I've talked about Savage Worlds before (see sidebar for other posts) but it too fits into the low-preparation zone. The high points:
- It's mechanically simple but still gives enough customization options that players can usually make something they like
- It's very much focused on actual play with little need for DM recordkeeping
- Many of the setting books include an entire campaign
The simplicity comes in things like stats being measured in dice - no translation, no modifiers, no charts, just that you have a Strength of "d8" so when you need to use it you roll ... a d8. Genius!There are also edges and flaws to give players those unique things that make each character awesome, and there is a skill system as well, also rated in dice. It feels more detailed than Basic D&D, but is not as complex as Pathfinder, making for a nice middle ground.
Actual Play: Initiative is tracked via cards - higher cards go first, when your turn is over you turn in your card - no need for tracking it round to round! Most opponents are either fine, shaken or out of the fight. There are not a ton of conditions to track and there are no real hit points to worry about either. Beginning with an approach like this makes it very easy to run in real time and not have to research complex abilities in advance. It also makes it easy to include extras like henchmen or guards that the players can run alongside their own characters.
Settings: The real zero-prep genius here are settings like 50 Fathoms and Necessary Evil. These come with a unique setting in the traditional gaming sense of a world or city to play in, usually with some unique monsters, races, or situations. Then they also include a plot-point campaign which is a series of adventures/scenarios/encounters that form the backbone of more narrative style campaign leading to some ultimate goal. In between those though a DM can use the random adventure generator included in each, along with the stats, maps, and guidelines about how the campaign works to run a virtual sandbox campaign with a few key "triggers" laying around to keep things interesting. It's a complete campaign in one book!
Somewhat like Pathfinder Adventure Paths there are several of these out so it should be easy to find one that interests enough players to get that critical mass going. Westerns, Fantasy, Pirates, Supers, Modern War Stories, and Science Fiction all have representation here.
So what would I need to go no-prep here?
- Copy of the rules - the Explorer's Editions are $10, paper or PDF, one of the best bang for the buck deals out there.
- One plot-point setting book - they tend to run around $10-$20
- Dice, pencils, paper, players, and time (sigh)
That's it, and you may not need all that much time! I was shocked at how much we accomplished in just a few hours when I first ran the game and familiarity only makes it that much faster and smoother.
Now you could certainly sit down and come up with your own detailed campaign setting for the game, and there are non-plot-point settings out for it. There are conversions of just about every other RPG setting and pop-culture media thing out for it too and with some additional prep you could run almost anything for it. I'm just looking at it as a zero-prep game and for that it's amazing. It's a game pretty much built around the zero-prep philosophy and it shows.