D&D tabletop games

GMing Without… Anything

Recently, I proudly wrote about trying to run an analog campaign. After years of adding more and more digital tools, I dropped all of that for paper.

I thought that restriction was good enough. However, last week, surprise constraints pushed me even further. On the day of my weekly game, I took my car in for service because the check engine light went on. Without getting into details, I now recommend that everyone get one of those check engine light readers.

(Afterwards, the guy at the shop apologized for having had to charge me for the service.)

Anyways, I took my car in that morning and had my GMing backpack in the trunk. As I left my car at the shop, I considered taking it with me, but I decided not to. Then, later that afternoon, when I hadn’t heard from the shop to pick up my car, I headed over to my game without my notebook, rulebooks, dice, minis, or anything else remotely useful for running D&D.

Potential outs

When I arrived, my first thought was to use my digital devices again. It was against the principle of the game, but it seemed excusable given the circumstances.

However, my other failures kept me on the true path. Although I had my laptop, it also has a severely drained battery that barely holds a charge. And I hadn’t brought my laptop charger.

My computer is months away from a double-digit birthday.

Of course, I had my phone on me, but I forgot to charge it that morning. I was already in low-power mode, and I still needed to use it to get a ride to the shop, so I wasn’t going to use much either.

Finally, I hoped that for the first time, none of my players would show up. Only a few minutes later, two excited teens appeared to play the barest game of D&D imaginable.

Theater of mind

It would make a better story if I said I panicked. Then, I could make a miraculous save of the situation.

But I didn’t really panic. Most tabletop RPGs happen in the imagination. We all love the paraphernalia, but really, the game is a conversation between the GM and the players.

Call it “Theater of the Mind” if you like. I’m a big proponent of playing RPGs on road trips because you really don’t need anything to run most games. In fact, one of my first D&D experiences was listening to my cousin improvising a game of D&D in the car.

I knew I could do it, but I was a little worried that my players might want visuals. That’s what I needed to improvise.

The substitutes

I had ended the previous session in the middle of combat, which I usually run on a square grid. So, I needed a map and minis.

I first grabbed some graph paper, but that was too small to use effectively. I then walked into the next room at the shelf of board games. There weren’t many, and most of them were missing many pieces, but I did find a copy of Monopoly. I flipped over the board as the surface, then doled out player pieces as minis.

We represented the Kobolds with Monopoly houses

Next, we needed dice: my players don’t have their own dice and normally just use mine. I considered using the 6-sized dice from Monopoly with some modifications, but that quickly became obviously too complicated to run a game with. One of my players had their computer, and I agreed to let them use it for dice rolling.

For myself, I knew the story and dungeon well enough to do that from memory: the sessions only last a bit more than an hour.

For the monster stat blocks, I pulled it up on my phone using the Game Master 5 app. If I didn’t have my phone, I would have been comfortable making up the stats, but that seemed unnecessary. I looked over the stats to pull the main numbers (HP, AC, to hit bonus, and damage dice), then put it away.

How it went

The game went remarkably… fine.

As we got into the game, we really forgot that we didn’t have our usual props and just played. It also wasn’t mentally freeing or anything. It just felt normal.

Perhaps this isn’t too surprising for some GMs. I intend to use and take notes during the game, but I usually don’t. I could use my rulebooks more often, but I’m often too lazy to look things up and will instead just make it up on the spot. Since I don’t want to carry all of my minis, I’ll substitute monsters all of the time. All small monsters are goblin pawns, and all medium monsters are zombie pawns.

That being said, I fully intend to have my gear for my next session. It’s just good to know that the game isn’t in the stuff: it’s all in our imagination.

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