On Improvisation

When I was a boy, my piano teacher once told me that playing a solo is “writing a song onstage”. Being a Dungeon Master isn’t much different than any other type of performance art in this regard. To really differentiate yourself at the table, you need to be able to improvise, and have those amazing moments that will keep people talking about your game week to week. You can spend months preparing a setting and an adventure, and your players will always be able to find things that you haven’t thought about.

So when presented with an adventuring party that does what you didn’t expect, you have two options. The first one is to stop whatever they’re doing, and force them to get back on your very specific path. There’s a temptation to say “Don’t ever railroad your players”, but a little bit isn’t terrible. Forcing the players out of a line of action is really only a good idea when they’re about to start an encounter you didn’t expect, and you don’t want to scramble and quickly roll up a bunch of guards because the players decided to take over a town. I try to avoid having to do this, because it can break the flow of the game, which can lead to distractions, and further derailment.

The second option, and the one that should be preferred, is to roll (no pun intended) with whatever the players want to do. Not only does this not stop the flow of the game, but it also leads to situations that are much more fun than whatever you planned before. If the players want to stop their quest, charter a ship, enslave the crew and become pirates, let them try. If the half-orc wants to try and seduce his way out of an encounter, allow the attempt. Don’t be rigid, don’t say “no that’s stupid”, and don’t let them ever think that you wish they stuck with the plot you spent months writing.

If you play D&D (or GM most tabletop games) and have trouble improvising, you have a set of polyhedral tools to help you. Rely on your dice. You don’t have to dictate the players’ successes and failures, allow the dice to help you. Additionally, get a good feel for the skills, and which one should be used for which situation. I usually DM with a character sheet in front of me, so that I always have a list of what the players can use. Coming up with a good DC is also important, as it is another form of improvisation.

While improvisation is incredibly important, relying on it all the time is a hallmark of an unprepared DM. You need to be at least a little prepared. Personally, I won’t play unless I have a pretty good idea for how the session should go, and I make sure to roll up all my enemies before the session starts. Your players will know when you are improvising all the time, and it can bring some people out of the experience.

Another aspect to preparing is that it without any pre-written history, it is much harder to improvise dialog. As the creator of a campaign setting, you need to prepare some history about the realm, and the characters that show up in it. Give the major NPCs (i.e. the ones that players interact with) at least one motivating factor. Personally, I’m a fan of history, so I typically write a fairly general history going back a couple hundred years. The point is, all you need to do is write  a short backstory for the “Major” NPCs, and they’ll write their own dialog.

While preparation is important, I want to stress that you don’t need to have every possible piece of dialog written in advance (unless you want to of course). Your preparation before the first session should include the setting, some history, the characters motivations, and the mechanistic aspects of the game. The mechanistic aspects are all the things that you need to roll for and should be highly fleshed out before the start of each session. When it comes to a session, I usually write a list of all the stuff I would like to happen for the session. This is as far as I will go when it comes to a “script” for an adventure.

So remember, improvisation is good. If you are playing from a script the whole game, you’re not going to be as engaged, and as a result, neither will your players. Again, this doesn’t mean that you should try and start your sessions completely unprepared. D&D is like having people over for a meal. You aren’t going to start cooking when everyone arrives, you prepare with enough food (game content) so that everyone will have enough. The important thing is to strike a proper balance. If you meticulously plan every possible aspect of your campaign, try loosening it up a bit. If your campaign is an unprepared every session, try writing down three to five bullet points that you want to hit next time, and start from there.

Rules VS Setting

A lot of RPGs have their own painstakingly detailed setting and core adventures which the players are intended to at least read through beforehand. I have never run a pre-generated encounter. To me, over half of the fun of GM-ing is world building. So using someone else’s world is just not as engaging to me. On top of that, using a premade world usually means I have to learn about that world. I tend to make up the characters, plots, encounters, and most other things on the spot tailored to what the group seems like they want to do. Doing that in a set world always concerns me, because I don’t want to contradict an established piece of lore, or character. I use general settings as a basis for the stories I tell, but usually change what appears on the map.The players may be on a different continent than any that are listed in the book.

Everything I just mentioned falls under the setting of a game. Separating the rules from the setting can be fairly difficult, or incredibly easy. In the case of Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, as long as the world you make is in a fantasy-esq setting then you are pretty much good to go. What if you wanted to run a modern era game with the Pathfinder rules? That is also fairly easy. Make up the stats for guns and other technology, decide if magic is present, then limit some of the gear (walking around in a full plate suit of armor is not normal in the modern era… usually). Dungeons and Dragons usually has its rules slightly separated from the setting, at least enough so that it is easy to fudge them to fit into a new world.

