Having just finished a 4e campaign, I'm interested in running something lighter. I didn't spend much time prepping combats (mainly because I downloaded all my enemies from DDI), but I still had to prep. I was close to being able to improvise combat, but never quite got there. So, what systems will let me improvise all my combats without delaying the game?

Note that this doesn't mean I'd like a rules light game, just a prep light one. I enjoy interacting with deep rules sets and so do my friends. I could improvise combat with a system like Risus, but we'd be bored of the system if we played anything longer than a one shot.

Also note that this could be solved by tools rather than a system. If there were some tools wrapped around the DDI compendium that let me build an encounter in less than a minute, 4e could work for me.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Closed because the requirements of "prep light" are too general and can be answered with pretty much any RPG. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 13:10

6 Answers 6


The Dresden Files

I ran a nearly year-long weekly game of The Dresden Files with essentially no prep. Once city and character creation were complete, I came up with a bad guy, made a few decisions, and followed my own advice. Sometimes I would sketch a map. Sometimes I would pick a baddie from the book and maybe jigger a few stats. I always spent less than 60 minutes per week preparing for the game, and some weeks I spent less than 60 seconds.

DFRPG is a direct descendent of Spirit of the Century, a game designed as a no-prep pickup game. Your players' characters will feel very distinct - My game featured a pair of twins who were both wizards - and even they were very distinct!

FATE (the system that powers DFRPG) does a good job of making meaningful choices. It's common to offer a metagame reward to a player for acting in accordance with one of their disadvantages:

"I'll give you a FATE point for Envious of the wealthy if you pocket that silver spoon from your client's table!"

The player then gets to decide whether they accept and act in accordance with the Aspect that they crafted for the character, or exert their willpower and decline the metagame currency. The fact that there is a cost (the lost FATE point) to avoiding the negative effects of Aspects means that disadvantageous Aspects don't lie gathering dust the way they tend to in some games. And physically offering up a shiny FATE token can make it very hard to resist when the PC is low on them...

For me, DFRPG is the best implementation of FATE so far (though Bulldogs! was also a lot of fun and does some things better), and FATE does an excellent job of straddling the line between Narrative and Crunch.


Mouse Guard

as an aside, Mouse Guard is not "Burning Wheel Lite" - anyone who says it is hasn't played both.

The rules for MG are fairly streamlined, and narrative focused, but provide lots of crunch, too. And its optimized for very low to no prep.

It's VERY story focused, tho', and not aimed at physics enforcement. Then again, you're playing mice with swords.

Spirit of the Century

It's a hefty tome of several hundred pages. Once you have read and understand the rules, it plays as a no-prep game quite well. Experienced players can play it as a pick-up game, even - the majority of the crunch is in the stunts, which can stymie inexperienced player with their variety. Once PC's are generated, however, it's rock-n-roll time.

Only real hitch is that it's designed for use with 4dF, rather than standard dice markings. Plus side, once you learn one FATE system game, the others are all much easier to get to table.

Houses of the Blooded / Blood and Honor

These two are implementations of the same engine, hence listed together.

Prep will do you little good in these two - the resolution system pretty much ensures that nothing goes as originally planned, and the story twists along in ways that will surprise even the most machiavellian GM... because the twists and turns aren't his!

HOTB is a fantasy setting that's vaguely romanesque; B&H is Fantasy Japan.

Note that the system is: find your dice pool, as does anyone else with a stake, everyone sets aside some as "wagers", high roller determines success or failure and keeps all wagers; everyone else keeps half their wagers; each person with wagers remaining in turn says one additional thing about the action or situation, spending one wager; keep going until all wagers are spent. The GM always has a stake, if desired.

The majority of the game system is how to find those dice pool totals.

NPC's are often defined by players spending wagers to define things about them on the fly; one stat or statement per wager. (Which is how I wound up with a sophontophagic Jolly Green Giant as the PC's ally...)

