Here’s How One GM Improvises Plots & Campaigns

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Ok, onto today’s tips.

Here is a fantastic overview of one GM’s approach to improvising campaigns and plots.

RPT GM Lord High PigMonkey (Andrew) and I have a large overlap in our approach to campaigns. Andrew emailed me and we started chatting. I asked him at one point:

Well said, Andrew.

Do you run campaigns at all?

I have trouble improvising plots that make sense over the long term. GMs I’ve played under have also tried, but soon their stories unraveled.

And Andrew gave me a fantastic response about his campaign structure that I’d like to share that with you today to noodle on. (I’ve added bolding in some spots to call out a few key things.)

Take it away, Andrew….

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Improvisation is About Practice

People seem to think Improv is just making it up on the spot. This is not true. There are hours of practice with a team of people you have to trust.

Just like gaming, the prep time on good improvisation theatre is an ongoing practice. I was a professional improviser for a few years. I love to improvise, it’s my strength.

Here is the biggest secret to being an Improv DM: NEVER TELL ANYONE YOU ARE AN IMPROV DM. If you keep the game moving forward, at pace, they will never know. And if they begin to suspect, narrow your eyes and call for a saving throw, give them something else to think about for a minute.

Most of my prep is framework. I have a general idea of where the adventure goes, what the main antagonist is doing that session, and if there are any proactive plot points that are going to show up this game.

After that, I set the scene, and my players do most of the work. They give me suggestions, though they rarely know they are doing it, and I throw new ideas into the mix as they go along to keep the story and action fresh.

I have been playing a long time, so I have a bunch of one page dungeons, a few 5RDs, a few physical puzzles, and enough practice I can run a “cold start game” in about the same time it takes players to make a character.

This method is not for everyone, you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable to get good at it. I like riding that razors edge of not knowing what is going to happen next.

The trick to improv is practice. You have to suck a lot before you get good at it. I suspect that is why there are few Improv DMs. It is a stressful way to learn, and the imposter syndrome is strong behind the screen. Most players won’t notice. You get uncomfortable because you feel you are being too obvious as a DM. I promise you are not.

One last thing… “Yes, and” is a brilliant skill to move the story along.
However, tying into the failing forward email from a few days ago, “NO, but” is the most valuable skill to keep the story from grinding to a halt.

The Plot is in the Framework

Improvising plot is my preferred way to play.

The framework is essentially:

  • The world they wrote.
  • The history they wrote.
  • The plot hooks the DM needs.
  • The ultimate goal of the bad guys and their evil theme.
  • The thing that prevents the villains from success (this should be “the players” ASAP).

The framework is set in session 0. If you don’t have one, it’s REALLY HARD to be an improv DM.

We Make the World as a Group

I start by getting “ask fors” for the game. These are guided questions to aid any story construction and villainous plot.

  1. Get the flavor players are looking for.
  2. Set in place the tragedy that befell a previous generation within (human) memory. (War, famine, magic plague, invasion, etc.)
  3. Get info on 1-3 “big players” in the world everyone knows about.
  4. Have them build 1-3 big set pieces of some significance.
  5. I add my ideas to setting, and share anything relevant characters would know (i.e., big industry, local geography). These could be askfors as well.
  6. In a four or less player game, they must establish one prior relationship with another character. In a five or more player game, two previous relationships between characters.

And Then I Screw With It

Into this framework I:

  1. Add my villainous plot.
  2. Break that plot into bullets and align any possible overlaps.
  3. Combine as many NPC roles as possible into one.
  4. Make a plot web and get a visual representation of the crossover.

This way, your plot hooks and mysteries are revealing where the plot web crosses over one at a time.

Now, the PCs can do anything or nothing and the plot is still gonna cross them. And, sooner or later, they are going to want to know what the hell is going on.

If they go off the plot, you have a seemingly unassociated plot thread for them to run into that brings them back into the story.

It’s not completely foolproof (I refuse to underestimate the ingenuity of players) but offers a solid foundation.

In addition, you can plug ‘n play just about any adventure, 5 Room Dungeon, or One Page Dungeon into this. After a few sessions, I find my players are dealing the consequences of their decisions anyway and often don’t need other things to do.

Add Wonderment

Finally, for me, what makes a game feel alive is wonderment.

It’s the feeling of childhood. When you are a child, the world works in a relatively simple way, there is no nuance or deception. As a DM… that is you… nuance and deception.

Wonderment comes from the discovery that the world does not work the way you think it did. As a DM, you use nuance and deception to let players make their own story about what is happening. The more they puzzle it out, and the more they diverge from the plot, the bigger the surprise when the truth is revealed.

A key move as a DM is to use their backstory from an NPC point of view. What the player says happened to their character happened — don’t ever change that, it’s a gift. But the player who created that history only has part of the story, the player’s perspective.

The more a DM fills out a player’s back story (while not changing the player’s written history) the more wonderment at how the player did not know this before.

One of my favorite ways to get wonderment is to have the players interact with NPCs in their history before they know the significance of that NPC. Get them to tell their back stories to NPCs regularly. The more they say the same thing over and over, the more they will feel it is the truth.

If they figure out your little schemes… that’s better than being surprised by a revelation, because they were right.

Every revelation must contain the familiar and the unfamiliar. Something the players know well, and something completely different and unknown, that changes the understanding of the player and character simultaneously.

Some examples:

  • It’s the sheriff’s dog, not the sheriff, that is the demon that cursed the town.
  • Royal blood? That’s why people are trying to kill me?
  • Your parents have been helping you to stop the evil cult and collect the MacGuffins, but they are the cult leaders, and you are the sacrifice.
  • Your family isn’t dead after all. It’s your sister that has been hunting the party the whole time.
  • Wait… the urchins we have been feeding are your dragon hatchlings?
  • That kindly old man who helped raise you after your family died was the one who killed them in the first place.
  • What do you mean my magic helmet is a living creature?

Characters and Players learning the same thing, at the same time, that they both thought was something different.

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Thanks for sharing your GMing wisdom, Andrew! If you are reading this, I’d love to learn more about how you create your “plot web”, and maybe a screenshot or two, if that’s possible.

In my world, Preparing to Improvise follows a similar path. Accumulate resources, experience, and GM Moves over time. Get players to help build the campaign by mining their back stories and gameplay consequences. And run a central plotline that becomes a background events Plot Factory serving up obstacles on whatever path the party decides to pursue instead.

Have more fun at every game!

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