As an Improvisational Style Game Master, I have a difficult time doing prep work. I find it very rewarding, especially when running a game with heavy elements of mystery and intrigue, but it is not always easy to do. A lot of prep work gets wasted when players do not go the direction you expect them to go, and that hurts a lot when you put all that effort doing something you do not enjoy just to make the game you run better. But can you really blame the players for pursuing something that they find more interesting in your game?
That’s not a rhetorical question. Are we allowed to do that? I’d love to know!
Back to point, I find that over the years I tend to compromise my prep work by spending most of my time prepping for improvisation. I prepare little fun encounters that can fit when a player does something random, or I stat up a crazy monster if I ever need to have one kick down a door to pick up the pace of a game.
Today I want to talk about making one of my favorite Improvisational Preparation tools, one of the simplest and most popular tools in our genre for embracing random encounters: the list!
Making a List
Brainstorming a list is relatively easy, so long as you can stick to a theme. Try not to think too much about stats and story arcs. Just pick a simple theme and start listing anything that pops into your head to go along with that theme.
For Fate Core lists, you can come up with a good theme the same way you come up with a good aspect. Underwater Ruins Encounters gives a lot better mental picture of what you expect to encounter in a limited setting. Quest Starters by the Shore gives you a more broad range but still has a clear theme.
Once you have your theme, start jotting down ideas. Don’t worry too much about how many things you list or how much they make sense to the theme. This is just brainstorming time. The theme should keep you on track enough, and you will know when to stop if it takes you more than a minute to come up with anything new to add to the list.
Checking It Twice
Once you have a list written down, take a few minutes to go through it again. Count how many items you have. I find that getting lists to a good round number makes them more useful down the road. If you can hit 100, that is fantastic. Anything over 20 should be rounded to the nearest 10’s place. If you have a smaller list, try to get something you could roll a dice on to get a number: d12 or d10 or even a d8. If you are having trouble filling in more ideas to round your list up to a good number, hold that off until after this next step.
Go through all the items on your list and make certain that they are worded in such a way as to obviously tie to your theme. Angry Octopus makes total sense for an Underwater Ruins Encounter, but Skeletons can be found in lots of places, right? Well you were thinking pirate skeletons or maybe skeletons of drowned sailors so jot that down instead. These rewordings may make you think of other things to add to the list (pirate skeletons means pirate treasure chests!), so hopefully that helps you round up your list.
Now you have a great basic list for future encounters. If you have time, you may want to make some more with similar themes. If there are Underwater Ruins Encounters then maybe there are Volcanic Ruins Encounters or Forgotten Forrest Ruins Encounters or Dessert Pyramid Encounters. Pretty soon you will have a list for any ruined dungeon in any habitat location!
Or you may also want to modify your list to make it more helpful as a go-to in games.
Using Lists in Roleplaying Games
Now that you have your lists, how do you make them useful for games? Well this depends on your style of running games and what tools you find the most helpful, but here are some suggestions. First of all, you can keep the list as is and just look at it whenever you need an idea in the middle of an adventure (or even when prepping for one). We’ll talk about that more in a minute.
Second, you can modify the list into a table. This is a big reason why we try to make good round numbers for our lists. If you have 100 items on a list of possible elven treasures, then all you have to do is add the numbers and you have a table that you can roll on with a d100. If you have 40 or 50, then you may need to break them down into multiple tables to roll twice on (a d4 to see if it is a weapon, armor, art piece, or other random item and then a d10 to hit one of the items under that category).
A third option is to turn the list into index cards. This works best for the sort of lists that interact with player characters. Monster encounters can have stats and such for you to reference. Secret treasures or hidden clues can be pulled from a stack and handed to a player so that they have the info to reference with no one else aware, unless they share it of course.
A final option is to build an open world out of the list. Take each item on your list and make a full-fledged encounter out of it. Now you have a fleshed out dungeon, city, treasure hoard, or even an actual campaign world. Just remember that this sort of open world creation has nothing to link it together story-wise, so if you want your game to have a driving story be sure to incorporate that as well.
Keeping the List as a List
Sometimes the list its self is all you have time for, or maybe it is all you really want. A list that is not refined into an encounter table or a pack of index cards or a part of your campaign world is still useful in and of its self as a springboard of ideas. And as a spring board, it can be very flexible to your sessions’ needs.
For example, here is a list of 20 things for Quest Starters By the Shore: Stranded Mermaid, Rip tide, Toxic seaweed, Locket in the sand, Ghost at dusk, Pirates ashore, Shell Collecting Rogue, Jelly fish ashore, Paladin Pirate, Bandits in a cave, Whirlpool, Fisherman with memory loss, Whale Watching, Beach Food Vendor, Leviathan, Sirens, Sea Lion, Malicious Water Sprites, Flash Flood, Water Festival.
So your player characters are exploring the beach, and one of them rolls all four dice at +. You want to reward them with something special, so you consult your list and pick an item. Any of them could be anything, and how you see those items will vary a lot depending on everything that has happened up until this point.
For example, if the group recently had a tangle with slavers than you may think that the stranded mermaid is caught in a net trap set by wicked fishermen. Or if you think the group has been too trusting and what them on edge for a future encounter, the mermaid could be pretending to be stranded on a rock and try to drown whomever comes to save her. By not fleshing out the list with more specifics, your springboard of ideas has traded ease of use for flexibility.
Lists are helpful tools no matter what your style of play. I find that they are an easy place to start with prep work, and they can be fun to make and flesh out.
So what tools do you find helpful in preparing a game? Do you lean more towards and improvisational style or a rigid planned-out style when you run a game?