Calling it lazy is really a misnomer. It should be called “Efficient Engagement,” but that name makes me feel like I need my pinky up to say that…
Lazy GMing it is!
How is it going, y’ all? Rusty here.
I get odd looks from new players sometimes when I show up to a session with nothing but a few sentences in a composition notebook, but when we get started, everyone has a blast in an engaging game that they feel like they had a part in creating.
I thought it was about time to explain my GM method to help people understand my process for a prepping a session so others may take some of these ideas and add them to their GM method too. If I can give one person a new idea about how they can run a better game, then writing this was well worth it.
Gets get to it then.
I will start with an explanation on why your return on investment (abbreviated as RoI) should be one of your main focuses with your prep to save you time and headache so you can enjoy your GM prep sessions more.
Then, in part two, I will get into how to get players to fill in the blanks you leave in your maps and stories to improve now only their engagement in the story, but make them more invested in the game.
Part three will be where I go into detail about how I prep, whether that’s for a more detailed story or a quick one-shot.
Lastly, part 4 will be about how the game should always be flowing forward as if it were a conversation and how to make your prep fit this style of storytelling.
Part 1: Return on Investment
Who likes spending hours of work on a project just to have it ignored?
It’s all too common to see GMs spend upwards of more than an hour prepping for their sessions. During this prep time, a GM can put a lot of heart and soul into their stories. So when a group of players veers wildly in a different direction or doesn’t engage in the story, you just spent your personal time on, that can be a huge bummer.
But Rusty, you can’t prepare for everything or predict what the players will do even more so!
And that is absolutely true. You can’t prepare for everything, so why bother trying? I say that the best way to prepare for anything that a player will do is to not prepare for that at all and instead make session/story primers. These primers are just that, primers. They are not fully fleshed out stories with intricate details. They aren’t meaty narrative steaks for players to sink their teeth into out of the box. They are what get you to that point and adapt to whatever story you need to tell at the table, even if it wasn’t the one you planned initially. Flexibility in your primers is key to making Lazy GMing work, as it saves you countless hours prepping/micromanaging your settings and gets you back to helping the whole table tell their story with efficiency.
To maximize the time you use to prep, you try to follow these guiding ideas when writing out the plot for a story…
- Write the beginning and expected ending first as if everything happened according to plan. Set this aside for later.
- Keep the ending ad vague on details as possible as to make room for plot hooks and on the fly changes.
- Write out the beginning so that the intro scene doesn’t feel like an intro scene.
- Make the party start in medias res and already knowing each other.
- Give them a sense of purpose with a clear, defined goal in the intro scene and make that the reason they are where they are.
- They might have other motives for being where they are, but that can be covered during play.
- When filling in the middle portion of the story, less is more.
- Try to make the plot points that need to be hit to tell the story very vague. This vagueness helps you as a GM make them fit into any situation that the party may find themselves in.
- Don’t be afraid to mix things up or make new points on the fly to make the story being told make sense. Always be flexible!
- Any information that is needed for the party to reach the ending of the story should always be easy to obtain or obtainable without rolling for it.
- However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t hard to get the info they need to be in the best possible position for the ending scene. Don’t be afraid to make them interact with the story or work for these bits of info!
- Always adjust and keep the story primer flowing and adapting to the story being told.
- Having to change details about the ending you expect is very common and encouraged. This helps the table reach the conclusion they are setting up for, not the one you want them to achieve.
- Keeping all but the intro scene very vague with just the needed information to connect and make sense is key to making the game easy to adjust and change when needed.
- Time to prep the questions list!
- At the beginning of every session, try to have at least one question prepared for each player to help fill in backstory and flesh out details of the story.
- Ask them questions about how they know each other and how they met originally during gameplay. This gives people time to figure out who they are playing and how they could possibly have backstory together.
- What happened between you and ____ to make you come to blows? How did it end up with you becoming best friends?
- What did ____ do to earn your respect?
- What did you do to hurt ____ and how was it totally not your fault?
- What do you have on you right now that would anger another member of the party if they were to find out about it?
