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Hip Pocket Games

Players roleplaying at a store [1] If you’d asked me 10 years ago about what the future held for my GMing style, I doubt that I’d have been able to guess at a future filled with public play, steady home plus ad hoc game groups, and lots of convention and other one-shot game play. At the time, I rarely attended more than a con a year, and was only beginning to check into the meetup scene for gaming. In my old world, scenarios were artisanally hand made–crafted for one group, usually as part of an ongoing storyline, each session rarely making sense out of context. The idea of reusing, much less mastering, a scenario for play with more than one group just wasn’t a part of my thinking.

What do you mean by Hip Pocket Games?

Hip pocket games aren’t a real classification or genre of RPG. Instead, hip pocket games are scenarios that you’re always ready to run. They’re there in your hip pocket, ready to whip out and play on minimal notice.

Sometimes, these games are full game systems, like A Penny for My Thoughts, which is a GMless game designed for a single evening’s play. Other times, they’re specific scenarios, like Secrets of Sokol Keep (a D&D 5e scenario), or Dark Star, the Fate adventure (and setting).

Any game that you can run with minimal prep is a good hip pocket game for you. You’re basically taking something big and amorphous, like everything a D&D game can be, and mastering a specific version of it. When you meet someone new or attend a con, you can leap into play and always be ready to contribute. It’s much like having a board game in your backpack that you love and can teach effortlessly.

What I’ve Learned

When I just ran campaigns, the idea of running an adventure again seemed ludicrous. I might run a game for my group to test out a con scenario, then run the scenario at the con, but that was rare.

When I learn a new roleplaying game, I pay careful attention to the rules for the first few games, to make sure that I don’t slip up and to learn the underlying logic. Now that I’m running adventures more than once, I pay similar attention to scenarios that I enjoy, and mentally dogear them for a future run.

Any game that you can run with minimal prep is a good hip pocket game for you. You’re basically taking something big and amorphous, like everything a D&D game can be, and mastering a specific version of it.
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Just like shaking down a new RPG, scenarios get easier and more consistent when you return to them. If one of the pregen characters wasn’t engaged the first time you ran it, you can keep tabs on the character and be ready to bring them deeper into the game. Or, when you’re presenting characters for selection, you’ll know to emphasize the parts that tie into this scenario. You can even take the opportunity to retool a scene to emphasize a skill that the character has, or to alter an NPC in the adventure to have a deeper tie to the character when you run it again.

Running a game is one of the most foolproof ways to find a logic hole. If the players have to look to you for guidance in the first play through, you know which clues and scenes to emphasize in your presentation during future plays to help keep the characters on track. Like so many things, practice makes perfect.

My Hip Pocket Games

A couple of years ago, I ran A Penny for My Thoughts [6] three times in October, with different groups of players. By the end, I felt like I could guide the group well–and like the games that we created after the second or third play were better. In part, that’s because of several players’ repeat play, not just mine–the first time you play Penny, the lack of constraint is awesome, but the same lack of constraint can suck you into a gonzo story.

Over the last few months, I’ve mastered a few more scenarios. The first came about because I decided to run my Stellar Eagle [7] scenario for Kingdom [8] at Gateway and again at Zappcon [9]. Like A Penny for My Thoughts, it’s also diceless and GMless; the struggle is that it’s hard to get both character building and a lot of play in a con slot. The Stellar Eagle seed was itself a refinement from trying to squish the great Starfall seed into a four hour con slot; it turns out that the world building is all too easy to get lost in, leaving too little time to explore the world and characters that you created.

The other scenarios that I’m now comfortable running with little prep are for more traditional games, with traditional GM duties and plots. The first, Mark Diaz Truman’s Dark Star [10] was so good that I expanded it by breaking the pregen characters into blocks [11] so more players could hop in. As I mentioned in a comment on John’s Limited Prep Time [12], Dark Star does a great job of mixing up challenge types and keeping the action moving. It’s a fun universe… and who doesn’t love Top Gun crossed with space?

The other scenario that I can run without much notice is DDEX1-2 Secrets of Sokol Keep. I’ve run it a couple of times at the store, a con, and once for friends. It’s a nice, straightforward scenario that has a lot of interesting elements. There’s some world exploration, a mystery to investigate, and an unusual dungeon to explore, and some good thematic fights. When I want to introduce someone to D&D, I can run Secrets of Sokol Keep and give them a taste of what D&D can offer.

What Games are in Your Pockets?

