Here we are at the final part in ‘The I in Improvise’. You can check out parts 1, 2, and 3 here, here, and here. The final piece to improvising as a GM is comfort. I don’t mean a comfy chair, clothes, or location, although these are always important. What I mean is comfort with your game.
The Sweatpants of Gaming
We all have games or genres that click with us. Take my buddy Chris; the man KNOWS the Star Wars universe inside and out. He can rattle off the info you ask for and roll with the punches in Star Wars games like a professional boxer. He is most comfortable in a galaxy far, far away. For me, it is the fantasy genre. I am most comfortable running a game in a world of myth, magic, and gods.
Finding your a comfortable game is very important when you are looking at running an improvisational game on a long-term basis. Why is this important? You want to set yourself up for success behind the screen (that is what all of these techniques are about) by being mentally flexible. Just like physical flexibility, you are most mentally flexible when you are comfortable. I know that when I am not running fantasy, my amount of session prep skyrockets. I want to be better prepared and have a better handle on the setting/system. This leads me to plan a more rigid framework for my story, which can leave me drawing blanks when the players inevitably force the story in some new direction.
Identifying Your Comfort Zone
The first step in identifying your comfort zone is figuring out your system/setting sweet spot. At this point, I feel comfortable saying that most of you probably had a game or genre jump into your head when I started talking about this. If this didn’t happen, stop and think about what games you tend to run, and look for a reoccurring factors in those games. It could be a genre (space opera), a system (Pathfinder), or a specific setting (Forgotten Realms). If this is your first time GMing, look for genres you read, a segment of history which fascinates you, or your favorite films.
Once you have that comfort zone figured out, the second step is to start exploring it, and see where its boundaries are. Maybe you are super comfortable with the Rebellion Era of Star Wars, but as the timeline extends further into the Extended Universe, you find that comfort wavering. The goal in this step is to firmly plant yourself in the world’s most comfortable GM locale, or at least your version of it. Once you establish this zone, get a campaign idea centered there and start your pre-planning. Start running a game with the express purpose of being more improvisational, and apply the other techniques in this series liberally. Find a groove that works for you, and get the game rolling.
Stretching the Zone
Once you find that groove, however, you need to start exploring the boundaries of your comfort zone. Because the more you stretch your comfort zone, the more campaign options open up to you. Push at edges, try something new, and explore a different area of the same system or setting. The goal at this point is to keep 75% to 85% within your comfort zone and only add 15% to 25% new. This way you are still comfortable the majority of the time. After a couple of these stretches, you will find your play area for improvisation is vastly larger than it had been.
Finally, don’t be afraid to fail. Sometimes, your improvisation can go horribly wrong. Sometimes you will try to push at your comfort zone, and it will push back hard. Just remember, this happens even if you are a planner. These events are common to all types of GMing. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, go read the revisionism article, and jump back into the fray.
That’s it. Those are my main pieces of advice for running an Improvisational game (along with the Consequence List). I hope this series was helpful; I had a blast writing it. As always, feel free to leave a comment asking questions about any of these techniques. I am always available to chat campaigns and gaming!
Next month, I will start talking about how to handle in-game deaths at the table: both PC and NPC.