Every GM improvises, but not every GM is comfortable winging important encounters. Here’s one way to make running an improv encounter a breeze.
During a session, your players take the game in an unexpected direction. The PCs are about to get involved in an encounter that you haven’t planned for at all. What do you do?
Pause and gather your thoughts. First, take a moment to think about where things are headed. If you need that moment to be completely free of distractions, tell your players something along the lines of “Cool! I wasn’t expecting that — give me a minute to think about this.”
Remember the formula for a good encounter. Yep, there’s a formula: Challenge + unique element + a way to advance even if the party fails = a successful encounter. Now you just need to fill in each section of the formula.
Choose the challenge. Think about what the party is after, and what might be opposing them. It could be an NPC, a monster, a security system, a supervillain, rough terrain — whatever jumps out at you first is probably the right choice. The key is making sure the challenge will be fun for your players.
What do the PCs want? Chances are, the party wants something out of this encounter — what is it? Unless it’s going to ruin the game, or it makes no sense whatsoever, give them a chance to get it. If there’s no chance of success, you probably don’t need to run the encounter at all.
What happens if they don’t get it? If the party fails to meet the challenge, that shouldn’t kill the adventure. If they’re trying to break into a castle, for example, “they get captured” is a good way to fill the “way to advance even if the party fails” part of the formula: they’ll be in the castle — and have fun — either way, but they’ll be better off if they don’t get caught.
Make this encounter stand out. Simple changes you can make include: putting the encounter in a dramatic setting, altering the weather or throwing in a completely new element. For example, if the encounter is a chase scene, you could have it be raining (change the weather), move it to the rooftops (change the setting) or have the party’s quarry summon reinforcements partway through the encounter (a new element).
Trust yourself, and dive in. You’ve got all the pieces in your head — all you need to do is put them together. Remember, as a GM you improvise all the time. With this encounter, you’re just fleshing out a few more things at once than you might be used to.
Once you’ve improvised one encounter, it’ll be much easier next time. Improvisation is a key GMing skill, and being able to craft a coherent scene on the fly will always serve you well.
What do you think of this approach? When you first started GMing, what do you wish you’d been told about winging encounters?
For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard; and ‘t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon.
As you game, occasionally take note of the players conversations about what’s coming… their conjectures are sometimes far more creative and appropriate than your own ideas.
A. Some GMs are better served if they “prepare to improvise”. It can be as simple as stock NPCs written up. Heck, sometimes just having a list of names is all you need to keep going. The main thing is that you prepare stuff that interferes with *your* ability to improvise, and that’s somewhat different for everyone.
B. If you are running the kind of game (or your GM style is such) that you want no fudging once the action starts, then you *can* still improvise. It’s only that you have to write down a few notes or be strict with yourself when you keep them in your head. For example, I improvise a fight with a couple of D&D 3E ogres with barbarian levels and exquisite manners. Doesn’t mean that I stop for 15 minutes to do a complete write up or that I make it all up as I go. I take 30 seconds to think about ballpark AC, HP, weapon and armor, and Diplomacy skill, then factor in an appropriate amount of rage. It doesn’t have to be exact, canon D&D–merely in the ballpark. Then I write it down. That’s really no different than if you did the writing down before the session, as the GM is free to make up odd creatures.
I’ll go ahead and echo Telas on this one. The player’s in my games often quote, “Rule #1,” which is, “Do not, under any circumstances, give the GM ideas.” Much to my chagrin, the rule continues to be broken time and time again. 😉
I never use things that the players say to modify that session. If I do, they stop saying things. Besides, I usually have some strange twist on the same idea already, since I know these player well.
Instead, I make notes when they say things. Then I use them for later sessions, preferably with some thought and twisting so that it isn’t obvious where I got the idea. 😉 The act of me writing down something when they discuss makes them nervous, and causes imaginations to run wild. Then they find out that the actual situation was somewhat different (whatever I originally had planned), and thus they decide that their comments are “safe”. 🙂
I’ve built whole adventures on a single comment delivered during a previous game. For me, these comments are far to valuable to waste by changing the current session. 🙂
The best time was when two factions emerged in the players concerning the motivations of a minor NPC. Both sides were wrong, and both of them had very good ideas for what this NPC was doing. Their ideas were far more entertaining than mine. I played the NPC straight. Since this didn’t resolve the issue, both factions stuck to their guns, causing some great roleplaying within the group. I let this percolate for a year or so (real time), *then* I let the fact that the PCs were paying so much attention to this minor NPC lead to other, more powerful NPCs showing interest. The minor NPC got recruited by an order of druids and a resurgent goddess. *Now*, she is important, and in a way that is different from either faction’s view. They were still arguing about her in the campaign’s final session, when it finally got resolved. No way I’m giving that up for the instant gratification of making her more interesting the first time a player’s mind gets tricksy. 🙂
I had completely forgotten about the formula for encounters (not having taking a GM seat for anything more than impromptu one shots lately), but I definitely intend to actively make use of it now. I usually try to make some element of the encounter unique so the players don’t go: “Oh look, another goblin attack!” or “oh wow, the shady man has come up and offered us a job.”
Gearing the encounter to something the PC’s want is also important. It always annoys me in video games, and the carry over into roleplaying games, that a lot of the exp gain, or advancement of the groups power level (only relevant to some game systems. Yeah DND, I’m looking at you.) is based off of creatures or monsters attacking the party with little reason. Putting a reason behind it, or intertwining the encounter with other events going on with the party, gives it so much more depth.
I love the formula, and look forward to implementing it in systems that are really geared for it– like Spirit of the Century. Prep can be very light and easy if improvisation is easy.