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Improvising? Don’t Worry About Beginnings & Endings, Focus On Transitions

Posted By Patrick Benson On March 4, 2011 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments

Happy GM’s Day everybody! Tonight the Great Rules Lawyer sees his own shadow, slides down the chimney into your homes, and proceeds to hide your dice throughout the house while quoting contradicting supplements. This is why your players may give you gifts today, because they probably told him where you live so that he would leave their dice alone. The only way to prevent him from hiding your precious polyhedrals is by acquiring vast amounts of GMing knowledge before he strikes. Read on, and you will be prepared to squash his mischievous ways before he plunders your dice bag for your favorite d30 (every GM should have one)!

Improvising Still Follows Structure

When you improvise you can still adhere to the basic structure of a story. In fact, when improvising it is far better to adhere very closely to a typical story’s structure because it prevents the session from falling into complete and utter chaos. One of the simplest story structures for an RPG is as follows:

  • Introduction: You reveal all of the characters and pieces of information needed for the players to understand what the conflict is about.
  • Conflict: You now introduce the problem to the players and use the characters and information revealed during the introduction to cause mayhem with.
  • Rising Action: The mayhem keeps coming, and the conflict keeps escalating until the players have devised a plausible solution for the conflict.
  • Climax: The players put their solution into action and the conflict is resolved. Sometimes things go according to the players’ plans, and sometimes they do not, but the conflict is resolved.
  • Conclusion: You reveal to the players how their actions have influenced the world, and explain what has changed in relation to the introduction now that the conflict has been resolved. If the players’ actions could potentially lead to new conflicts you can immediately jump into a new introduction and repeat the process over again.

The structure is pretty cut and dry, but when improvising a GM has no idea when one part of the structure begins and another one ends. How do you know that the PCs have enough information to begin the conflict with? How long should the rising action last for? When should the climax take place?

Think Of Transition Events

You will drive yourself nuts if you try to figure out every little detail of the story while trying to improvise a game session. Instead just try to imagine what kind of event would lead to a transition between two parts of the story.

Let’s say that we are running a space cowboy game because we love cancelled sci-fi shows and hate network executives (I’m not bitter, no not at all). We start the game by introducing the PCs to a stereotypical frontier planet. We pepper the environment with all sorts of dubious characters – an outlaw or two, a corrupt politician, an honest shop keeper, and a reckless businessman.

We come up with some simple links between each of these NPCs. The shop keeper is harassed by the outlaws, and the businessman is suspected of paying off the politician. Really stereotypical stuff. We now let the players interact with the setting and see which NPC they like or hate the most.

Why? Because we have no idea who or what the PCs may be interested in, but we do know that whatever NPC is getting the most attention from the PCs is probably going to die. If the PCs like the shop keeper he suddenly gets a bullet between the eyes as a slug flies through the shop’s window and a mysterious sniper begins to ride off. If the PCs hate the guts of the politician he starts to choke and spit up blood after sipping from a glass of poisoned wine.

Of course we will give the players a way to prevent these things from happening, because we really don’t care if the NPC dies or not. We just care that the PCs care about an NPC.

A Simple Formula

When improvising a game session the secret is to spark interest amongst the players. Throw as many NPCs, promises of treasure, or whatever it takes to get the players to interact with the game world. Once the players show interest in something you just need to do the following:

Object of Player’s Interest + Radical Change = Transition Event

As a GM you just throw in an event that would radically change the NPC that the players were the most interested in. This does not require killing the NPC. Kidnapping the NPC, having the NPC enter into an unexplained coma, having the NPC suddenly summoned to an exotic location, or any of a thousand possible events could be used instead.

Likewise, if the players didn’t care about any of the NPCs but instead showed interest in exploring an old abandoned mine we simply apply a radical change to the mine. In the middle of exploring the mine there is a cave-in, or the PCs run into those same outlaws from the introduction who were attempting to hide some bodies and now have more witnesses to deal with. Out intent is to move the story from one part to another, and that requires that we change something. If you are going to change something, then change whatever it is that the players are the most fascinated with.

You Just Need To Know What Part Is Next

How the object of interest is changed should correlate with what part of the story you are transitioning into. If the story is transitioning from the introduction to the conflict then we should introduce a problem with an element that opposes the PCs into the story. If we are looking to enter into the rising action then the radical change should escalate the problem that is at the root of the conflict. Once the players begin to formulate a solution for the escalated conflict we should introduce a radical change that allows them to implement that solution and transition into the climax. Upon the PCs implementing their solution it again changes things so radically that we now enter into the conclusion of our story.

Think about the stories that you have most enjoyed. This process is repeated over and over again in novels, films, television, and plays. Storytellers use this process because it works, and once you have mastered it you can begin to experiment with it for even more interesting combinations. Yet the basic premise remains the same: You cannot transition the story into its next phase unless something of significance has been changed.

