Preparing for the undefined is tough!

If a GM plans on beginning a game in a few weeks, they’re normally rushing about to refresh themselves on the rules, work on the overall plot, build a great initial session, create a few recurring (hopefully) enemies, build a few stock NPCs, etc. There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s similar to what you’ve done since time immemorial, so there’s guidance.

So, how do you prepare for a game that’s built collaboratively at the table? I suspect “it depends on the specifics” is an obvious answer… so let me lay out a few examples.


Fiasco is a game where you show up, roll dice on some tables to generate some elements, and build a caper collaboratively. You literally have no idea what’s going to be in the story, don’t know the setting… nothing. So how do you prepare for a game of Fiasco?

The easy answer is that it works great GM-less; there’s no need for anyone to prep in advance. In fact, planning something in advance might lead you to resist great ideas that arise organically. Other than rereading the rules, how do you prepare to run Fiasco?

Primetime Adventures

In Primetime Adventures everyone comes to the game ready to pitch ideas and wrestle them. Together, organically, ideas accrete until there’s a final “aha moment” and the show snaps into clarity. After that, the players write down their PCs, set their story arcs, pick a few traits, and go. Meanwhile, the Producer works on a pilot session so the players can see the pitch in play and adjust as necessary prior to the season debut.

As the Producer, how you prep for Primetime Adventures prior to the pitch session? Obvious elements include reviewing the rules and coming up with a few ideas to toss into the mix during the pitch session. Is there anything else you should do?

Dresden Files & Diaspora

For the Dresden Files, it seems like there’s somewhat more prep that you can do in advance… but it’s still limited, since filling out the city sheet is collaborative and sets what the campaign is about. You could come up with some cool NPC concepts to pitch during city generation, and some aspects or elements that excite you… but, other than mastering the rules and being prepared to guide the process, what should you be sure to bring to the table? What should you be sure to absolutely not do, to ensure that you remain open to the other players’ input? If you’ve already made dozens of Fey, will you be too invested in them to go with the gritty vampire hunter thing that has everyone excited?

Preparing for Diaspora, with its cluster generation, seems similar to Dresden. You can read some sci-fi so that you’re excited and enthusiastic about world ideas… but the specifics are going to fall out of the cluster that you make together.

No, Really, What Do You Do?

If you were going to run a game like one of these in a short while–say, after Christmas–what would you be sure to prep? How would you go about preparing? I’m musing about a PTA game and could really use your input!

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

9 Responses to Prepping for an Undetermined Game

  1. Most collaborative storytelling games that I’ve played follows the same structure. Decide a theme (or the game does it for you) and invent plot elements. In my game This Is Pulp (the rules are there), you create a setup by taking turns and adding People, Rumors, Events and Places to a map (P.R.E.P.). Those elements are then used by the game master to improvise an adventure. The game last for about 90 minutes and I think it’s important to keep an “improvised session” (you do a prep, but at the start instead of before a session) short.

    Other games that has no real prep before the session:

    Pilgrims of the Flying Temple: you even learn the rules while you play.

    Archipelago III: you start with a map, create a character from that map and then the others write a fate for your character and you for theirs. You get to pick the one you think is the best.

    • So what would you bring to the table before Pilgrims, Archipelago, or This is Pulp? Refresh yourself on the rules? Play aids?

      • Both Pilgrims and This Is Pulp can be read while playing it. Pilgrims is structured in such a ways that it should be read while playing. I wrote This Is Pulp with inspiration from board game manuals. I wanted a roleplaying game that you could buy, unwrap and start playing immediately.

        Pilgrims of the Flying Temple: I think you only need some colored stones and character sheets. Never played the game myself; only read the quick start rules.

        This Is Pulp: the game comes with maps, dice, tokens and sheets. You just need to bring one pen and two bowls.

        Archipelago: no sheets required. All participants needs pen and paper. You need to print some cards for resolution and possibly some ritual phrases. You could perhaps need another read through, but there are no powers or anything that you need to remember. No real combat system – only ritual phrases, and sometimes you use a general conflict resolution with “yes/no…and/but”.

        All three games are free for download if you interested in finding out more about them.

        I can name drop a few more games: InSpectres, Screenplay (the page seems down) and the Swedish vampire game Svart av kval (Eng. Black of Despair). No prep needed for any of them. For InSpectres, you need some character sheets and dice, for Screenplay some cards, and for Svart av kval some tokens and one pen and a huge paper (A3).