The interesting challenges come up when you’re dealing with a game where the setting influences nearly every rule used. Eclipse Phase, Shadowrun, and (to a lesser extent) Numenera come to mind for me. In the first two games the setting is a post human society either with technology (Eclipse Phase) or magic and technology (Shadowrun) having a huge impact on the world. In these cases, the rules are what I wanted to lose. The settings were ones which I actually wanted to make stories for.

Running an Eclipse Phase game in a custom setting is nearly impossible. One of the key features is that your mind can be separated from your body in the form of a digital back up (think Ghost in the Shell), when you die you wake up in a temporary body somewhere at the last time you backed up you memories. It becomes incredibly paranoia driven as you try to find out how much time you are missing and how exactly you died. The setting is one of the coolest I have ever read about, and just writing this now makes me want to play it again. The downside, because of course there’s one, I’m not a huge fan of the rules. Well, I nearly completely hate the rules. It uses a percentile system, something I already don’t like very much, which is varied in slight ways that I don’t fully understand. It’s essentially entirely my own fault I don’t like the rules, but still… percentile systems are lame! The creators have good heads on their shoulders, but my personal dislike of percentile systems makes this game not as appealing to me as others. Though I think I’m going to convert the setting to a D20 system simply because it’s so incredibly cool.

Shadowrun has a similar issue to me. The setting is also super incredibly cool. Essentially, technology has reached new heights and corporations own the world. On top of that, dragons returned to the world bringing Mana with them and re-infusing magic with the Earth. Technology and magic play off of each other in interesting ways throughout the world. You have some pretty cool interactions as a character may pilot a laser tank into a hail of gunfire, fireballs, and magic missiles trying to commit corporate espionage (gone wrong, in this case). Again, I love the setting, but the rules leave much to be desired. This is a dice pool system. Say you attempted to shoot a gun, for instance, you total up the value of the ‘shooting’ skill (we’ll say 4), the value of the ‘aiming’ stat (2, maybe he’s got crappy eyesight),and any additional modifiers (-1, it’s raining. Probably acid rain because it’s the future) to get the total for that skill (5 in this case). You roll that many d6s and total up the ‘hits’ you receive. Hits are usually 5s and 6s, though sometimes they can be 4s, 5s, and 6s. You then total up the ‘misses’ you roll, which are usually only 1s. Then the number of hits minus the number of misses determines if you are successful, and the degree of your success. This system is better than percentile to me, but it can be very punishing. it sucks having a total of over 10 and still rolling 8 1s. In a D20 system you usually only have a 1 in 20 chance of automatically failing (rolling a natural 1), so adding modifiers to your roll has a much more noticeable effect on the game.

The cypher system (used in Numenera and The Strange) is great, they have done a fabulous job making the rules just vague enough to enhance play more than hamper it. There are very few things which actually alter the D20 roll, instead you alter the number you have to match. As the difficulty decrease (because of training or having your character focus on the task) the target number decreases in turn. This makes each encounter much faster to make and run as you essentially pick a bunch of numbers instead of looking up stats and variant rules. In the cypher system character creation is streamlined into writing a sentence about your character. I won’t go in depth into what that means, but just know that it’s really super easy. Making different options for characters in the Cypher system is simple, just follow the power level given by the other options and try not to make the characters incredibly OP (but, again, OP in Numenera is kind of hard to determine). The more challenging part of adapting the rules in Numenera to a new world is all the equipment. It’s not so much a challenge as it is a disappointment. The little items that you can randomly find throughout the world are one of the more fun parts of the experience. Removing the setting from them takes away some of the character they have. Throughout the game characters are intended to find small objects, fittingly called Numenera, which usually have 1 and done effects. Grenades, pills, and single shot guns come up frequently, but sometimes you find something more interesting. Gloves that accelerate someone along a surface, a belt which prevents ALL metal from coming within 5 feet of you, and an emitter which gives everyone around it hallucinations are just the ones which I can remember off hand.

Some RPGs have great settings and poor rules, while some have cruddy settings with fabulous rules. Some have both! To me the setting is more important than the rules for a game. I like learning new rule sets and seeing what different designers come up with for common issues, but what’s most important to me is that the players are having fun. If they are engaged in the setting then, to me, its good enough. It is also important to note that nothing is going to be perfect. There is no ‘quintessential’ RPG world, just as there is no pinnacle of RPG rules. There doesn’t need to be though. The rules just need to be good enough and the setting needs to be interesting enough. The rest is up to the players and the GM.