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Improve with Improv

Jason Strasser

Most people associate improvisation with jazz, yet improvisation is the heart and soul of being a good Dungeon Master. No skill is more useful or more called upon, nor so separates the masters from the novices.

It is essential to the seamless progress of a tightly woven campaign that you, the DM, be ready for any eventualities that the ever-crafty players may come up with. This is not merely a matter of assuming a few probable courses of events and planning for them, nor is it simply resorting to manipulation of NPCs and settings willy nilly. Players deserve a reasonable, consistent reality.

A DM who tries to influence the players to follow a carefully plotted adventure inevitably winds up restricting them and impinging upon the necessary illusion of freedom. No one wants to play in a world where everything is obviously predestined. Free will is important, as it draws the players deeper into the game. It therefore behooves the wily DM to give the players all of the rope they need to hang themselves. This is where the improvisation comes in.

Like a jazz musician, the experienced DM has a few scenarios (scales) and characters (chords) up his sleeve to throw out in response to any situation he may find himself in. The real art is in the spontaneous application of these templates in real time. As DM, you must be able to follow the changes, moving effortlessly between scales in response to the chord changes. Changing the scenario to fit the changing characters is the key to improvisation. The flexibility to adapt constantly to the mood, sentiment, and attention span of your particular cast of characters lies in intelligent and tasteful application of this principle.

Improvisation is a delicate balance between order and chaos, a balance that constantly shifts and is extremely tenuous.

Say, for example, that your players are between adventures or embarking upon a fresh one. A poor DM would simply tell them what happens to lead them to the next scenario. This, however, is an excellent opportunity to draw your PCs in by using a little improvisation. Instead of telling the players what happens to them, let them do whatever they want to do. In fact, try to stay out of their way. Simply describe for them the locations they place themselves in. Then use NPCs and elements natural to the setting to introduce plot threads. Be subtle, allowing the players and the natural inclinations of the NPCs to dictate the action. On the other hand, something dramatic must happen in the first few minutes in order to hook your players in and perk up their interest in continuing.

I have seven “golden rules” useful in DM improvisation.

1. Listen to the players
DMs often ignore the valuable information that players knowingly and unknowingly hand them throughout the game. The most important information you can glean from your players is whether they are having fun. Sometimes we forget why we play these games, so it is vitally important to gauge the player’s level of interest in a given subject or aspect of play.

Try to ascertain what sort of adventure they want, for what kinds of objects they would quest, what kind of enemy they would fight, what causes they would defend, etc. Are they hackers and slashers or puzzle solvers? You need to know this right away.

Listen to what they say, especially their first impressions. Pay close attention to how your ideas work in execution. You may be able to tailor future scenarios if you are better aware of what has worked and what hasn’t.

Use the words your players use. Sometimes even repeating back the last object they spoke about in your descriptive reply can be a useful device. For example, when Borundi the Bold says he wants to ‘grab the purple-headed serpent by the neck and crush the life out of it,’ then you reply with, ‘As you grab the purple headed serpent by the neck and attempt to crush the life out of it, it spits a stream of acid at your eyes. [Rolling the dice.] Oooh! You might wanna make a saving throw.’ Don’t overuse this device, however, as it can get monotonous. When used in moderation, it gives the players the feeling that they have an effect on the outcome, or at least that you are listening to them.

Listen, listen, listen. This cannot be said enough. Listen to the tone of voice your PCs are using. You can give yourself a pat on the back and know that you have done well if you hear them laughing or displaying some other emotion. If they sit up and pay closer attention to your words, then you are on a roll... go with it.

2. Break scenarios into plot pieces and threads
Start by taking all of your scenarios and breaking them down into the smallest amount of action possible. Separate out all of the ‘plot pieces’ that do not require any previous action for their logical usage at any time.

These are your threads, and with them you can weave any story into your players’ destinies.

Compile, a list of each thread with all relevant details (such as NPC and monster stats with a brief description). When the players find themselves in a likely location, you can apply any suitable thread. Good threads immediately create conflict and moves the story along quickly.

