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.


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


"Improv" is much like other RPG buzz words: it means whatever a player wants it to mean, but it is always "cool".

Somehow, players think the random silly chaotic mess of nothing is better then any plot, drama or story. And some do love it, but I find many don't. Lots of players that find themselves in an improv mess won't play the game much more then an hour. And the way so many players have just pure hate for anything written just odd.

I have always seen published adventures as outlines. I come from the rare side that I don't see RPGs as just games. I see them as something more like a shared simulation. Lots of people love the mechanical RPG style: "my character makes a walking move forward 20 feet" "OH your player walking move triggers my DM monster attack move!" But that is not for me.

Published Modules provide the bare bones of an setting and just ingredients. It takes a good DM to make that come "alive", and not just be "ok, you guys did area D, lets move to area E".

I don't think that is really "improv"'s just "playing the game".

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A suffusion of yellow
I really like using Scene and Scenario Aspects (as per FATE) and of late have been combining them with Dungeon Worlds Fronts to provide me with an overview of the adventures focus (impending dooms) and development (portents) as well as some guidance on likely actions - I find them really useful as improvisation tools and a way to create thematically relevant random encounters.

Scene aspects I like to share with the PCs so they can be used as prompts for players to engage in the scene

Improv is fun, but it does need prompts and tracking tools

aramis erak

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

Your Turn: As a player, do you prefer your game masters to improvise?
As a player, I prefer the GM to have a mix of prepped and improvised. And don't object to random inputs, provided the GM's thumb is weighting the scale before the roll, not after.

As a GM I prefer to riff on a prepared module, especially in investigative games. Largely because I tend to have 2 games a week I'm GMing. I use random inputs as equally as valid as player input; if I go to the roll on a table, I stick with the result. I use random reactions when provided by the game as prescribed; if there isn't one, and the situation's ambiguous, I'll borrow the one from Traveller...

As for entirely improv... well, I've run John Wick's Blood & Honor where the rules themselves are about narrative control, not success nor failure, so I can handle a campaign of that type. (It's the same core mechanics as his Houses of the Blooded. Reskinned to Samurai Japan...
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This feels like a defensive response for something that doesn't need to be a conflict. There's nothing wrong with or lesser about not being an improvisational DM, it's just a different focus. No need to make a tribalistic thing out of it. I'm very much an extremely improvisational DM, do not like running prefab adventures, and with enough caffeine and someone taking notes I could run a campaign with zero prep, but I don't feel anyone who runs things out of the box needs to defend their choice. We don't need more teams.

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.
I think 'read aloud text' can also help in a post-mortem if the players complain about not having any idea about a certain clue, if you can go back and show that this tapestry was absolutely referenced in the text and so they may not have needed as many encounters to realize they needed the Grognard Sword to kill the Thaumavore if someone took note of it.

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