Today, I’ll be talking about why sometimes, GMs should skip most of the planning and just go with the simple options. I acknowledge that this is the opposite of much of my usual advice, but sometimes even the best advice will still be wrong.
This approach to GMing quite literally takes the absolute basics – you have a starting point for the players to begin at and a few points of interest to pitch to the players before the first game to see what catches their attention, and just enough material to run that first session when they get down to it. You have your notebook on hand and jot down notes on everything, complete with asking characters to suggest names for NPCs, and build the world from the ground up as you play, and lay the seeds of the next adventure in the current one, offering branching options for the players to pick among.
The advantage of this is that a time-pressed GM living in the modern world doesn’t have to do much work for this approach. As long as you take sufficient session notes, you can literally plot no further than the next session, aiming it roughly toward the endgame you hope to reach. Introduce NPCs as needed and document them, give them each a goal, a fear, and a motive for interacting with the players. Avoid cliches and cardboard character for anything but the briefest of interactions.
Let players pick up NPCs for individual scenes where their characters aren’t present; jot down the needed details on notecards and pass them out, and take notes on what each player does with that NPC during the scene. If a player does something you think is out of character with the NPC, roll with it – maybe the NPC is possessed, a doppleganger, or their original idea was just a facade they present to the world. Let the players own these details about the world and they’ll build the setting for you; you may discover the source of a noble’s wealth is a distant cousin with a gemstone mine, or that the NPC has an eligible sibling who might be interested in another PC’s romantic attentions.
Likewise, you can simply build the world out in whatever direction the players head and leave literally everything else formless and vague until you need to worry about it. As long as you take notes as you go and take care to avoid contradicting earlier notes without a good reason (the Vizali people are cannibals, except that it turns out to just be an ugly rumor because their neighbors envy their rich supplies of amber and bog iron, for example.) there’s no reason you can’t literally just ignore any world aspect not directly relevant to your game. You might have a really cool idea of a temple of singing monks, but if you avoid committing to anything about it until it becomes relevant you can drop it in exactly where and when you need it.
This all works best in an ‘age of darkness’ campaign, of course. You need a good reason for the world to be small and cozy, with everything beyond the horizon a deep mystery waiting to be explored. Perhaps there was once a great empire that slowly collapsed until everyone recalls the name of the capital and that all the paving-stone roads lead there, but not much else. Perhaps the hometown is a newly founded colony on the shores of an unknown land. Maybe the reason is something more exotic – a magical disaster misplaced their home in time (or dimensions), or a god has placed them there to let them flourish.
It’s up to you, and you don’t need to know the answer until the players need to know it, really.