For example, a woman in the room is actually the goddess Artemis in disguise, and she is looking to abduct a few decent woodsmen for her annual mortal hunt. Having heard the PCs bragging and exaggerating about their exploits, she assumes them to be worthy heroes and attempts to kidnap them. Neither brilliant nor boring, this is the type of thread that can be played at any time with a good chance of snagging all the players into a series of events that would never have otherwise happened.

Give players a chance or two to opt out of any situation, but also give them the chance to opt in. It is a good idea to have a few divergent threads going simultaneously, allowing the players to follow whichever they please or none at all.

Not all threads are huge events that just seem to happen; many are simply interesting NPCs or inviting locales (e.g.; scuffling noises emanating from a circus tent after hours). Once the players have taken a thread, however, you can choose plot pieces. Improvisation is about knowing where you can smoothly go to from where you are now. Smooth is the key word.

If you are paying attention to your players, you will know when to use which plot piece and which ones grab specific players. You may have to work a little to bring them all in. The PCs may require different threads. Seemingly dissimilar threads can, in fact, be different entrances to the same scenario.

Plot pieces from different scenarios can be used anywhere they fit, but they never force the PCs into anything. Allow free will to draw them into whatever scenario they would most thoroughly enjoy. Let them think they are chosing their own destinies; only you need know they are following your plans. Remember that storytellers are illusionists. Strive to use plot pieces in as unobtrusive a manner as possible. If the hand is quicker than the eye, then how much more so is the mind?

3. Practice creating details on the spot
No matter how well you plan ahead, there will be something in the course of play (more likely many somethings) for which you couldn’t have planned. Your players will wind up asking questions for which you haven’t prepared answers. It is therefore to your advantage to be able create details on the spot. Many times this is just a matter of asking yourself some key questions.

Your scenarios should include a well answered who, what, where, when, and why, but you need to be able to come up with the how and a bunch of logistical and descriptive details fairly quickly. Ask yourself what kind of things you would find in the current locale. Try not to be too clichéd, but really go after those things we take for granted. Avoid simply telling the players about details; rather, introduce details with action.

For example, when Uther the Barbarian gets up and knocks a table over in the Red Crow Inn, this is a good time to mention details such as (a) the texture and consistency of the pea soup Uther was eating, (b) the relative positions of the PCs and NPCs to the flying debris, and (c) a more detailed description of Uther and his demeanor. You may want to describe some things with a magnifying glass, while allowing other details to go unreported.

Much of this is a question of style. Your campaign may be filled with jokers and be something of a comedy. On the other hand, your campaign may be more of a standard action adventure.

Even within the traditional sword and sorcery genre there is room for many styles. Dark fantasy requires a different touch from epic fantasy. It is quite possible that you prefer a minimalistic style, and just want to cut to the chase. Most campaigns jump genres to some degree while staying within a fantasy framework. Many times a perceptive DM will change the tone of the campaign to match the current mood of the PCs. Again, this is up to you as the DM, but in any case, be prepared to conjure believable details out of thin air, regardless of the style or tone of your campaign.

Even the best written modules are merely outlines that your words flesh out. Your spontaneous ability to turn flat, two-dimensional scenarios into vivid, larger-than-life, technicolor dramas is constantly called upon as a DM. It’s worth spending a little time honing this skill by practicing visualization exercises and enacting multiple ‘what if’ scenarios. Much of this is daydreaming, so to speak. In fact, the better you can daydream, and the more control you can exert in those dreams, the better DM you will come to be.

4. Determine the probability of success for any action
Many times, players attempt to do something for which you either can’t remember the rule or for which there is no rule. Back in the early days of RPGs, when rules were more ambiguous, DMs had to make quick judgments on the spot as to what should happen. Even today there are many circumstances for which the rules are silent. You have to be able to judge the ease players will have in performing some action or another.

Once the players get into a flow and are quickly moving along, you should do everything in you power not to break the spell. In any event, a good DM should be familiar with all the rules; you should be able, when necessary, to come up with quick percentages or modifiers to speed things up and not break the flow of the game.

