Improv Essentials: My 0-prep 4e DnD Toolkit

Photo by Samuel Goldstein/Creative Commons license

In case others may find it useful, I want to share the toolkit I use for running nearly zero-prep, low-maintenance yet rich and engaging games of 4e DnD. When I began running 4e games, I meticulously prepared for hundreds of possible directions the players could wander, while trying to shape a core storyline complete with excitement, surprise, twists, and long-term appeal. Of course there are many ways to run a game, but lately I relish the thrill of having no more idea what will happen in a session than any of the other players. Not having to spend hours in preparation is a side benefit, and we still enjoy as much, if not more excitement, surprise, twists, and ownership. It’s great.

These days my zero-prep kit consists of the following:

  1. Mike Shea (of Sly Flourish)’s Master DM Sheet (an unparalleled tool which my wife lovingly laminated so it could take wet or dry erase markers)
  2. Haze’s Hit Box threshold chart (a super-quick, mathless monster HP management system that lets me easily run diverse encounters, especially mass combat)
  3. A race/gender organized NPC name list derived from (and significantly embellished) Chris Perkins’ list he shared on his Io’mandra blog.
    • I added names that I’d need in our game that weren’t on Chris’ list: halforcs, genasi, shifters, vampires, warforged, extra eladrin and halfelf names, and a very few goliaths. Your linguistic preferences may vary.
  4. A huge library of I-want-to-use-this-someday character, location, and ambient art with tagged filenames and organized folders for easy macbook searching on demand
  5. Playlists on Grooveshark for various styles of background music as needed
  6. Brent Newhall’s Generic Antagonist Sheet gives you bare minumum stats and suggestions for power effects. Takes about 60 seconds to create a solid antagonist
  7. If I need any other randomized fodder, there’s amazing breadth of inspiration in the generators at chaoticshiny.com (and other sites, but that’s my favorite)

We also currently play at level 16, which is by far the best sweetspot I’ve found in terms of 4e levels. It gives PCs enough competence to handle amazing amounts of pressure and challenge, but is still a small enough arsenal of options to keep a handle on (for veteran players). Plus, to ease my math calculation time, all NPC or improvised PC attack rolls are +20, give or take a few for notable awesomeness, targeting non-AC defenses, or area effects.

All told, the result has been a fast, compelling, and evocative playstyle that is just what we’ve been looking for since starting 4e. My players may say differently, but they seem to heartily enjoy it as well. They feel comfortable taking narrative control and breaking beyond the constraints of the powers and options on their sheets or the parameters of established rules to shape characters and their capacities to suit their creative imaginations and the world we’ve created. As far as I’m concerned, that ownership is priceless.

Even though we no longer track XP or gp, though I don’t bother balancing encounters based on XP-budgets, and though we mostly ignore standard magic items (using inherent bonuses and focusing on compelling artifact-like signature items), I believe our game nevertheless maintains a solid amount of balance allowing us all to feel challenged but not manipulated or cheated, while the players feel that their decisions and actions have lasting impact.

Sometimes History is the Best Resource

I should mention that our 4e game is in it’s 3rd year and has covered a lot of territory, both in the gameworld and in dynamics of trust. This background makes improvisation significantly easier than a brand new game would be since our game’s established background provides an endless supply of previously introduced characters, locations, groups, ideas, threats, and themes to hook player interest with minimal effort on my part. This allows the players to believe I planned concepts or plot developments well in advance (shh, don’t tell), but it also means we’ve put in preliminary work considering and discovering the cosmology, geography, societal structures and cultures of our world, at least to some extent. Everywhere the game goes, though, we discover more about the world and it’s mysteries together. As an avid fan of exploring infinity, I find it all a sheer, edifying delight.

Inspiration for Sharing

This post was originally born as a comment on one of Quinn Murphy’s musings on Google+ about ways to run RPGs with less pressure on a single player (the GM) and instead with all players more deeply involved in making stories that are as entertaining and effective as possible. He listed the tools he uses to come up with engaging story elements on the fly, as well as to reincorporate old elements back into the plot so that players actions have real impact. Similarly, Rob Donoghue discussed a mechanism for rewarding exploration and reincorporation of story elements to give the players investment in shaping the plot in sophisticated ways.

This post is my attempt to add something to these efforts, and to hopefully empower GMs wanting more story with less work. If you like this kind of thing or have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to share more of whatever you’d like. What tools are in your 0-prep toolkit? What methods have you found that garner rich stories and invested players with minimal effort?

EDIT (10/19/11): Brian Ballsun-Stanton recommends adding to this toolkit the Serious Skills series by Ryven Cydrelle (and Quinn Murphy) on the 4e At-will blog. This series is among my favorite 4e dnd blog expositions and gives skills a much more comprehensive and rich place in the game. I would definitely recommend reading every article in the series. My personal favorite covers the wonderfully plentiful uses of Dungeoneering, a skill I never really knew what to do with before. Brian also recommends the 5-room dungeon. I don’t have much experience with that myself, but it looks like a good quick-planning tool.

About Adam

I'm a husband, an explorer of the inexhaustible, and a hunter for unexpected synergies and collaborative potentials. My explorations into RPGs began with running D&D games, though lately I enjoy mining the potentials of diverse systems, especially Cortex Plus.