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Running on the Fly

Every once in a while a gamemaster is faced with the necessity of running on the fly. Maybe a few friends have gotten together and somebody says, "Hey, let's play a game!" Maybe it's a long road trip and the GM volunteers to run to alleviate boredom. Maybe the GM has just been too busy to put together a game.
How can you prepare to run on the fly?

Keep Maps Handy. The simplest game to run in an extemporaneous RPG session is a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl ... whether it's really a dungeon or a Renaissance castle or a modern hotel or a futuristic spaceship. Go in, kill monsters, take treasure, get out alive.
Sounds good, but what about dungeon creation? Well, here's where a little ongoing preparation can make a world of difference. A well-prepared GM collects maps. Photocopy them from magazines and books, keep them from old module adventures you've run, draw them in your spare time, collect them from museums and tourist traps, print them off the World Wide Web, buy books that are filled with them. Create a notebook especially for your maps so that you can find them quickly. Then, whether you're running on the fly or not, you've got a nice reference set ready for you.
Out of the house and someplace where your maps aren't available? Think of a place you know well ... your school, your church, your gym ... and base your dungeon on that.

Keep Basic Plots in Mind. There are a limited number of story plots in the world, and you already know most or all of them, whether you realize it or not. When you have to come up with a quick plot, think back on your favorite action-adventure movie, book, or TV show, and adapt the plot from that. Historical location is easily changed. For example, if you really like the movie "Alien," just turn that alien into some fantasy monster and run it in your FRPG. Enjoy the "I Know What You Did..." franchise? Have the mysterious handwriting and notes delivered over computer or hologram in your space movie, referring to something shady the characters did in a past adventure. Love "The Maltese Falcon"? Make that Maltese Falcon some hideous artifact of a Cthulhu-worshipping cult being sought by all sorts of weirdos and run it in your horror game. You can even combine movie or TV plots. Change the names and locale just enough to make it difficult for the players to immediately figure out what you're running ... and if they do, don't worry about it. You can be certain that the players will soon take the game in a different direction than the original script!
Remember, though, that for a spontaneous RPG session, you'll probably want to keep the plot simple and straightforward. The fewer notes you have to take for yourself, the fewer characters and subplots you have to keep straight, the better.

Use Stereotypes. Stereotypes get a bad rap when they're used to promote various antisocial -isms, but in truth everybody operates with stereotypes—they're a shorthand way of making sense of the vast and complicated world around us. Feel free to use them when you're suddenly stuck running an unplanned game—just avoid the really negative, awful ones. The advantage to stereotypes is that everybody recognizes them, which makes imagining the nonplayer character that much easier. Thus, the worried spinster, the sullen adolescent, the pompous rich man, the sinister stranger, the gossipy hairdresser ... all of them are easy to think up and use when you haven't had time to develop more in-depth characters.
A similar but slightly more advanced trick is to use incongruous stereotypes by mixing and matching ... thus, the sullen hairdresser, the pompous adolescent, the gossipy rich man, etc., are less immediately recognizable and thus more of a surprise for your players.
Places can be stereotyped, too. Most people will immediately be able to call to mind a mental image of an Old West town, a Beverly Hills mansion, a grubby and narrow big city alleyway, a medieval castle, a New York loft, or a woodcutter's shack. When you're running on the fly, don't worry about originality of locale! Save that creativity for planning out combats or plot twists.

Take Notes. When you're coming up with names on the spot, you're going to need to take notes to remember them half an hour later. Keep a sheet of paper next to you and jot down every name or description you provide, so that you don't contradict yourself later. If you think of a great plot twist, write it down before you're distracted and forget.

Use Makeshift Props. If you're nowhere around your miniatures and battlemaps, take heart—you can use pencils, erasers, twigs, leaves, coins, and so forth to help the players visualize where they are in relationship to each other and the bad guys. Sketch out rooms in the dirt or on a paper napkin. Those who play RPGs that emphasize storytelling will have an easier time making the adjustment than those who play RPGs that emphasize models and miniatures, but it's not that hard to get used to playing without visual aides.

Don't Be Afraid to Call a Time-Out. Suddenly gotten yourself into a pinch? Can't decide what to do next? Call a 10-minute time-out while you huddle down in your chair and quickly scribble out the next few scenes. Your players will probably appreciate a chance to stretch, grab food or drinks, go to the bathroom, discuss strategies, or talk about last night's TV show.

Remember That It's about Having Fun. A spontaneous RPG session is not the time to try to advance your great, overarching campaign storyline or try to slaughter all the characters. (Well, unless that's the goal, as in a spontaneous "attack of the cannibal zombies" horror game). Light and easy are the keywords for gaming on the fly. In fact, extemporaneous games are good times for some comedy! Do you have any NPCs who are getting married (or PCs getting married)? Running a wedding session, complete with mixups, lost preachers, objecting lovers or family members, and so forth, can make a great and memorable spontaneous session ... as can spaceship-purchasing trips, confrontations with rival gangs, a television interview with "Superheros Today," and so forth.

originally written November 17, 2000


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