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The True Secret of Improvising: You Are Reacting to the Players, & They Are Reacting to a Kickoff Event

This is written as a response to Quieo’s Suggestion Pot comment.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of this article I suggest checking out two of my other articles on improvising:

Those along with this article are a good introduction to improvising for GMs. Plus you can always search the Stew from the site’s homepage for the word “improvising” to get a plethora of great advice from all of us Gnomes on the matter.

Being Spontaneous Is Planned…

When you decide to improvise a game you are planning to act on the fly in reaction to what the players do during the game. This is the most important concept for a GM to internalize before running an improvised game. You as the GM are deciding to let the players lead the game. You might be running the event, but you are not in control of the event. No one is.

This means that you have made a decision to accept player input and to act accordingly. If the players say that they want their PCs to go investigate the old haunted mansion that an NPC with tattoos mentioned in passing then that is what the game will be about. It does not matter that the NPC said that because you were hoping to direct the PCs to investigate the NPC’s strange tattoos that have a hallucinogenic ink which caused the NPC to imagine that the mansion is haunted. Yeah, that idea may be cool but it is your idea. When you are improvising the only acceptable ideas are the ones which arise as a reaction to a player’s input.

Leave your preconceptions at the door. Do not try to direct the players towards another goal. That would be an attempt to control the game, and what makes an improvised game fun is that it is always what the players want the game to be about.

..But The Kickoff Is Not!

The problem that a lot GMs run into is that their improvised games never seem to take off and fly on their own. The reason for this is because an improvised game is only fun if you are reacting to your players’ collective input, but you have to give the players a reason to provide you with input.

This is not a chicken and an egg type situation. The GM has to act first to get the story going. The irony that the GM has to plan an event in the game in order to improvise the rest of the story is something that most GMs are not prepared for. Sure you can look at the table and tell the players “I’m going to wing it tonight, so what are the PCs doing right now?”, but that usually results in the PCs shopping for gear as the players metagame in order to pass the time.

This is not an example of the players trying to take advantage of the situation. This is the natural consequence of allowing the players to start the story. Why would a player come to the game prepared with an idea for the night’s session? The players are going to focus on their characters, and what they are going to suggest will be directly linked to their characters. The players are just going with what they know.

The problem is that your game session will most likely suck if you do not have a kickoff event for the improvised game.

A Good Kickoff Is One Where the Ball is Caught!

(May the geek gods forgive me, for I shall be using a football analogy to explain how to GM an RPG. Somewhere a small part of the universe is imploding. Smile )

Anyone who has played football knows that there are three types of kickers:

The objective of a good kickoff is not to keep the other team from getting the ball. The objective of a good kickoff is to set the other team up according to your plans. In football this means setting up the field position in order to get the ball back under your control, but with GMing it means giving the players the chance to score a well-earned touchdown.

To do this your kickoff must have three elements:

For example, a bar fight is a horrible kickoff event. The PCs can simply choose to ignore the event and leave the establishment where it takes place. The PCs are fairly limited in how to they may react to the bar fight. They can fight back, leave the scene, or try diplomacy, but those are pretty much the only three options that the PCs have in that situation that are probably justifiable according to most settings. The solution to a bar fight is very simple – end the fight. It does not matter how the fight ends, because once the fight ends for any reason it is over with.

But what if we tweak the bar fight with just one additional ingredient – werewolves! For some reason in the middle of the bar one night a few of the patrons suddenly turn into werewolves completely unexpectedly. The patrons who transform are not even aware of what is happening to themselves. They simply start to change and attack with animal rage anyone unlucky enough to be close by.

This twist changes everything. In most game settings you simply cannot ignore a werewolf that suddenly guts the guy standing next to you who was moments ago sipping a Zima (trust me, he had it coming). The PCs can react in a number of different ways to the event, and because the situation is so extreme the story justifies much more extreme reactions by the PCs (including running away, because, well, you know – werewolves!). Finally, it doesn’t matter how the fight ends because the problem is not actually the fight at all. The problem is the spontaneous emergence of werewolves, and that is going to take a bit more effort to solve.

Now Run With it!

Your kickoff event should lead to player ideas, and the way to get those ideas flowing is to answer their inquiries with a challenge that verifies the idea as a good one once it is completed.