Begin by giving everything a 50/50 chance or an attribute roll, and apply modifiers as you see fit. For instance, if Phylo the Nimble has the priceless Eye of Imhotep and is running down a slick marble hallway from two burly temple guards, and he comes to a dead end, the player may desperately come up with some impossible move (probably seen in some movie) to save him. Say Phylo decides to run full speed at the wall with the intent to flip backwards off the wall and kick both guards in the head. Ludicrous, you say, and you are right; but Phylo wants to try it, and he does have a Dexterity of 17. So, instead of wasting time looking the issue up in the DM.s guide, you bite the bullet and make a ruling. Due to the complexity of the maneuver, you may start with 51%, or three times his Dexterity rating. Then, because of the slick floor, subtract maybe 10%, and maybe another 10% for having his arms full, and you get 31%. Using percentile dice, allow Phylo the chance to pull off his Bruce Lee dream move. (Of course, even if he makes it, he still must successfully roll his attacks.)

Whether the percentage accurately reflects Phylo’s chance of actually accomplishing the act is not as important as whether you have to spend five or 10 minutes looking up the actual rule. In general, if the players can think it up, then give them some chance at succeeding. This doesn’t have to be realistic; the players are fantasy heroes and expect to be able to do things impossible for normal people. By all means, if someone rolls a 01, let him do just about anything. Even David killed Goliath.

5. Really get into the NPC.s heads
NPCs are generally shop-worn stereotypes or thin, penciled-in extras. Worse, the typical DM plays NPCs with little or no differentiation and solely to further the plot. DMs are missing out on a gold mine of overlooked methods to draw PCs further into the game. Interesting NPCs can provoke players into situations they might never have found themselves in otherwise.

Whenever you are called upon to play an NPC, do your best to get into that character’s mind. What motivates that particular character? Put some thought into what this character would say or do in a given situation. Make them complex, realistic, and living beings.

NPCs are seldom privy to the deeper secrets of a campaign and may act for many very different reasons. It adds another layer to the scenario if the NPCs think that something other than what is happening is happening. It can be useful to allow a delusional NPC to steer the players down the wrong path.

Let the players get to know your NPCs, and use the same NPCs (especially the villains) over and over again during the course of a long campaign. Nothing adds more continuity than recurring characters and locations. Bring old characters back in new locations and old locations with new characters. This is a sure-fire way to grab the characters. (What is Father Johnston doing 1,500 miles from his church out here in the bush of some tropical island?)

It would be even more intriguing if in past adventures the PCs had stumbled upon some small piece of evidence that the church was involved in smuggling slaves. Perhaps the characters are searching for a treasure described in the journal of some shipwrecked slave traders. The possibilities are endless.

Never get too attached to your NPCs. You must be willing to let the PCs slaughter, ridicule, or - even worse - ignore your NPCs. They are fodder, grist for the mill, and as such their sole purpose is to give you a pre-made cast of characters to fall back upon. Sometimes they are just filler, like the dark-eyed rogues in the marketplace with the smug grins. Other times they become essential story movers, like the Dwarven prince who hires the PCs to escort him home.

When necessary, you can improvise and change things so the rogues from the marketplace can become would-be assassins hired by a rival kingdom to kill the sole heir to the dwarvish throne before he can get back to the safety of his homeland. It really doesn’t matter. The important part is the ability to improvise well and to keep the player characters interested in the game.

The more thought you put into your NPCs, the better they will serve you in this regard. This paradox, like many of life’s little secrets, is only contradictory on the most obvious level. It may seem like thinking about your NPCs beforehand would work against spontaneity and improvisation, but in actuality you are more likely to improvise well and generate believable dialogue if you have some idea as to what their principle motivations are.

If you have already run through all of your pre-generated NPCs and you need to come up with someone on the spot, think of some character from fiction, film, or your life who could be cast in the role. Even without statistics, simply having a personality in mind while you play the NPC adds a whole new level of reality to the scene. There is nothing worse than a DM who plays all of his NPCs the same way. Unless trying to slip a little Twilight Zone effect into the campaign, you should avoid making entire groups of people think and act the same way.

