Hey everyone, due to popular demand, I’m shifting gears to move on to a topic that seems to be of interest to a lot of GMs: Improvisation at the table.
GMing is often portrayed as being similar to juggling, or other feats of mental and physical dexterity. While there is some truth to the number of things to keep track of when running a game, I also feel that this paints an unfair picture of the role of a GM as being incredibly difficult.
So here I’m going to try to paint a different picture, and that all starts with the ability to improvise.
Improvisation in the context of running RPGs is the ability to keep a game moving despite not having and set plans. Take note that this doesn’t mean the absence of any plans, but rather having the flexibility to run a game from point A to point B without having any rigid paths set down.
Let’s break it down to it’s components, shall we?
More than anything else, the ability to improvise relies on having a goal. By having a set goal for each of the characters in the game, you have something to steer them to, rather than letting them run aimlessly around your setting until they run into something.
Goals don’t have to be big, but they have to at least impart direction. Players appreciate it when their characters feel like they’re getting somewhere, and that happens only when they achieve a particular goal. When thinking of goals, think of where you’d like to bring the character next.
“Get Gerry the Paladin to discover a clue that leads to a Heretic Cult” works well since it engages the character in an issue that matters to him personally and leaves the door open for the rest of the players to join in and help.
“Have Alia encounter her uncaring father, the King in the middle of the banquet” is another because it helps push an ongoing plot hook and opens it to new consequences that can spin off into different directions.
Now that you’ve got Goals down, how do dress up the journey to make it look like you planned everything down to the smallest detail?
That’s where the second article comes in. By structuring your descriptions and plot elements along the Themes, Mood and Motifs you’ve chosen early on, you can improvise a scene easily by checking against the three.
Let’s go back to Gerry the Paladin for a moment. If the Theme is “Grimdark Fantasy” and Mood is “Black Comedy” and Motif is “Skulls and Superstition” then you already have a good idea of the broad strokes involved in setting up a scene.
Likewise, if Alia’s elements are a Theme of “Romance and Espionage” Mood is “Secrets and Shadows” and Motif is “Renaissance Italy” then you have a solid image upon which to play towards that encounter with her father.
Confidence and Delivery
Ultimately, improv also relies on confidence and delivery. Never admit to not having notes. In fact feel free to shuffle some papers or index cards behind the GM screen.
Use silence. Rather than saying “umm…” take a moment to sit quietly, take a sip of your water, and go through your options in your head.
Listen to your players. If your players are caught up in the moment and suddenly come up with a theory that blows your reality out of the water, go with their theory. It’ll make them feel clever, and you’ll benefit from looking like a clever bastard.
And that’s my 2 cents on Improv. Obviously it requires that you know your player characters really well. It’s best to rely on improv when you’ve already got a better handle for what makes the characters tick. When I start a new campaign, I begin with an adventure or two that is really well planned and has many opportunities for the players to step in and do something by themselves. Once I know what hooks get bites, then I start shifting to improv mode.