In literature on the art of role-playing games there is a lot of writing on prep work, story structure and writing. Although many authors touch upon the aspect of improv I’ve often found it to be just a glancing blow and not the in depth treatment it deserves. Even most of the more in-depth treatments on improv and RPG I found strangely disappointing. I’ve practiced improv in a troupe for several years and I could simply be outside the target audience. However, I do feel that there must be more to be said on the subject.

Now, why am I harping on about improv? Why do I believe it to be such an important skill to master? I would like to argue that improv is fundamentally at the heart of the RPG session. Sure, prep will help a session run smooth. Planning will ensure there is good structure to the story. And crafting maps and artwork will definitely enhance the experience. But when the dice are thrown all that prep and planning fades out to the frame of the events.

As GMs we often like to think that we have it all figured out. However, the players haven’t prepared anything and often react in totally unpredictable ways. As the expression goes: “No plan ever survives first contact with the players.” So, if the players are improvising your masterpiece to pieces why shouldn’t you, the Game Master, respond in kind? In truth, the GM is already improvising but careful planning may make it look otherwise. All you have to realize is that those elements you prepared are, for the most part, served in response to the actions of the players and not according to your own great plan. If you don’t know what you are doing things can quickly go sideways. Like when your players cracks open your detailed design and the abyss stares back at you behind your GM screen.

Now, if improv is really at the heart of RPGs, why is it so hard to come by really solid advice on how to use improv in your games? Why has there been written small libraries on prep, planning, story structure and encounter design? The easy answer might be that it is easier to teach. Improv, after all, is not a rigid art form with clear structures to implement. However, I suspect another, less apparent, reason to be a major contribution to the state of affairs. Most improv oriented GMs are, probably - like me, pretty lazy and couldn’t be bothered with writing treaties on the art form that lets them skimp on the duties of prep and planning. I know I’m guilty as charged, at least.

Nevertheless, exploring and writing on the use of improv in roleplaying gaming is what I aim to do with this blog. Whether you are, like me, the lazy type or you are a hard working GM you will gain tremendously if you learn to embrace improv at the gaming table.

So, what is improv, anyway? Simply put it is a short form of improvisation, meaning the act of improvising. Let’s have a look in the dictionary:

verb (used with object), im·pro·vised, im·pro·vis·ing.

  1. to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation; extemporize:
    to improvise an acceptance speech.
  2. to compose, play, recite, or sing (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment.
  3. to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available:
    We improvised a dinner from yesterday's leftovers.

Each of the three definitions contain information that may help us get a first grip on improv.

Reading the first two definitions we gather that improv is about performing without previous preparation and that it usually happens on the spur of the moment. Both definitions are great and capture much of the essence of improv. However, to an uninitiated these definitions can make improv sound like magic. It is easy to wrongly think that improv is a talent you’re either born with or not. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Improv is a skillset, like any other. And the good news are that not only is it possible to learn, it’s actually surprisingly easy.

The third definition can help clarify and open our minds. Basically all improvisation is about using whatever materials are readily available. Good improvisation always rely on existing material and knowledge. It’s about arranging known elements in new and interesting ways. Surprising new combinations. And occasionally a truly inspired and original idea appear out of the blue taking you completely, and delightfully, by surprise. When this happens, remember that it is a boon. You should never strive towards it. Doing so will only serve to scare the muses away.

Thus, use your prep time to create materials in blocks of content that you can combine on the spur of the moment. For a workhorse GM this means letting up on the control. Relax, man, you’ve already got it covered. For the lazy GM this is actually a reprimand. Trust me, I had to find out the painful way. There is no easy way out of it. Just like a jazz musician practice the scales and plays his instrument in preparation, so the improv GM must spend time getting to know the elements of good storytelling and interesting character dialogue in order to deliver at the time of performance.

It is worth noting that in this context the concept of materials should be expanded to also include techniques and principles. Thus, ironically, good preparation is the foundation of good improv. So if you are a lazy improv GM like me, don’t skimp on prep. Your games will improve manyfold. And if you are a prep heavy GM, let go of control. Your games will soon shine beyond anything you could have imagined.

Improv is the golden road to a game where you, the GM, will be delightfully surprised by the turn of events. No longer will you be the all-knowing storyteller. Instead you will start to experience stories beyond what you could have dreamed of on your own. Through improv the game becomes a collaboration between improvisers with different roles: players and GM.

