No matter how many “no prep” games and supplements I see, system mastery matters. I’ll even go so far as to say that there is no such thing as no-prep gaming. The very idea is marketing more than anything else. There can be aids that cut down on prep time to an absolute minimum, but there’s no way around prepping material. Are there exceptions, sure. I’ll get to those later, but they don’t count the way it might be expected.

Now, I’ve seen people argue that this is no longer the case, that games don’t have to require loads of prep. There can be games people just sit down and play. Sort of. Someone at least needs to read the rules first. This is even true of board games. So yeah, no prep? I think that’s a bunch of nonsense, especially for the people running the games. If someone isn’t familiar with the system, then managing a game session is next to impossible. Full stop, there’s no way around this. No amount of charts, tables, sidebars, or what have you can make up the difference.

Let’s take a moment to explore this further. What is system mastery? Is it necessary that a person has the game memorized? No. Although I’ve definitely played in games where people knew the manuals almost by heart. What system mastery really means, at least to me, is that the person understands how the game as a unified whole is expected to function. It isn’t required to have every rule-as-written committed to memory. What is needed is an understanding of how the rules play off of one another to make the game being played the unique experience it is supposed to be.

A core piece of advice in almost every gaming supplement is that the GM know the material prior to bringing it to the table. This is an essential component of running a published adventure. The GM has to read it first. As stated above, this is true of board games as well. Otherwise, the adventure would be unplayable. I’ve tried to cut corners with this, and it hasn’t gone well. A lot of time was wasted, and the game dragged on far more than was necessary. I was lucky to have patient players that let me stumble my way through these early attempts at running sessions, but I learned a valuable lesson by being bad at my role. Prep is core to gaming, and there is no way around that fact.

There are exceptions to this. From the player side, it isn’t necessary to know the game. It’s entirely possible to sit through a session as a player and simply work through a game’s mechanics when prompted. “You should roll a saving throw here.” or “This would be a good time to use the ______ skill.” Just a couple of examples, but these experiences are fairly common. In fact, this probably how most people learn their way through any game. Someone that confidently knows the system will walk a new player through the material. It was like this for all of us, but the need for at least one person to understand the game was clear. System mastery, again.

The other exception would be GM-less games. Some games exist as their own rules system, doubling as the Game Master, as well as the rule book. Games like these have really grown in popularity due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With all of the health and safety regulations from around the world it became more difficult to bring a group of people together. Hence the rise in solo RPGs. As the player, the person working their way through the game simply follows the prompts in the rules, and then responds accordingly. However, groups of players can work their way through a GM-less game. Fiasco anyone?

At this point someone reading might be saying to themselves, “What a load of garbage. I’ve been running Basic D&D since I was a kid, and I could definitely run multiple game sessions without prep, let alone one.” This is probably true, but the veteran gamer’s ability to do this rests on their mastery of the system. If someone has that much experience with a particular game then their mastery of it allows for that improvisational ability. As an aside, I’m a bit envious of people that have this depth of knowledge that allows for this kind of gaming.

Anyone who has ventured behind the screen to run a session or two will hopefully be nodding their heads in approval by now. I cannot fathom how anyone could realistically think they could show up at a game without prepping. From the player side it’s possible, but even then it makes things more difficult. Despite what people have said about being able to cut corners with dungeon design, random encounters, or whatever, it is vital that the person running the game knows the system well. Imagine if this was put into play, “Hey, I have this game. Let’s play it.” Players look at other person that brought the game ask, “OK, how?” Gleefully, the game’s owner responds, “I don’t know. Let’s play it anyway.” This is a recipe for disaster, albeit one that could be enjoyable and memorable. Fun can be had by stumbling through a rule book, to be sure, but it will likely be a more efficient experience if the GM has learned the game. Learn from my mistakes, take the time to prep.

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