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?