If the players think that the werewolves emerged as part of a military project, then you suggest that they investigate the nearby military base where there is indeed a project to turn ordinary people into super soldiers using lycanthrope blood and they want to keep it a secret. If the players suggest that the only safe place is the local church, then they will have to fight their way there as one after another creature emerges from the darkness trying to stop them. If the players suggest that the local beer brewery is tainting their suds in order to attack those people who drink Zima on sight (told you he had it coming), then evil Mr. Miller and his sidekick Bud Weiser are busy in their lab doing just that. Too bad they also have Frankenstein-like monsters and vampires on the loose for the Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezers crowds.

Does it have to make sense? No. It just has to make sense to your players, and it only has to make sense for this one session. Whatever the players suggest is something for you to react to and expand upon no matter how ludicrous it is. That is how great gaming moments emerge at the table, because when a GM rolls with what the players suggested that GM is running the game that the players want to play.

So react to your players input when you improvise that next game session. Just be ready with a kick-ass kickoff event first (and beware the Zima).

Agree? Disagree? Do you have an interesting story to share regarding improvising a game session, or reacting to the players’ input? Leave a comment below and share your GMing mojo with the rest of us.

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?

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "The True Secret of Improvising: You Are Reacting to the Players, & They Are Reacting to a Kickoff Event"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On June 14, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

…an improvised game is only fun if you are reacting to your players’ collective input, but you have to give the players a reason to provide you with input.

Well said. This should be carved on the GM’s side of the screen in every sandbox game.

… a bar fight is a horrible kickoff event. The PCs can simply choose to ignore the event and leave the establishment where it takes place.

Oh how I wish the author of Conan: Trial of Blood had read this before setting pen to paper. On the other hand it is a D20-based game, and the chances of a D20 PC walking away from a fight are minimal on days with a “y” in them.

Good article.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 14, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

@Roxysteve – Thank you. Not having played Conan: Trial of Blood I can only assume the worst from your remarks. :)

#3 Comment By BryanB On June 14, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

I refer to the Kickoff Event as the Adventure Carrot, but the concept is the same. I’ve long believed that the conflicts and interactions between PCs and NPCs is what really drives the RPG engine.

I will set the stage with the Adventure Carrot and then the game is largely a case of act and react between NPCs and the PCs. The NPCs have their own motivations and agendas. The PCs can act as either an alliance or opposition to those agendas. If you know an NPCs motives, then you have half the battle of improvising won right there.

This why I stopped planning everything to the last grain of salt. I create some NPCs. I give them each a purpose. I create the Adventure Carrot. I then see what develops. While I have a thought about what the endgame might be, I never hold to it as an absolute outcome nor are the NPC actions predetermined in stone. It is very dynamic in most respects.

#4 Comment By DocRyder On June 14, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

I’ve done something like this with many of my campaigns over the past few years. I do a fair amount of improv as a GM, but I also have certain plans, those things the villains are up to.

My most recent campaign started this way. I’m running 4e, and two of my players spontaneously came up with the same event in their characters’ pasts: A village had been raided. I decided I liked the idea, and made them from the same village. I decided that this village would be where the campaign’s major villain was experimenting with plans that would eventually allow him to more easily bring the end of the world about. The first evening, as the PCs convened in small village near the attacked town, they witnessed a bright light in the distance, in the direction of their ruined home.

They went to explore this, as it had never happened before. They found the ruins inhabited, and spent the first five levels chasing orcs, kobolds and other monsters from the ruins, and learning that the Duchess from north of their valley was a demonic servant looking to begin a full blown demonic invasion.

I had four other ideas for plot lines, but this is the one the players inspired and directed me towards. They’ve been battling invaders of various sorts ever since. However, who they fight and when has always been up to them. I’m always simply deciding what they face when they get there.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On June 15, 2011 @ 10:21 am

@Patrick Benson – Well, ToB is a grand idea for a campaign, but has the usual S&S/High Fantasy problem when dealing with low-level characters involved in matters of State: why in Mitra’s name would [insert important NPC] hire these low-level characters out of an inn rather than dispatch his/her crack private army to weed out the problem and deal with it?

(As an aside I also find the standard Conan RPG NPC monologues to be difficult to perform without bursting out laughing. Even the best modules and adventures – and there are some cracking ones out there – are brought low by the NPCs’ lines.)

