Boredom & the No-Prep Game

I’ve been playing a lot more indie games lately, which is great, but I’m finding they have one big problem: boredom.

Not boredom during the game — the games are fun. But lots of indie games follow a model where the GM (if there even is a GM) doesn’t prepare anything ahead of time. Everything is created at the table, during the game, usually with all participants acting as more equal contributors in the creation of the game world.

Neato, and terribly convenient too, since it means you can just sit down and play whenever you can get folks together.* If you have three people and two hours you can blast off and explore the mysteries of space without ever having the GM say “well, I really don’t have anything prepared…”

But there’s the rub. Ask any serious GM: preparing game material is half the fun. Sometimes more than half the fun. It’s a creative process all in itself, even if the game never gets played. Lots of GMs would sit around and make worlds all day, even if they didn’t have a group lined up. Because let’s face it, if you don’t like prepping games then traditional GMing is not going to be your cup of tea — if it’s not fun, it’s a huge burden.

I admit it: I miss prepping games and building worlds. Sure it’s frustrating when your golden idea is smashed to bits by contact with the players, but that goes with the territory. But I’m also consistently surprised by how awesome the ideas are that are born at the table, in the moment, as a reaction to the hodge-podge of ideas everyone else is throwing in. It’s one thing to be able to shape a nice clean idea in a vacuum, but it’s a far greater mental challenge to come up with ideas on the fly that genuinely click with everything else other players are tossing in. I would never have come up with the some of the ideas that emerged organically in the chaotic consensus of play.

Play Like a Child

If you look closely at that last paragraph you’ll discover something interesting: what I’m describing sounds an awful lot like, y’know, gaming. That thing where you all sit down at the table and react to each other and see what happens. No matter how much the GM has prepared, when the player running Carlos the Dwarf says something rude to the Duke’s daughter, what happens next is just improv. Everyone at the table is reacting and coming up with something on the fly. That’s gaming.

The no-prep game just shifts the bar, taking what was once the GM’s prep and making it part of everyone’s play. Making it just like the rest of the game.

There’s a serious danger in becoming all grown up and brainy, getting overly-analytical about games and what you want from games, thinking too hard about what’s right and wrong in gaming. Chasing perfection.

It’s the kind of over-analysis that leads to GMs strangling the life out of the game by preparing too much, by thinking they have to control the game for it to succeed and (gasp) thinking they’re storytellers and their players are the audience. It leads to GMs that fear the unexpected, which is like a fish fearing water. The unexpected is the game, dummy! It’s why you’re playing with other people and not writing a book.

It also makes players who doubt their own instincts, who hesitate and analyze when they should just jump in with both feet and (you guessed it) play.

Do you remember what is was like when you gamed when you were a kid? Did you think about that stuff? Do you remembering GMing those games where you were totally making stuff up on the fly and it went great? Do you remember doing totally crazy stuff as a player like you were a young revolutionary Dave Arneson?

All of which is to say: try trusting your instincts again. Don’t get so hung up on doing it right. Let go and see what happens. If you goof.. big deal. It’s a game, remember?

Look After You Leap

It is entirely possible that there are so many indie game designers because they have nothing else to do: they would be preparing adventures like traditional GMs, but since they can’t, that between-game time and energy has to go somewhere. That’s pretty much what I’m doing so I can hardly criticize.

But don’t let the risk of being sucked into game design scare you away from trying no-prep games. There are lots, but I’ll throw out In A Wicked Age, Shock, Geiger Counter, and InSpectres — I’m specifically picking games where the premise is made at the table, not games that include a premise, module-style.

Will playing no-prep games help you get back to trusting your instincts? Will it make you a better more interactive gamer, a more fluid GM? It’s a trick question. What you should be asking is will it be fun.

* kind of like Promised Land, but in a way that actually works…

    Ben Robbins | December 16th, 2008 | game theory | show 8 comments