Improvisation Tricks for Game Masters

So far in this series I’ve introduced a couple of major themes regarding improvisation in roleplaying games (RPGs):

  • Improvisation doesn’t mean that the game master (GM) has to make everything up — it just means adapting things as you go along.
  • Some kinds of prepared material make adaptation easier than others.

Beyond this, however, there are a number of little tricks you can use. Some of them help you to adapt prepared material. Some of them help you to respond to unexpected player character (PC) actions and choices. Some of them help you to prepare the right kind of material, and some of them just give you a few extra ideas or bits of inspiration to work with.

Slanting NPC Actions

Sometimes it can be tough to adapt the actions and reactions of non-player characters (NPCs) in ways that make sense, yet still make for a fun game. When someone does something that should cause an NPC to react in a bad way (defined as a way that will make the game less fun), what do you do? Have the NPC act out of character? Players will often notice this, and they may end up feeling as though they only won because you made them win. (I’ve discussed in other places why this can be bad.) Do you have the NPC do exactly what he should do, even if it will make the game boring or frustrating for the party?

In an article more than a year ago, I discussed the idea of slanting PC actions. What this means is that you (as a player) play within the bounds of your character, but you add in an extra element: you slant your actions to take the fun of the game into account. You don’t just say, “would my character leave the rest of the party out of this neat plot?” Instead you say, “does my character have a good reason to leave the rest of the party out of this plot?” If the answer is no, you don’t leave them out of it. It’s a small difference in terms of the way you think about things, but it can make a huge difference in the way your game plays and how much fun everyone has.

Do the same thing with your NPCs. When you find yourself saying, “uh-oh, the NPC should do this, but that’ll make things boring (frustrating, annoying, whatever),” instead say, “is there something the NPC could reasonably do that would make things more interesting (fun, enjoyable, dramatic, inspiring, whatever)?” Just be careful not to use this to save the PCs from their own mistakes (or at least, not too often).

In other words, if the PCs are about to be killed in some really boring way because, well, that’s how the game worked out, then the question to ask is, “is there something the NPC could reasonably do that would make the situation more dramatic and entertaining for the players?” Sometimes that means a daring rescue; sometimes it just means finding a way to make the death or loss dramatic and memorable.

NOTE: People tend to misinterpret this as advice to have the NPCs “break character.” It isn’t. My point is that when people make decisions, there are often multiple reasonable courses of action for them to take. For instance, I could decide that since it’s sunny out today, I should go for a walk. Or I could decide that since it’s cold out I should make hot chocolate and watch a movie inside. Either one is a perfectly reasonable decision and is a course of action I could take and be happy with given the same set of circumstances.

In cases where there are multiple reasonable courses of action and one would make for a decidedly better game, there’s little reason not to take the one that would make for the better game. Too often I think people grab onto their first thought of what a character would do and don’t stop to think about the fact that other courses of action could be just as viable, interesting, or reasonable–particularly in the case of NPCs, since as GM you can often come up with circumstances behind-the-scenes that make a course of action likely.

Inspiration

Having lots of raw material around while you GM also makes improvisation easier. By raw material I mean things that haven’t been worked into a final form yet. They’re ideas, hooks, inspiration, and so on, which means that they can be adapted to almost any situation and dropped into your game at a moment’s notice.

Instant Plot Hooks

What I refer to as “instant plot hooks” are little throw-away ideas that you can drop into your game the moment you run out of your own material or things slow down too much. The original instant plot hook article, and its follow-on, the creepy plot hook article, were meant for use when your players short-circuit half of your material unexpectedly. You can drop the hooks into your game to use up the sudden half-hour of free time that you have. If you like where they’re going, you can expand them into full plots.

Keep lists of your own instant plot hooks, or the ones from the articles above, with you while you GM. Put one each on index cards, and when you use the plot hook, take notes on the index card of any details you come up with to go with it. Or just print out sheets of paper with lists of the hooks and check off any that you use. We also put together an article on creating your own instant plot hooks.

The Stack of Non-Player Characters

Create a handful of semi-detailed NPCs and keep them with you while you GM. You don’t have to fully detail their backgrounds, and in fact you’re probably better off not doing so. Give them stats, an appearance, some personality, and a couple of personal plot hooks and you’re ready to go. They can be dropped into your game at a moment’s notice to help you plug a plot hole, spice up a slow night, or introduce a new plot.

