There's plenty to like in The Prepless GM, but it's not prepless. Preparation, in my book (well, in the dictionary), means getting ready in advance. Prepless, in their book, means "running any tabletop roleplaying game without any preparation whatsoever." The guidance in The Prepless GM is about preparing to improvise, not about ditching preparation altogether. Whenever I see guidelines that call themselves prepless, zero-prep, or no-prep, I think they have a very narrow definition in mind, as if "preparation" means rolling up the minutiae in every room of a mega-dungeon in case the PCs ever go there (quantity over quality). That would be a waste of time, but it's also a straw man: that's not the only kind of GM prep. Preparing yourself to run a heavily off-the-cuff session prioritizes quality over quantity, but it's not prepless. It's differnt prep, not zero prep. Anyone who does improv on stage has been through a good amount of preparation before they went out there; they prepared to improvise.
Like other guidebooks of this type, The Prepless GM gives you a series of preparatory tasks, while simultaneously declaring it's prepless. Consider the irony: studying a guidebook in advance to prepare for prepless play. To quote Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."
Chapter 1: Improvising Your Tabletop RPG
Under the heading "The Principles of Going Prepless" (which should be called The Principles of Improvised Play), there's a good discussion on being both more adaptive and more focused ("serve the story") during play. That's good stuff, and it's applicable whether or not you're working from prepared material.
The Question System is a handy way to keep the story moving. It gives you four different ways to handle questions, advising you to mix it up during the session. I like the fact that the guidebook doesn't declare there's only One True Way to do it; it acknowledges trade-offs.
The preparation tasks from Chapter 1 include:
- "You own all the books and know the system inside out." Whether or not you already know your game system forward and backwards, acquiring that knowledge was (or will be) prep work. You can't improvise well and keep the session flowing if you have a weak grasp of the rules or the setting. You have to gain a decent familiarity before you can improvise with it. That's preparation, not prepless.
- "Clichés work, use them." In order to use the common tropes for your genre or setting, you need to know what they are. Gaining that familiarity is preparation, not prepless.
- "You've watched countless of hours of tv shows, read books, and played many a roleplaying game." That's not true of all GMs. Some give GMing a try before they've acquired wide experience with the material. Even if you've been GMing for decades, you'll still spend countless more hours on your favorite entertainment media. Guess what: Spending "countless hours" on something that helps you prepare to improvise is preparation, not prepless.
- "You can handle questions [in the Question System] in four different ways." You'll need to assimilate those four ways and understand the trade-offs so you'll be ready to use them during play. Preparation, not prepless.
- "GMs can consult a bunch of tools and tables for generating random ideas." That means you'll need to come up with those tools and tables. Maybe you'll dig up existing tables you like. A few of them might be from Chapter 5 of this book. Maybe you'll use tables provided by your RPG system. Maybe you'll search online. Maybe you'll make up your own from scratch. All of those methods involve prep work. If you wait until session time to create them, you'll probably have some prep (for the next session) as you preserve and spruce up your tools and tables.
Chapter 2: Cooperative Storytelling
There's good material on how to engage your players in carrying the story forward. It offers some guidance on engaging different playing styles. It talks about delegating specific tasks to players, such as tracking the loot, drawing maps, and setting difficulty levels.
Chapter 3: Plot and Drama
The chapter starts with an extended quote from Stephen King, who doesn't like mapping out his plots ahead of time. He's not prepless, however. He ponders ideas "while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk." "He starts with a super-engaging what-if questions that challenges the characters in unique ways." That's how he does his prep work.
The material on Drama, Challenges, Schemes, and Character Goals (roughly a page on each) is solid stuff, offering tips on how to enable adaptive, improvised play with them. The tips on improving your descriptions are good. You can use all this even if you prepare material or use someone else's prepared material.
The preparation tasks from Chapter 3 include:
- "Pick a few things to describe every day" to improve your descriptive skills. Guess what: That's preparation, not prepless.
