Worlds of Design: The Improv Imbalance

GMs with more experience can improvise better than those with little experience. That doesn’t help the GM shortage.

game-2676034_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Virtues of Published Adventures​

We previously discussed improv as a form of play, which has changed out of necessity from being the only way to play (because there were no published adventures) to a less common approach. There’s a reason for this.

Gamemastering is a (usually unpaid) job, and like any job it’s sometimes fun, sometimes not. Most people would rather play character(s) than game master. Published adventure modules have reduced the burden on GMs, effectively doing much of the planning for the GM.

Consider how popular ready-made adventures are. In a sense, commercial modules have replaced random dice tables as a way to help out GMs, especially novice GMs. Original D&D encouraged improvisation partly because ready-made adventures were scarce at the time. Yet if GMing were all improvisation and “home brew”, there would be many fewer GMs.

Improv Pros​

Improvisation may be more fun for some GMs, because they don’t know what will happen ahead of time. They can feel more like a player, less like a GM. I think this is a strong attraction for some, despite the extra time it takes to roll on tables to determine what happens. Fair enough, but that’s not a recommendation that everyone MUST do it this way, or that it is mysteriously superior.

Some people believe that the more the GM improvises, the more input comes from the players. I confess I don’t see that. But here again, those who are opposed to storytelling RPGs may feel that players have more Agency (effect on what happens) when the GM improvises.

I strongly suspect that fans of improvisation see it as a “defense” against linear storytelling. Storytellers must control what happens, most create their stories beforehand, so they must plan and control what happens to match their story. Yes, there are a few people who can improvise a good story, making it up as they go along, but those are likely as rare as comedians who are great at improv. Where much or all of an adventure is improvised, detailed storytelling will almost never exist.

Improv Cons​

A danger of improvisation as a “way of life” in GMing is the possibility of “brain fever” results in the heat of the moment that work poorly for the game in the long run. It can be fantastical rather than sensible, like a whacko novel rather than a typical one. The “Rule of Cool” (“if it’s cool, put it in the game”) tends to sneak into improvisation. Some like that, many do not.

If the GM relies on dice tables for improvisation, skewed results (as in a wildly unlikely die roll for monsters or treasure) can be even worse.

My Preferences​

Some people tout maximum improvisation to be the best way to play. This isn’t my preference, but shows yet again that there are a great many ways to enjoy RPGs.

I believe in being prepared. There was a time early in my D&D play when I would roll for random monsters and roll for what turned up as it appeared. Now I roll up a few on my own tables matched to the area ahead of time so that the game can move along rapidly, and so I know exactly what’s going on. I can also avoid ridiculous monsters or treasure turning up.

That said, I think everyone has to improvise at least occasionally, because no set of rules covers Everything. Players will often go where you didn’t expect them to go. But by setting up a situation rather than a particular path, I can and do avoid most improvisation.

Your Turn: As a player, do you prefer your game masters to improvise?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Oryzarius

Strigiform Storyteller
Supporter
I think another category is needed.

To me, “improvisation” implies an active, creative choice, in the moment — “Hm, I wonder what should be behind the door? Ah! The ogre guards!” — rather than simply acceptance of random results from an outside source — “What does a roll of 73 mean?”. Yes, the two can be and often are blended (“How can I make this random roll make sense? Oh, the stone giants must be hired mercenaries.”), but to me it’s the source of the information that’s important.

So you’ve got, in order of difficulty for new GMs, pre-planned adventures (where the published text sets the basis), random adventures (where rolled table results provide the input), and improvisational adventures (where the GM’s own responses to the players’ actions generate the material).

Obviously, in the real world, all three aspects may be present: the GM starts with a published work, occasionally rolls dice to decide among possibilities, and sometimes just does what “feels right” for the table. But those are still three separate sources for the decision-making.
 


Reynard

Legend
Gamemastering is a (usually unpaid) job, and like any job it’s sometimes fun, sometimes not. Most people would rather play character(s) than game master. Published adventure modules have reduced the burden on GMs, effectively doing much of the planning for the GM.
They may reduce the "planning" part of prep, but they don't necessarily reduce the amount of work necessary. Or, at least, modern adventures do not. Back when an adventure was a 16 page pamphlet composed primarily of a keyed map or two, that may have been true, but the thick books full of walls of prose don't make the GM's life much easier. In addition, since modern D&D has more player options, both between and within individual characters, it is harder and harder to write an adventure that works as written for any given group. Therefore, the GM still has a bunch of work to do prior to play.