6. Juxtapose things to add variety and interest
Get creative. How many more balding, fat barkeeps or inn proprietors with an ear for gossip do we really need? And about those damsels in distress....

A quick and easy way for a swinging, jazzy improv-DM to be rid forever of clichés and overused stereotypes is to swap opposites in any traditional setting. For instance, instead of the ogre who crashes at the gates in the wee hours being a man-eating savage brute, make the ogre a scholarly priest fleeing from a hideous army of zombies and wraiths that have destroyed his temple and university. Why not? Ogres can be educated and religious, too. It makes for an interesting story.

Although few campaigns live up to their potential, RPGs are about the realtime interactive creation of a story with several people. Even though most campaigns wouldn’t make it as reruns of He-Man cartoons, they have the potential to create interesting dramatic fiction.

Instead of having the characters start a new adventure by leaving their homes to go search dungeons for treasure again and again, try having the characters live in the dungeon (as prisoners) and go searching the palace upstairs for treasure after an earthquake releases them from captivity. If you need a blacksmith NPC because Gan-Win Chung has broken his spear and wishes to have it fixed, you could use your typical bare-chested, glistening bald guy with a hammer, but perhaps a young woman, the only daughter of a late master craftsman, might be more refreshing. (Even more so if she has a higher Strength than the strapping Gan-Win Chung and bests him in an arm wrestling match.)

What seems frequently to be askew or wrong somehow is, in fact, inherently powerful. I would recommend trying as many off-the-wall characterizations and settings as you can come up with. Think of something often seen or read before and simply throw in a major twist. Oftentimes, this propels the scene along, practically doing all the work.

Take special care to flesh out the oddities realistically when using juxtaposition. Give bizarre things a bit of normalcy and vice versa. If done correctly, this technique has the ability to generate complex and rewarding scenarios for many sessions to come.

7. Always ask what the players want to do
The final golden rule is perhaps the most pertinent and useful of all. Throughout the game, the DM is constantly asking the players what they want to do. The key to artistic improvisation is deciding when to ask. Now, obviously, you can’t play the entire game in melee rounds, asking the players what they want to do every minute of the game, but you can and should ask them after every new description or major action. The time frame in which they answer should set the pace of the game.

Asking the players what they want to do involves them in the decision-making process to a higher degree and gives you a break.

After any cursory description, especially one involving material previously unplanned, you owe it to yourself to stop and ask the players what they want to do. This gives you the opportunity to breathe and think about the situation. It also supplies needed feedback on what is getting through to the PCs and what they wish to pursue. A DM at a loss to come up with something often tosses the ball back to the players only to find, upon the ball’s return, that the players have keyed in on something the DM may have overlooked.

If you happen to be on a roll and the PCs are listening raptly, then ride, captain, ride. But, the moment you notice the players becoming distracted, start thinking about asking them what they want to do. Wind up the monologue, and get back to a moving dialog.

Allow players to do what they want unless or until something prevents or makes it difficult to do so. Say, for instance, that Brother Lawrence tells you he wants to try to sleep in a makeshift lean-to he built in the forest. Fair enough; he is basically successful in this, other than the fact that every hour or so, you may want to roll on the local wandering monster table. If a wandering monster is generated, then most likely Lawrence will have to wake up. The point is that his intent to sleep remains the same and carries him through hours of game world time. (Of course, hearing a troll gibbering outside his lean-to might get him to change his mind.)

Realizing that, while gaming, you are either describing something to the players or listening to their intentions, you can surmise that these are the two most important aspects of being a DM.

A DM can’t plan descriptions ahead of time; it is impossible. Nor can a DM be expected to know the players’ intentions before they actually express them. Improvisation therefore becomes an essential factor in the effectiveness of a DM.

The most essential tool any DM has in his improv-arsenal is the golden question, the role reversing, polarity shifting, rhythm defining question: ‘What do you guys want to do now?’

Spontaneity, as the central force in improvisation, is unrehearsed creativity. Although many jazz solos are unrehearsed, the musicians are in no way unprepared. This holds true for DM improvisation as well.


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