I’ve often had plenty of time to research, plan, and set up for the games I game master. I’ve been doing it for three decades and the practice in getting ready, quickly, for a game has made me a lightning fast researcher and writer — which has been handy in my varied professions and in my doctoral studies. With a four-month old in the house, I’ve been surprised at how much of your useful time is eaten up with having to simply pay full attention to the kid — she needs picked up and carried around, she needs talked to and played with on the floor, she needs fed. Before you know it, ten hours have blown by and you’re exhausted…and you really haven’t done anything.

And it’s eating into my study, my professional writing, and my game prep time. So what to do? I tried to get others to GM — one decided to bail on the game he was going to run a year ago, another is just as busy and not as interested in doing it as he thought, and the new couple of gamers I tried to vet were flaky on their schedules and preparation. So once again, I’m running the games. And doing it on a lot less free time. So how to “wing it” and be successful?

First when GMing…never go full retard. That is to say, if you’re going to wing it, you still have to have something to improvise on. Like any good bit of jazz or rock, you need that three chord/basic 4-8 bar tune to work from.

Second: KISS — “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” You can improvise some of the other elements but keep the main plot simple — for example: My Hollow Earth Expedition game has been pretty straightforward. The first few episodes were an attempt to find a mellified man. They were sidetracked by Japanese agents and rival communist gangs in Shanghai. Then they get a line on the ancient monastic order/former rebels against the Qing that have the prize and they have to find the monastery in question. They find it and have to get the caskets of mellified men.

Time to throw in a twist to slow them down…I throw in a new storyline they have to address first: one of the monk/warriors had eaten some of the meelified man to heal their wounds and is infected with the evil spirit of the human confection. She is looking to wake the petrified army of teh first sovereign emperor…now they have to chase her to Xi’an and stop her from doing so, otherwise she’ll rule the universe from beyond the grave. This story is a simple capture the flag/stop the bad guy plot. Once done, they’ll be able to recover the meelified men and finish the initial adventure.

I have an upcoming Supernatural “pilot” — the characters will get together to stop a monster in Manhattan. Find it, kill it. Simple. I have been adding the bits to make the investigations more interesting, but it’s a one or two night and done deal.

Keep it simple. What’s the ending? What’s the goal or McGuffin? (The thing that motivates the story, whether important or not — like the case in the car trunk in Repo Man or Rosebud in Citizen Kane.) Who’s the bad guy and their major henchman? Where’s it happening?

This is my technique: What’s the mission? (Say, it’s stop a terrorist bomb plot.) Who’s the bad guy? (The new SPECTRE [or QUANTUM, if you must) led by Hans Yodelson. Henchman — big, bad ex-Spetnatz guy, Rostov. How do they get the lead? (An investigation into Russian mob gun running yielded it.) Beginning and ending done. Now the filler:

INTRO: give the intelligence. Action Sequence 1: Breaking into a bad guy office building. Clue 1: Reveal Yodelson’s invovlement. Action Sequence 2: Meeting Yodelson or surveilling to gain intelligence. Clue 2: Meeting with known terrorists. Action Sequence 3: Team discovered — car chase or firefight. Clue 3: If captured, the line of questioning tells there is an attack coming in a day in [pick place], or they will learn it from their pursuers. Action Sequence 4: Trying to follow terrorist to attack site. Clue 4: Something to get them in them to next action sequence. Action Sequence 5: fight in bomb location and stopping attack. Car chase to get bad guy. END: Kill/capture bad guys. If escape, next mission…

After that, I like to fill in the locations. Sometimes I actually do this first — “wouldn’t it be cool to have a base jumping sequence off that building?” or “a car chase on that alpine road would be cool.”

Basic plot: simple.

Third: Know your players. This is pretty important, period. It allows you to anticipate their most likely actions and not only plan for it. If you know the player/character has a tendency to do X, plan for it. Give them a problem/action sequence that is not their usual forte from time to time, but play to their strengths and weaknesses. If you know they love kids, put kids in danger every once in a while to direct them how you want them to go. If you know they always go after the bad guy like a guided missile, even when the baddie has to escape in that sequence, have the bad guy lead them into a trap.

Four: Steal. Steal your stories from movies, books (preferably ones they haven’t read/seen), from the news. For espionage games, I almost always get my inspiration from a story. Iraqis are busted helping Sinaloa cartel members in San Diego…go from there. Theres the bad guys. What were they moving? To where? How did you find out? Pick locations in San Diego or Tijuana…you’re 3/4rds of the way there.

Five: Keep notes. As you make up NPCs remember KISS: give them a hook — a look, skill, or a mannerism. A name. Jot it down for later — you never know when they might come in useful or the players will take to a character and want to contact them again.

Six: KISS — keep the maps simple, if you need them. Try to simply run on narrative, where you can. Use set pieces — standard office parks, high-rise buildings with the classic three corridors between two adjoining corridors on either side (you’ve been in this building…trust me.) Steel mills — operating or abandoned. Subways. Use set pieces from movies: “It’s like that classic James Bond bad guy set up — the two levels with staircases with no handrails and a central metal support for the steps, the ceiling’s oval and higher on one side, bridge over a small stream running through the middle of the room…” “It’s a loading crane like the one from the end of The Losers…

There’s plenty of ways to wing it, but the prep time on an adventure like the one above averages me 30 minute to two hours, depending on complexity of the plotline. Find something that catches you imagination, drop the basics in (villain and villain’s nefarious plan), add cool locations or chase/combat sequences. Shake. Run.