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:
- Preparing to Improvise  is all about the fundamentals of improvising as a GM.
- Improvising? Don’t Worry About Beginnings & Endings, Focus On Transitions  gives you an easy to follow formula to follow when running an improvised session that you can use to get through the entire session with.
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. )
Anyone who has played football knows that there are three types of kickers:
- One that cannot kick the ball very well at all.
- One that can kick the ball far, but that is all that the kicker can do.
- One that can kick the ball far and place it where it grants your team the most advantage. This is the kind of kicker every team wants to have.
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:
- The event cannot be ignored.
- The PCs can react to it in any number of ways to the event.
- There is no simple solution.
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.