Today, I begin a four part series on how I run my games. I am very much an improvisational GM once a campaign starts. I might do 15-30 minutes of preparation a week for a very story-intensive game (like Mage), but for the most part, I show up for a game with less than a 3×5 notecard worth of notes (if that) comprised of incoherent keywords and start my session. The game revolves around those keywords, which are possible encounters, NPCs, or consequences from a previous session (see the Consequence List for another aid in running Improvisational games).
I enjoy this format of game management for two reasons. One, on a week-to-week basis, it is a major time saver for me. With a wife, kid, work, this blog, Iconic, other games, etc., my week fills up pretty quickly. And with a Masters looming on the horizon in October, I don’t see a lot of free time opening up. This way, I am running a game in a way that takes my limited time into account and focuses what time I do have for the greatest return.
The second reason is flexibility. I am able to react to situations that arise in the game when they happen, direct the game in ways the players want to go, and am not wasting time prepping things that will never see the table. (How to avoid this is something we will talk about in two weeks) It gives me the ability to run the game in the moment, and I find that my players enjoy that level of engagement.
Improvisational GMing can be intimidating for some people and can be a scary way to approach the screen. It can feel like you are performing without a net. But like many techniques used by GMs, what you want to create is more illusion than reality. For me, my ability to improvise revolves around four concepts: pre-planning, pauses, revisionism, and comfort. I will be looking at each of these over the month of August, starting with pre-planning today.
Plan Before You Fly
For my style of improvisational GMing, your prep time should happen long before you start your game. I am a pre-planner for my campaigns. I am slowly working on the game long before my players have any idea of characters, before I have players, and sometime before my current game is over.
My pre-planning is nothing more than trying to get a holistic view of the world/setting of the game. I want to have a great impression of setting before we come to the table. The goal during pre-planning is to make the world as ‘real’ for you as possible. Not in a THIS WORLD IS REAL way but in the way you know your home town. By absorbing the feel of the world, the identity of the key players and locations, and the key aspects of the campaign, you are setting yourself up for improvisational success during your game.
Why? I find that improvisation is easiest when I am able to draw inferences from the game and turn them into logical outcomes.
Here is an example – If I were to ask you where city hall is in your home town, could you do it? Possibly. Could you come up a plausible guess based on your gut reaction to that question? At least enough to get you on the right track? Definitely. This is the heart of my approach to GMing, giving plausible inferences based off the knowledge I have of the world.
It works the same with NPC interactions. If you have an idea (even just a general, incomplete one) of who the person is and her goals, then riffing a response becomes super easy. For example – if you have an NPC who the book (or you) establishes as a black market contact, then it is easier for you to make snap decisions in the game concerning him. Is he involved in a smuggling deal? If not, he knows about it. Does he know the exiled princess who is trying to reclaim her throne? Probably.
Focusing on the setting as a whole gives you the framework to rely more on your gut reactions to situations because you are familiar with how the world (or NPCs) work.
Generic Trumps Specific
When you do find time to plan between sessions, you will probably have a lot of great ideas for specific encounters based of some cool aspect of your game or setting. Your initial instinct will be to flesh these ideas out. I want you to learn to squash that instinct. It can hamper your improvising by establishing rails that your brain will naturally want to coast along. And when you are coasting, you tend to be very resistant to the PCs effect on the game. This a huge problem I have when running published adventures! I want the story to just run its course. And when it doesn’t, it can be frustrating. In the realm of the improvisational GM, generic planning trumps specific.
Here is what I mean by that. Say I have a great idea for an encounter where Vampires (who are obviously fed up with the PCs interfering with their plans) chase them through the Sky-Towers of Veridan III on hoverboards. Although that is awesome, I may be wasting my time. Why? Well, put simply, what if the players do something other than what I expect them to do? They may not encounter this… um… encounter. I am left with two options. Scrap the scene, which I am loath to do (did you see all the work I put into it?), or force the group to participate in the planned encounter. Neither of these options are conducive to improvisational GMing. What you want to do is plan a scene, not an encounter.
Scene planning (for me) is where I boil down an encounter idea to its most basic components so that it is available for me whenever I need it. This way, as the game progresses, I can still use what I have planned but in whatever situation erupts at the table. Take the vampire example. At its core, it is a chase scene through the heights of the city by competent and deadly foes. Ok, so I write down some notes on the stats of the deadly foes, the page references for chases (or my own house rules), and some stats on the speed of the vehicles.
“That’s the same thing,” you might be thinking right now. And mechanically, it may be true (based on your system of choice). But from a game use perspective, they are completely different. If a game goes bad, and the PCs are running from Veridan CorpSec and jump into a skimmer, I am ready to go with that scene. The CorpSec are the antagonists of the scene, and everything I need is already there for me. I don’t have to adjust the Vampire encounter on the fly (because I have the generic scene as my standard) and I don’t need to pause the game to set everything up (because I am maximizing the use of my prepared information).
It may seem counterintuitive to plan for improvisation. But, and again this for my style, it is not about creating ex nilo at the table. It’s taking what has been given (world info & feel, prepped material, and player input) and spontaneously making something new. Think about improv theatre. Even they have something given to them to start the scene. Think of the pre-planning as your basic queues and touchstones for your gaming experience, and build from there.