Finally you break the fourth wall and transcend the role of Game Master and become the Master Player.

I’ve been GMing Dungeons & Dragons for a while now and for the longest time I’ve had an issue with treasure. Not treasure, in and of itself, but the way we usually implement it. Let me tell you about a treasured moment from my early gaming days to illustrate.

My Most Prized Possession

The game took place in the Old World of Warhammer FRP. We had left the Empire and sailed across the Sea of Claws to Norsca, the land of the fierce and warlike Norse. There we met a tribe whose chieftain’s daughter had been captured by orcs. We promised to help and after a short adventure we returned to the village with the chieftain’s daughter unharmed.

A great feast was arranged in celebration of our feat. And during that feast each of us received gifts. My character was bestowed a sword befitting the accomplished fighter he was. The great sword, we were told, had belonged to the tribe’s best fighter. In many battles it had guarded him from harm. During all his days as a great warrior only one single time did he drop his sword – the very same battle he lost his life. That sword became my most prized possession.

Failed Attempts

I’ve always wanted to instill the same kind of feelings in my players. Now, in D&D we traditionally randomly roll treasure on tables to decide what’s in there. And if this works for you keep on rolling. It certainly has it’s virtues. The process is pretty undemanding in terms of thoughtful preparation. You can even make it into something of a game within the game by letting the players take turns rolling. In the beginning we had loads of fun doing this.

However, as my players evolved they delved deeper into the manuals and found specific equipment they wanted for their characters. At that point shopping became an important part of the game. Another consequence was the compulsive hoarding of everything that could be worthwhile selling. While this is fine it quickly consumes large portions of gaming time. Frankly, I don’t have the patience for it anymore as I’m interested in the story aspect of the game. Hence random treasure no longer fit the bill.

I even tried to hand pick treasure and weave it in amongst the random. I hoped it would prove interesting and special to players. But what’s interesting is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Most often the players were not impressed and would sell the thing at first opportunity. They simply have their eyes on another prize. All that research finding interesting stuff usually turned out to be a huge waste of time.

A Working Solution

The better part of the next two years my solution was a simple one. At the end of each session I just doled out a chunk of gold for each of them. How much was determined by the wealth expectancy table and the speed of advancement. Between sessions they could spend the gold in whatever way they wanted or save it for a later purchase. Sometimes I restricted what they could buy based on their current location in the game world.

The beauty of this solution is that it completely removes the burden of generating treasure from the game master. At the same time the players get exactly what they want. From time to time when you want to or need to give them something specific, simply give them less gold to compensate for the extra value. The only thing you as game master have to keep track of is the amount of money the players have received.

It worked but I wasn’t content. There was this sterile sensation and it bugged me. Gold just magically appeared in the PCs’ inventory at the end of each session. And it also meant that their opponents couldn’t have valuable equipment. Or if they did, I faced the problem of explaining why the players couldn’t take take it. As a story oriented game master I needed a better solution.

A Stroke Of Insight

One day I listened to a podcast where I heard about a player who had planned the equipment he wanted ten levels in advance and gave this list to his GM. This is brilliant, I thought. Why not ask players to plan their equipment as well as their levels? This way they get to tell me what they want and when they want it, and I get to decide if and how they get it. Everybody wins.

But alas, when I first proposed the concept to my group what I heard was grumbling. No big surprise, really. After all this meant new work for them between sessions. I understand that they have busy lives. But so do I and who should really be responsible for the player character? The player, of course! I insisted.

Not all of my players jumped to the task with enthusiasm. Some of the lists I got were wooly enough to be next to useless. I decided that I had to give them a hand. Thus I created a spreadsheet that would make it easy for them to create a wishlist. Happiness ensued.

How To Use Treasure

So now, when I have a nice list of stuff I know my players yearn for, what can I do with it? Tell memorable stories, of course! Here are some ideas on how to do it:

When your players have completed a mission you can have an important NPC in your world reward them with stuff from the list. Since you know what it is you are giving them you can prepare some short story about each piece of equipment that makes it stand out as something important, just like the sword I told you about.

An NPC will quickly become important in the eyes of the players if the NPC grant them wished for items. You can probably count on the players protecting such a benefactor with all they’ve got. Remember that the NPC in this case should grant the gifts as a token of trust and friendship, not as a payment for a service.