I think most players are willing to elide this “why?” sticking point and get on the rails long enough to find out what’s what, but it is a major failing of the whole RPG voluntary quest thing that there is rarely a convincing reason for the hiring NPC to be there in the inn in the first place.

Memo to self: Need a thesaurus with a better section on synonyms for “in”. I sound like Chevy Chase lining up a putt in Caddy Shack there.

In most fantasy games the GM can just put a wizard in charge and “Geas” everyone and be done with it, I suppose.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 15, 2011 @ 11:37 am

@BryanB – “Adventure Carrot” – I like that term! Very nice!

@DocRyder – Good GMing there. Ditching your ideas in order to follow the one that the players are interested in will always lead into a more satisfying game experience for everyone.

@Roxysteve – I hate the “convenient NPC with offer” trope myself. If the PCs are adventurers, well then they should be seeking out adventures! No one should just be handing them out to the PCs. You just have to have an event occur that tells the PCs that “The adventure is over here!” and the rest will take care of itself.

#7 Comment By Vic On June 16, 2011 @ 5:32 am

“Does it have to make sense? No. It just has to make sense to your players, and it only has to make sense for this one session. Whatever the players suggest is something for you to react to and expand upon no matter how ludicrous it is. That is how great gaming moments emerge at the table, because when a GM rolls with what the players suggested that GM is running the game that the players want to play.”

I really bristle at this and have to disagree. I registered an account just to disagree with you!

On the one hand, yes, we are ultimately playing a game and if the GM shuts the players down because they’re making bad decisions, there’s not much fun being had. On the other hand, if the players find the next step of their adventure no matter where they go and what they do, then that encourages them to not bother thinking about the adventure you’re putting in front of them–might as well just wander aimlessly and we’ll eventually bumble into the BBEG just before he’s able to enact his evil plan!

While I think it’s important for a GM to be flexible–and for him to be able to put interesting things in the game for the players to interact with no matter where the players end up–I think one of the keys to an interesting game is knowing that there is a solid, cohesive world we are adventuring in, and that there are events going on outside our view. If the plot is being generated and adapted based entirely on my actions, then it’s clear that this world revolves around me and I no longer need to seek out interesting events–I will blunder into them, or they will find me.

I think it ultimately boils down to what a group wants out of gaming. If a group wants to have fun and be entertained, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this advice. But if the goal (or one of the goals) is ultimately to tell a compelling story, to engage players and elicit emotional reactions from them, then I think this advice should be taken with moderation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving your players an occasional “I’m sorry, but the princess is in another castle!” if they’re headed in the wrong direction.

If they’re consistently headed in the wrong direction, then that may be a sign that you’re not doing an effective job of communicating hints and plot threads to your players. But if it happens to them once in a while, it can be a great opportunity to show what happens when the protagonists aren’t there to stop the machinations of the BBEG or other enemy.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 16, 2011 @ 8:19 am

@Vic – Welcome to Gnome Stew, and thank you for registering with the site!

I think that a lot of what you said has merit, but seems the you have taken my advice out of context. This article is about improvising a game. An improvised game has no pre-conceived plot, so therefore the PCs cannot head in the “wrong direction” because there is no such thing. There are no hints, and there are no plot threads, at least none that are not created as the story unfolds in real time.

The kickoff event is the only thing that is planned out before the game begins. It is designed in order to produce player feedback and input so that the story may develop organically from it. The game world can still be solid and cohesive though. One does not negate the possibility of the other.

And none of this excludes the possibility of a compelling story. A game played with a serious tone generates serious plots, regardless if the GM is improvising or working from a published module. A GM who is good at improvising knows how to use to his or her advantage. I’ve run improvised games of Dread where the story was extremely compelling, and the players literally were sweating in some cases due to their nervousness. Yet at the beginning of those games I had no idea how they would play out.

Again, thank you for the comment and for joining us here at the Stew. I hope that my comment clears up this matter for you.

#9 Comment By Vic On June 16, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

@Patrick Benson – I hadn’t caught that this article was written in response to a question about how to run an already heavily-improvised campaign. Based on the title and content, I took it to be general advice for all GMs, encouraging them to improvise more. And though I don’t have any problems with more improvisation, I obviously took exception (maybe a bit too much) to that section of your article.

Sorry for my misunderstanding… carry on!

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 16, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

@Vic – Don’t worry about it. No harm, no foul. Besides, us gnomes are happy to have a new member for whatever reason! :)

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