Tools for better improv

When I started DMing D&D games 20 years ago, my approach was often very inflexible.

Now, in general, I wouldn’t say I am much of a control freak in other aspects of my life. But when it came to writing adventures, I wanted a bit of security. My dungeons were linear. My notes were thorough. I would stress myself out by trying to predict what the players would do and plan for multiple scenarios at a time. Instead of presenting players with real choices, I would play things safe, offering false choices that ultimately led to the same endpoints. Maybe this chimes with you.

There are several reasons we do this, but fundamentally, we do it because it’s what we are used to. When we read novels or watch films, what we see is a plot: a carefully structured sequence of cause and effect; a series of interrelated events (because x, y). Fundamentally, roleplaying games don’t work like this. For one, RPGs are not edited. In an RPG, we tell stories in real time. We don’t get a chance to go back and tweak things. We don’t get to plan ahead much, either: you can plan the first scene, but after that, the story gets unpredictable. Secondly, RPGs are collaborative. It’s not the DM’s story: it’s the table’s story. Writing an entire adventure ahead of time is an exercise in solipsism. And yet many DMs do it, and not just new ones. If you’ve never played an RPG before, you will find it completely different to any other artform you are familiar with – and it’s tempting to fall back to what you know. Plots.

Trump to OK cross-border railroad line from Alaska to Canada - Alaska  Public Media
Don’t design your adventures like this.

Over the last year or two, I have tried to move away from the plotted approach. There were a number of reasons for this; one was my wider reading. Justin Alexander’s 2009 essay ‘Don’t Prep Plots’ was incredibly formative; so was Mike Shea’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. (By the way, if you’re a DM and you don’t spend time trying to get better at it, you really should. Here’s a reading list.) Another reason was time constraints. Plotting is onerous; I needed new ways to prep games and couldn’t spend hours writing down every hypothetical permutation of an adventure flow chart or every possible bit of boxed text. Finally, I had had a bit of a break from DMing and experienced the game from the player’s side of the screen. It was interesting to see new approaches – some railroady, some less so ­­– and it gave me food for thought.   

The rest of this article is simply a list of tips and tricks to help you out with improvising on the fly. What have I missed out? What worked well for you? Let me know in the comments below.

Say ‘yes, and.’ Probably the most famous piece of advice for people looking to improvise more, but it’s a good starting point. Improv is collaborative, and if you continually say ‘no’ to the players, they will stop coming up with fun and whacky ideas. That said, success in D&D isn’t always automatic, so I personally prefer Matt Mercer’s phrase ‘you can certainly try’. (As in, ‘Can I shoot my crossbow through the keyhole?’ DM: ‘You can certainly try . . .’)

Secrets and clues. Of all the fantastic advice from Mike Shea, this is absolutely gold. It is now the backbone of my session prep. To quote Mike Shea, a ‘secret’ is a tweet-sized bit of useful and interesting information that was previously unknown to the PCs. They might be character-driven, location-based, historical lore, or adventure hooks. Here are ten examples from Shea based on Out of the Abyss:

  • The Delzoun dwarves built a hidden outpost near Dark Lake.
  • The outpost had a portal to Gauntlgrym.
  • The outpost is about 2,000 years old.
  • The dwarves had an alliance with Modrons.
  • The Modrons kept the magical gate working. Only they can open the gate.
  • The Delzoun dwarves fought a war against mind flayers.
  • The Delzoun lost the war and retreated out their own gate.
  • The dwarves had to fight hundreds of dwarven thralls.
  • To this day the mind flayers want to control the gate to Gauntlgrym.
  • In a dark decision, the Delzoun destroyed the Modrons so no one could open the gate again.

Why ten? Put it this way: it’s easy to come up with five or six. You can do that in no time at all. The seventh and eighth might require a bit more thought, but you can generally manage this, too. The ninth? Tenth? These take serious thought. But they’re often the most interesting as a result. In most sessions, I find I generally get through at least seven or eight of my clues, so ten is a nice insurance option.   

Good artists steal. D&D is an art form, and a lot of DMs feel a compulsion to be original. But here’s the thing: true originality is not only impossible but undesirable, as tropes are anchor points for the way we enjoy stories. So don’t feel bad about stealing! For my Rise of Zargon homebrew campaign in lockdown, I stole from video games (especially Diablo and Tomb Raider), TV shows, films, novels, history, mythology, linguistics, other published adventures, and Shakespeare. Here is just a sample of the nonsense I lifted. Players often enjoy these ‘Easter eggs’, but if you want to remove your incriminating fingerprints, there are simple tricks you can do like changing the name or gender of a character, or mashing two or more elements together. (A good example of this is Star Wars: samurai plus World War II in space!)

Listen to the players. It bears repeating: D&D is a collaborative story. The world is not just your own, and you are not dragging your friends through your own unpublished novel. Talk less, listen more. When presented with a puzzle or a problem, your players will often come up with fun and innovative ideas that are better than the ones in your notes! And players will often tell you what they think is going to happen next. Why subvert their expectations?  

Have a bunch of maps. I don’t necessarily mean tactical battle maps on a five-foot grid: I mean evocative, fantastical, yet generic and versatile maps that you can pull out when needed to serve the situation. A sewer, a tower, a temple, a cave complex: the sort of adventure sites that come up time and again in D&D. If the map is good enough, you can improvise an awful lot on the fly. Your first port of call: Dyson Logos of course! (As a corollary to this, embrace the five-room dungeon. Commit it to memory and you have a template for literally hundreds of improvised dungeons.)

Have a bunch of names, too. I can’t guarantee everything that will happen in your next session, but I can pretty much 100-percent guarantee that your party will meet an unnamed NPC. (If they don’t, are you even playing D&D?) To that end, always have a list of fun fantasy names to hand. Tip: sort them by culture, ancestry, or gender. For example, in my Eberron campaign, I try to ensure I have names for each of the Five Nations, as well as a few names for goblinoids, monsters, changelings, and the like.   

Let the dice decide. There are tons of excellent random tables in the 5th edition rulebooks, so when you can’t decide what happens next, let the dice decide. Randomness stops you going stale. It interrupts conventional thought and presents you with a fresh way of doing things. Perhaps an owlbear comes sniffing through the camp, looking for food. Perhaps it starts snowing. Perhaps the magic goblin sword starts talking to itself.  

Put on funny voices. I know not every DM is into this sort of thing, but honestly, it’s such a good way of making an improvised NPC stand out. Again, steal widely. The village farmhand could be the pimple-faced teen in The Simpsons. My Volothamp Geddarm is basically Stan from Monkey Island. Your boisterous barbarian could be Mr Torgue from Borderlands (‘EXPLOSIONS?!’)

See what sticks, leave loose ends, and take good notes. In order to create the impression of a living, breathing world, I often through a bunch of different leads at the party and see what catches their interest. It might be an article in the Sharn Inquisitive, a graffitied poster in a back alley, a snippet of overheard gossip, or a mysterious note delivered by a homunculus. Unless you run mammoth sessions, your party probably won’t follow every lead, so see what sticks and save the others for another time. Heck, you can even call it ‘foreshadowing’. Be sure to take good notes, though.

Stop overanalysing. Lastly, if I had to give one piece of advice to people wanting to do more improv, it would be this. Many DMs are their own worst enemies (this one included), so don’t be too hard on yourself. Your players are happy just to be hanging out rolling dice together. The more you internalize this, the more relaxed you will feel at the table, and the better you will be at improvising as a result. Chill.      

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