The best time to plant a fruit tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is five minutes before you have to run a fruit campaign.
Okay, so the analogy falls apart a little, but the gist is that sometimes we simply don’t have as much time to plan a game or game session as we’d like to. It may be an impromptu game while visiting friends, or getting called to fill in when you can’t run the game you were planning to – if someone cancels last minute and you still want to give your friends something to play for showing up.
Whatever the reason, when you find yourself wanting to run a game but without the sort of time you’d like to have to plan, it’s time to change up the model of how you plan a game and get things rolling.
Start with a setting and system. Often, your players will hand you this one off the bat, but if they don’t, go for something simple for your system – Fate: Accelerated Edition, Simple Six (the rules behind School Daze), Cypher (the rules behind Numenera and The Strange), even something like Fiasco can make a great structure for a game.
Unless your players are chomping at the bit for a particular setup, keep your setting somewhat generic. You want to have room to plan a game that fits it, and since you’ll be picking the setting before you pick the plot and challenges ahead, you’ll want to give yourself room to breathe. For systems that come pinned to their own settings (like Shadowrun), pick a region, but again, keep it generic (Europe, the east coast, Seattle, etc.).
Next up, give the players something to chew on – their own character creation. Naturally, if you’ve got a system they’re familiar with, you can simply let them run through the normal character creation sequence. For most systems, it will buy you about 30 minutes to do your planning.
If you’re going with one of the lightweight systems I mentioned above, you won’t have nearly enough time unless you also crowdsource a bit of the world-building. If you’re using Fiasco as your system of choice, it’s already done – give the group through the first act to set up relationships and challenges, and then pick up the game from there.
If you’re not using Fiasco, you can leverage a similar structure to save yourself loads of time on detail planning. In addition to regular character creation, ask your players to jot down a relationship with the player on their left (partners in crime, old army buddies, ex-boyfriends, etc.) and something they’re indebted to the player on their right for (saving their life, giving them a chance when no one else would, that candlelight dinner in Rio, etc.).
Lastly, to chew up any leftover time while you finish planning, ask your players to write down ten names. Any names, male or female, any culture – this’ll be your name bank to choose NPC names from later. It can save you getting stuck introducing a new character when they’re needed, or winding up with a town where every third person is named ‘Phil.’
While they’re doing their building, it’s your turn to do the same. Remember Bunnies with Laser Cannons? Get yourself about ten index cards or a few sheets of paper (or a computer, which is like an index card bag of holding).
Jot down your Bad Guy (with the reminder that it can be something neither bad nor a guy – volcanoes count), your MacGuffin, and your Starting Location (which should be a little more precise than the setting you gave your players at the start).
Draw up three conflict points, otherwise known as “action sequences.” Put one near the start, one toward the middle, and one at the end. They can be big fights, chases, big fights followed by chases or other transparent excuses to roll dice and quote Die Hard. You don’t need gritty details here, just figure out the general idea of what you’re going to throw at your party, and make them flexible enough to toss in anywhere.
“Final fight for the MacGuffin” is usually a solid win for the climax, especially when paired with an “escape the collapsing complex” chase sequence. The rest will be based on the game world you’re in. “The last run before retirement” is a good lead for cyberpunk or Serenity. “Dungeon race for the MacGuffin” for just about any fantasy world. Whatever fits. Often, if the players wanting to play the last-minute game in the first place have an idea in mind, they’ll feed you this one from the get-go.
The middle sequence is typically the Act 2 Dip – things have gone great, they might even have the MacGuffin in hand, and then the Bad Guy swoops in and snatches it, blowing up their treasured stuff in the process, leaving the PCs with no recourse but to follow the Bad Guy to his/her/its lair, beat him/her/it to a pulp, take the MacGuffin and sail off into the sunset. “Ambushing the PCs as they’re walking out of where the MacGuffin was, taking the MacGuffin and then leaving the lackeys to finish them off” is a nice one-size-fits-almost-all backup plan, if you need.
Lastly, get a handful of NPC numbers and names to roll with. Monster manuals are great for a grab-bag, but err on the safe side: go with monsters of a lesser challenge rating that your party to dodge the fact that certain combinations of abilities can be accidentally devastating when you haven’t had time to plan it out and compare to your PCs’ abilities.
For systems without a monster’s manual (or when you don’t have one handy), grab sample characters from the book where you can. They’re typically under-optimized and make for a good (but far from insurmountable) challenge for the PCs.
Lacking sample characters, build a single ‘stock’ build of uninteresting numbers with no real specialized focus (the “all 14s” build in D&D, for instance). Mooks use this stock layout and rely pretty much entirely on the dice to be impressive (because they shouldn’t be impressive often). For named or special NPCs, roll a few d6s (or an appropriately-sized die) and add the values to base stats or skills to make them stand out.
For systems that rely more on action point systems (Fate Points, Cypher’s “Effort” mechanic, “Moxie” in Eclipse Phase, etc.), simply give key NPCs a larger pool to choose from so that they have an advantage and stand out from the rank and file.
Once you have your plot minimums, your action sequences and your stock NPC numbers, return to your players and read up on the abilities, relationships and debts they’ve come up with. Grab the ten names and hang onto them for when you need a named NPC on the fly. Describe the starting location and build a hook around the MacGuffin, give them a second to introduce themselves to one another, and then throw them straight into the first action sequence.
You now have a game in any system on a whopping half-hour of planning.