        All these three games above follows the structure I told about before: the game provides a theme, the group invent plot elements together and then a structure follows for how to play the game.

  2. I find these games similar to Burning Wheel, which is probably my favorite game.

    When I ran a BW game, I prepped the situation. What brought the PCs together and made them take action for something. From there, I would mostly prep NPCs and make sure I understood the rules I was going to be introducing at the session (Burning Wheel has a lot of meat to it, it is best to learn in pieces).

    With any collaborative game, I think the GM needs to be more upfront about what he or she is planning to run than in a typical game. In a D&D game, it is easy to steer the game towards the style that the GM really wants to run- or at least find a bridge between player and GM desires. Collaborative games give a lot more narrative and setting control to players (which I absolutely love) but it can allow the GM to be overridden. To prevent this, I think being really honest about the game is best. “Guys I have and idea to run a game where the party is a special section of the SWAT for this mega-city. But, it will stay grim and fairly gritty. You will get better as the game progresses, but I am not expecting you guys to start putting down riots alone-at least not through physical abilities, perhaps just by reputation.”

    • That’s interesting; much closer to traditional prep. I wonder if that’s possible because Burning Wheel assumes a more standard “GM prepares the setting” division instead of collaborative setting prep.

      Setting strong guidelines before the first session seems important–if only so you don’t wind up with a greed maddened Dwarf in your subtle courtly intrigue game.

  3. Well, I can tell you what I do/did for two of those.

    For Fiasco I do almost no prep and I’m not sure how you really could with the nature of the game. The only thing I do beforehand is try to decide on the playset that will be used. Sometimes I’ll grab two or three to provide a little variety. This prep isn’t really game prep in the usual sense either, as it’s more trying to sell the game and garner interest in potential players.

    For Dresden, I did a lot more typical prep for the game. I came up with a couple characters that could be easily molded into various positions, a few ideas on locations and themes, and a proposal for the power level and tone of the game. I also encouraged the other players to do similar, so when we got together, we compared our notes and prep work and built the game out of that. I also did a bit of research on local legends and history, and created a list of themes and characters based on those that we could consider. Old maps were also useful for plotting where important sites (ley lines, forgotten graveyards, battlefields, etc.) were located.

    • Not sure if it’s my browser or the site, but the Edit is acting up on me. Anyway…

      For Dresden Files, if you’re planning to play a caster, I also recommend on doing some character prep work. Deciding on what sort of spells you want to focus on or what kind of caster you want to play, and possibly writing up a couple rote spells is really useful for speeding up character creation. It could all change when you sit down to the table with the other players, and maybe a caster isn’t a good fit, so you shouldn’t try to force it. I wouldn’t even recommend considering a high concept in prep, but some bare bones mechanics stuff that can be plugged into any caster high concept (e.g. “a crippling or immobilizing ability” rather than “a 3-shift earth maneuver that immobilizes someone within 2 zones”).

    • Svafa> I’ve had trouble with edit in Chrome. [Though, today, I just right clicked Edit with “open link in new tab” and it let me edit this. So, success, maybe?]

      Fiasco really does sound like “show up with the right tables”, which is a big part of its appeal. To be honest, it’s the clearest form of GMless/no prep play that I’ve experienced in a long time. (Though good Penny for my Thoughts is pretty close.)

      I like the idea of deciding on a city and researching it together for Dresden. That lets each person delve into neutral prep (like history), and gets everyone invested in the common setting.

      Rotes are a good idea too; figuring out what you can do with various stunts and evocations in advance will let you create a character concept that better matches what you’ll actually be able to do in play. It would be annoying to be far more impressive in backstory than in play, especially if it took months or years of experience to get there…

  4. Fiasco – no prep or if we agree on a playset before mabe a couple of movies from the playsets Movie Night selection.
    Dresden is trickyer – we did agree on a city before the creation,a city none of the players or the GM knows and everybody did some research about it and we created the city and the PCs during the first session (it was Moscow btw.).
    I did not run Diaspora till now, have the book for like a year and a half but all I do is create clusters, have to try it with a willing game group someday but I would probably do no preparations before cluster creation and see what we come up with together.

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