Making It Up As You Go Along: How To Fake a Roleplaying Campaign On Five Minutes Notice


Sometimes, you need to slam it together fast.

If you’re a gamemaster (GM), you may have had this happen to you: for one reason or another, you’re about to start a game session, and you have not a clue about what your players are supposed to do during it. Maybe you forgot that you were running a session; maybe you’ve been tapped to run a game at a convention. Or maybe you’re just lazy.  Doesn’t matter; what matters is that you need to put together something quick. As in, now. And you don’t want your players to catch on, or at least care too much.

Fortunately, there are things that you can do about this. To the bullet points!

  • First, you must panic.  No, really, engaging in controlled panic is the absolutely first thing that you must do — unless you are one of those people who don’t need a certain amount of fight-or-flight hormones coursing through your biochemistry in order to wake your brain up fully. You just can’t indulge in it for long. It’s like using booze to calm down; a little actually works, but any more than that and you’re just asking for trouble.

  • Now that you’ve had your panic, the next step is to go out and steal something. Yes, steal. Are you getting money for running this gaming session? No? Then be shameless in your appropriation. Quick: what was the best game session that you’ve ever played in? No, don’t tell me, but answer the next question: did any of your players also play in that session? No? Then run the plot from that from memory. Heck, if any of them did play in that session then tip him or her the wink and let him or her take mild advantage of his or her foreknowledge.

  • If you can’t rip off somebody else’s campaign (or your own old campaign), rip off real life.  News of the weird (I still miss the print version of the Weekly World News) is usually best, but regular news works, too. One point, though: when improvising, skip the entire ‘ripped from the headlines’ part. Your players have probably read the headlines, too. They may not have read a local news story about a sewer tax dispute where you’ve changed all the politicians to wizards and added zombies to the sewers.

  • A common mistake at this point is to treat what you’ll eventually come up with as being somehow special, or at least self-contained. That’s fine if your players won’t care that you’ve thrown something together to justify them coming over; but if you’re trying to brazen it out, it’s kind of important that whatever events happen during the game session have the long-term consequences that those events deserve. That means that you take notes. Good notes. That also means that you shouldn’t try to wrap things up in a single game session, either. That is kind of what poker players call a ‘tell,’ right there.

  • Whenever possible, try to link your improvisation to one or more of the player-character’s (PC’s) favorite hobby-horses or obsessions. Which is, honestly, what GMs should be doing on a regular basis anyway, but if you have a player who doesn’t get many chances to shine, this would be the time to rectify that for a game session or two. Making a virtue out of unpreparedness is a good thing.

  • Keep It Simple, Stupid. Avoid riddles, mazes, complex death traps, anything that would legitimately frustrate your players. You can use all of that when you’ve prepared something ahead of time, sure: but unless you’re extremely good at making conundrums on the fly then go with the standard ‘Fighting vs. Diplomacy’ situation and be prepared to cut your players a little slack either way.

  • In fact: Cut your players a little slack. Remember: it’s not their fault that you’re improvising. It may not really be your fault, either — but it’s certainly not theirs. So dial it back.

  • Lastly, and this is absolutely key: don’t apologize.  Unless you break one of their books, or something. Seriously, people in our culture have a very weird habit of reflexively and nervously apologizing in a self-denigrating manner whenever they’re about to do something that’s outside of their comfort zone.  The funny thing about that, though? If you don’t apologize — and you don’t visibly wince when you make a mistake — there’s an excellent chance that the people that you’re apologizing to will never notice that you did anything ‘wrong.’

I hope this helps.  Although what would probably help more, in the future, would be for you to write down ideas ahead of time, then go to that particular well as needed when you’re on short notice to come up with a game.  But then, I wrote this up under the assumption that none of the people reading this had access to a time machine…

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