"Is there X around?" or, when do we decide that a convenient thing exists

Hi. I have a dilemma with RPGs.
I want to be a GM that allows for creative problem-solving, preparation, exploration, etcetera.
I am also a GM that doesn’t usually prep a lot of stuff (especially before session 1).

I find myself in situations where a player asks:

  • Can I find [convenient, useful item or place] around?

It takes many forms, such as:

  • I want to brew a potion of strength. Do I find some herbs around here?
  • I want to repair this droid. Is there a mechanic’s workshop somewhere in town?
  • I need a unicorn horn. Do unicorns roam these areas?
  • I’m searching the room, hoping to find a convex glass lens.
  • I want to find Natalie and talk to her. Is she still in the tavern?

I want to reward “tactical roleplaying” where players set goals and take actions in order to reach them.

But when is it “oh how convenient that there’s copper wire right here”, with a quantum of useful people and scrap that players simply ask for, and when is it something that the players earn?

How do you decide what exists and doesn’t, so that it doesn’t just feel like the players stumbling into what they always need?


I use the Die of Fate and modify it as needed (e. g. 2-in-6 or something if they are knowledgeable already).

That said my gut is to just… let them do the thing! Reward clever planning above all.


I think this is why the “OSR” tends to advocate close attention to the prepared or published adventure. If your notes don’t say there’s copper wire in the room, then there isn’t.

Towns are wilderness are a bit different from dungeons, though; they’re expansive enough that what the players are looking for is probably out there somewhere.

I think then it’s just about making sure the challenge is commensurate to the item desired. Mechanics’ workshops aren’t so hard to find (I assume), so there’s probably one nearby. Finding something as rare as a unicorn horn might take a whole adventure in and of itself.

Finally, you can always assign an X-in-6 likelihood that the item is around, then roll a die to determine if it’s there.


You could put it to a checklist.

  1. Is the item something that would logically be obvious and available in this particular setting? Then give it to them (but maybe roll for quality or quality).
  2. Is it the sort of thing a skilled practitioner could find even if it weren’t available to everyone else? Put the question to a skill check.
  3. Would it be rare or unusual to find here? Make a fortune roll and stack the odds against (e.g. you find enough only on a critical.)

Lean toward maybe, say no only if it really doesn’t make sense. And don’t be afraid to reason it out with the party — it matters that everyone share a sense of how the world of the game is arranged.


I use oracles like @yochaigal has said, and have a very improvised, collaborative style (sort of like the collaborative mapmaking process, also by Yochai, except extended throughout almost every area of my GMing).

I say it this way – not because I think this style is for everyone – but to highlight why people like myself are sometimes silent when questions like yours come up. That the context of play, sort of like how @flyrefi has mentioned, with regards to prep and permanence within the world of your fiction – these things are a big part of what creates difficulties around “Is there an alchemist who works in this town?”

I honestly haven’t had problems like the ones you’ve described in a long time. Then again, developing these routines and learning how to explain expectations to players – in ways that don’t destroy the world’s overall sense of challenge or verisimilitude – it’s taken a lot of time and effort to develop these skills. (For clarity, I am able to use this style with strangers, as well, and pretty consistently, but not without the tricks I’ve learned over time.)

I think The Prepless GM does an OK job of laying out some of the fundamentals. But practicing with oracles, such as the Die of Fate, or oracle tables like in Ironsworn, can go a long way.

Also: Sorry my post has a lot of run-on sentences. Hopefully, I helped a little and wasn’t too confusing! :smiley_cat:


I think Sandra’s “Three Tiers of Truth” are a helpful framework to think about these issues:


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Would you recommend that book specifically?

I’d either make a luck roll (1-3 it goes well 4-5 omen/setback 6 major complication) or stick what has been prepped. Some of your examples could be one or the other, while some couldn’t.

Like finding a convex glass lens in a room: it’s not there unless I already established in my prep it was there. Working with limited resources is one of the fun parts, it stimulates creativity.

Is Natalie at the tavern? You COULD have prepped a cheatsheet that says what are the regular clients of the tavern at certain moments of the day, but it’s way simpler to leave it to a die roll: 1-3 she’s there 4-5 she isn’t there and the owner mentions it’s weird cause at this time of day she’s usually here and points PCs to her house where’s she’s struggling against kidnappers 6 as previous result but she’s already been kidnapped, but there are clues around her house.