Make the main villain and his closest henchmen all the more dangerous and hated by equipping them to the teeth with the very weapons the players desire. This way they are sure to go after them. As a side benefit you can make the big bad and his followers into a twisted mirror image of what the players seek to become.

Another possibility is to use the items to set them up. Let them know what can be gained but keep the consequences in the dark. Be careful not to do this often as that will make your players a very suspicious lot. You don’t want to lose their trust.

Finally, if you ever find your players won’t go where you want them to, now you have a great tool to entice instead of force. Simply make sure they learn, from an NPC or some kind of document like a map, that the stuff they want can be found somewhere where you want them to go. You might even find that they are willing to go far out of their way to get their hands on these things.

Some Problems To Look Out For

Of course the system isn’t perfect. For one, players will usually want to avoid expendables in favor of permanent items. This leads to a power creep as the wealth tables assumes that a certain portion of equipment is either expended or traded at a loss.

To mitigate this effect I ask them to plan within about 80% of expected wealth. That way I have some wriggle room to hand out stuff I know they’ll need or that I fancy putting in front of them. Healing potions, for instance, are always useful as treasure. And the beauty of the spreadsheet I made is that it automatically calculates the percentages for each level.

Another danger is that they will plan too far into the future sacrificing immediate benefits for long term power. However, I believe I solved this as well. When a player thinks that a piece of equipment has become obsolete, either because it’s no longer useful or that it needs an upgrade, he only mark it as such. The sheet then alerts me that this piece of equipment is ripe for removal. Now it’s easy for you to make it an element in your ongoing story somehow.

I was just about to grow my first beard when it happened. Two classmates decided it was time I lost my virginity and during the lunch break that day they introduced me to Warhammer Fantasy RPG. Fittingly, I got to play a dwarf about to investigate some troubles in a mine shaft. The adventure ended abruptly when the bell called us to yet another tedious lesson, but I was completely and utterly hooked.

This was just before the seventeenth of May - Norwegian National Day - and my classmates gregariously let me borrow the wonderful Warhammer Fantasy RPG book during the holidays. I should tell you that the National Day is quite a big deal in Norway. From early morning practically everyone marches in the streets with banners and music, waving flags, blowing buzzers and what-not. Later in the day there are lots of activities and friendly competitions with prizes for kids of all ages. But not me. That day I refused to be dragged away from my newly found treasure. Perched in the sofa all day I avidly read pretty much everything in the book in great anticipation of my next bout of gaming. I was a young man in love.

Now, unfortunately there was an obstacle. You see, to get to school I had to travel north from my very rural homestead by train, and the ride took about twenty minutes. In and of itself a minor inconvenience and it wasn’t as if I lacked company during the trip. I had good friends from my home town... er... village who went to the very same school. What troubled me, however, was the fact that my RPG-playing classmates lived inthe more posh sub-urban area further ten minutes north of our school. And my driver's license was still two years off into the future. Understandably there were no after school RPG sessions anywhere near in sight.

The Bravery of the Innocent Makes a GM

But I refused to be denied my love! With a passion I recruited my local friends who, to my delight, willingly complied. As instigator the role of GM naturally fell on me. I did my very best, which, in retrospect, wasn’t much to brag about. After all I had practically no idea as to how to run a good game. Luckily, my school mates invited me to their week-end games, although they were rather infrequent and far between, at least in the beginning. Being a freshly baked GM with no clue whatsoever of what he was doing I blatantly ripped off the sessions I had with my school mates and replayed them with my friends. But because of the great difference in frequency I quickly ran out of material and had to make up a lot of stuff on my own.

When I come to think of it now it never really occurred to me to draw inspiration from books or movies, strange as it may seem, despite me having been an avid consumer of books and films for nearly ten years already. So I bet my games was pretty sucky. Fortunately the novelty of gaming and the joy of acting out the weirdest strange stuff kindly covered up this fact.

As Innocence Fades

Nevertheless, I had this growing feeling of inadequacy. You see, running the game for my friends at home never came close to the awesome experience of playing with my school mates. It always felt kind of flat and contrived. Being the GM left me feeling unsatisfied, slightly hollow. Thus, as I grew older and found groups with GMs I spent more and more time as a player. Occasionally I would try my hand as the GM but the horror of it was pretty overpowering and only growing worse as I aged. The Fear of the Seat got into my bones!

