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In an article of his now-defunct blog, The DM Experience, (Which I hold up to this day as one of the greatest repositories of free Game Master knowledge for fantasy games. It was written during the days of 4th Edition, but 99% of the advice is system neutral) Wizards of the Coast’s Chris Perkins said that the number one tip he gives to DMs is, “Improvise.” It’s not a new concept, in fact it’s usually one of the first pieces of advice most Game Masters who know what they’re talking about will give you. There’s a very good reason for this. Naturally, being able to improvise will make it far easier to react to your players’ choices and increase their enjoyment with your campaign, but what they usually don’t mention is how much easier it can make your life. At least 50 - 60% of everything I do behind the screen is completely improvised. Sometimes my notes for a session are just a single sentence in a notebook, and if you watch our Actual Plays over on Caffeinated Conquests, you’ve seen me do it.
However, while I like to flatter myself that over the years I’ve cultivated a fairly skillful approach to the craft, the honest truth is, it really isn’t difficult at all. Anyone can do what I do, and I’ll be happy to show you how.
1) It’s Not As Hard As You Think It Is
The first step is to remove the mental blocks. Trying to improvise at the game table can be scary if you’re not used to it, a bit like a tightrope walker taking his first tentative steps without a net. The truth is, you can do this. Say it out loud, repeat it to yourself in the mirror if you need to. No matter how long you’ve been GMing, the skill is absolutely within your ability.
The brutal truth is, you’re going to have to do it at some point whether you want to or not. Even if you run nothing but prewritten modules for your entire Game Mastering career, eventually your players will do something the module’s writers didn’t think of, and you’ll hear the bells tolling in the distance. It’s not difficult to do. I’m not a member of an improv troupe, I didn’t even take theatre in high school. I’m just some guy that has cultivated a skill, and you can too.
2) Release Your Scenarios Into The Wild
The famous quote by American writer William Faulkner goes, “In writing you must kill all your darlings,” which means, in exceedingly simple terms, to cast aside our emotional attachments so we can do what is objectively best for the project.
We’ve all been there. The players one-shot your Big Bad Evil Guy in an encounter they weren’t meant to fight him in, (free bit of advice, don’t ever introduce your players to a character unless you’re prepared for them to die a horrible death) or you design an entire dungeon and somehow the players circumvent the need to ever travel there in the first place. Once in a Pathfinder campaign, after the players had acquired a ship, I spent a week designing an entire nautical adventure that would occur on the way to their next destination, complete with washing up on a strange island of undead that not only advanced the plot but planted valuable foreshadowing for the future of the campaign. I showed up at the next session only to be respectfully showed on the official map of Golarion that the party’s next destination was connected by land.
Here’s the trick: When stuff like that happens, let it.
I like to think of the ideas I put into my campaigns as baby birds that I’m nurturing. When the idea has matured enough for the players to encounter it, I release that bird into the wild, and whatever happens, happens. It might soar majestically into the sunset, it might get picked off by the neighborhood cat, but it’s no longer up to me. This frame of mind makes it easier for me to accept two truths: Things might not go the way I intend, and that I need to be ready to adapt if they don’t. Sure, I try to steer things so they go the way I want, but I’m not dependant on it, and I don’t panic if I can’t.
The real benefit to this mindset is that I’ve become vastly more comfortable with saying yes to my players when they come up with something I hadn’t anticipated, I’m not instantly thrust into a defensive posture trying to protect my perceived outcome of a situation. I’m not shocked if my players have an idea that can trivialize an encounter or bypass a puzzle, I’ve already accepted that as a possibility long before it was ever proposed.
3) Harness Player Agency
If you let them, your players can take a great deal of the heavy lifting off your shoulders, as several sessions worth of play can result just from the players cleaning up a mess they themselves created. Wind ‘em up and let ‘em go, they’ll build your adventure for you.
All you really need to do is provide an objective, a reason for the players to care about the objective, and a few complications that make achieving the objective interesting. (Bonus points for providing complications that can’t be simply resolved through combat. No matter how difficult you make the combat, it’s still an “easy” problem to solve) Whenever your players do something of some level of import, ask yourself one very simple question: “So what happens now?” Take a step back and look at the big picture. In your world, what is the most logical thing to result from what just happened?