The other ones could be one or the other. You could make a roll or you could have the locations of potions of strength ingredients, droid repair shops and unicorns clearly located in your setting, and have some NPC point them in that direction (adventure hooks!), or make the location up on the spot, as long as getting there is not a trivial task.

The point is that needing something gets the game moving: either PCs have to think of a way to do without it or they have to move to get it, with all the complications along the way. Simply finding something is way less fun.

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I would recommend Prepless GM, but it’s a little short, and not very in-depth. So possibly not the best value, per page.
I think Ironsworn is much higher on the “would recommend” list, and that one is *free.

I think the biggest takeaway from Prepless GM is “something, something, cultivate confidence in your GMing ability.” The author is clearly very confident that, even if he has nothing written down beforehand, he can sit at any table of strangers and make an enjoyable story. I am much closer now, but not there 100% yet. (I think Tam H is the only person I speak to regularly who seems to 100% improv 100% of the time.)

I think the most out-there claim in that book is about mysteries. The procedure is pretty simple: “Name a murder weapon and ask what it might mean” and then “Ask them for a new clue and say what you think it might mean, and share that fictional burden.” At the end of the process, you’ll have created a murder scene where the culprit is still unknown, but there are a plethora of clues around the body that can be discussed and generate leads, after which the GM can re-enter as mystery-designer on the fly. I didn’t believe it at first (like, don’t mysteries inherently involve secrets?), but now I understand, having done more collaborative world-building along the lines of Microscope or Perilous Wilds.

Unfortunately, Prepless GM is the not best source of tools for getting to this place of confidence. For the mystery part, I imagine The Between is probably a better contemporary place to look for tools, but that’s just a guess. I haven’t read it yet.

To me it seems like there’s a lot of questions here wrapped up in a general one about player resources. When talking about resources I generally add this caveat these days:

Character supplies and resources only matter if they can be exhausted and if there is some limits in place. For example, it doesn’t matter how many torches the party can carry if: they never burn out, there’s no limit on encumbrance, everyone can see in the dark anyway, there’s little or no consequences for running out of light.

With that in mind I think one has to look at supply resources (as opposed to HP, magic, luck points, faction favors or whatever else) a couple ways.

A) Downtime resources (e.g. droid repair) is going to depend a bit on your campaign and adventure types. For the sort of location based dungeon crawls I prefer haven time tends to be highly abstracted. I tend to limit goods and services by 1. General availability - “Can I buy a pet dragon to ride - No. In this setting dragons are the embodiment of human evil and death, you can buy a horse” 2. Haven Availability - “Is there someone in town who I can buy a horse from - Yes. But only Palfreys, Jennets and Rouncys - no Destriers here - you’ll need to go to a big city to buy a 5,000 GP monster horse” 3. Difficulty of finding such a thing - “Can I find someone to make black lotus poison. Theoretically yes, but poison makers tend not to advertise their services, are you an assassin, do you have contacts with very scary people?” This can be mechanized via faction reputation, randomized, or generalized by role/skill/class (e.g. the assassin can find poison makers) 4. Cost - Things may be available but very expensive or even unobtainable without theft.

B) Supplies - You have it if it’s written on your character sheet and you paid the encumbrance cost for carrying it. However, there’s also sort of generalized items that every PC will be carrying that aren’t weighted items - clothes, a rag, a canteen, a stub of charcoal etc. For more exotic stuff one can either generalize it by role/skill/class (A fighter will have a sharpening stone, a wizard will have parchment for rubbings etc.) or for extra special stuff include it as part of a kit - like thieves tools. This can be mechanized by saying something like "Each skill/class based kit (like a siege engineer’s satchel) contains general stuff (paper, a compass, a pen, some fuse etc.) but also up to 6 items you can justify. When you need the item roll XD6 vs. WIS (or whatever - assuming D&D-a-like here) you have the item in that kit if you succeed but X equals the number of items already described in the kit, and they stick. So you add them to it’s description - e.g. my siege engineer’s kit contains a blasting charge after last session, and next time I want to add something (say a spool of thin wire) that will be 2D6 v. WIS. If I fail it doesn’t have it. This also makes WIS valuable. You could alternatively just give the first 4 items or something, but after you have the max extra items, a whole new kit (and its encumbrance) is needed for more.