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm surprised you didn't mention full-blown Burning Wheel along with Mouse Guard. It fits: All the prep is embedded in character creation; in-play GM work is mostly improvisational pushes on the situations built into the characters; characters are extremely distinct (and diverse); and it's possibly a deeper system than even 4e. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 6:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answers all around. I have HotB sitting unplayed on a hard drive - it's basically ORE, right? I couldn't get through the introductory fiction. One of these days, I'm going to have to give in to Mouse Guard... \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 15:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @gomad HotB is its own thing, but the closest it comes to (and it's not that close) is FATE. It's dice-pool, target number, and trait/aspect stuff. There's some inter-player social-dynamic-leveraging mechanics too, if I remember. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Because BWR (and BE, for that matter) benefits much more strongly from some prep per session than MG. Especially in the form of writing up major NPC's as if PC's. It's not all encoded in the characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 4:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @gomad it's nothing at all like ORE. I've added to the details a bit. The only thing it shares with FATE is the borrowing of Aspects from (IIRC) TSOY. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Oct 20, 2011 at 4:08

Some other systems that I've improved combat in:

Ars Magica

Ars Magica has less of an empashsis on tactical combat. However, the corresponding rules complexity in the magic system satisfies my requirements for deep and interesting rulessets. The combats can be run with little to no prep because most enemies are, mechanically, quite similiar. If you create a stable of common enemies as part of your campaign prep, "prep" for a combat is just a matter of increasing or decreasing a few numbers without needing to reference the books. On the other hand, My campaign went a year and a half without the players choosing to engage in combat so your mileage may vary.

Pax Draconis

Out of print, but the combat system offers some fascinating tactical consequences due to its interrupt system and the prepping of enemies is absolutely trivial: choose a "Ranged Attack" value between 33-66, depending on their competence, handwave an endurance and strength, choose a weapon and armor (2 lookups) and poof.

  • \$\begingroup\$ have you improved combat or done improv? :) \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 20:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Both :) I've done pure improv and just improved combat. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I can attest that Ars Magica can be done 0-prep, but I've also found it works better with prep. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 3:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree, aramis. But in the spirit of the question it does offer an incredibly crunchy experience with little to no prep needed (and encounter prep is extremely trivial). It also offers an experience fundamentally different to 4e, as there's no attention given to balance, but offers a similar level rules emphasis on the aspects of the game that the game cares about. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 20:39

Savage Worlds

One of it's design goals is to give players the detailed character options of other system without the complexity for the Referee. I switch over from DnD about two years ago. I spend most of my adventure design time creating floor plans (which is fun) rather than studying the rules to check a monsters special abilities. So I would say it is a success in those goals. It is not without it flaws but they are more than made up with the fun we have playing it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Nearly +1 for SW - I ran a Serenity campaign in SW:EX that went very nicely with little-to-no-prep. But I wouldn't say it was the most rules-intensive system that can be played that way. Doesn't stop it from being a great all-around RPG system for the right kind of game! \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Commented Oct 19, 2011 at 15:08

4e can be played with no prep

This blogger offers his own toolkit for pure improv 4e. Given the interesting mechanics behind monsters, it is quite feasible to make up (not even reskin, but just make up) monsters on the fly.

The master DM sheet he uses allows for arbitrary monsters, skill checks, and other critical DMing components, though I recommend adding in the serious skills interpretation of skills to this for a more "comprehensive" feel.

The use of hitboxes instead of monster HP is not something I'm completely happy with, but it does reduce the amount of prep needed for monsters by eliminating a mathematical operation.

Prepped name lists and random generators are fantastic tools for personalizing your world. A prepped name list means you can take elements from Apocalypse World and personalize everything.

With these tools and a rough outline of an adventure, perhaps even in the 5 room dungeon format allows a trivial but engaging and fun no-prep game process to occur.


Personally I'd use Silhouette (DP9).

It is generic enough (the Silcore rule at least) to be adaptable to different genres, it is quite tactical but very simple to play, and combat is quite quick (without being too abstract).

I have been in fights with 4-5 PCs vs. twice their number in NPCs and these were fun, quick and didn't boggle play down. (I have been both a Player and a Referee, I mean).

You can have fairly detailed PCs and use template-based NPCs, and it scales well if you have to involve giants, large animals etc. The magic part is not very detailed, so you may need a bit of work on that if you plan to have magic users.


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