This summer has been a good one for getting back into tabletop roleplaying. I played a lot of the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars RPG in middle and high school and have been spending most of my life since then wishing that I were still that involved with RPGs. I’ve compensated some by listening to actual play podcast: Total Party Kill rotates through several great D&D campaigns, the original Fantasy Flight Star Wars run of Campaign is so good that I’m listening to it a second time, and Penny Arcade’s Tales from the Loop campaign blew my mind when I listened to it a few months ago.
I’ve also acquired a lot of TTRPGs in the hopes that one of them would eventually get me back into roleplaying. I have Pathfinder PDFs, D&D adventures, a FATE Core book and assorted settings/adventures, some Fantasy Flight Star Wars stuff, a couple of other established systems, and dozens of indie titles. This wasn’t as expensive as it could have been, since I acquired most of these through Humble Bundle, itch.io bundles (where I’ve repeatedly picked up literally hundreds of games for a $5 charity donation), or the Bundle of Holding, but it’s still a lot of games for someone who’s struggling to find time to play just one.
I finally made some breakthroughs this summer, though, and a lot of that is due to playing a couple of systems that make campaign prep really easy. I much prefer playing a TTRPG to running one, but it’s pretty clear at this point that if I want more tabletop roleplaying in my life, I’m going to need to play a more active role in running a campaign. Even in my hobbies, though, I deal with an unhealthy amount of perfectionism and anxiety, so (as my siblings could tell you), it’s a lot easier for me to start a campaign than to actually put the work in to follow through. With that in mind, I wanted to briefly touch on the two systems that I got to play this summer and how they helped me run a game without feeling like I had to put a lot of work into them.
Magical Kitties Save the Day
I backed a Kickstarter for this all-ages system several months ago with the hopes that it would both help me introduce kiddo to TTRPGs and give me something structured but imaginative to do with kiddo when I don’t have the energy to play one of the imaginative games that she’s always (and adorably) coming up with. We tried doing this some last summer, and over Thanksgiving, I had a lot of fun doing some open-ended adventures with her and her older cousins, but this summer is when it really worked out for us. What made this system so easy to run is that there are well-written, detailed adventures that hardly need any prep to work with. Because this is a story-heavy, rules-light game, I didn’t feel like I had to memorize stat blocks, learn a lot of mechanical aspects, or even do anything more than cursory prep before doing an adventure for kiddo. We completed the first series of four adventures for the Alien Invasion setting largely thanks to how well scripted they are—kiddo could ask to play on a whim, and I could run the next adventure after two minutes of skimming the materials.
Don’t let me give you the impression that these adventures are rigid and railroady, either. The adventure books are full of jumping off points for new ideas, characters that you can use as much or as little as you want, and encouragement to take things in your own direction. When I ran a couple of adventures for kiddo and her cousins using the default River City setting, I didn’t even read the preplanned adventures. Instead, I used the map and the prompts in the setting guide to improvise things for the players to do each time; after a while, there were so many continuing quests that they would simply say what they wanted to do the next time. I could easily have done the same with Alien Invasion; in fact, when we started getting into the second series of adventures, kiddo did not pick up on a lot of the clues to lead her to the next scripted events. We’ve let it falter for a couple of weeks, but when we get back into the game, the time that we’ve spent in the setting will give us plenty to do and work with (still without a ton of prep on my part) until kiddo figures out what the game is expecting her to do next. Or maybe we’ll never get there—and that will probably be just as fun.
I have been continuing the co-op Ironsworn campaign that I began last month, and that has been a blast. I like Ironsworn (and like Starforged even more) because they allow for solo and co-op play, but I’ve struggled to keep any of my short-lived solo campaigns running, so playing co-op with a friend who’s also wanted to get more into TTRPGs has hit the sweet spot: Neither of us has to worldbuild or develop the campaign solo, and there’s also someone else to help decide when we’re playing next and what we’re going to do. This is a much crunchier system than Magical Kitties, but it also puts narrative first—and also has great mechanics that are explicitly designed to support the narrative.
In fact, Ironsworn doesn’t really do adventures at all. It’s even more low-prep in that players aren’t expected to know where a session is going to lead them when they begin it. That’s not to say that you can’t have ideas for what you want to happen in the story, but the system is built in such a way that even if you do, you might find those ideas changing over time. Rolling dice in Ironsworn doesn’t just give you an indication of success or failure, it also prompts you to shape the narrative around your results. When you Gather Information, for example, a strong hit (i.e., definite success) asks you to imagine what you’ve learned and specifies that it’s helpful to you. In contrast, a weak hit (i.e., middling success) still lets you learn something—but specifies that what you learn ought to complicate the narrative in some way. Likewise, there’s a long list of Oracles, lists of items, ideas, actions, themes, or names that you can use to randomly generate details in your setting. In our last session, we rolled on a table to determine an element of a non-player character’s backstory that we hadn’t bothered to think up ourselves, and the single-word response that we got turned into a 15-minute discussion adding extra details to our world and threads to our plot.
thank goodness for low prep
As we transition from the summer into the fall, our family schedules are going to get tighter, and it’s going to take more deliberate effort to fit these two campaigns into my time. However, the beauty of low prep is that it reduces the amount of time that I need to play either of these campaigns. I’ve got lots of scripted adventures—and even more open-ended narrative hooks—for Magical Kitties, and so long as I have percentile dice handy, the mechanics themselves of Ironsworn will do the campaign heavy lifting for me.
Learning to play both of these games in this way has even made me more optimistic about the eventual potential of starting another campaign in another system. FATE is yet another system that prizes narrative over mechanics, and while I think it would require more prep, I’m confident that if I lean into improvisation and flexibility, I can put a campaign together more easily than I think. Likewise, the La France aux années 80 French sourcebook for Tales from the Loop has a pre-built setting, characters, and adventures that could work a lot like Magical Kitties (once I do some translation—I doubt I’d find a Francophone group to play with).
Hooray for low prep games—and hooray for getting back into TTRPGs.
You can use click on the
< button in the top-right of your browser window to read and write comments on this post with Hypothesis. You can read more about how I use this software here.