Alice is Missing

Cover art from Alice is Missing, by Renegade Games

Lately, I’ve been attempting to try out different games besides your typical fantasy medieval adventuring games. They are up there among the most bought games for a whole amount of reasons. Nevertheless, smaller games receive far fewer sales for trying something different. What do they have to offer that people may enjoy? One of the little gems I found in that area are low-prep games. Upon reading a few I fell in love with what they have to offer, and I wanted to show you how good they can be for you as well!

The one that stood out the most to me was Alice is Missing, creating an experience I haven’t felt anywhere else, with pretty much no prep. These past few weeks I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and started playing Kids on Brooms, another game by the same game designer (Spenser Starke from Hunters EntertainmentRenegade Game Studios). I’m loving it so far, and the whole low-prep thing clicked with me, so I decided to ask Spenser some questions to better explain what this whole style of game is about.

Before you start thinking that this is just another one of those articles that criticize D&D, this is not at all my intention. I do believe that if you like roleplaying games enough to want to run 2 games a week, you may find an easier time having one of them be a low-prep game. That’s what I’m doing at the moment, and I couldn’t be happier with my choice. More on that later in the article, but first let’s see what Spenser has to say about this style of games:

An interview with Spenser Starke

In the text that follows, you will encounter the questions I asked Spenser, as well as my own thoughts on his answer, coming from my newbie experience in the subject of low-prep games.

What, in your opinion, should a game provide to the players (GM included) for it to be low prep?

Every low prep game has a different way of approaching this, because the answer really depends on the mechanics of play. But generally low prep games, in my experience, tend to be less crunchy for both the GM and the players. Not having to build out huge stat blocks or figure out how to correctly balance ten or twenty different NPC variables on the fly can make “playing to find out what happens” a lot easier for everyone. Personally, it’s very helpful for me when games provide enough scaffolding that I know how to navigate it as a storyteller without having to flip through the book while at the table; this often includes things like printable GM guides, a defined cycle of play, and strong guidance in the GM section on how to prep appropriately for the kind of game it is.

In my last few sessions of Kids on Brooms, I did no more than 20 minutes of game prep. One of those times, I barely sketched some things in my mind 5 minutes before playing and I was good to go. I played short sessions (2-3 hours), but I can imagine this same thing applies for longer sessions. The hard prep part is already done. Now if you do encounter something you weren’t expecting mid game, like a new NPC, I get to build it collaboratively with the players, which creates a very fun brainstorming experience, ending up with much more unique characters than I could have created on my own.

Besides prepping time, is there any other point you feel low prep games really differ on or have an advantage over games such as D&D?

I really think it depends on what kind of GM or player you are. If you find that the crunch of a game is something that is fun and enjoyable for you, a rules-light low-prep game might not be your long-term jam, and that’s totally okay. There are lots of games out there for a reason! I find that low-prep games let me personally spend my brain power at the table focusing on the things that matter more to me as a GM, which are story and character. Lots of people can manage both at the same time, and I’m constantly amazed by them, but I find that whenever I have to worry too much about all the prep I’ve done and the complex mechanics behind all of that prep, I am more resistant to following the flow of the fiction. I become less of an active listener at the table and more of a heavy hand, guiding my players to what I’ve prepped next. Over the years, I’ve learned that I don’t like that. I don’t want to tell my story, I want to facilitate my players to tell theirs. So I prefer to lead from the back, listening to what the characters are saying and doing, and guiding their journey based on that.

 I find that low-prep games let me personally spend my brain power at the table focusing on the things that matter more to me as a GM, which are story and character.
– Spenser Starke

Both in Alice is Missing and in Kids on Brooms, we all created the world the game takes place in. As the game progresses, we keep adding stuff to it, building something collaboratively. Whereas in games that require more prep such as D&D it might feel like it is the GM who is telling a story in which the player characters are the protagonists, in low-prep games there isn’t that much of a barrier that separates the GM (or storyteller) and the players. This causes the game to be more character and story-driven, with everyone having a hand on the helm on where the story is going. The responsibility doesn’t lie on only one person, and that’s something I love about this style of game.

In which types of games do you feel low prep games really shine?