Let’s take the above example. Your players just killed the BBEG way before they were supposed to. So what happens now? Exceedingly few villains operate in a vacuum. Truly ingenious masterminds always have a plan B, and a villain who believes his actions are justified may even have one in the event of his demise. Everything from goblin hordes to Cthulhu cults and demonic legions have hierarchies, and where there are hierarchies, there are underlings gunning for their boss’ job. They’re not exactly going to weep inconsolably because some adventurers happened to expedite their promotion. Conspirators have co-conspirators, who probably aren't willing to dump several months of scheming down the pot, or better yet may suddenly need to cover their tracks. Again, think outside the box of combat. A duplicitous noble who sends assassins after the PCs will buy you 20 minutes of game time while the party beats the snot out of them and interrogates one for their employer. However, a noble who uses one of the ranger’s arrows to frame the PC’s for the murder of another political rival, thus making them appear as crazed murderers while keeping herself in the shadows will buy you an entirely new adventure. Even the lone sorcerer might have demonic pacts unfulfilled or latent magics waiting to trigger, and if you think a necromancer doesn’t have a back up plan for death…
Let’s say you’re playing D&D and the party is on a quest for the magic sword Aelthrys, Talon of the Ancient Kings. You’ve spent weeks designing an epic multi-level dungeon filled with clever puzzles and fiendish traps at the bottom of which lays their prize. Wouldn’t you know it, the wizard just got a scroll of Wish from a random treasure table and used it to Wish for the McGuffin. (I’ve seen this happen more times than you might think) So what happens now? Well now there’s something very valuable, powerful and rare that’s much easier to get than it was before. Gee whiz, if only the PCs lived in a violent fantasy world overflowing with unscrupulous sentience. Maybe Garm the Brigand King knows the power foretold to the bearer of Aelthrys and isn’t opposed to slitting a few throats to get it. Maybe the local orc chieftain knows well the stories his ancestors told him of Throm’gar the Orc Hewer and he wishes to capture it as a trophy to unite the other orc clans beneath his banner. Either of them could have spies in the next town the PCs visit. There’s also the question of why the sword was so heavily guarded in the first place. Maybe it was the lynchpin of the prison of some ancient evil. Maybe the sword’s creator, an angelic commander of celestial legions feels the evil stir once more and intends to hold the party accountable. Maybe you’ve suddenly got a campaign for the next few months. (You can always reuse the dungeon somewhere else)
4) Keep Some Randomizers Handy
Pulling a game out of thin air can be next to impossible with nothing to go on. The human brain can do some amazing things, but sometimes it needs a jumpstart. That’s why I like to keep something handy to give my creativity a jumping off point when necessary. Pathfinder has a great set of random tables in the Game Mastery Guide. When I was running my campaign I would, on occasion, deliberately not prepare anything that week and challenge myself to come up with an adventure from the tables on the spot. It was quite a lot of fun, actually. The D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide has a metric ton of random tables in it, but in my opinion too many random pieces can muddle the mixture and turn what’s supposed to be a jumping off point into an obtuse pile of disparate pieces that needs to be clumsily hammered together. My advice would be to choose about three or so. My personal favorites are Dungeon/Wilderness Goals, Adventure Villains, and Twists from Chapter 3. Employ the Random Dungeon Generator as needed.
What about games that don’t have random tables? You could create your own, but there’s an easier way.
There’s a competition called Iron GM that holds their World Championships at GenCon every year. No, I haven’t won yet, but they haven’t seen the last of me. The competition provides contestants with a Creature, an Object, and a Place, and gives them one hour to create an adventure that prominently features those three elements. Just pick one of each and let your imagination go from there. This works for any game. Toreador, Book of Nod fragment, Nosferatu warrens. (Vampire the Masquerade) Nexus Crawler, Klaive, high rise apartment. (Werewolf the Apocalypse) Great Race of Yith, manhole cover, police department. (Call of Cthulhu) If necessary, ask your players to provide the elements.
Here’s the catch, whatever the dice or the three elements suggest, stick with it. Challenge yourself. The less the individual pieces seem to fit together on the surface, the better. It’s an opportunity to flex your creative muscle and figure out how they can fit together. You’ll find yourself running adventures you would’ve never thought of otherwise, and your skills in improvisation and Game Mastering in general will grow before your eyes.
5) Don’t Be Afraid To Borrow From Your Future Self
This is less of an issue with adventures that are only meant to last a session, but if you show up to a session expecting to piggyback off the events of the last session, (as I do frequently) then the greatest danger you face is that the players may end up lacking a goal that carries them to the end of the session, either by them accomplishing their mission sooner than you anticipated, or just the path to the goal becoming muddled somehow.
