GM Improvisation 101

December 31, 2013

Realizing that a lot of the questions I see coming up over and over are on “How do I improvise?” so I figured I should just put it into one place to link people.

Less hard than you think

A lot of times when I hear gamers talk about improvising, it’s spoken of like it’s this super amazing skill that is rare and difficult – like Bruce Lee’s 1 inch punch or something.  But here’s the thing: it’s only difficult because most rpg advice for GMs is the exact opposite of improvisation.

Let’s break that down.

The two most common methods of GM prep are either: “Make a map and fill it with encounters and puzzles” or “Make a set of events/scenes, either a linear set or a branching path set and have the PCs ‘go through it’.”.

Notice that both of these methods require that you “make” something ahead of time, guessing at what will be fun, challenging, and appropriate.   When the PCs deal with the things you made, they’re then “used up”, you don’t get to reuse them, it’s done.

I used to call this stuff “ammo” – you make it, shoot it, and it’s gone.

Now let’s do a comparison: every week the players show up and all they have in front of them is their character sheet.  They don’t plan out every possible thing they might have to do in the week’s adventure, they just do it.   They use the idea of their character to direct how they’re going to improvise.

What if you did the same – made simple tools you could reference and improvise as a GM?

A Source of Problems > A Set of Problems

What the prepared GMing styles teach you is to create a set of problems – it’s a set of encounters, scenes, questions/replies, clues, etc. but they get used up.   What you want instead is a source of problems, something that easy to improvise ideas with.

If you were playing a Batman game, could you take 5 minutes and simply make up a dastardly plan for the Joker?   Sure.  You get what kind of problems the Joker creates.  You can probably make up Joker action and reactions on the spot.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s easy enough to come up with something.

So what you’re looking for is situations and characters that make it easy for you to come up with twists and problems rather than having to do a lot of prep.  You prep just enough detail on the SOURCES of problems, so you can adapt in play, easily.

NPCs with Motivations

A very easy solution is to have NPCs whose goals and personalities naturally clash with those of the PCs.  You don’t have to figure out each event or scene – you just look down your list of NPCs, play them as characters, just as much as players play their characters, and events happen.   You pick which NPCs to focus on based on what seems the most interesting.

Also notice that the NPCs’ motivations do not need to be static – they may change their minds, switch sides, or otherwise change up what they’re interested in – you can have an enemy turn into an ally, an ally turn into an enemy and not totally break the game.

Useful reading:

Making Good Flags (PC’s motivations)

Conflict Webs (NPC’s motivations)

7 Types of Antagonists (NPC archetypes)

Logistics as a Source of Problems

The other part of it is sometimes nature, or the situation produces a source of problems.  Having the refugees of your village lost at sea and running out of supplies is a source of problems, even if everyone is trying to work together.   Instead of necessarily prepping tons of individual events, you can have a larger situation that easily suggests a lot of potential problems.

Useful reading:

Logistics & Politics (the small amount of prep for logistics issues)

Magical Cause & Effect (logistics and problems tying into magic, or mythological ideas)

Big List of Combat Stakes (likely combat situations that comes out of these things, also provides it’s own form of mini-logistical issues).

Easier Math

Now, with all that said, there’s still things to be said about the point of the game system you’re using.  Improvising is easier when the rules make it very easy to do math on the fly.    (Suggestions: The Pool, Inspectres, Lady Blackbird)

While many rpgs at this point make that easier for things like skill or attribute checks, few are as easy for combat encounters – partially because they often deal with a lot of different variables, but also because many rpgs are built around funky math for balancing an encounter.

When you have this kind of situation, it’s better if the game gives you a lot of pregenerated monsters/enemy types so you don’t have to build things from scratch – this is effectively what the classic D&D Monster Manual was about – you can simply flip to the right page, pull up the stats and go.

Follow the Players

Games where you’ve tried to prepare everything ahead are much harder to make a fun and entertaining game, in my experience.  You’re trying to guess what your players will do, what they’ll find fun, and how to make it work before it happens.  You’re not just exercising mind reading, but also divination of the future…

Games where you improvise on the spot, you simply pay attention to what gets the players excited – you let them show you what they’re interested in and you give them more of that.  You don’t read their minds, you pay attention to what they show you.

The link of making Good Flags is a good one to read for a technique to help you, but the real key is paying attention to the people at the table.  Are they engaged?  Are they asking questions and all excited?  Are they clenching their fists in anxiety?  Are they trying their damndest to win a conflict?  Pay attention to these things.  You can see if you’re getting hotter or colder when you play.

Pacing – Go to the fun

Years ago, I wrote, “Fun Now” as a motto- figure out what is fun for your group, go for it and don’t waste too much time getting to it.  I’ve also stated it as “find out what is interesting for your group” and it says a lot about the levels of broken gamer culture that I would always get someone asking “How do I know what is interesting?”

Anyway, the nice thing about rpgs is that you can literally skip the unfun parts at anytime you want.  “3 months later, you’ve braved the terrible sea voyage and you’ve made your way to the Capital.” , “It’s almost dawn by the time you get out of the Tombs of Sarkoth, you’re exhausted, hurt, but alive.”  etc.

Tied into this is the idea brought forth in the rpg Dogs in the Vineyard – “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”.  If you already know the outcome of a situation – just Say Yes and skip over it.  If there’s no possible interesting failure or consequences – Say Yes and skip over it.

Finding out what the players find fun, focusing as much play on it as possible, that’s how you get the most out of your improvisation and gaming.

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