Improv alleviates most of these problems, but you are right to say that improv is easier for more experienced GMs. What less experienced GMs need is improv tools that are built into the system. That includes lots of easy to digest and immediately use situations, scenarios, set pieces and NPCs. An "adventure" that is a town, a local wilderness, and a bunch of potential side quests, all presented in small digestible bits on cards or similarly discrete bits, will go a lot longer teaching new GMs how to run games on the fly than any number of modules written in the modern style.

There are ways to write and (visual) design modules to make them much easier to run for new and experienced GMs alike. Unfortunately, only indie designers and publishers seem interested in exploring that space while WotC, Paizo, Kobold and every other "traditional" publisher continues to obfuscate the fun with dubious prose.
 

talien

Community Supporter
There are ways to write and (visual) design modules to make them much easier to run for new and experienced GMs alike. Unfortunately, only indie designers and publishers seem interested in exploring that space while WotC, Paizo, Kobold and every other "traditional" publisher continues to obfuscate the fun with dubious prose.
For me, this comes down to "is there read aloud text" or "bulleted item lists" for descriptions or not. As much as "read aloud" text is mocked sometimes, it clearly indicates what's meant to be read aloud to PCs. So often, there's stuff buried everywhere -- treasure, notes, clues. The DM has to figure that out, process it, and then be able to dredge that info up as PCs explore a room. At least if you clearly identify what's "for the PCs" and "what's for the DM" you can then choose to improv as needed, vs. HAVING to improv because the designer added "there's a trap in the desk" two paragraphs past the desk description.
 

Reading this:
Some people believe that the more the GM improvises, the more input comes from the players. I confess I don’t see that. But here again, those who are opposed to storytelling RPGs may feel that players have more Agency (effect on what happens) when the GM improvises.
I strongly suspect that fans of improvisation see it as a “defense” against linear storytelling. Storytellers must control what happens, most create their stories beforehand, so they must plan and control what happens to match their story. Yes, there are a few people who can improvise a good story, making it up as they go along, but those are likely as rare as comedians who are great at improv. Where much or all of an adventure is improvised, detailed storytelling will almost never exist.
And then coming to a section header titled 'Improv Cons'..was rather disorienting. Had to do a double take to see that I was in the "Pros" section.

My preference is for player-action responsive GM-ing. Sometimes that's just doing enough improv to "hide the rails"; sometimes it's changing the trajectory of a campaign as a consequence of player actions.
 

Reynard

Legend
For me, this comes down to "is there read aloud text" or "bulleted item lists" for descriptions or not. As much as "read aloud" text is mocked sometimes, it clearly indicates what's meant to be read aloud to PCs. So often, there's stuff buried everywhere -- treasure, notes, clues. The DM has to figure that out, process it, and then be able to dredge that info up as PCs explore a room. At least if you clearly identify what's "for the PCs" and "what's for the DM" you can then choose to improv as needed, vs. HAVING to improv because the designer added "there's a trap in the desk" two paragraphs past the desk description.
Yup. I personally think the "read aloud" text should be brief, but I agree with your overall point: resent this information for actual use at the actual (or virtual!) table. Spend your word boudget on the adventure background and NPC personality sections.
 


What a strange article.

“I don’t get improv. I hate improv. Improv sucks. And no one should do it. Here’s an extra 1000 words.”
I think one of the missing pieces here is what scope of improv the OP is referring to.

Is it just encounter design, campaign design, something else?

I find 'I almost never have to improv' to be a suspicious assertion given the many chaotic ways in which players can and do interact with setting elements (and the many many opportunities for them to do so)..

..unless there is some scope of GM responses to those chaotic interactions that can be spontaneous without the OP considering it to be 'improvised' for whatever reason. If this is the case I would be curious to know what those responses would be, and to hear why the OP views such responses as something other than 'improvised'.
 

Related Articles

Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Recent & Upcoming Releases

Top