The best thing to do in this scenario is to borrow from your future self. You have at least some ideas of where the future of your campaign will go, right? Drop some foreshadowing for the next arc of the campaign. Pull the trigger on the machinations of a future villain. Just give them something to do until the end of the session. You have until the next session to reconcile everything and put it back in order. If your players start putzing around with nothing to do and no clear objective, no matter how good the first part of the session was, it will diminish everyone’s enjoyment of the game, including your own.
6) Building Encounters
Alright, that’s all well and good, but right now my Pathfinder and D&D players are saying, “That’s great Chaz, but what about combat encounters? How am I supposed to build balanced combat encounters on the fly? I can’t reference all those charts and do all that math that quickly!” I know because I used to be you.
My advice is going to sound like heresy at first, but if what I’ve had to say has made sense up to now, you owe it to yourself to hear me out.
Ditch the encounter building rules.
Firstly, you may not realise this if your main avenue of the roleplaying hobby is some form of D&Derivative, but encounter rules are actually a fairly rare occurrence in RPGs. Vampire isn’t going to tell you how many frenzied Sabbat are a good match for the player coterie, Numenera won’t tell you what Tier the players need to fight an Erynth Grask, etc.
Secondly, D&D itself didn’t even have these rules for decades. It wasn’t until after the Wizards of the Coast acquisition and Third Edition that encounter building became a part of the Core Rules. The absolutely earliest instance of it that I know of was in the 1991 D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and there it was clearly demarcated as an Optional Rule. No matter how you slice it, that’s still a full 17 years in which DM’s were happily pitting goblins against their players without a problem.
Thirdly, characters in modern roleplaying games are significantly more resilient than the rules might suggest, exponentially so as they gain levels. A “balanced” encounter in most games is designed to drain the PCs of about ⅕ of their resources in exchange for experience points. That’s not high adventure, that’s grinding.
Lastly, the rules don’t (because they can’t) account for the vagaries of the dice. I recently ran the Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure Sailors on the Starless Sea for two seperate groups of completely different people. There’s an encounter with seven beastmen about halfway into the adventure. The first group completely steamrolled the beastmen without them being able to land more than one or two scratches on the player characters. The second group, having one more person than the previous, very nearly TPK’ed (as in one player left with one hit point remaining) because my dice chose to rain apocalyptic fire upon the table that night. For that matter, encounter rules also can’t account for tactics, terrain, or any other extenuating circumstances.
Encounter rules aren’t the perfectly calibrated mathematical formulae they might at first appear to be. They are suggestions, guidelines for new DM’s who aren’t yet comfortable enough to evaluate a monster’s abilities on their own.
There’s a much easier, faster way to handle this. Just look at the numbers. Compare a creature’s AC, Attack Bonus, Hit Point and Saves to the party’s. In a fair fight, a monster should be able to land attacks on the moderately armored members of the party about 50% of the time, (hitting with an 11+ on the d20 after adding in their attack bonus) and vice versa for the party. Same for saves. You can translate this up or down a few points to increase/decrease the difficulty. Don’t expect all of the numbers to line up perfectly, monsters are designed to excel in certain areas and lag behind in others.
Now, look at HP. Assume half the attacks will hit and the damage dice will roll half its maximum, (a balanced die’s average roll is usually half, of course most will roll higher or lower but they’ll usually balance each other out) you now have a decent idea of how long it will take one side to win the fight. As long as the PC’s have a reasonable chance of doing that to their enemies before their enemies do it to them, you’re golden.
Some readers may be frustrated that this method lacks precision, but as I explained earlier, not even the official methods can technically give you precision. However, my method can be done at a glance without having to spend precious time dinking with math and numbers. Did you get into this hobby to tell fantastical stories or practice accounting? (Also, let’s be honest, the encounter building rules in the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide is one of the most abysmal systems ever put to paper)
Improvisation is not a skill we cultivate just for our players. It’s a huge quality of life improvement for us. When properly utilised, it can remove the laborious parts of our hobby and let us focus on the parts we really enjoy. It can help to mitigate GM burnout. It can help to make the games we run games for us as well, instead of a second job. Not to mention, your players can never derail your campaign, they can only change the plan.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Picture Reference: http://uptv.com/shows/whose-line-is-it-anyway/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.