I hope that this bit of knowledge helps you to run a great game session the next time that you are put on the spot without a chance to prep. I also hope it keeps the Great Rules Lawyer out of your home tonight. It is especially creepy when he sits next to your bed and explains why his latest character build is completely fair according to the rules despite seeming overpowered.

Got any hot improvising tips of your own? Share them in the comments section below, and enjoy this GM’s Day!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Improvising? Don’t Worry About Beginnings & Endings, Focus On Transitions"

#1 Comment By Riklurt On March 4, 2011 @ 8:34 am

This is excellent advice – something I think many GMs do unconsciously, but it can be good to think about actively, because if the game starts to lose speed or become derailed, there often is an issue with the structure. Great article!

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 4, 2011 @ 8:45 am

@Riklurt – Thanks! You brought up an excellent point – if the game is slowing down the GM probably failed to transition the story to the next phase.

#3 Comment By Trace On March 4, 2011 @ 10:22 am

This is a really good idea. I’m gonna think hard on it. I think I do a little this unconsciously, by maintaining a rich sandbox of NPCs & Settings, the prominent ones being the ones the players choose to interact with more. So this has just sort of happened organically. I think if I keep it in my head to do transitions intentionally, we might have fewer “What did we accomplish this week? sessions.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 4, 2011 @ 11:19 am

@Trace – Since it has come up twice, yes I agree that most GMs do this on a subconscious level (at the unconscious level you do nothing but drool and breathe ;)). I think that it happens much more naturally though with a prepared game even if no conscious effort is being put into it.

So do we as GMs need to be more aware of our subconscious methods when improvising a game and then put conscious effort into those same tasks? You both got my mind whirling on this one!

#5 Comment By evil On March 4, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

When I’m doing improv GMing, I always try to remember that I have several experts in the game sitting right at my table. Listening to the players conversations both in and out of the game can be a goldmine of simple answers to get things moving. If you overhear “wouldn’t it be cool if those gangsters really were helping the priest?” Well, maybe those gangsters should. Just hook it in later and let your players help guide the story. It’ll take a lot of work off of your back if you keep your ears open.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 4, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

@evil – I agree. I emphasize to GMs when I give seminars on improvising that you do not put on a show for the players, but must instead react to your audience in order to improvise a great game.

#7 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On March 4, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

As a GM, improvisation is my M.O., the standard way I run my games. I take stock of the PC’s actions from the previous games and produce the next game as the consequences of the PC’s actions. I do this during the game, as well, as the PC’s actions affect the NPC’s and environment around them. I don’t like to say “no” to my players, and usually don’t, unless they want to do something that is completely out of line for the setting (usually metagame knowledge, or sometimes something radically outside the paradigm of the setting).

This advice is really, really good. It’s given me food for thought about how the scenes of the session can be structured. For me, this is all about pacing (something that I sometimes have trouble with) and this article has great advice on that. Great job!

#8 Comment By Kilsek On March 5, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

Wow, what excellent, practical advice! We all have those moments where the characters don’t know what to do, or the adventure’s apparent choices or its NPCs have gotten a little too unspectacular. Paying attention to whatever the PCs gravitate too, and then spicing it up with a big change is pure brilliance. Thanks for presenting this quick storytelling tip with such clarity. Awesome!

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 5, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

@The_Gun_Nut – Yes, I agree that the only real boundaries that you should worry about are those created for the setting. Other than those, the players crazy ideas should just be given a chance to succeed or fail.

@Kilsek – I’m glad that you like this article, and thank you for the kind words!

#10 Comment By Bercilac On March 6, 2011 @ 8:11 am

Excellent stuff.

So what do your notes look like going into a session like this? My prep for an improv session once included:

-List of NPCs, with a one paragraph description. (Wanted more crunch info during the session).
-List of events (plot hooks to throw at the players, letters from family, interviews with NPCs; major NPC action like attacking the underground boxing match).
-Notes on wireframes and running combats (still tinkering with how I run them in FUDGE… offering lots of scenery, and letting players fight imaginatively, seems to work best, with lots of leaping onto rooftops and ambushing enemies).

I found my ordered list somewhat restrictive. Do you go into games with a list of possible transition events? A list of plot hooks? How many NPCs are mapped out, and how many at the table? How many possible conflicts or encounters?

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 7, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

@Bercilac – When I improvise I have nothing prepared, so it is all about running with the moment. I have resources like random name generators, maps, and stat blocks that I reskin as needed to fit the setting.

I do not have any type of story prepared, so instead I am constantly analyzing how stories unfold in novels, television shows, films, comics, and whatever other form of media is available to me. The idea is not to recreate what I have observed, but to understand how it invokes a certain response from the audience (or fails to).

My notes are nothing more than a recounting of what happened in the previous session. I reference them for inspiration and to occasionally pull something from a past session back into the game if it seems like it would be a fun for the game.

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