Chapter 4: Formulas
"A formula is a series of small questions or story elements that help you generate something more specific like an NPC or a battlefield." There are 14 of these formulas (NPCs, riddles, magic items, etc.). The chapter offers some dos and don'ts to make them work well on the fly. They're generally practical and succinct -- enough to keep play moving forward.
The preparation tasks from Chapter 4 include:
- "I encourage you to create your own formulas that fit your world and style of play." If you'd do that before a session instead of during one, that's preparation. If you make them up during the session, you'll need to preserve them for reuse (aka prep work).
Chapter 5: Running a Campaign
This chapter focuses on collaborative efforts for creating a campaign, creating characters, and launching the campaign. Good tips and techniques. There's some guidance on creating random tables on the fly. They give you five pages of pre-made tables you can roll against (adventures, names, traps, etc. The tables are words or brief phrases, not stats.
A word about math. Yes, 6 to the 4th power = 1296, but that doesn't give you 1296 distinct quests. The quest table is basically a mad-libs table with four d6 rolls. You can roll up only six completely unique combinations. Once you roll up a seventh quest, you're necessarily repeating some or all of your six unique quests. That's 6 distinct combinations, and 1290 combinations that involve repetition. "We are exploring a lost city, seeking the Pillars of Time, guarded by a band of giants, before time unravels" isn't all that different from "We are exploring a lost city, seeking the Pillars of Time, guarded by dire beasts, before time unravels." The traps table has 65,536 possible combinations, but you can't get more than 16 completely unique traps out of it. The other 65,520 possible traps involve some repetition. Each of the tables for first names combines one of six prefixes with one of six suffixes. There are only six completely unique names in each of those tables, and 30 combinations that repeat part of a previous name. If you need a 37th human male, for example, you're necessarily repeating a prefix/suffix combination. That's not enough in a rich campaign setting full of NPCs that accumulate over time. Besides, there are some excellent, free, online name generators that give you a lot more name types and a lot more possible names.
"Creating a campaign setting should take about ten minutes." "Rolling for stats should not take longer than 5 minutes" (assuming stats are the most important thing during character creation). "You are fifteen minutes into your first session when actual play begins." Well, that's optimistic. Have you met my players? I can't get them all to show up within 15 minutes of each other. RPG sessions are social occasions, so they socialize at first. Then it's time to herd the cats to get them settled in and let them get their stuff out. And then, once you get all of that (dare I say it) preparation out of the way, I'm supposed to believe that they'll start with a blank slate, come up with all their ideas quickly, and come to consensus quickly, "without any preparation whatsoever"? Nope. The initial chaos is part of their fun, so trying to rush them through it would throw a wet blanket onto the occasion and it wouldn't work anyway.
You missed a spot or two. The book lists many ways to create content on the fly, but it says nothing about carrying any of it forward to later sessions. Unless you're running a one-shot, single-session adventure. you and your players will want to preserve some of what you came up with: tables, rulings, NPCs, relationships, locations, items, incidents, factions, etc. Recreating everything on the fly in every session (because you threw out or forgot all the previous stuff) would be maddening. This means you're probably capturing notes or making it legible and usable after a session, and reviewing the relevant material before the next session. That's preparation, not prepless.
Beisdes, if you overdo the improv, I can imagine players saying, "Aaugh! Enough with the questions! Make a decision!" You need a balance. Some stuff isn't worth making up on the fly. For that, you can prepare. You can be smart about deciding what to prepare and what to improvise, but that process is itself a form of preparation.
"But in order to make [the games] work as prepless games we are going to have to come at them from a different mindset. That means changing some of the ideas you are familiar with." Your players will need some explanation and possibly some persuasion when you change your practices and when you ask them to change theirs. If you give them that orientation between sessions, that's prep work. If you plan how you'll orient them during the session, you're preparing.
Overall: Lots of good material, but it's not prepless, nor should it be.