Game Master on a budget

When I was still a student, I had a lot of time and energy for RPGs. I used to prepare campaigns with 100+ NPCs, multiple locations, complex storylines and dozens of handouts. But as I finished my education and got a job, I realized that running such time-consuming campaigns might prove difficult, if not impossible. I had to figure out how to adjust my playstyle to new circumstances and start thinking about my “creative budget”. If you have a similar problem, you may find this article interesting.

Campaign as a project

Think of a role playing campaign like it’s a project and you, the Game Master, are the project manager. You are in charge of the goals, but also of the budget.

It’s really tempting to plan big and aim for “AAA style” production. You envision epic battles, surprising turns of events, complex story, elaborate lore and secrets for the players to discover. After all, RPG doesn’t require a lot of money: you don’t have to pay the NPCs or spend on CGI, scenery and props. And that’s true – you don’t need money, but you still have a budget. You simply pay with different currency –  your time and energy.


When setting the budget, you need to think realistically.  How much time can you actually dedicate to preparation and the game itself? If you’re not sure, analyze your previous campaigns or other projects that you’ve undertaken. Consider your commitments and activities that regularly consume your time. Be honest with yourself and don’t worry – even if your time is really limited, you can still run a successful campaign.


It’s more difficult to assess your budget when it comes to energy. Campaigns tend to last a few months and your energy levels may vary within this period. Nevertheless you should try to estimate how much effort you are willing to put into the game. There are many factors to take into consideration. You may feel down, tired, stressed or otherwise occupied for whatever reason. I know that during autumn and winter, when there is little sun, I tend to have lower energy levels. Therefore I try not to begin ambitious projects in this time of year. Same goes for the periods when I’m really busy at work and I know that it will be hard for me to fully focus on the game.


When you have a general feel of how much time and energy you’ve got on your hands, it’s time to plan your project. The first part is campaign preparation – before the first session and between sessions during the campaign.

If you have a high budget, you don’t have to worry about the scope of your campaign. But if you’re anything like me, you have a limited budget and have to plan carefully. Don’t overspend. First thing to do is to assess what parts of campaign preparation takes the most time or/and energy. It may vary between different GMs. Usually creating maps, handouts and detailed lore takes a lot of time, but for some people it’s really fun and doesn’t take a lot of energy. Some may find creating a ton of NPCs exhausting, but for others it’s really quick and simple.

Necessary parts

Then you need to figure out what parts of campaign preparations are an absolute necessity. Some GMs like to improvise and don’t need to prepare a story too much, but for others this is an obligatory part of preparation. If your campaign revolves highly around politics and rivaling factions, you need to prepare faction goals and key players. If you want your players to explore dungeons, you need to design them.

There’s a good chance that when you write down all the crucial parts of your campaign and allocate your currency of time and energy, you will have exhausted your whole budget.

It’s ok – as long as you haven’t overslent, you can begin preparing the campaign. Just remember to stick to your plan and don’t spend any more budget on things that aren’t necessary. If you have some budget left, you can use it on some fancy stuff and make your game even more fun, but better stay away from the most time and energy consuming things.

But what if you’re in the red and your budget is too low to cover your basic plan? Be patient, I’ll give you some advice later in the article.


The other factor you need to take into account, are the sessions themselves. You need to discuss with your players how often do you want to play and how long are the meetings going to take. The project-approach applies to your players as well. They are a part of your team – you create the story together and their participation in the creative process is crucial. But at the same time they are your target audience – you need to take their preferences and expectations into account. Motivated and creative players will help you run the game and add to your budget.

However there are players with demanding attitudes, who come to the table and expect to be entertained.

They require much more effort on your part and have a negative impact on your budget.

Another issue is the frequency of meetings. It determines how much time will you have to prepare between the sessions. You will also need more time and energy to prepare for a long, 6- or 8-hour session than for the short one. It’s important to discuss this with your players so you are on the same page.

Tight budget

On many occasions it may turn out that your budget is too low for the campaign you’d like to run. At that point you should be glad that you’ve calculated your budget in advance. That’s bettr than realizing that you don’t have enough time and energy after a few sessions. I’ve got some advice for you to help with the situation.

  • Find the group that fits youThat means finding people that like your playstyle and want to play with your desired frequency and session length. Preferably it’s also a group that will cooperate with you and make the game more fun.
  • Choose the right game for you and your group. There is a plethora of different games that require less preparation time. I recommend games Powered by the Apocalypse, they come in many shapes and sizes. If you like playing D&D, give Dungeon World a try. Look for low prep games, maybe you’ll even find one that helps you run a campaign similar to what you had in mind, but with less time and energy consumed. You may want to look for a different game if you intend to run a long campaign with lengthy sessions, than if you plan a few short meetings.
  • Learn how to speed up your process. Go back to the first step of preparation and look at the most time consuming activities. There are a lot of resources on-line to teach you how to save time doing them (and we will cover this topic on Game Machinery as well). For me coming up with a complex plot is challenging, so I’ve learned how to improvise better and focus more on the interesting social interactions than on action-filled stories.
  • Use a published campaign or adventure. There are plenty of those online and in stores. Running a ready-to-play scenario could save you a lot of time and energy.

And remember: low budget is as good as high budget. You don’t need a lot of time and energy to be a Game Master. Most of us have to deal with limited resources. That’s why I recommend doing your research and finding the right game for you.  That way you will have fun playing RPGs and won’t feel guilty of underpreparing or letting your players down.

What are your strategies to deal with a low budget? Which part of preparation is the most time and energy consuming for you? What low prep games do you recommend?

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