Worlds of Design: The Art of Improv

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

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

damiller

Adventurer
When I am in the zone GMing wise. I tend to prep in such a way that makes improv the focus. Lately I've just prepped a few scenes for the session. And then I just follow where the players go. I have a larger picture established, its called a throughline, and I know the ultimate goal of the campaign (which I made a part of my original pitch to the players).

So the combo of a guiding light (campaign goal/throughline) and each session starting off with a series of scenes (usually one for each player) I then let the natural tension of what the players what to do as a group drive the session.
 

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Nebulous

Legend
I only play online now, so everything the PCs "see" is pre-planned, even non-combat encounters. But I also write extensive recaps of our sessions and screen capture everything, so theater of the mind doesn't make a good photo. When I played in person though at the table I would improvise more, and this came with more physical theatrics; standing, hand gesturing, voices, eye contact, etc. That is a nuance that doesn't come across online, but VTT has other advantages that I take full advantage of. I still improvise when they go off course and adapt to what they do, but not as much as I did at the physical table.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
It varies by game for me. Some games require more prep, some require more improv. Generally speaking, I’d say the majority of what I do as a GM is improv. Reacting to the players and what they have their characters do. It’s hard to put a set percentage on it because of the demands of different games.

For example, I just started a Mothership game. This is a pretty traditional type game, with a scenario prepared by the GM ahead of time. So maybe 60% prep and 40% improv, give or take. But I’m also running a Stonetop game, which is more like 20% prep and 80% improv.

I don’t think having one set number makes much sense unless you only run one specific game.
 

Mortus

Explorer
I’m in the 81-100% category although I make exceptions for published adventures with very good reviews that my players want to play. Currently, running Chronicles of the Gatekeeper (Star Wars F&D) and about to start Chains of Asmodeus (5E). My favorite game I’m running right now though is my 100% improvised 5E campaign in my own homebrew world - at about a year and half now and we are having a blast.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
It varies by game for me. Some games require more prep, some require more improv. Generally speaking, I’d say the majority of what I do as a GM is improv. Reacting to the players and what they have their characters do. It’s hard to put a set percentage on it because of the demands of different games.

For example, I just started a Mothership game. This is a pretty traditional type game, with a scenario prepared by the GM ahead of time. So maybe 60% prep and 40% improv, give or take. But I’m also running a Stonetop game, which is more like 20% prep and 80% improv.

I don’t think having one set number makes much sense unless you only run one specific game.
Likewise, I vary how much I improvise based on the sort of RPG play we are engaged in. Currently, it's 81%+ because we're engaged with a no-myth mod I've designed that intentionally compels improvisation.
 

Distracted DM

Distracted DM
Supporter
With my in-person games I would improvise probably about 80-90%. The other 10% I had thought up on the drive to whoever was hosting, and The biggest consideration was what miniatures to bring out what the party might run into, and if any of the minis in my collection sparked inspiration for what could happen.

Most of my games are online now because after COVID and 2021 I started running games professionally. Running games online requires a lot more prep, but over time I have found tools that allow me to run a lot more improvisationally in the way that I like.
But still, I spend several hours on game days (and other days) prepping for sessions- muuuch longer than I would for in-person games.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
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.
To my observation, the contemporary turn on improv focuses on compelling and constraining what you say next, without dictating it. The rules don't provide an answer for the situation, but they do compel an answer and constrain what it can be like. The goal being to get players to say what happens rather than GM* or mechanics. This is very distinct from what might be called unstructured improv, and highly gameful.

*This can go multiple ways, and often the goal is to get GM to say what happens in some cases, and players in others.
 

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