Preparation for Improvisation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of preparation and improvisation. How do you prepare for a session when, two minutes after starting, your players might say, “Hey, you know what?  Let’s go see what’s over there, instead.” The unpredictable nature of our hobby is simultaneously what makes it so unique and so difficult to run. Sure, you can put your players on rails or lead them by the nose to your plot, but at that point, you might as well be writing a novel. So, clearly, improvisation needs to be a well-honed tool in every GM’s kit. However, there’s a lot that we can do before the game starts to make the moment-to-moment improvisational role of the GM a lot easier.

You see, when I run games, I try to minimize the amount of preparation that I have to do and mostly improvise during play. This gives me a tremendous amount of flexibility during actual play and requires almost no”traditional” prep, but it does require some specific types of planning between sessions to be workable. As with any GMing advice, these are methods that work well for me, but are likely not a silver bullet. If you give any of this a try, drop me a line and let me know how it worked out for you!

First, and perhaps most importantly, by the end of each session, you need to know where your players are going to be and what they’re going to be doing at the beginning of the next one. That’s why I almost always try to end my sessions on cliffhangers. Get your players to commit to a course of action, introduce a complication or make a revelation, then end the session. This accomplishes a few things:

  1. It solidifies your players’ commitment to their plans. By providing them with an imminent threat or plot-relevant revelation, you’ve signaled that their choice to pursue a given course of action is meaningful. So, now, they’re more likely to want to see those plans through.
  2. It gives your players something to look forward to next time. Anyone who has watched modern television understands that you always end a season of a continuing show on a cliffhanger, so the fans will come back for more next season.  Any show runner who does otherwise is a sucker.
  3. Since you know where your players are going to be and have at least a vague idea of what their plans are, you can actually make plans that you know you will get to use. This means less wasted prep time and gives you a jumping off point for future improvisation.

Next, write down notes about any NPCs you improvised this session or that you think might make an appearance next session, based on the players’ plans. For each NPC, this needs to include – at a bare minimum – a name (who they are), a role (what they do), and a goal (what they want). Ideally, each character would also have a bit of flavor text (no one like a bland NPC). For example, here are the notes I wrote for the villains of my last D&D game:

  • Korvan, Chosen of Vecna – A powerful sorcerer from Oertmark. He is one of the few mortal servants of Vecna on this plane. Leader of the “Black Company”.
    • Goals: Kill the bronze dragon, Xur’al, collect his heart, and use it – along with the Orb of Unmaking – to resurrect Vecna.
  • Hezra – Barbarian sorceress and one of Korvan’s apprentices. She is mute, having lost her tongue during the Empire’s witch-hunts.
    • Goals: Vengeance. She wants to destroy the Holy Empire of Pelor and believes Korvan can help her accomplish this.
  • Philippe du Blanc – Erudite nobleman turned heretic. Cleric of Asmodeus. He is under a geas from the Lord of the Nine Hells to follow Korvan and ensure his plots come to fruition. Philippe vaguely resents this.
    • Goals: Lead a successful heretical movement and turn the Pelorian faith towards devil-worship.

As you can see, there’s not much for each character, but what’s there tells you exactly what you need to know to run the NPC during play. If it comes to combat, you just need to break out a stat block appropriate to the character in question. At the end of the session, write down any notes that might be relevant to playing the NPC going forward. Also, between sessions, consider how all the important NPCs will work towards their goals. If it’s something that will happen “off-screen”, think of ways to demonstrate it to your players during the next session.

Finally, if your players’ plans include a site-based adventure (such as a traditional dungeon), plan accordingly. Frequently, I don’t have time to draw maps and stat out encounters in the traditional way, so I usually draw my dungeons as a set of connected zones (see the section about zones in Sly Flourish’s awesome article on narrative combat in D&D 5e) and write a few notes about the types of monsters and traps that inhabit this particular dungeon. Then, during play, as the players explore the different parts of the dungeon, I populate the zone with an appropriate encounter based on the above prep work.*

If your players aren’t headed into a dungeon, instead think about cool set pieces or complications that might come up during the next stage of their adventure. These could include everything from a new plot element to an encounter with an NPC the players haven’t run into in a while. Random combat encounters haven’t been fun since Final Fantasy 7, so make sure that whatever you come up with will push the story forward or at least provide an opportunity for interesting character interaction.

For example, if the PCs are headed back to the capital after a successful dungeon adventure, consider what could happen to them at each stage of the journey. Are they ambushed on the road by agents of one of their old foes? Does their arrival in the city coincide with an attack by the villainous sorcerer? Is their audience with the king the moment the evil vizier enacts his betrayal? Keep careful notes on whatever you come up with. Even if you don’t use a specific item next session, you’ll probably be able to use it eventually.

And in just a few simple steps, you’ve prepared for next week’s session. Time for a beer.

M. Hamhock out.

*This is an interesting enough subject that I’ll probably write another post on it sometime soon, so stay tuned!

Preparation for Improvisation

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