The Stack of (Items, Events, Encounters)

Do the same thing with items, events, and encounters that you do with NPCs and instant plot hooks. Keep random things around to drop into the game when you need them. If an adventure seems too easy and the players are bored, pick an encounter or event that seems realistic for the adventure and drop it in. If you need to spice up someone’s loot with something a little stranger than usual, pick an item with an odd history and some plots hanging off of it and toss it in.

I’ll warn you in advance: you probably won’t be able to toss many of these things in wholesale. Almost all of them will need a little tweaking and adapting to make them fit in, make sense, and appeal to the PCs. But a little tweaking and adapting is a whole lot easier to do on the spot than a lot of coming up with things wholesale, and that’s the point of this sort of preparation!

Inspirational Material

Most people find that they get inspired by different things. Very few people write in a vacuum. Ray Bradbury, in his book “Zen in the Art of Writing,” talks about all sorts of events, essays, poems, and even words that inspired his writing. Keep inspiration with you while you GM. Tarot decks work well, as do song lyrics, books of interesting material, poems, pieces of artwork — anything that tends to inspire you makes good material to keep around while you GM. If you GM in your own home and use a certain room every time, then surround yourself with shelves of cool books, pieces of artwork on the walls, and so on.

Using Generic or Throw-Away Details

When you feel inspired to do so, throw in random fun details that you can expand on later. If the players ask what’s on a map that you never got around to detailing, throw in fun little details like, “oh, on that side it just has the word ‘Beware’ in big black letters over the forest.” These details give you something to expand on and play with later.

Additional Tricks

Planning for the First Hour

Plan for the first hour or so of your gaming run, rather than the whole night. Plan what you expect to have happen at the beginning. Have lots of useful raw material around to draw upon. Have a loose idea of where you think the plot might go, without pinning everything down.

Reusing Missed Material

There will always be game material that you prepare that just doesn’t make it into the game. Whether it’s a spare NPC that never comes into play, or a plot the PCs ignored, or half a town that the PCs didn’t get to before they moved on, there’s always stuff you don’t use.

Instead of tossing it out, move it. Remember all that stuff about a fluid world and movable material from the last article? Rewrite a few details to make the NPC fit into a new plot or world. Rework that plot with a different premise and some new motivation, and slip it back in. Take that half a town, change some things around a bit to make them all shiny and new, and slip it into the middle of a new town the PCs are going to!

Of course you need to change some details. If the PCs saw any of the material then you need to render it unrecognizable. If they didn’t, you still need to make sure that the material suits its new home and doesn’t obviously look transplanted. In other words, half-transplant it, and half-use it as random inspiration.

Play to Your Strengths as a GM

If you’re really good at coming up with stuff as you go along, use that! If you find you get most of your good ideas from creating NPCs, then go with that. If you need stacks of raw material around as you GM, then keep that material around. Don’t necessarily give up on things you have trouble with, but do make use of the things that work for you. Don’t insist on doing things a different way just because some author or other GM (yes, like me) tells you that it must be done that way. If your group is having fun and what you’re doing is working, that’s the ultimate test.

Get the PCs to Settle Down (Or Not)

Many GMs find that improvisation and game preparation are both easier if the party of PCs gets attached to an area and its inhabitants. This prevents them from moving around a lot, which means that all you have to do is detail one region, its inhabitants, its history, and its mysteries in order to have material for a long time to come. Also, the more attached the PCs are to an area or people, the more likely they are to jump in and help when something weird or bad is going on; finding motivation for the party becomes easier.

Have the players work the area and its inhabitants into their character backgrounds. Make sure that the area and the people act as resources to the PCs, which makes them valuable to the party. If you have players who like to work dramatic emotional material into their characters, then make use of plots that develop emotional attachments between PCs and NPCs. Work to give the party an in-game sense of responsibility for pieces of the game area–neighborhoods, towns, organizations, etc.

However, some GMs find that they have an easier time constantly coming up with new things if they aren’t boxed into a limited area. This goes back to that bit about playing to your strengths: do what works for you!

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