C) Found Items - Generally since I don’t improve, the adventure lists a location description and tells me what’s in it. Of course that’s a bit of a dodge, because a description doesn’t have everything (unless it’s Ed Greenwood’s, and bad - Undermountain is BAD) but hopefully it gives enough of a description to help a referee determine. Say my PCs are in a mine and looking for a copper ingot. Now what kind of mine is it? If it’s a copper mine, I bet they can find one (though maybe just ore - an ingot sounds like treasure), in a coal mine - nope. They will have to find their copper elsewhere (perhaps their coin pouches?). As a referee I tend towards stinginess here, because the PCs can think up another scheme - and if they want something they should have brought it in their supplies.


Honestly, as someone who also does not like to prep, I think of what would make sense in the fiction and go with that answer. Sometimes can take the form of:

  • emphatic yes, “F yeah there is absolutely a chandelier for you to swing across the room from the stairs to get behind the enemy”
  • yes and/no but, “Oh there are totally some copper wires in that security camera back in the first hallway, but you’ll need to take it down and dismantle it, which might they might notice in the closed circuit security viewing room”
  • no, “Nope, sorry, not here”

Usually my solution is just to think of what makes sense in the fiction. This might involve some back and forth with other players to make sure we are all on the same page, but I let the fiction dictate what is there and what isn’t. This may mean I need to adjust what I think the fiction looks like and it might give them what they want, but usually that ends up being more free material for me to use later.


So having read the linked article on tactical roleplaying, that article emphasizes that a “tactic” is a decision that meaningfully affects the outcome. To me, a lot of these “does X exist” questions are not tactical decision points, they are too small and specific in scope. I approach the situations with greater scope than just does something exist or not. You need to give them a opportunity to make a choice that will meaningfully affect the outcome.

So, to me, when someone just asks if something exists I want to know what they are doing and WHY they want to know if that thing exists. A lot of the time it’s pretty clear and obvious, like a lot of the examples you gave. But for me, I usually converse with the person and don’t just figure out a yes or no answer. I find out what they ultimately want and try to converse our way into a situation where they can get what they want, get closer to what they want, or realize that they will need to come up with a different plan. I want to get to the point where they have to make a choice where they have a good idea of what the possible outcomes are based on that choice, then let them choose.

Sometimes it’s giving them exactly what they want in the here and now. This usually happens when the interesting choice is later on in the process, and the thing they are asking for doesn’t really have any meaningful impact.

Sometimes it’s giving it to them with a cost. This is great let them know the cost and let them decide if it’s worth the cost, or if they’d rather find another way.

Very rarely is just a straight no. This is because even if it starts as a “no” I want to help them get to the tactic, the meaningful decision that they want to get to, so I try to work with them to at least give them a path towards that goal.


For something I hardly ever think about, this is a surprisingly complex topic with a wide range of answers. Thanks @Gardens for raising it.


This is what I like to use as well… But “blorb” style play does expect you to do a lot of prep. Personally I have never found a satisfying way to run a game without prep. That is one of the reasons I like modules so much.

As a player it is important to me that there is an established shared fiction and that the answers to these types of questions are justified in the fiction.

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I almost always reply to a question like this with “Why do you ask?” If it’s something I don’t already have a strong belief about, I want to know why a player is asking the question before making a decision about it.

If they’re asking because they have a really cool idea for something risky they want to try right away, I will almost always say yes.

If they’re asking because they hope the answer is no, so that they can instead trigger an ability of theirs that lets them have something stashed in a workshop or toolkit or whatever, I say no and let them try the ability.

And they might be asking for other reasons, like just trying to all be on the same page with our mental image. Then I’ll answer as I deem appropriate to the setting or interesting for the fiction.


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.


Btw, I really like the detail on your even/odd procedure.

I tend to go with the answer most interesting (and obvious, but if it was obvious you wouldn’t need to ask) and maybe throw in a cost/tradeoff if I think that necessary and also maybe make an oracle roll (d6, high results favorable to players, low result unfavorable).


Love the spin part!