As the years passed a sort of restlessness settled on me. I could see it in the frequency by which I retired characters and built new ones. I just couldn’t stay happy with one character for very long. At first I dismissed it for various reasons; the character didn’t fit in with the rest of the group; suddenly I came up with a more interesting character concept that I couldn’t wait to try out; or I just felt that the character didn’t come to it’s right in some way or another during sessions. For a while I suspected that I just might be too restless to play any one character for extended periods of time. Then the truth of the matter became apparent to me: the GM Seat beaconed to me. That would be the place, I realized, where all my quirky ideas and characters would truly come to their right. My true RPG calling was to be a GM. There was nothing other to it. I simply hadto throw myself to the sharks, so to speak. Hence I did.

The Return to My RPG Calling

In the beginning I was all but free falling, flailing like a madman. And when finally I hit the surface my feet barely got wet for all the sharks. At least that was how it felt. I knew the system but I didn’t know the setting all that well. And on top of that I was too proud and stubborn to even consider using an existing adventure module. Oh, yes, I had to do it all myself. This was the beginning of a very long period of frustrations. At first I just scrambled to pull sessions together with a semblance of coherence. I had no shortage of ideas, mind you. What had me stumped was how to put it all together.

I put my trust in improvisation but that was not very helpful to me. It’s not that I’m a stranger to improvisation and I believe I'm pretty decent at it. I did my fair bit of theatre sports in my early student days and recently I’ve picked it up again. It’s good practice and there’s lots of gold to be found but it doesn’t really help you develop your narrative muscles. Don’t get me wrong, impro is a vital skill for a GM to master. But cooking up a whole intricate plot on the spot is a whole different story. There are probably people who can do that but most of can’t.

Frustrations Are Mounting

As time went by I found myself working the system more than developing the plot. There was so much crunch to take care of - challenge ratings and encounter difficulties, monster stats, NPCs to be created, PCs leveled up and impacted my prep, treasures and loot had to be calculated, tracking XP and GP doled out to the party and matching this with what my players expected. What the funk was this?! I didn’t sign up to be a bleeding accountant! And later, after I moved and started to play via online platform, there was all the techno-graphical stuff setting up the virtual table for play. While I enjoyed that part well enough it still stole a lot of time from what I really wanted to achieve: creating great, interesting plots and NPCs.

Playing Pathfinder, as we did at that time, was not helping me as it is quite a crunchy and detailed system. Looking for a solution I asked my players if they would be willing to try out some other systems that leaned more towards a storytelling approach. I thought maybe I heard a weak voice peeping in agreement but the main chorus was a roaring no. I faced two alternatives. The first one was to assemble a new group with players more inclined towards my own tastes. At the time I wasn’t tempted. These were my long time friends and RPG buddies, after all. So I decided to go with the second option: to work with what I had.

A Stroke of Insight

Quickly I realized that what I really needed were RPG tools. Tools to help me prepare, assets to help me quickly build maps and encounters, auto calculating spreadsheets to help me plan and record, and templates to help me design my plots. I found some great books.I unearthedlots of useful advice and tools on the internet. Buyingart assets in the roll20 marketplace helped. I tested all the tricks of the trade that I came over. Still I didn’t find enough time to work on my plots and characters. Which left me running the game with just loose ideas in mind. To be fair that worked well enough. But the pain of seeing my wonderful ideas and character concepts flattened into platitudes during play was nearly unbearable.

Next, I surrendered my pride and ran a published adventure. To my surprise that turned out to be nearly as much work as doing it all myself. What’s more, for some reason my players didn’t enjoy it as much. But I learned an important lesson: because I had things planned out in advance I didn’t get all anxious about running the session. I had a good idea about where it all was going, what would happen next, who would be there and what they would say. Most of the stuff I needed was already prepared. And from this relaxed state I responded to unexpected turns of events with ease, improvising the stuff I needed to fill in the holes. Taking this to heart I began putting greater effort into prep, which led to yet an interesting discovery: usually I had material to spare when the session was over that I could use in an upcoming session, reducing prep time.

Look to the Future

Now that I have begun to pin down the technical aspects of game mastering it’s time to put more more of my effort into developing the story and character aspects of the game. If you're new to game mastering or are struggling to get to grips with it please subscribe to my newsletter because I'd like to share all of my RPG discoveries with you, in particular those pertaining to the GM.


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