Have Problems Improvising?

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0816

RPT GM Haukur posed this question to me:

Hey there Johnn. I’m relatively new to DMing. I’m having some problems with improvising. Do you have any improvising tips on encounters and characters, if it’s not too much of a hassle, that is. Thank you.

There are two kinds of improv we do as GMs: creating stuff and roleplaying stuff.

When we improv-create, we connect details of our campaign plans and ideas with current gameplay to decide what’s just around the corner.

When we improv-roleplay, we conjure up details for descriptions, actions and reactions, and connect details to game rules as needed.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to do both at the same time. Figure out first what’s you’ve got on your hands. Decide what the encounter is about or who the NPC is.

Figure out the What first.

Then dig into the details. Appearance, situation personality, and whatever aspects you need to conjure up for portrayal.

This one-two punch helps keep me sane. I don’t try to make-up everything at once.

Breaking it down further, put these questions on your screen:

Question #1: What does the game need right now?

Question #2: What is it or who is it?

Question #3: What are the circumstances or situation or context?

Question #4: What does it look like, what does it do, what’s interesting to notice here at first glance?

We start big, with situational awareness. What’s happening and what do I need to create for gameplay right now? Then we drill down deeper, step by step, without panic, getting closer to the point where we can reveal and provide details for the players.

For example, the players unexpectedly decide to visit the market in a new city.

An entire market!? I don’t have anything planned. Holy crap, what am I going to do?

Deep breaths.

Question #1: The game needs a market. But more than that, what do the players want to do there? Do they want to go shopping, gather information, play drinking games?

Ask them to narrow down further what the game needs right now.

Let’s say the players want to buy stuff, sell stuff, and gather information.

Question #2: What or who is it?

Picture the market in your head. You’ve already got one in mind. We always have a default for anything in our games based on ideas we’ve formed over the years of reading and watching movies.

So go with your default. Then decide if you just want to run with that or tweak it. Do whatever you feel comfortable with.

Part of Question #2 involves putting some borders, constraints, and dimensions around things. For example, is it a big market or a small market? Quiet or busy? Fully stocked or limited on goods and services? Start putting some edges around the thing, and let player questions further fuel your visions and decisions.

Let’s say it’s a small market because we don’t want the game to dwell long here, and you want to keep the party a bit resource-constrained. My default is an outdoor market with temporary stalls, tents, and tables. Like a farmer’s market I go to in real life.

I ask players where they want to go to first. The fighter types ask about smiths. The wizard wants scroll supplies and spell components. The priest wants to find a local temple or shrine  โ€” she doesn’t really need the market at all! The rogue naturally starts putting his hands in pockets โ€” other people’s pockets โ€” and attempts to make contact with the local guild.

Question #3: Context.

I can see several things happening here. The party is splitting up. The players are taking care of class needs. And the group wants to unload some encumbrance. The priest and rogue especially are going to want to game something out.

When this happens I turn to my Loopy Plans and start looking for ways to keep the story moving forward.

How can I use the market as the setting now instead of other plans I might have had?

How could the temple or thieves’ guild help with the demon plot or the missing princess or learning who the fighter’s real mother was?

Further, I’m thinking about the market and asking Why? Why is it small? Why is it a bit poor with its tenuous set up instead of more robust buildings or facilities?

An idea comes to mind. Taxes. The evil baron is at it again. He’s over-taxing. Now I’ve got a bit of a story forming.

In addition, the baron kidnapped the princess, so I’ve got an immediate connection between that plot and the market now through that NPC, though I don’t know how yet or what the transition will be.

Question #4: What does it look like?

Here I draw from my memories of the real life farmer’s market we go to. The vibrant colours of the fruit and vegetables, the homemade pies and deserts, the speciality meats. The families who operate their tables and stalls โ€” farmers and crafters and hobbyists.

I think about the smell of popcorn and grilling meat. I picture the wandering crowd thick in front of some venues. I see kids racing around.

When I don’t have real life memories to draw from, chances are I’ve read about the setting or situation or character type in a book. I also reskin people, places, and things I see on TV and in movies without shame. ๐Ÿ™‚

Hopefully this helps, Haukur. Keep those four questions handy. And start by doing improv-creation. Then get into improve-roleplaying. When all else fails, call a break. Ask for a few minutes and take off to another room to flip through books and think.