Most Referees I know have experienced the feeling of not preparing for a game due to real life time constraints, only for the game to go unexpectedly well. I don’t think this means that preparation is bad, or that one should never prepare for games in advance. But I don’t think this phenomenon is just due to chance. In theory, more preparation should mean that the game is more streamlined, less random, and that the overall narrative is more coherent. So why is it that games without much prep are often more fun to play in?
Here’s a list of possible reasons:
1. You say less
Without prep, you start out with less to say. This means you are forced to listen to the players for clues on what is happening. This in turn creates a more immersive experience. Less talking also helps to focus descriptions into sharp, concise details.
2. Your ideas are better
Many ideas that are prepared are not very good or interesting, either just due to being clichés or being overwrought. But ideas that are created under pressure are often forced out of you. By being forced to come up with ideas on the spot, you might be paradoxically less likely to come up with clichés as your mind runs out of content and desperately searches for a response. This can make your ideas better. In order to test this point out, try coming up with a list of 20 details about a dungeon floor in under 30 seconds. Chances are that the later details will be more interesting. The first several might suggest things like “rough,” “fracture,” “stone,” and so on, whereas the latter will likely include things less commonly associated with dungeon floors, such as “angry,” “wise,” or “paper.” A dungeon floor that is angry or paper is inherently more interesting than a dungeon floor that is rough stone. It also generates more questions: “Why is the floor angry?” “Who made it out of paper?” etc. Searching for the answers to these questions is fun.
Not everything has to fit in perfectly. Once a strange detail comes up, it’s easy enough to scale it down a few notches so that it feels realistic and plausible within the world. Players are also very good about connecting details that seem do have no inherent connection.
3. You find out what happens
When you haven’t prepared in advance, you don’t know what is going to happen. This means you are finding out at the same time as everyone else, which is often more fun for you. When you’re having more fun, you’re also more invested, which causes others to have more fun also. Furthermore, when you have less prep, you spend less time talking. This means that the players talk more.
4. The game becomes a conversation
Low prep games turn more easily into a conversation between everyone about what is happening, rather than a pre-established vision that the Ref imposes on the world. Turning the game into a conversation allows for a sharper focus on what everyone finds interesting, making the game more fun for the players.
5. The pace speeds up
Without prep, the game inevitably speeds up. You get lost less in extensive descriptions and focus more on the answers players need in order to act. In doing so, you are forced to focus on the details that matter in relation to what the players need to know, rather than setting material from some more abstract position.
6. The game is more flexible
Less prep means that the game can shift more dynamically towards the player’s interests. If, for example, you have already spent several hours preparing a dungeon, then you are more likely to push the players in that direction. By contrast, a low-prep game is able to shift towards what the players want to do.
7. Consistency matters less
With more prep, there is more of a focus on narrative consistency between the prepared content as well as previous sessions. Consistency can be important. But, as in the case of continuity errors in films, you rarely notice the mistake if the game is going well. In other words, narrative consistency is only tangentially related to whether the game is fun. An engaging but somewhat inconsistent novel is a better read than one that is unengaging but consistent. In a low prep game, the focus is more on providing content that is engaging, which makes the game more fun.
8. You ask more questions
Less prep shifts the Ref into a role that is less about providing pre-established answers. Instead, it’s more about posting questions that the players also have to answer. Take, for example, a player question about what religions are like in a particular region. Without any prepared answer, the Ref answers in turn with the question, “How familiar are you with religions, and in what context?” The player responds that since they are a Thief, most of what they know is likely through attending various religious services into order to pickpocket members in a crowd. They know some passing details, but not very much. This in turn provides a better focus to the Ref’s response. The Ref can emphasize that some religious crowds wear large jackets which are very easy to steal from. By contrast, other religious groups wear outfits that are more form-fitting in style.
Following this example, you now have a religious distinction embodied not merely between abstract ideals. Rather, it’s a difference observable through distinctly different fashions which are then reflected more broadly in ideological differences. For example, maybe this detail suggests that the large jacket religion is all about charity and openness, whereas the form-fitting religion is about abstinence and simplicity. Overall this is a more interesting answer, and it happens in less words. Questions are answered from the specific standpoint of the character, rather than from an all-encompassing world vision.
Most of these are ideas are not groundbreaking and have been discussed elsewhere in different contexts. Again, my purpose is not to suggest that prep is bad or that the problems below can’t be resolved through other means and good communication. (Many prep methods, such as random tables, help to avoid some of the above problems, since they restrict the Ref’s ability to know what will happen in advance.) Rather, it’s to describe some of the practices and methods that a low-prep session can work to instill, which can then be applied to other sessions as well.