Welcome the first in an ongoing series here on the Stew: 100-Word Solutions to GMing Problems!
Every 100-Word Solutions post gets its start as a question I email out to the gnomes  — a GMing conundrum of some sort. Here’s the first one:
“You completely spaced out on game prep — it’s 30 minutes before your players show up for tonight’s game — an ongoing campaign — and you realize you’ve done zero prep. What do you do?”
Our solutions are below (“What Would the Gnomes Do?” or WWTGD, if you will) — and we want to hear yours in the comments. The catch is that all solutions have to be 100 words or less.
I grab all the mostly generic pre-made prep that I can. I find some maps, NPCs, and some enemies and then I get my handy blank notebook ready. After this, I start looking for cues and flags from the players to direct the plot. I ask about anything left undone, then try to look like I planned just for that and start to improve my ass off. The notebook helps me remember everything that happened in the session when it comes up later.
Two words – natural disaster. Be it a storm, a volcano, or meteorites the formula is simple. Natural event threatens PCs and locals. PCs do the hero thing and try to save locals from the impact of the disaster. Disaster awakens a monster, releases ancient evil, or provides cover for criminals. PCs must now face new threat in the middle of the disaster situation. Disaster ends, life starts over again, PCs get back on track for the next session of the campaign. Keep it fast and furious and roll with it!
Scott Martin, who wins the Exactly 100 Words Award:
I’d begin by quickly reviewing the PC backgrounds, looking for a quick unresolved hook. Then I’d review the group’s enemies– both overall campaign and recent foes. The session would start with the PCs hearing about the selected enemy doing something (raising troops, ambushing caravans, whatever). When they start to investigate/prepare to take on the challenge, the background subplot gets mixed in (letter from long lost sister, romantic interest disappears, a son is caught in an affair).
Hopefully the interaction of these two events makes the players wonder how they’re related. If they come up with a good idea, steal it.
Adam Nave, who claims my question gave him a nightmare about forgetting to prep (and zombies):
I’d pull an element from a previous game or PC’s background and make a really simple plot, like a “fetch the MacGuffin” quest. I’d try to use stock monsters straight from the book, pad the adventure with an extraneous fight or two, and try to get the players to spend more time discussing things than usual, either by making them plan something for next session or presenting them with a choice that has no right solution. I’d also spend less time keeping them on task. If we end early, board games.
Matthew J. Neagley, who says he has a condition that prevents him from meeting word count caps (I had to edit his a little…):
If it’s compounded by the fact that we haven’t hit the regular game in a while and I don’t want to further postpone it, then I’ll just do something really simple. A simple adventure for most modern games can be cranked out quickly. Toss a map or encounter flowchart on the back of a napkin, use default straight-from the book adversaries (generally the unintellegent variety are best since they don’t require tactical or any other type of pre-planning) and cobble together a quick situation/plot (my players are usually forgiving if these get a bit odd or hastily thought out. YMMV).
Martin Ralya, the second winner of the “Hey, It’s Exactly 100 Words” prize:
I’d refresh my memory about where we left off, then sketch out a few options using the first things that popped into my head. I thrive under pressure, so I’d be counting on pulling a diamond out of my ass. I’d shoot for 1-3 meaty scenes worth of ideas, preferably ones that gave my players lots of options so they could choose their course – something like, “This castle is under siege, and you need to break that siege. How do you do it?” Then I’d wing it like any other session where my players surprised the hell out of me.
Kurt “Telas” Schneider:
Each of you take a token. You can turn it in at any time tonight to briefly take narrative control over the game. Once all the tokens are turned in, they’re redistributed. You may pass your token to another player, or the GM.
Canon will be written tonight, so think carefully. Other PCs are off-limits. Established NPCs are subject to GM veto. The narrator may choose to discuss things with the group.
A farmer bursts in to the local tavern. He explains that he returned to his house to find the door kicked in, and his family missing.
Troy E. Taylor:
I utilize published adventures almost exclusively as a base for my games, so I’d probably make a quick inventory of my collection of stuff, including freebie downloads for Wizards of the Coast, back issues of Dungeon magazine, encounters from key sourcebooks (Sandstorm, Ghostwalk, Frostburn, etc) and then pick out one that fits best with the campaign. I run fairly standard fantasy, so if needs be, I can run straight out of the module with very little adjustment.
That’s what we think about the Zero Prep Oh Shit Surprise — what’s your solution in 100 words or less?