Tabletop role-playing is an unparalleled delight. It puts Jane Q. Average in the creative driver’s seat, allowing her to create her own stories and myths like authors, poets, and the priests of old.
But there are easier pleasures.
Tabletop role-playing asks a lot of the gamemaster, from a knowledge of the rules, to sometimes what seems like endless hours of prep.
But in the 21st century, a number of brilliant game designers have produced elegant games which bring prep time down to a bare minimum. These five games are low-prep experiences that a gamemaster can run for hours with a bare minimum of preparation. Are you a heart surgeon who works 90 hours a week, but wants to get in on the action of International Tabletop Day? These games are for you!
Delta Green: Need to Know
Prep Time: 1 hour
Do you enjoy The X-Files? Cthulhu? Technothrillers?
Mix those three tastes together and you get Delta Green, a role-playing game which posits secret government conspiracies are fighting a losing war against horrors from beyond time and space. Furthermore, Delta Green occupies spots one and two of RPG.net’s ranking of the best role-playing games of all time.
Now as a late 90s role-playing game, Delta Green has enough sourcebooks and adventures out to keep Hermione Granger busy for years. A new edition recently Kickstarted, and that comes with free quickstart rules!
The rules are sleek, easy to understand, and get you started fast by condensing thousands of pages of canon and rules into a mere 53 pages, which includes an adventure! The system itself is easy as pie, as it is based on percentiles. A 60% in Firearms means you have a 60% chance of perforating the hide of whatever gibbering horror is trying to harvest your gray matter for its protein content.
Co-creator Dennis Detwiller said Delta Green is a great place for new players to catch the role-playing bug because:
“Delta Green is a game designed from the ground up around one emotion: fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the firefight. Fear of conviction, of assassination, of insanity. Fear for your family, and for your job. Fear for your life. Fear of the things that haunt the edges of our world. Fear of doing nothing.
Delta Green is great for new players, because everyone knows fear.”
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Dungeon World aspires to give players the experience of a Dungeons & Dragons game, without the bother of complicated math, long spell lists, or dense mythologies. The game uses the Powered by the Apocalypse engine created by Vincent Baker, which you can read more about here.
The prep for a GM?
She should know the rules, prepare a few things villains might do to screw the characters, and that’s it. Everything else is made up on the spot, in cooperation between the GM and players. A character wants to know where the nearest tavern is? Ask a player. This keeps everyone engaged at the table, and invested in the story as they’ve had such a huge role in creating it.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Weird Discoveries is a book of adventures by gaming creator and mogul Monte Cook which is designed to make running a tabletop role-playing session as easy and prep free as playing a board game.
Adventures are broken down into four pages of background, summaries and maps that can be read while players are looking at their pregenerated characters. Monte describes the crucial insight which allowed him to make adventures in Weird Discoveries so condensed this way:
The players should be allowed to go where they want to go, do what they want to do, and find interest in whatever they want. But at the same time, the GM needs to guide things along at least enough so that the group doesn’t spin its wheels and get frustrated. This meant that in each scenario, certain key factors—which we just call keys—needed to be identified to create a possible throughline so that something interesting happens while everyone’s at the table.
Keys are items that move the plot of the game forward, but Monte makes them mutable to the pacing of the game. Maybe the characters are looking for a key to an ancient temple. It can be found on a dead body, at an auction, or buried in the ground. This empowers the players by not forcing them to follow someone else’s plot, and gives the gamemaster the ability to keep the session’s pacing quick. Oh, and it allows an entire adventure to be condensed into a handful of pages.
In further icing on the cake, Weird Discoveries is a supplement for Monte’s far future fantasy-skinned sci-fi game Numenera. The game bleeds both weird and cool, and is an essential piece of 21st century gaming canon. You can learn more about Numenera from G&S’s own Ryan Chaddock here.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Urban Shadows is a game of urban fantasy and horror. You can play a vampire, werewolf, wizard, psychic or ghost. If this sounds strikingly like the World of Darkness, that is not a coincidence. The game is a loving homage to games such as Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension, and Wraith: Oblivion with smart, 21st-century mechanics. Like Dungeon World, Urban Shadows takes the complex system of mythology and rules that grew up around the modern horror games originally published by White Wolf and simplifies it.
Urban Shadows also uses the Powered by the Apocalypse engine created by Vincent Baker, but puts an urban fantasy/horror skin on it. You can sit a down at the table knowing nothing, and be a vampire tussling with werewolves within minutes!
The game’s co-designer, Mark Diaz-Truman said, “Urban Shadows focuses on low-prep by giving players and GMs tools to make story happen on the spot: sessions often start with a start-of-session mechanic that gets characters mixed up in urban politics fast and the Debt system requires players to constantly tend to their existing relationships. Apocalypse World is already a great low-prep game, but we worked to make the city in Urban Shadows so exciting that GMs can show up to the table with nothing and still have an amazing session.”
Making a character involves a dozen or so decisions, and then you are ready to play. The gamemaster needs to know the rules, and then at the beginning of session, asks players what rumors they’ve heard. These rumors become the basis of the session, and suddenly you and your monster-hero player characters are ready to rip off into the night.
What games do you play when you don’t have much time? Let us know in the comments.
Feature image courtesy Dungeon World
Other images courtesy Mike Shea, Arc Dream Publishing, Monte Cook Games, Magpie Games, and Sage Kobold Productions.