Improvisation has to be one of the things that worry new GMs the most. How do you roll with the punches, how do you adapt to players doing things that you never anticipated? It can be intimidating to new GMs, and can easily undermine a would-be GM’s confidence.
To be honest, it’s not easy to describe how to improvise, but here are a few things you should try, that will help new GMs when they’re running:
- Know your setting – One of the best ways to prepare for a game is to know and familiarize yourself with a setting. This doesn’t mean that you have to be able to rattle off names, dates and places, but you should at least have some idea as to how things work. That way you can pretty much cover the usual situations without having to stop and look it up all the time.
- Pause – It’s perfectly okay to stop, take a deep breath and focus your thoughts. Nobody can be a super-GM with instant responses all the time. If you’re stumped, it’s okay to tell your players that you need a bit of time to process what they did.
- Take notes - Write down notes, especially when you’re making things up. When you’re narrating a scene and they seem to have latched on to something that you just mentioned in passing, note that down and see if you can come up with a plot hook for that item, event or person for some other campaign. Get into this habit and you’ll realize that there’s a boatload of hooks just lying around waiting to be used.
- Yes, and / Yes, but - Sometimes players do something that you don’t necessarily feel are detrimental to your game, but throw you off anyway. Learning to use “Yes, and” as well as “Yes, but” are great ways to incorporate their actions into the game, but add your own set of controls and circumstances over it. “Yes, you shoot the villain in mid-speech, and he tumbles backwards onto the control panel and activates the self-destruct sequence!” is a great example. It sounds so much better than “No, you don’t.”
- Don’t rely on specific triggers to keep the game moving – Here’s a big one. Let triggers happen organically, but don’t force them on players. Sometimes we all fall into the trap of “If anyone rolls at least three successes, then they get this vital plot-moving clue” then the players proceed to fail to roll the required successes and the game grinds to a halt. If there’s information that the players should know so that the game can move, give it to them. Roll to get more information, but crucial stuff that can make or break a campaign? Give it to them.
Each of these techniques can help build confidence in a new GM. Once the game starts rolling, remember that you’re the final authority on things. Don’t sweat the small stuff, if you don’t know a rule, make a quick judgment call and get back to it after the session.
Remember that GMing is supposed to be fun. Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with the madness of getting things right that you forget to have fun. Players are a forgiving bunch, and many won’t mind if you make a mistake or two until you’re finally very familiar with the system and the setting.
That said, I’m opening up GMing 101 to questions from interested readers. Are there any particular topics that you’d like to see more detail on, or issues that deserve to be raised? Please feel free to post them on the comments below and I’ll see if I can answer them with a post.