Great question! I’ve also been trying to run games with less prep or no prep. I think Yoshi’s first answer is spot-on, and I also agree with the folks who suggest using an oracle of some kind. AlexiSarge also adds the question “Why do you ask?” which is very helpful to get some context for how to answer.
Here’s my procedure:
- If it seems quite expected that X would be available, then I say yes.
- If it seems quite unreasonable that X would be available, I say no.
- If the request seems strange, I’ll ask a followup such as “why?” or “what about this place makes you think that might be here?”
- Otherwise, I’ll roll an oracle die.
Oracle die can be any standard polyhedral.
- Even = yes
- Odd = no
- High roll = positive spin
- Low roll = negative spin
So if someone asks if there are unicorns around here, and assuming unicorns tonally fit within the game world, then I might pick up a d8 and roll. Okay, I got a 6.
“Yes, unicorns sometimes pass through here, and if you are willing to spend some time searching, you can probably find some scat or tracks. Is that something you want to do?”
Is there a repair shop around here? Hmm, seems possible. I roll an 8 on the d8.
“For sure; this town actually has a tinker’s alley with a few repair shops. A neat hand-painted sign in the square points the way…”
Is Natalie still in the tavern or has she left already? Oh, I forgot about Natalie. I roll a 2 on the d8.
“Yes, she’s still here, but she’s having a heated discussion with [insert other NPC] and getting ready to leave in a hurry…”
Is there a convex glass lens here? This one is pretty context-specific. If it’s a farmhouse or soldier’s barracks, I would just say no. If it’s an observatory (telescope), library (magnifying glass), or lighthouse/ship (spyglass), I would say yes. Let’s say you’re in a wizard’s bedroom, where it would be possible but not likely. I roll a 5.
“Nope, no convex lens here, but you do find a glass platter with some crumbs on it…”
Are there herbs I can use for a potion? If the PCs are in a jungle, I would just say yes there are medicinal herbs growing everywhere, but spending time searching for the right one invites encounters with creepy crawlies. If the PCs are in an old pasture, I’d roll the oracle. I rolled a 2.
“Yes, there are various herbs growing around the rotten barn, but it is surrounded by nasty barbed wire fencing…”
For me, an oracle with a little bit of nuance can help you make decisions quickly without the process feeling too arbitrary. What it doesn’t do is help you generate specific content on the fly; for those situations I would recommend spark tables, a tarot deck, Dixit cards, or some other kind of vague prompt that you can weave into something specific.