Do you have favorite adventures that you can run off the top of your head? A go-to scenario for introducing people to your favorite game world or RPG? Share your favorites in comments!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Hip Pocket Games"

#1 Comment By Hunyock On October 29, 2015 @ 5:23 am

Hi Scott, nice article. I don’t have any hip pocket suggestions (I’m where you were previously – attending one con a year and just starting to check out Meetup), so I really appreciated your recommendations. I had previously enjoyed the article about breaking up the pregen characters into blocks, so now this is twice I’ve been tempted to pull the trigger and give FATE a try! Just added the FATE Codex issue with Dark Star to my DriveThruRPG wishlist… anyway, thanks for the article.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On October 29, 2015 @ 10:10 am

Excellent; I’m glad that Fate sounds worth some investigation–it’s been my go to system for the last few years. A pickup game of Spirit of the Century [an older Fate game] became a regular game group and good friends, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the system.

#3 Comment By BryanB On October 29, 2015 @ 9:45 am

As the beneficiary of some of those hip pocket games Scott has been able to use I can appreciate the availability of a well honed scenario that can fill in at a moments notice. This is particularly true at our local meet up group where having such a scenario on hand is invaluable should attendance surge at the last minute and there aren’t enough games for the event.

The closest thing that I have to a Hip Pocket Game would be an intro adventure for Star Wars Saga Edition campaign that I have run a few times and an adventure for The Savage World of Solomon Kane that I have run a couple of times at different events. Most of the games that I work on are designed as part of an ongoing campaign. The bulk of them just wouldn’t go that well outside of a campaign’s continuity.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On October 29, 2015 @ 10:13 am

I certainly enjoyed the Solomon Kane scenario that I got to play–it’s an interesting universe. I suspect it’d be even better if I’d read the novels, but it’s plenty good even just dropping in.

The depth of knowledge you bring to Star Wars makes it truly immersive!

#5 Comment By Lee Hanna On October 31, 2015 @ 9:38 am

I have a high-school son, who is still expanding his network of friends and RPG’ers. I’ve been keeping “Keep on the Borderlands” as a AD&D2e game in my hip pocket, to introduce new kids to the hobby.

I use 2e for 3 reasons: 1) for me, it’s simple and I remember most of the rules without re-reading; 2) character generation is relatively quick; 3) I have 5 copies of the player’s handbook, so I can hand them out to let players read and/or be inspired by the art.

KotB seems to work well, since it has lots of small “dungeons” that are easy to finish within a 2-4 hour time framework, and I need minimal prep time between sessions to restock or alter things as I see fit. I’ve run 9 sessions of what I could call a drop-in or episodic campaign, with different characters in nearly every session.

I’ve thought about expanding to set up another Hip Pocket, either in one of my sci-fi or contemporary military games.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On November 2, 2015 @ 10:20 am

I could see keep working pretty well, though it’s really easy to stumble into more trouble than you can handle… as I found out in a Labyrinth Lord revisit a year or two ago.

The keep as a central focus and source for new characters and trading out adventure teams can work really well, if the players get in the habit of returning to the keep at the end of their sessions.

#7 Comment By Nerdarchy On October 31, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

Hey, Great Scott! I mean, great article Scott. I think you did a fantastic job explaining the “how” and the “what” of a Hip Pocket Game (a term I will happily steal!), but I think the “why” can be expanded on. Running scenarios again and again puts you in that rarefied head space like that of a well rehearsed actor or musician- you can bring nuance to the NPCs and locales as well as being in a fantastic position to improvise based on your players actions because there’s no questions in your mind about the armature of the material your running- all of your focus is on storytelling, entertainment.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On November 2, 2015 @ 10:23 am

True, those are good reasons to enjoy a familiar scenario another time, instead of trying to master something new. The ability to improvise confidently is great. You can also pay more attention to reading and replying to players, due to a solid grounding in “what happens if things go according to plan,” which covers a lot of scenario time.

#9 Comment By Rickard Elimää On November 6, 2015 @ 7:18 am

I got several hip pocket games, and I usually play roleplaying games like board games nowadays. With that, I don’t mean focusing on mechanics, but having a flora of games to choose from, that I can run for 1-2 hours, depending on what I feel like playing and the group I’m playing with.

InSpectres is the most known game. The other games are from my game creation collection:

– Drakar och bananer (eng. Dragons and bananas). A 2-3 hour game that challenges the participants’ creativity. It’s the go to game I put forth when at gaming conventions and parents wants to play with their 8-12 year old children.

– This is Pulp: Indiana Jones, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Another game that challenge the participants’ creativity. It’s for an older audience.

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– The Murder of Mr. Crow. Create a murder mystery together with your friends. A hat is required.

– Imagine. Experience an every day situation while exploring the depths of the main character(s).

All these demands no prep before the gaming session, and takes about an hour to play. That includes creating the world, the adventure and the characters, explaining the rules, and pitch the game so everyone are at the same level.

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Only the two last games are up for download (so far).

#10 Comment By John Fredericks On November 27, 2015 @ 6:15 am

Scott, I will be spending sometime this Thanksgiving weekend polishing up a hip pocket game. I’ve run it before, but never made the effort to have EVERYTHING in one folder or envelop so I can pull it and go. Thanks for the impetus to make that happen!