by Delos

Improv in Gaming

So I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for an article idea and a friend suggested that I write about how I prep for games. I told him that I don’t. I generally don’t prep anything. So instead let’s look at some ways I improv my games that you may be able to use to make your games more spontaneous.

A lot of where I learned to successfully improv running an RPG was from Apocalypse World (AW). AW and it’s many children (Dungeon World being the biggest brother) push for more on the spot GMing and less prep work before hand. I grew up on D&D 3rd edition and trying to improv that game can be really hard. The amount of data you need to run a single monster is very hard so usually your best bet would be to rail road the players on a predetermined story. If you run a prewritten adventure there is a very good chance this will be a simple railroaded story where players can only really choose which door they kick down first then follow the trail to a predetermined end. Now if your group likes that then more power to you, but I find those game boring to run because all I’m doing is reading a script.

If you want your game to be more free form here are a couple of things you can do to help it:

Keep It Simple at First

When you are improving a game keep the idea of story very simple at first. Your players will find ways to make it more complicated and if they don’t then wait till you find a perfect moment to make it more complicated. Start out with something like “You were hired to find a long lost heirloom in the middle of a war torn country.” Not much to that, but that’s ok cause you’re just starting out. Then you can move on to my favorite trick.

Make The Players Do Some Work

Turning questions back at players is a great way to share the load. A player asks, “I push the button, what happens?” it is perfectly fine for you to say, “I don’t know, you tell me.” If you really don’t know either way let the player have a say in it. They will love you for it. Then build off of that. Nothing can screw up a player’s plan better than giving them what they ask for :P. Some players may always make things as favorable for their characters as possible, but most will just roll with it and come up with something fun. If your gut says, “Nothing good will come from pushing the button.” Then say to the player, “What horrible thing happens to your group when you push the button?” Lead the question a little and let the players fill in the blank.

Keep Your NPCs Simple

Seriously. Give them a name, look, and a simple motivation. An NPC should have a motivation such as “I want to kill the players.” or “I want to get out of this alive.” or “I want to figure out what that smell is.” If you keep their motivation simple then it’s super easy to figure out what an NPC would do in a given situation.

Think of Situations, Not Solutions

This falls into the all or nothing quest idea. Unless you do exactly the right thing there is no way to defeat the big bad. Think of it like those RPGs you played where you could only get the ultimate weapon if you picked the correct line of dialogue your first hour into the game. Doesn’t matter what you do now. You missed your chance. A lot of prewritten adventures do this. Get A to B and insert A into C. You can’t mess with that. But what if one of the players can create just about anything via magic? Now they don’t need to get A. They could make a near perfect fake. What happens when fake A gets put into C?

This is ultimately what you are trying to avoid when you run an RPG. If you force the players to only accomplish what they want to do your way, you’re going to have a bad time. Instead present a situation to them.

There is a cataclysm approaching. What do you do?

Leave it up to the players to figure out the how. Don’t show them where the key is under the rug. Just show them the locked door. Then go with it.

What Do You Do?

I love to end everything I say, while running a game, with “What do you do?” This is a fantastic prompt for the players and gets them invested in the game. If you do nothing else on the list do this tip.

So after reading this article, “What do you do?”


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