call me a Railroader, and worse! Then the group booted him. I do think we might have been dealing with a chemical imbalance though :^)

Don't feel badly about needing to plan your characters though. I've seen a lot of people who think they are great at improv, but aren't.

I have to disagree with probaly the majority here.
I like to plan out to detail what will happen, but also I like to think myself capable of winging it, when it doesn't go my way.

Sure I plan literally about 15 hours a week on an adventure, but if the PC's somehow choose something I didn't anticipate, I don't immediatly go and try to railroad them back on that path. ( i don't know where the idea comes, that you have to put them back on a strict course even in a module or detailed adventure ).