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.

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

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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?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Theory of Games

Disaffected Game Warrior
AlltAlly 'm a fan of most published adventures because it takes a lot of the "let's play X" design workload off me shoulders. I just read the module, edit a few things and get things going. In my experience 🤪 writing whole rpg adventures is dissatisfying so the published works are handy.

RE: Improv, as was stated above all GMs have to do it at some point and the more you do it usually the better you get.
 

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Mortus

Explorer
I started my GM life decades ago using published adventures. They still required improvisation for NPCs and unexpected side quests and other shenanigans the PCs would add to the adventure. I simply use characters, plots, and other elements from all the novels, movies, and TV I watched. I also used real life places and buildings I knew for quick maps in my head.

Eventually , I started making up my own adventures. And lastly I went full improv. I now GM with minimal prep using tools like Mythic GM Emulator, Adventure Crafter, the various Game Master’s Apprentice decks, Geomorphic Map Dice, and alignment dice. One of my 5E campaigns is running on almost two years fully improvised. I think it’s the most fun way to play and apparently so do my players.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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'.
Some referees only improv when they have to push the players back onto the railroad tracks of their prep. Over time, I'm sure the players pick up on this and simply stop trying to have agency, stop trying to collaborate, as the referee repeatedly makes it clear the players have no agency and their collaboration is unwelcome as the referee reads the players a story and peppers in a few dice rolls to make the railroad taste a little better.
 

Voadam

Legend
I use a setting and modules and I consider my games full of improv as both I as DM and the players come up with stuff all the time and interact back and forth.

Improv is throughout D&D.

Players have no script, their whole deal is coming up with stuff their characters do and say and how they react.

As a DM every time you speak as an NPC, unless you are reading a quote from read aloud text, you are doing improv.

Every time you have an NPC react, unless you are following a script, you are doing some level of improv. Even loose scripts you still have to come up with your own stuff. So taking success on a persuasion check you improv what the specific reaction of the NPC is using success as the improv prompt. Even if you never speak as the character, the specific reaction you choose is improv.
 

Some referees only improv when they have to push the players back onto the railroad tracks of their prep. Over time, I'm sure the players pick up on this and simply stop trying to have agency, stop trying to collaborate, as the referee repeatedly makes it clear the players have no agency and their collaboration is unwelcome as the referee reads the players a story and peppers in a few dice rolls to make the railroad taste a little better.
This could be the case, but would be odd for the OP, considering the OPs position on player agency from their previous article.
 

We don't make a fuss about the players' need to improvise their characters' reactions and dialog, because that's fairly easy, given that they have only one character to run, and plenty of time to think.

I'm a fairly improvisational GM, having learned what I can do easily, and what I need to prepare. That's the situation: the immediate need or problem, and the reasons for it. Once I know those, and the names of the significant people (I'm not good at improvising those), them GMing is largely a matter of playing the NPCs, in much the same way as I run a PC as a player, and creating the scenery as the players try to figure out what's going on and what to do. That part is easier than the preparation.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I believe the modern adventure module is very misunderstood. There are some folks of an old school mind that simply want a 5-10 room dungeon instruction paint by numbers manual. Dozens of them in fact, so they can just drop one in each week as their game moves ever forward aimlessly except for the next dungeon adventure. That isnt how an adventure path works at all. The "excessive prose" serves as part setting and part ever expanding campaign exposition. The AP needs to be read front to back as prep because it allows a GM to be ready when the players inevitably want to go left, right, up, or down. You need to know the NPCs motivations and how they will react, and more importantly, what proactive steps will they take as the adventure unfolds. An AP isnt a single adventure, its a campaign kit. Its high time that folks understand that a modern adventure is not the cliff notes, all the work has not been done for you.

Now the improvisational GM may only want maps and random charts and tables. They may believe that the prose is their job to provide which is a fine take. There are still modules like this out there, though, they dont have as much popularity as the adventure path. The allure of a grand campaign has become the bees knees. I think its a real disservice that the differences are not spelled out better by RPG companies producing them. I think there is a lack of good improvisational and prep GMs becasue its all deep end of the pool. You try and improvise with little to no guidance, or you try to jam out a level 1-20 adventure in your GMing teething years.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I believe the modern adventure module is very misunderstood. There are some folks of an old school mind that simply want a 5-10 room dungeon instruction paint by numbers manual. Dozens of them in fact, so they can just drop one in each week as their game moves ever forward aimlessly except for the next dungeon adventure. That isnt how an adventure path works at all. The "excessive prose" serves as part setting and part ever expanding campaign exposition. The AP needs to be read front to back as prep because it allows a GM to be ready when the players inevitably want to go left, right, up, or down. You need to know the NPCs motivations and how they will react, and more importantly, what proactive steps will they take as the adventure unfolds. An AP isnt a single adventure, its a campaign kit. Its high time that folks understand that a modern adventure is not the cliff notes, all the work has not been done for you.

Now the improvisational GM may only want maps and random charts and tables. They may believe that the prose is their job to provide which is a fine take. There are still modules like this out there, though, they dont have as much popularity as the adventure path. The allure of a grand campaign has become the bees knees. I think its a real disservice that the differences are not spelled out better by RPG companies producing them. I think there is a lack of good improvisational and prep GMs becasue its all deep end of the pool. You try and improvise with little to no guidance, or you try to jam out a level 1-20 adventure in your GMing teething years.
I'm not disagreeing technically, but philosophically I think you are just plain wrong.

And adventure is a thing to be used at the table and it's entire design should be bent toward that purpose. I absolutely think there should be lore and character/faction motivations and other deep elements, but they don't belong in the thing I use at the table to run the adventure.
 

jasynjonz

Explorer
I don't know. I'm an improv GM. I've tried to do it the other way but I don't have as much time to do the level of prep necessary for it. The Lazy DM stuff was very helpful, but mostly helped with my improv balance. I think, at least for my players, the freedom that comes from improv gives them more agency and control within the story. As a player I've done both and occasionally feel like I'm being railroaded if there is too much prep and detail; alternately, however, an inexperienced DM who is trying to improv can really drag the pace of a game. As in all things, balance is probably the answer.
 

jasynjonz

Explorer
I believe the modern adventure module is very misunderstood. There are some folks of an old school mind that simply want a 5-10 room dungeon instruction paint by numbers manual. Dozens of them in fact, so they can just drop one in each week as their game moves ever forward aimlessly except for the next dungeon adventure. That isnt how an adventure path works at all. The "excessive prose" serves as part setting and part ever expanding campaign exposition. The AP needs to be read front to back as prep because it allows a GM to be ready when the players inevitably want to go left, right, up, or down. You need to know the NPCs motivations and how they will react, and more importantly, what proactive steps will they take as the adventure unfolds. An AP isnt a single adventure, its a campaign kit. Its high time that folks understand that a modern adventure is not the cliff notes, all the work has not been done for you.

Now the improvisational GM may only want maps and random charts and tables. They may believe that the prose is their job to provide which is a fine take. There are still modules like this out there, though, they dont have as much popularity as the adventure path. The allure of a grand campaign has become the bees knees. I think its a real disservice that the differences are not spelled out better by RPG companies producing them. I think there is a lack of good improvisational and prep GMs becasue its all deep end of the pool. You try and improvise with little to no guidance, or you try to jam out a level 1-20 adventure in your GMing teething years.
I am as old school as I can be (Holmes) and I much prefer event and plot based adventures. A site based adventure with no story is boring and prep doesn't seem to help much. A book full of background is what I really crave for an adventure. I'm sure you're right about a lot of DM's however.
 

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