Worlds of Design: The Art of Improv

How much do you improvise as a game master?


There’s been a surge of interest in GMing by improvisation rather than preparation, as in the “old days.” What are the ramifications?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​

A Different Way to Play​

I previously discussed improvisation in game mastering; this piece looks at it from a different angle. In a way, this is like the contrasted extremes in how players play games: classical/romantic, planner/improviser, active/passive. I believe everyone is in these spectra somewhere; some at one extreme or the other, most somewhere closer to the middle. In this article, we're focusing on game masters, not players.

The Random Old Days​

Original Dungeons & Dragons (before Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) consisted of a fairly short set of rules, even with supplements added. GMs necessarily had to interpret/interpolate a lot. AD&D provided a lot more rules, and lots of tables for rolling random encounters. There was even a table for rolling a random dungeon layout, which my brother actually used in creating the first level of his dungeon adventure. Keep in mind that at that time, there were originally no published prepackaged adventures to buy and the GMs had to make up everything themselves. So it made sense to provide random tables to make the GM task easier.

Things have shifted considerably since. Over time, we’ve seen a vast number of adventure modules published, both commercial and free, and I suspect most GM’s now use this published material most of the time.

The Return of the Random Table​

Recently there’s been a surge of interest in improvisation in GMing: deliberately not planning ahead and letting the dice take you where they may. Some raise this to a virtue, as though it was somehow better or more proper for the game. A touted advantage of this is that the GM and players together create more of the game world via improvisation, and that this will engage the players more than if the GM creates it all or if a commercial module is used.

Improvisation occurs partly when the game rules don’t provide an answer for a situation. The more explicit the game rules are (which tends to mean, the longer), the less room is left for improvisation of rules. But the main thrust of improvisation instead of preparation is in the occurrences of the adventure.

It’s Not for Everybody​

In the long run, improvisation in most things in life is not efficient. If it was, there’d be more of it in (successful) business, in the military, in government. Planning (followed by adaptation and replanning) is what works, not improvisation. The same is true in individual lives, though people rely more on habit than on planning. Moreover, the ubiquity of smartphones has led to less planning and more improvisation in personal lives—people don’t have to plan nearly as much because their smartphones can bail them out.

Despite improv seeming like a very flexible and collaborative approach, improv can be challenging. Many people aren't good at it. For example, even someone who was a famous orator, Winston Churchill, had to plan and memorize his speeches to make good. He was an infamously poor extemporaneous (“improv”) speaker. Yes, I’ve watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and marveled at the skillful comedy improvisations of Colin Mochrie and others. But could most professional comedians manage to do that well, let alone anyone else?

The ultimate improvisation is to make up everything on the fly. A friend of mine can run entire adventures on the fly, though he usually doesn’t, but he’s a generally creative fellow who writes haiku every day, among other things. And he’s GMed RPGs for more than 35 years. Most people don’t have that experience.

In the next article we’ll discuss the implications of how having to make things up from whole cloth can be a game master’s greatest strength … or turn them off to game mastering entirely.

Your Turn: How much do you improvise, as a percentage, when you GM? In the above poll, I’m in the 0-20% category.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

aco175

Legend
I probably inprov more than I think. I like to write out at least an outline for what I think it going to happen and ideas for what I think the PCs will do. I like to print out the monster stats and traps in a module/outline that I have to reduce looking at books. I feel this is about 60-70% of what is going on. However, there is a lot of roleplay in NPC interaction that is inprov. I might have a name and occupation but the PCs suddenly become interested in him, or an off-the-cuff remark about a future hook suddenly becomes the adventure and I need to scramble.
 

Von Corellon

Adventurer
I like to think that I have things well planned out. However, when teaching elementary school
students to learn to play D&D, there was much improvisation. Maybe relative to the audience or expectations, but if it’s an immersive campaign I'm going to avoid improv when possible.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I went 20-50% only because I feel like 25-30% of the time is improv. I like to be ready when the players get crafty and think up unplanned circumstances. I want to reward that creativity instead of railroad it back into the planned activities. Though, I do appreciate a plan in place and not an entirely winged game myself.
 


talien

Community Supporter
I plan everything out, round by round, in D&D...

And then my players go investigate a different door, talk to a different NPC I didn't have prepared, leave the area completely, start arguing with people who would give them quests, and I just end up improving anyway.

But it does make me feel better when I plan. 😅

EDIT: This happens 21 to 50% of the time.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I use the adventure books, I read ahead a bit. But I don't modify them.
Inevitably though, players being players, they do something that's not covered in the book. Old school modules suffer from this more than current (for example, Deep Carbon Observatory - wow I had to come up with a lot of stuff during play). So probably 20% or so, right on the cusp of two choices.

Also, rolling up a dungeon in advance (like via the AD&D DMG tables in the back), even though it's not "intentionally created" but instead "procedurally created" is still not improv at least in my mind
 

BovineofWar

Explorer
I think the key point is that it's "not for everyone". Having a highly improvisational style of DMing is something that every DM has to decide on for themselves: whether they are comfortable doing it and whether they feel they are making a better game by doing so.

I actually blame Mike Shea for all the improvisation I do at the table. The Lazy DM was the first time I'd been told "less is more", there's some things that are worth preparing and leave everything else to improve on the fly. Great since those pesky players will never follow your stage cues anyways!
 

GuardianLurker

Adventurer
I had to place myself in the 0-20% category. Oh, I've had players go off-plan many times, but if they go into some place where I need to actually stat things, the game grinds to a halt. Unless I've actually prepared contingencies before hand. So I've learned (repeatedly) over the years about the 7 P's and try to at least anticipate what kind of opposition they need.

Prepping Random Encounter tables is great for this. Even if I forget them, or never feel the need for them, they get me thinking about - and creating - throw-away opponents that are appropriate for the adventure.
 

Voadam

Legend
Not sure at all as far as percentage.

As a DM I have mostly used modules and settings in a fairly sandboxy way for over 40 years. I will improv based on the prompt of the setting/rules material and the module and what the players bring to the table. I have run a few adventures without a module, mostly with my son, but usually I have a module as the framework I riff off of.

I rarely use random tables as a DM. My improv is generally whatever feels natural to me or something that strikes me in the moment.

As a player I will sometimes use dice though to randomly give me an aspect of a character, rolling for race and/or class and/or background in 5e D&D, rolling for clan in vampire, or hero type in d20 Modern, and then go from there.

I have my own homebrew mashup setting I generally DM my D&D games in, but I am very open to a lot of player input. My current 5e D&D game has a lot of Werewolf the Apocalypse and Loony Tunes influence from player input which has been a lot of fun for me to incorporate and run with and riff off of in the moment.

Completely improvving a setting and series of adventures kind of intrigues me because it is so different from my usual approach.
 

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