Drawing maps, statting NPCs, writing plots, and preparing handouts. Prep work is still work no matter how you slice it. Improvising on the other hand is fun! You skip all of those tedious tasks and get right to the good stuff – running the game! I often improvise sessions and it works great for me. The players get a great game, and I don’t have to spend days preparing it for them.

That said, allow me to share my dirty little secret when it comes to improvised sessions: you STILL need to prepare for them.

I know, I know. That doesn’t make any sense. How can one prepare material that is improvised? The answer is that you don’t prepare the actual material for the session itself. Instead you prepare the tools that you will use to quickly craft that material on the fly. This article is about preparing those tools.

Know Thy Game System

First things first: You need to have a very strong understanding of how the core mechanics work for the game system that you will be running. You don’t have to know every single little rule from every splatbook ever written for the game, but you do need to know what the system uses for conflict resolution and what the odds are for various results using that system.

For instance, did you know that there is a 61.7% chance of rolling a total of 0 or higher using four Fudge dice? I do. Why? Because that is the game system that my group likes to play most often. Now ask me what the odds are for a success using X number of dice to hit target Y during a World of Darkness game and I don’t have a clue, but I’m going to learn those odds before deciding to run an improvised session using that system.

The reason you need to know these sorts of details before running an improvised game session is because you want to hit that sweet spot of PC success 60% of the time. If you can quickly calculate the details to ensure that your players are hitting the mark 6 out of 10 times you will have players who are enjoying the game but are still challenged by it.

Take a little time to learn the math behind the dice rolls if the system uses them. Read up on any design notes that the author(s) have made available to the public. Study the system for trends and patterns that may not be explicitly stated in the rules. Trust me, you’ll be surprised as to how even diceless games have a very deliberate framework that you can learn from if you look for them. Do your best to understand what makes the system unique and why your group enjoys playing it.

One-Shot Adventures, Not One-Shot Tools

You need tools that can be used again and again across different scenarios. Invest a little time and energy, maybe even some money, into recyclable game materials. Music to play in the background for instance does not have to be tied to only one game session or scene, but may be used again and again as long as it enhances the players’ experience at the table. Having a PC or laptop computer nearby that is ready to do a Google image search with makes it easy to show and not tell your players what they see in character. Found a great image to associate with an NPC? Note the search term you used for future reference, or download the image if permission is granted to do so.

One of my favorite tricks is the “monster with the fluff filed off” where I create generic stat frameworks and rank them according to how difficult it should be for the PCs to defeat the creature. The secret here is to just have the stats without the description. An “easy” stat monster sheet will have vague descriptions like “Strength: 10” and “Ranged Attack: 1D4+1 up to 50 yards.” Spend a day to create a bunch of these kinds of templates so that you have a wide variety of challenges.

When it comes time to introduce combat into the game you add the details to the template and a little spice to the scene. Those stats could be Orcs with crossbows, mafia thugs with guns, or a race of insect-like aliens that use primitive javelins to hunt with. Now add in something like the encounter is taking place during a crowded sporting event, or maybe the space station the PCs are on just had a breach in the hull and air is escaping. Just think of what would be cool to encounter in the game at that time and set the scene. I’ve used the same stats many times to describe dozens of different types of creatures with, and I have yet to hear a player say “Didn’t we fight these things last week?” despite only changing the descriptions, tactics, and the settings.

Props, Props Everywhere

That isn’t a dictionary on your bookshelf, it is a musty old spellbook written in an ancient tongue. Those aren’t dice on the table, but a handful of rare jewels with which to reward the heroes. Start looking at the everyday items that you have lying around your gaming space and think about how to setup the next scene by using that item as a prop.

If you are into RPGs then you already have a great imagination. Use it by picking up an item, any item, and describing what it is in the game. The pizza box can become a heavy stone tablet with runes carved upon it. An empty soda bottle is the fuel cell the PCs need to get the hover cycle working again. Think like a kid again and see the potential in the items right in front of you.

Use Your Secret Recipe

What about the story? How do you improvise the story? Simple, tell a story that you already know.