- Don’t be afraid to add details to a character’s backstory! If a player doesn’t feel like what you added makes sense, simply adjust the question to fit as appropriate.
- Who do you know here in ____ and why do you own them a favor?
- Why are you on the run from the law?
- Why is your face on that wanted poster right there?
- Why do people keep leaving offerings at your door in the inn?
- What family member of your’s lives here and how good it is to see them again?
- Who did you have a contract with, and why did you break from it?
- How cool is this pet donkey?
- What do the shadows keep whispering to you when no one else is around?
- Question time is always the best time for setting up what a setting looks like or to fill out missing details of the local area.
- What is the weather like here? Why is it odd to see it this late into the season?
- What is that smell? Why does it seem to be everywhere around here?
- What does the architecture of this place look like?
- What do the people look like here? What is the most notable detail about them?
- What holiday is going on right now, and how do they celebrate it?
Like everything else in this article, feel free to pick and choose what you want. As long as you get something out of the Lazy GMing method, it was well worth the effort to make this!
Part 2: Player Engagement
This whole GM philosophy would be pointless if the players weren’t able to engage with your session primer.
*Note: Getting players to engage shouldn’t ever feel like a chore regardless of system or GM philosophy. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s okay to force people to do anything at the table. If they don’t want to do something, they shouldn’t. If that distracts from the game or causes conflict, try to have an open conversation about how you as a table can make the situation work for everyone.
Now that that is out of the way let’s get into how Lazy GMing impacts player engagement.
In short, Lazy GMing is only possible with active player engagement. If the players aren’t answering questions and don’t interact with the plot hooks you dangle in the narrative, it’s hard to run even the most densely filled out or thoroughly prepped game. This is if even more so the case for Lazy GMing. With your new story primer, you need to be able to rely on your players to answer your questions and help collaborate with the table’s worldbuilding to fill out all the blank spots on the map of the narrative. The player’s input if necessary to run the game well, so you, as the GM, need to always be open to their input and encouraging of worldbuilding. Have the fun of the Lazy GM philosophy is how much you get to make as a group and how you can get invested in a world or story.
There are many ways to keep the flow of the game moving forward while still establishing new details of the story. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Those vague story points are a lot easier to fill in with relevant info when the players are basically telling you what they want to see in a game based on their input.
All because the player says something is true doesn’t mean you can’t add a spin to it or let others build on that original player’s idea. Collaborative worldbuilding is always encouraged.
If a player tries to add a detail that derails an important plot point, try to ask them to change their input some or even help them make it still work in the narrative
Sometimes players will throw out a suggestion that kills the tone or detracts from the narrative, so don’t be afraid to ask them to try again.
While GMing, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out to see what player likes what the most. With this information, you can lean on those players more during those types of engagements with the story and take the heat off of those that don’t enjoy that part as much, and vice versa.
Part 3: Less is More, How to Make Your Prep Count
Here is the complete breakdown of how to prep a session the Lazy GM way.
For this, I will be breaking down the session 1 notes for my new campaign, Chain Gang.
This is broken up into 4 subsections:
- Intro Scene
- Plot Points and Scene List
In the Intro Section, start by writing a 1-3 sentence intro scene setup followed by small bullets with scene details to help you set up the intro.
1) The camera opens up on a field of wheat, swaying in the breeze. A butterfly lands on a stalk of grain just before several people in prison jumpsuits barrel past it and gunshots are heard in the distance.
- The party is being chased by the constables from the jail they just broke out of.
- The bullets are flying past, and alarms are heard in the distance.
In the Questions portion, write a few questions to help establish setting nd story information relevant to the scene. There should be a mix of setting, story, and player backstory questions in this mix. Also, note that first sessions of a campaign tend to have way more questions then proceeding episodes due to more worldbuilding needed to start up.
2) Holy shit, the plan worked! You escaped from jail are running for your lives.
- Who came up with the plan to escape the chain gang/jail?
- What went wrong during your escape that made it so that you all almost didn’t make it out?
- How did Lady Luck give you her blessing?
