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GM Tips: Game Master Improv

"Barbarian Ancient" by Bob Greyvenstein

You've prepared some hooks, whipped up a killer dungeon, and carefully optimized some fun encounters. But five minutes into the game, the party completely nullifies your hard work when they go do something totally unexpected. You don't want to railroad the players, but you also don't know how to adapt to player choice in a totally open world. Here are some techniques and tips that will help you prepare.

1) The Recap

This is a technique I absolutely love. I like to start a session recapping the previous one from the POV of an NPC and generally someone outside the party.

The tavern owner, Marie Starrhurst, was having a fairly slow night before a towering half orc kicked open the door and yelled ‘First round's on me!’ That was a good start. She didn’t realize quite so much clearing up she’d have to do before she went to bed…’

Keep it short. Summarize the best moments. Bring it back to the present.

This accomplishes a couple of things. It hypes everyone up because you all took part in it together last session. It’s sort of like opening with an inside joke. It shows that the other people in the world do have thoughts and feelings and your party has very much had an influence on them. It also lets them know they affect the world and gives everyone time to catch their breath before you dive straight in.

Quick Aside

Want a free adventure you can play tonight with 30 minutes of prep? Have one on us!

2) Be Confident - Have Some Backups

This isn’t anything new. Have NPC lists, monster ideas and even spare taverns up your sleeve. There are so many resource books for these things. You can come up with them yourself, too, if you put in a little time and effort.

NPCs should at the very least have a name, but they could also have a family tree, a job, a dream, and an eyepatch. You can find names in baby books, online generators, headstones, and even census reports. You could then, as an example, use a d4 to decide randomly on how many children and siblings or even spouses they've got if your societies are set up like that. This could result in that the next time someone threatens the shopkeeper they’ll be met with his cry of ‘Please I have three wives and a daughter!

An ‘eyepatch’ is something that will make an NPC memorable. A little visual aid that will help make the character seem real. Thick, curly red hair. Eyebrows like slugs. Bright blue eyes and a broken nose. A peg leg. A lack of neck. That kind of thing.

Don’t spend ages on NPC development. If the party grows fond of them, you can develop them a bit more. Until then, keep ‘em real but keep ‘em simple.

Someone suggested to me once using mall maps (shopping centers) to improve huge dungeons, and we live in 2022 so there are actually online dungeon generators or any number of tools to use to generate random dungeons.

It’s likely only you know the campaign in and out, so as far as anyone else knows- you’re all on track. Sometimes the stew needs a little more salt; you have to have to ready in case you need it.

3) Word Association and Improv Games

Play other games, when you can, that require fast thinking. Here, my ADHD gives me an unfair advantage. Making connections between things fast is a skill you can work on, though. You don’t have to join your local improv group (though you’re more than welcome to) but even board games where the object is to lie or communicate really help with this. Party games like Taboo and Charades really put you on the spot and force you to use your wits. Diamonds are formed by pressure, darling; you will shine, I promise.

The more you practice coming up with things on the spur of the moment, the easier it becomes.

4) Know What the Characters Can Do

Not usually a problem but I’ll throw it in anyway. If you’ve got magic users in your party or are playing a game riddled by PCs with a wide set of skills, make sure you know what your PCs are capable of. You can respond as a GM so much better if you know the limits of their capabilities.

I’ve mentioned this before in another blog post, but if you don’t know why someone’s done something - ask them! You can’t respond effectively if you don’t know what they were trying to achieve. Find out their intended outcome.

5) Slow Everyone Down

If your game sessions are getting a little out of hand, throw some of the following in your PC's direction: New Taverns, Enemies, Riddles, and One-Shots. Keep some riddles in the bag for such occasions and have a couple of cool monsters in line for them to fight. Have your PCs scratching their heads for a short time while you figure out how to get back on track.

One-shots can be used as a much-needed break from a long-standing campaign. You can set it in a different time or place with the same characters, somewhere their actions will still affect the session but not the overarching story. Almost like a practice session.

You remember that time we all went to your Dad's birthday party?’ Que the harp.

What's your best tip for improvising as a GM? Share in the comments below!

~Katherine Liv Leonard

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Jason M
Jason M

My best improv for “open” campaigns is always have a travel encounter, a city street encounter, a “backstory“ encounter for one or more players ready. so if they don’t go with my plan for the session I likely have something to work with while planning.

I try to have 2/3 of these (as the get used and I have to replace them) as non combat. This should cover issues with the characters heading to a new location before you are ready or planning detailing your plans in other ways.

examples of a city scene

- being caught up in a chase by someone running from assailants (may be a thief escaping justice or someone with an assassin after them)


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