Think of a movie that you enjoyed from a genre other than the game that you are running. Now apply the genre of your game to that film’s plot. List the main characters’ names on a sheet of paper and next to those names write new names that are fitting to the genre of the game. You now have the story for your game. Saving Private Ryan becomes an epic fantasy quest to venture into the lands ruled by necromancers’ and their undead armies to retrieve a noble Prince who is holding a fort against their evil onslaught. His father the king is dying, and the land needs a ruler. Not much different a plot from the last living son of a family being found and brought home while in the middle of fighting the Axis during WWII, huh?

Once you have your story and plot follow a simple formula for every scene. Ask yourself a series of questions first. A lot of GM’s will recognize these as tried and true questions for building a scene. They are:

  • What do the players gain if they succeed? This is the reward (knowledge, loot, etc.).

  • How do the players still move forward if they fail? This is the workaround (capture results in the PCs learning key information and so forth).

  • Put one “cool” detail into every scene. This is the bling (the scene takes place next to an active volcano, or something silly like a truck with 100,000 fortune cookies crashes into the precinct where the PCs are cops).

Conclusion

Improvising is a skill that can’t be taught in one article. In fact, you can’t learn it by just reading about it. You have to just jump right in and do it yourself. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make it a little bit easier on yourself by having a few handy tips, tricks, and tools prepared in advance. Pick your tools, practice using them, and give it a shot. In the end it is just running the game one scene at a time.

That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the GnomeStew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!

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?



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6 Responses to Preparing to Improvise

  1. Fantastic article!! really! :) i enjoyed reading it very much.

    what can i say more than you..

    oh yes.. i add a little thing to your “recyclable tools”.. i’m a fan of wargaming terrain and i know that making something for players needs lot of time, so i try to make it versatile.. but at the same time i try to make it unique for that gaming session..

    an example.. i’m doing a cliff with lots of stones and other particular “blings”, it has 5 steps.. and it will take a lot of time.. but.. when i’ll use it.. the next time i just split some steps from that cliff.. (maybe one with 2 steps, the other with 1 and another one with 2..) and it will be new to use again.. but the first time it hadn’t been a “normal cliff”.. it has been a dangerous cliff with spikey plants and stones, high.. difficult to climp upon it :)

    that’s it.. make something unique and recyclable at the same time.. :)

  2. I have my go-to games that work great for improv sessions. I’m a big Risus fan, so that and its Cliches handles a lot of the silly one-shots I generate.

    Having been a Rifts GM for years, I don’t even need to the book to create core characters. Our default premise, since our improv games are a shifting group of people, is that the characters are part of a merc company–MercHouse–who get hired out to do different jobs. It even allows for a little continuity as desired, but we can have a shifting roster with minimal disruption.

    I have a lot of free adventures I’ve downloaded throug the years–from fan sites, from WotC, etc, and I find that a lot of these have neat twists or limited scopes I’m able to build upon without them being familiar to players.

    Excellent point on the “bling!” Just good cinematic GM advice, period.

  3. For preparing to improvise plots don’t forget familiarity with the big list of RPG plots: http://www.io.com/~sjohn/plots.htm Just plug and play as you go.

  4. I’m curious about this 60% sweet spot you mentioned – it makes logical sense to me but do you have any information as to where you got that figure?

  5. Tallarn – Various sources, but most notably from the design notes of some of the D&D 4e designers where they were addressing what was wrong with 3/3.5e. It seems that when they did the math that at low levels and high levels the PCs would hit the 60% sweet spot. Yet the mid level PCs would either have it too easy or too tough in 3/3.5e by their criteria. One of the main goals with 4e’s design was to smooth that out so that the PCs would hit the sweet spot from the lower levels all the way through to the higher levels.

    I’ll see if I can post some links later to a source or two.

  6. The preparation for improvisation philosophy is so true. A big one is NPC and encounter names. Nothing is funnier and more obvious than being a player and meeting Cassius Ironwood and Xander Rangard in one encounter, then speaking to Jack and Jill the next. Hmmmm….a tad inconsequential. So I find a List of Names a definite must for good improv so that the PCs don’t know who are major NPCs and who are just fodder.

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