- What type of area are you running through, and how does it help you all escape the law?
- The jail can be seen in the distance as you escape. What are some of the details of it?
- Why are the conditions of the prison awful?
- What is the prison called, and why is it called that?
- What town are you running to and why are you heading there despite it being out of the way some?
After they escape the law in scene 1:
- What have they heard about the wonderful west?
- What magical thing did you hear about life out there?
- What are some more rumors about the west?
- Why do you specifically want to go out west?
Section 3, Plot Points and Scene List, is where I layout in a bulleted format what needs to happen to get through the story. These are things that the players will do or encounter in the narrative. Try to keep these bullets as vague as possible to help you adapt them to the setting and story being told. Try to also keep a small list of the scene titles for ease of reference.
3) Plot Points:
- Intro and getting to the town mentioned in the questions.
- Rent is due before they leave.
- Cat occurrence 1.
- Trying to make money.
- Murders are announced.
- Cat occurrence 2.
- Resolve Rent and/or Baddie revealed.
- More Money, Less Problems
- Guard Patrol Harassment
- Time for a Montage
- Cat Scratch
- Scary Cat
The last section, Meta, is where you should put the quick and dirty about the plot of the session. This is what I read right before the game to remind me what the bigger picture is to a session. Here is an example of a good Meta block:
4) Meta: After escaping prison, the gang beds down in a local town to build up resources to strike out west. The gang has to pay their rent and get out of town before the cops get called because they aren’t making their payment to the inn. While in the town, odd occurrences with cats going missing and behaving oddly are rampant and horribly gruesome murders are being reported. In town, an entity called The One at which Cats Stare is looking to ground itself in our reality by using the flesh of those caught in the in-between, cats. If the gang does not pay their bills before they leave, the inspectors will find their overdue receipts and cause them trouble in the next session.
Scenes are where I keep a more detailed list of information about the story. They should be fairly vague and have player input planned in them. This is where the majority of the story is being laid out and is likely to be what you look at most during the game. Here is an example of a good scene layout:
- One week passes as the gang gathers up the need resources to move on out west.
- More Money, Less Problems
- Rent for their room is due before the end of the week or else cops will roll them up.
- How will you make rent?
- This is a cop town, but no one has recognized the party yet. Hiding in plain sight.
- Describe and build out the town.
- Cats are seen stopping in groups, staring for a few moments, then freaking out and running away.
- Guard Patrol Harassment
- Harasses the party over nothing. Make it dramatic and build tension.
- Cops give them a warning even they did nothing wrong, then warn them to not be out late like this. Mention the possibility of a curfew due to murders.
- Time for a Montage
- Have the party describe how they are making money.
- Give the players relevant obstacles.
- Sprinkle in details of murders and even have a party member discover one.
- The police show up just in time to draw conclusions.
- Maybe they will get blamed?
- Maybe wanted for questioning
- Have the party describe how they are making money.
- Cat Scratch
- Have heard of cats encounter party and turn into a flesh monster.
- Cats can see the entities as they are standing all over the town.
- Scary Cat
- Time to run and/or fight.
- If they pay rent, their receipt is not found by inspectors in the aftermath.
We don’t need no stinkin’ maps!
Maps are fun for inspiration, but with the Lazy GMing philosophy, they are not needed. Having them doesn’t hurt and just adds to the ambiance, but for the most part, the map is made as you play as the Lazy GMing style leave a lot of things to the theater of the mind.
When making important NPCs, I like to use the Prime Method that I posted a while back, but I will put the relevant section here for ease of reference:
NPCs have the following:
- One or two sentences about why they are doing what they are doing.
- Story Details
- One or two sentences about why they are plot-relevant.
- Sensory Details
- Give them 3 sensory details that are unique to them, such as a look or a tick they are always doing.
- Interesting Hook
- This is a One or two sentence plot hook about the NPC that the players can sink their teeth into.
A small list of non-plot essential hooks is great to have to help make the game more dynamic and interesting. These are short sentences used to inspire you, the GM, if the need or opportunity arises for a sidequest style plot point. Leaving them in a question format is just how I prefer to write them, but it is not necessary.
