Concerns about building campaigns and adventures can be avoided if one is willing and able to think on one’s feet. I’m talking about running a game as a total improv. You need to be confident of your abilities, and you need to have the buy-in and participation of at least some of your group, but it can really save you time on prep.
I am very much an improv GM. This does not mean that I don’t plan anything, but usually I use a “one-pager” as a basis and then see where the game takes us. The one page has a synopsis of the basic idea for the adventure, and then any interesting people, places, or events the PCs might encounter. Generally one also needs mechanical information, though if I am running something like Centurion or Nefertiti Overdrive, building encounters takes about 25 seconds. Not about 30 and not about 20, but about 25.
I’m toying now with almost total improvisation. In our last AToL Pulp game, at certain points within the session I allowed the players to tell me what was happened. I handed out standard playing cards. High card went first. Then I asked some pertinent questions like “You have stopped on the road – why?” or “Something dangerous is approaching you – what is it?” This led to an encounter with Frankenstein’s monster leading a crew of skeletons similar to those from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
See, I would have never planned something so awesome and random.
The biggest problem with this approach is if your players are not interested in participating in world building. In the past, I’ve run fantasy adventures in which only the specific locale is planned and the players can develop the world beyond that, creating kingdoms, cultures, and history. If you have players who are uncomfortable with this, that can be a problem. It’s an even bigger problem if some players love the control this provides them, while other players – unwilling to contribute – still become upset because they see the other players gaining an “advantage.”
Situations like that can be addressed if you speak to everyone calmly and sympathetically, explain why you want to include the players, reinforce that this is about having fun, and trying to figure out a way all the players can participate. Maybe those uncomfortable with spontaneous creation can be provided questions to answer before the game, the answers to which will help drive the game forward.
I personally love this kind of GMing, and it does take a lot of the pressure of pre-planning and preparation away. It also allows the PCs to direct the action, and that really helps with player investment in the game.
You can find the Building Stuff series here.
You can find some examples of one-pagers here.
You can find more information on A Team of Losers here.