How Much Do You Improvise During Game Sessions?

Before I dig into today’s tips, a couple of news items.

First, I created a poll related to today’s tips on my Discord. You’ll find it in the #general channel here. (And here’s an invite to the Roleplaying Tips Discord if interested.)

Second, I was recently a guest on the StoryTogether TTRPG Podcast. Watch the episode on YouTube.

How Much Do You Improvise During Game Sessions?

I was asked how much I improvise during game sessions.

I employ my “Prepare to Improvise” approach, featuring numerous mental models from my Wizard of Adventure program for spontaneous creation, including 5 Room Dungeons, 3-Line NPCs, Encounter Seeds, and 3 Round Combat Plans.

However, my answer might surprise—and perhaps confuse—many GMs:

More than you’d think, and less than you’d think.

Typical Canadian, unable to pick sides, eh?

More Improv Than You’d Think

It’s not just me; it’s you too.

If you criticize yourself for being poor at improv, take heart. You’re much better than you believe. Consider all the words we say in a typical game session. We portray all the NPCs and monsters. We describe corridors, rooms, streets, and buildings. We respond to the players’ queries.

Most of your dialogue is unscripted. You didn’t prewrite every word; nor could you, particularly with unforeseen character actions and player choices.

Thus, you’re already inventing a considerable amount in response to gameplay every session. Well done!

Less Improv Than You’d Think

That said, I do enjoy crafting encounters, NPCs, and treasures (trinkets and artefacts especially).

For each session, I maintain several “control” documents, ready to deploy. This “control” concept comes from my days as a project manager, where I needed mechanisms to track project progress, responsibilities, and trends.

Behind my screen (technically on my computer), I have my Loopy Plans, Story So Far, Player & Character Dossiers, and Session Worksheet. These take about an hour to update, though not everything is revised between sessions.

At the start of a session, I have my “3 bullet” encounters, numerous Back Pocket Encounters, and sometimes a Back Pocket 5 Room Dungeon ready.

I’ve also updated or created various tables and generators, like Devils’ Bargains, NPC Names, Settlement Names, rumours generator, and encounter seeds generator. These accumulate over time, enhancing my GM Toolbox as my campaign progresses.

In other words, I feel most secure and confident entering a session if I’ve built the skeletons of things. I then flesh them out during the session.

For instance, I may outline an encounter in Campaign Logger but defer deciding on its TDL (Target Difficulty Level) until it’s triggered in play. I aim to gauge the table’s mood, consider the pacing, and progress to the next story beat, among other factors that aren’t clear until we’re in the midst of the game.

Moreover, elements that endure player interaction might receive some attention between sessions too. I aim to Reuse, Reskin, and Recycle as much as feasible.

Therefore, I do a lot of preparation between sessions to build out these skeletons, ensuring I’m Prepared to Improvise.

And it seems I have plenty of hooks, seeds, and skeletons in Campaign Logger ready to be driven like stolen cars during gameplay.

So, it feels to me like I improvise far less than folks might think.

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Quick Tips

Before wrapping up today, here are a couple of tips I’ve been using recently.

Yes, And…

When employing this improv technique, you might be overly focused on the transition (the And part), which can add cognitive load or stress at the game table.

So, consider Yes as the current situation.

Then consider And as the new scenario you want for the players.

The middle and invisible part is The How. How do we transition the party from the current situation (Yes) to the future situation (And)?

The GM pitfall we often fall into is fretting over the transition first. We know our Yes—that’s our present situation. Next, instead of determining the new situation we want, we agonize over how we’ll move the party there.

Without clarity on the new situation, we can’t forge an effective transition! If we’re unclear on what the new situation entails—where it’s located, who’s involved, etc.—we lack sufficient context to improvise the transition effectively.

Does that make sense?

So, next time you use Yes, And… think this way:

  1. What is the current situation?
  2. What is the new situation?
  3. What’s the transition?
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Ask More Questions

In any scenario, players typically know their objectives.

They might want to locate a stealthy entrance, extract key information from a villain, or use their skills, abilities, and equipment to solve puzzles.

When improvising, we often feel a need for omniscience, which we believe grants us control, boosts our confidence, and thereby enhances our improv capabilities, fueling a desire for even more omniscience.

Despite its impossibility, we should detach this need from our ability to improvise confidently.

One way to do this is by asking more questions.

Start with broad queries such as:

  • Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • What do they hope to achieve?
  • Why are they taking this approach?
  • What concerns them, especially if they begin over-planning or overthinking?

Then, pose more specific questions like:

  • What is their current condition?
  • What’s missing?
  • What do they need to succeed in this action?
  • Who might they have overlooked?
  • What resources do they currently have?
  • How can they utilize the environment to their advantage?
  • What’s the most evident obstacle in their way?
  • Who stands to gain from their actions?
  • What could go wrong if they fail?
  • How will their actions impact their relationship with NPC X?
  • What assumptions are they making?
  • What would their character dread happening right now?

Whenever feasible, pose these questions in-character through NPCs. This approach not only garners additional ideas and material for you to improvise with but also helps you devise options and solutions.

Thus, when you need to stall for time to think, or when you’re stuck, start asking players questions about their declared actions. Use their responses to advance the Infinite Game in a way that encourages them to comfortably engage in similar dialogues in the future.

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Preparing to Improvise

You improvise more than you realize. Give yourself some credit for that.

We also benefit from preparing the skeletons of concepts, giving us foundational material to riff off during sessions.

Employ mental models and frameworks like the 3 Clue Rule, the 5×5 Method, and 3-Line NPCs to guide your creativity and thought processes behind the screen.

Have more fun at every game!

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