I run almost all of my games, regardless of system, low-prep nowadays— but games that are low-prep by design are especially helpful in one shots and first sessions! I never do any planning until character creation is over, because the session is not only going to be informed by the conversation we have together about what kind of game we are all looking to play, but also by all of the choices made by the players about their characters. Their relationships and backstories and hopes and fears, all of that plays into the prep that I normally do for the game. So low prep games really help me to be able to take all of that information they give me during character creation and use it to launch into a game informed by player choices almost immediately. This kind of play tends to help ground them in the world because they have helped build it, and lets me treat their characters as protagonists in the story.

There is a sense of pride that appears on the players’ faces when they get the “Heh, I was the one that gave the NPC that quirk”, or when they start the “Familiars’ Brawl”, a Pokemon-style combat played out with wizards’ familiars that they decided was taught at the wizard school. The players create the things they want to play in the world through their characters’ backstories and worldbuilding. If you lean into them, you’ll surely create a story they will love. This also makes prep-time a lot shorter!

In your opinion, are low prep games as good for years lasting campaigns as games that require more prep time?

Different games are designed to last a different number of sessions, so it comes down to choosing the right game for that kind of long campaign! Low-prep games are easier for me to run week after week because the amount of time I’m required to spend as the GM preparing for them is far less, which means I’m much more likely to not get burned out or overwhelmed. The crunch that comes from games requiring more prep can certainly mean that you’ve got more time to explore the deep mechanics as players, and can keep people who are mechanically-focused invested for longer. If your focus lies more on the storytelling side of things, then this might not matter as much. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to the design of the specific game, whether it’s high prep or low prep. The two aren’t inherently tied to one another– though many modern games tend to favor either the 5-10 session or the 10-30 session campaign arc in their design.

Something clicked in my head when I read this. The thing that makes D&D and other similar games so long-lasting is that combat, being the prime part of the game, takes a lot of time, but doesn’t move the story forward very much. If you remove all that crunch, you can get a much more cinematic, but less tactical experience. I do love my tactical set-piece combats in D&D, but it’s the story I like the most about roleplaying games. This means that maybe a year-long D&D campaign can be completed in 7 months or fewer by changing to a game with less detailed rules and crunch.

Which is your favorite low prep game you have made, and your favorite created by someone else?

My favorite low-prep game I’ve made is Alice Is Missing. The whole thing, start to finish, plays in about three hours and facilitates creating layered characters with emotional cores. I only run it for specific groups because of its intensity, but it’s an absolutely no-prep game I can run at the drop of a hat.

My favorite low prep-game by another designer is Blades in the Dark by John Harper. I’ve been running a campaign of Blades since mid-2021 and I’ve never done more than an hour of prep for a session. I truly never know what is going to happen next, and that is the beauty of the system. It keeps me on my toes, let’s me follow the fiction of my players, and mechanically reinforces its themes at every turn. Truly a masterclass of design.

Learning from low-prep games

As well as with any other game, there are things you can steal and add to other games to create the best version for you. After some sessions of Kids on Brooms, when I asked my D&D group (which is a different one) to describe the barbarian leader they were facing, they were a bit shocked at first, but ended up creating a quite unique villain, that they as players felt a connection to. It might feel weird to face their own creation, but at the same time, it is a lot of fun. I’m definitely stealing other things from low-prep games for my D&D sessions, and you should as well.

Another great example is the clocks system from Blades in the Dark that Spenser mentions above. I haven’t tried the system yet, but I got the rules and I read them. The simplicity of clocks in that system is something that I find fascinating, and which I have imported into my D&D games to track things in a much easier way. Don’t be scared to bend the rules a little and import the things you like from other games into what you are playing to create the best version of your game!

Running both styles

Running games that require a lot of prep can exhaust you to the point of being burnt out. Being a GM for two games of this style per week while also doing your personal chores and work may be a bit too daunting. Nevertheless, adding a low prep game to your week can complement the other one extremely well! It takes next to no effort, while also keeping your imagination gears in your head spinning.

Playing in other games makes you rarely run out of ideas for your own game. By running a low-prep game, you don’t have to put that much effort and can get inspired by the ideas your players bring into the game. It’s as if every player is a GM when you are running a low-prep game because the difference between the two is much smaller.

I had a concept of what a low prep game was in my head when I started to write this article. After the interview with Spenser, he opened my mind about what low-prep games are actually capable of and I’m excited to try many new ones out!

You can find more information about Spenser by checking out his Twitter account

Do you run or play any low-prep game at the moment? Would you consider starting a new campaign in one of them? If you have tried any low prep game, make sure to drop us your favorite in the comments below. It’s always great to share these great games.