Free will in roleplaying is all about letting your players take your game in unexpected directions. If you don’t know how to improvise, you won’t be able to respond to unexpected player character (PC) actions. You need to be able to change and create game material on the spur of the moment, as you run your game.
Many game masters (GMs) have problems with improvisation, however. They aren’t sure where to start. It’s letting yourself be put on the spot — you’re telling your players that you’ll come up with an exciting, interesting game no matter what they do, even if they completely obsolete all of the material you prepared. That can be a frightening prospect!
A Little Psychology
Luckily for you there are a whole lot of things you can do to make improvisation easier on yourself. It starts with remembering that what I just said above isn’t really true; you don’t have to put yourself entirely on the spot. You don’t have to create all of this stuff on the spur of the moment.
You are entitled, when you get really confused, to say, “hey, I need to think for a couple of minutes;” your players won’t think you’re a terrible GM if you do this. You can ask your players for their opinions. There’s also plenty of material you can prepare ahead of time that’ll make improvisation easier on you. There are certain kinds of material that are better suited than others to adaptation; they can be used as tools to create the world that the PCs bring about through their actions. Because of this, this article really addresses a dual set of issues: improvisation and the preparation of game material.
All of this translates to: don’t panic! Just do your best to prepare material that’ll adapt, and then adapt it. It isn’t as hard as it sounds. Besides, no matter what goes wrong, there’s almost always a way to fix it!
Plotting and Preparation
In Plotting and Free Will in Roleplaying I brought up the idea that in a roleplaying game, a plot isn’t the same thing that you expect from a book. A plot is simply a situation that the PCs can get involved in, rather than a linear, planned out, beginning-middle-and-end sort of a thing.
The Three B’s: Back-Story, Beginnings, and Build-Up
Back-story is the previous history of the plot. It consists of events that have already happened within your game world — there’s no way for the PCs to alter them (barring some really weird stuff happening). Thus, you know that you can write up as much back-story as you want, and it won’t get changed by PC actions.
It could be made irrelevant if the PCs, for example, kill their only link to the plot. This isn’t quite as devastating, however, as long as you’re using the fluid world principle (see below). Either way, at least back-story is much less likely to be made irrelevant than most other types of material. Prepare as much of it as you want — if you know the background of a plot, it’s much easier to figure out the effects of the PCs’ actions on that plot.
The beginning of the plot in a roleplaying game is the part that the PCs first see. It’s the hook, the part that hopefully reaches out, grabs the PCs, and sucks them in. The beginning of the plot should be carefully crafted to appeal to the PCs; it should take into account the motivation that’s expected to spur the characters onward.
Always try to have a back-up plan. If something goes wrong and the PCs don’t get involved (they ignore or miss their cue; they think their characters wouldn’t get involved; etc.), try to have another logical hook waiting in the wings. Worst case, make use of the fluid world principle (below) to make use of your material elsewhere, or let the plot move on without the PCs in the background of the game. Perhaps they’ll get involved at a later date, or the conclusion of this plot will make a great set-up for the next one.
In a book, the build-up consists of meeting the non-player characters (NPCs), finding out the back-story, exploring the world, and setting up the framework for the plot. In a roleplaying game, the build-up consists of two parts.
In the first part you prepare the elements of the plot that would normally be considered build-up in a book. Like back-story, these are things that you can detail pretty much to your heart’s content without having to worry about losing lots of work. Create NPCs involved with the plot. Create locations, items, world history, and so on that concerns the plot. Even if the PCs somehow manage to miss the plot, you can probably make use of these things in other ways later on.
In the second part you introduce these things into the game–you create the part of the build-up that the PCs see. Don’t restrict your possibilities by writing out a single chain of events in which the PCs will participate. Instead, have multiple ideas for how they could meet each NPC, discover or explore each location and find out about each item.
By using the three B’s you’re making improvisation easier on yourself. You aren’t creating materials that you’re likely to have to throw away and totally re-write in the middle of the game. You’re creating things that will easily adapt to PC actions with just a little bit of thought.
Flexible and Fragile Material
Fragile material is material that breaks when the PCs do unexpected things. It’s difficult to adapt, and can end up having to be thrown out entirely due to small deviations in expected behavior. Examples of potentially fragile material are:
- Detailed necessary scenes
- Word-for-word speeches or conversations
- Detailed, in-depth plot write-ups that extend into the future of the game
- Detailed, in-depth future actions of NPCs
- Planned endings of plots
- Descriptions that include PC value judgments or actions
- Absolutes used to plug plot holes (See Shameless Manipulation for more information.)
Flexible material is material that can bend and adapt to the actions of the PCs; it’s unlikely to be made obsolete by character choices. Examples of flexible material are:
- Outlines and loose ideas for scenes; tool kit-style write-ups
- NPC backgrounds and personalities: general strategies, plans, projects, blind spots and weaknesses, hopes and dreams
- Plot backgrounds with notes about multiple directions the plots could go in
Potential conversational points, rumors, etc. in partial or list formAlmost any kind of background material
By preparing flexible instead of fragile material, you once again make improvisation easier on yourself. If your material is fragile and your players deviate from the expected course of the game, you’re going to be left not knowing what to do. You won’t have something prepared that you can draw upon. You’ll face the frustration of having to throw out all of those hours of work and make things up wholesale. Whereas if your material is flexible, you can adapt it to respond to the actions of the PCs.