- Why does the general store in town always out of laudanum?
- Who is that guy that walks the town with a candle at 2 am every night?
- Why is Watchman Theo always so twitchy?
Oh boy. This again.
I love a good rant about backstory, but lets cut the bullshit and get to the important info.
When I have players make characters for a longer story arch, I have them fill out the Character Background Worksheet. These questions are geared for making Dungeon World or Life After (my RPG in the making) characters, but it can easily be used in any game.
This is to give you a quick idea about who your character really is in 5 minutes or less. Each of the following question blocks should be answered in less than 1-2 sentences each.
Where did you come from? Who did you use to be?
What does your character have to remind them of their past? (Add this to your inventory with the appropriate tags)
Who do you want to become/what do you want to accomplish?
What led you here? What is something in your past that still haunts you? (This will be your Past Mistake)
What is a statement that defines you as a person? (This will be your Belief)
Who else in the party do you have backstory with? (Add this to your Bonds if applicable)
How do you want the party to interact with you? Name 2 ways. (Add these to your Flags if applicable)
Name at least two NPCs that are influential to your life: (Add this to your Bonds if applicable)
Example: Verlis the scoundrel framed me for a crime I didn’t commit.
What is your name and/or title?
I have gotten nothing but good results when I make players use this as it saves them time and gives them a structure to build their character without getting too meticulous with the details and leaving plenty of room to add stuff in later.
This is section can be very RPG specific, but here are a few things to keep in mind when making quality bad guys:
- Make them sensible. Everyone has a reason to do what they do, and so do baddies.
- Bad guys hit back, not just get hit. They want to live too.
- Not all bad guys need to throw punches or cast spells to defeat a foe.
- Make them react to their environment in a way that makes sense, not just as walking loot bags.
When making important named baddies, I make them as NPCs first, then stat them out as a normal baddie. That’s how you make a villain that matters in the fictions as well as as an adversary.
Part 4: The Game is a Conversation
The flow of the game is key to efficient, quality storytelling.
I tend to get preachy about this, but I will keep saying it. With the Lazy GMing philosophy, the more your game flows and feels like a conversation more than a lecture, the better your results will be. To get this flow down, you as the GM need to ask lots of questions to your players and know when it is a good time to pass the spotlight to someone else or keep it on the same person. Keeping the spotlight on the right point in the narrative is very important. Try to give those involved with the most dramatic point in a scene more screen time, but don’t forget to share the spotlight around as well. Its a balancing act, but with practice, it becomes second nature.
When playing, try to ask lots of questions like:
- What do you do? (my bread and butter)
- What do you think about ____?
- What is your first reaction when you see ____?
Holy hell, that was a bit of a doozy.
Lazy GMing, as you may have seen, isn’t lazy at all but a ton of work. The difference is that it is productive and makes great use of time. I spend less than 30 min prepping for one of my weekly games thanks to this structure, so I hope you see similar results.
When I use this method of prep, I will sometimes pick and choose to fit the amount of time I have to prep for a game. If I have a game and don’t have time to prep a session using the full Lazy GM method, I will take parts from each section to fit what I need. For example, for a game I walk into with no time to prep beforehand, I will usually forgo the Hooks and Scenes section in favor of making a list of possible scenes or encounters using as few words as possible. These notes are meant to just inspire me later during the game and help my improv, so I wouldn’t count them as true session notes, but the Lazy GM method can really help get a foundation for a session quickly if you’re in a pinch.
I still have a few topics I could touch on, but I will save them for another time due to the length of this post. If you’re still reading, I appreciate you taking the time to check out my style of GMing. If you have any feedback or comments, feel free to reach out to me on Facebook or at email@example.com.
Here are example documents or useful resources for making session primers the Lazy GM way:
RDM Campaign Worksheets:
Example Session Primer: Chain Gang – Episode 1:
Next time, I’ll go into how to make the stats for bad guys work with the narrative more and how to make magic items and treasure more interesting.
Hope you got something out of this!
Until next time,