Make a Fluid World
The fluid world principle states that anything the players haven’t seen yet is considered fluid. This means that it can be moved around, shaped, re-shaped, altered, adapted, and so on. When the PCs see something, that something becomes solid; it is no longer fluid and cannot be moved around freely. If the PCs hear about something second-hand, it can be considered partially solid. If you want to change it, you have to make the change sound realistic, reasonable, and logical given what the PCs have heard.
Let’s take a simple example. You expected your party to enter a castle through the servants’ entrance, and prepared a particularly important and revelation-inducing scene for that location. However, the PCs found another way into the castle that you hadn’t expected. What do you do?
For a moment, let’s assume that the scene you prepared hasn’t been “seen,” even indirectly. Therefore it’s fluid. You can move it to another location. The item was never hidden there; it was in another place all along. The person who was going to meet them there meets them somewhere else instead. Maybe you have to change a few details to mesh with the new chain of events, but that isn’t so difficult.
Now assume that the scene is partially solid: the PCs heard ahead of time that the incredible item was in a particular room, which they also know happens to be right next to the servants’ entrance. You have multiple options. You could wait for them to find the item themselves, but maybe there’s a reason why they must have the item before exploring the rest of the castle (that’s an absolute, hence a plot hole, but we’ll ignore that for now and concentrate on a way to fix the problem). Create some sort of diversion that leads them to the item. Decide that having the item somehow unlocks access to certain parts of the castle, which they can’t reach without it. Decide on the spot that their map is wrong, and the item is near their new entrance point. (Just to list a few examples off the top of my head.)
If you do any of this, of course, you have to make it reasonable and logical. The diversion that leads them to the item could be a spirit they’ve had help from before, that wants to help them again. It could be someone’s deity giving them a vision (but only if that person has gotten visions before and it makes sense for him to do so again). The item itself could want them to find it and send them visions or a messenger of some sort. If parts of the castle are inaccessible without the item, there needs to be a good reason why this is so. If the map is wrong, make sure that the map is wrong in other ways too, and in ways that make sense; perhaps there has been some remodeling due to a disaster. Perhaps the item is temporarily on display in another room for some reason (flooding?).
Whatever you do, make sure that it makes sense and isn’t ridiculous. This is why mucking with partially solid material can be problematic. You don’t want it to be obvious that you’re changing things; you want the changes to make sense, to look like a kink that you deliberately threw in to make the plot more interesting, or even simple cool window-dressing. (This is one of those times when it might be good to call a break while you think!)
Because of all this, you might want to keep a notebook and pen next to you while you GM (always a good idea anyway). Take a note here and there about which hints you’ve given the players, what things they’ve heard about, and so on. This will help you to keep things consistent when you have to move things around. It will also help you when you have to change semi-solid material, by giving you time to come up with a plausible explanation that meshes well with what the PCs have “seen.”
For GMs who find it difficult to take their own notes, draft a player to take notes. Pick a player who seems to have a good feel for which details are likely to be important. You might still want to note a detail or two yourself, but this frees you from the majority of the note-taking responsibilities.
There are ways to make normal game material more movable:
- Don’t tie things too firmly to a certain location unless it’s absolutely central to the plot and you’re awfully certain you can get the party where you want it.
- When you tentatively place an event or item at a location, make a couple of notes on what else you’d have to change if you moved that event or item.
- When something needs to be placed, wait to place it until just before it comes into play. Hopefully by then you’ll have a better idea of what the party is going to do and where they’ll go to do it.
- If you tie an event, item, or plot point to an NPC, make a back-up plan in case that NPC gets killed or otherwise put out of commission. Is there another NPC that knew about the situation and who could get involved? Could you create one on the spot?
Some types of material are more movable than others:
- Small groups of NPCs (including relevant plots) that aren’t tied to a town or location, so you can use them no matter where the party goes.
- Sketchy, unnamed towns that you can throw in the party’s way no matter where they decide to travel.
- Plot cores: the central concept or idea of a plot, without all of the nitty-gritty details pinned down yet.
Creating movable material is particularly useful if your game world is large and your party travels around at all. Movable material can be adapted to whatever location your party goes to. If you create small groups of NPCs with interrelated histories and plots that aren’t tied to a specific location, then you can drop these things into the game whenever you need a plot. You can also tie them to a location that is similarly movable, or you can tie them to a generic location such as “an inn” or “a clearing in the woods.”
Static Material Makes Assumptions
If you build a world that’s too static, i.e., set in stone (non-fluid), you’ll probably find out the hard way that you’ve made a whole bunch of unstated assumptions that will make later improvisation difficult for you. You’ve made assumptions about the sorts of plots your players will get interested in later on, the ways in which they’ll go about solving them, and so on, even if you didn’t realize it.
Instead, keep future material sketchy. Create plot backgrounds that don’t make lots of assumptions about where those plots will go. That way, the material you create today will be much easier to adapt to whatever your party chooses to do in the future.