Today’s guest article by Gnome Stew reader Nick M. is his second. Last time around, he talked about getting back in the saddle; today, he’s here to share some tips for “preparing to improvise,” if you will. His advice is aimed at a play style that features pre-planned plots and stories. Thanks, Nick! –Martin

Some GMs have the enviable ability to go with whatever the PCs throw at them, creating detailed locations and believable NPCs at the drop of hat. I’ve always struggled with that, but its okay, as I have prepared my ad libs in advance! And here are the tools I use to do so.

Before we begin, let’s be clear, I’m not talking about writing your scenario or campaign, I assume you have purchased or developed a well thought out campaign with a sandbox of locations and emotionally rounded NPCs who have known motivations and drives for you to call on.

I’m talking about the preparation of your “plan-b” for when things go off in a direction you were not expecting. This entire process shouldn’t take more than hour before you start a new campaign with your players, and your hope is that you will never have to use any of it! Okay, ready? Let’s go.

The Theme

So what is the point of this story? Redemption Through Violence? The Futility of Love Triangles? The Self-Destructiveness of Evil? Or how about The Insidiousness of Betrayal? Pick an over-arching theme for your planned game. Something quick and punchy that you won’t forget and we can start work on that. Don’t overthink it –– this is a “one liner” we use to frame the rest of the work about to take place. If you spend more than 5 seconds coming up with a theme, you have taken too long.

In order to make this article work, I need to have a shared framework with you, so can we agree to pick a single topic and talk about it? Cool. I will roll d4 randomly for the four themes above and go with that — a 4, Betrayal, as our main theme for this game discussion.

So what are the symbols of betrayal and broken loyalty we can think of? Take a minute (and I mean 1 minute, this is a backup plan, and should be quick) and make a list, here is mine (YMMV):

  • Shakespeare
  • King Lear
  • Macbeth
  • Daggers
  • Scorpions
  • Black roses
  • Tattoos
  • Vicious dogs

And now what places might we associate with betrayal? (Admittedly this one is harder but let’s give it a go anyway)

  • Divorce courts
  • Mistresses flat
  • Bordello

I got stuck at this point and put the word betrayal into an online thesaurus and this sparked a new set of locations

  • Police station
  • Rivers/ waters/rip tides (as in treacherous waters)

Now we have a network of descriptive places and things. No matter where the PCs go, I can set the mood I want in game.

The PCs go tearing after the tiny off the cuff comment one of them made last week? No problems! Go with it and throw in some of the above factors. The NPCs they speak to are in the red light district, as they stand in the flickering neon coming from the bordello windows they can’t help but notice the scorpion tattoo on the ankle of the woman they are talking to . . .

Or how about the destination they are suddenly going to is along a fast flowing river. Along the bank are signs proclaiming “NO SWIMMING – CONCEALED OBJECTS IN THE WATER,” or in the park a dog walker is struggling to control his animal as it suddenly gets spooked by something and turns on its owner.

So now we have a set of locations and interesting character details to ad lib from. They wont always be the most eloquent or fitting of descriptors, but we are talking about keeping the flow going here when wrong footed by the players, so let’s not be too harsh on ourselves here.

Why yes, of course this NPC has a name

Another thing in the planned ad lib is the ability to create infinite, well rounded NPCs. I know this sounds daunting, but it really doesn’t have to be. Consider a few key elements on any given NPC, and you can flesh out a very believable character in seconds.

I have never been able to come with good NPCs on the fly, so I use a random generator in excel to create NPCs with Name, Demeanour (Sly, Sullen, Sycophantic, etc., or whatever matches your theme), Disposition (Friendly, Neutral, Enemy), Trait (the details that make NPCs feel more real, things like whittling, looking after a child, cooking food, shaving, late for a meeting etc.). It almost doesn’t matter what the trait is, just so long as it’s there), and last of all Appearance (mono-brow perhaps?). Once again keep it quick. Get a list of names to fit your genre off the web, and then a few rows under each heading is all you need. If you don’t want to code up a random generator, simply print out the tables, roll a bunch of dice (one for each headed column) and voila! You have your NPC.

Add in some of the detail from theme from earlier (King Lear tattooed across the back of a gang member perhaps?) and we can quickly customise the random NPC the party suddenly decided to follow home; and integrate that previously non-existent character into the theme of the story as well.

OK, we have talked about theme, and we have talked about NPCs, now let’s talk about keeping things moving. So your players have spotted something shiny and run as far and as fast in the direction away from your plot as they can . . . This bit I call:

“Break Glass In Case Of Emergency!”

So here are five things to try to keep the game moving, and overcome the inertia that can hit your plot sometimes.

The one shot re-railer

This is a standalone, single session scenario that I can parachute in quickly. It has a location that the PCs can be given easily (and make it obvious, like the lieutenant calls them and says “we just got an anonymous tip off about a crack house, go check it out, sounds like it may be related to your case”).

We know before the campaign starts that betrayal is at the heart of what’s happening, so let’s betray the party! The game needs a trusted NPC who turns on them, who is it? A spouse of the PCs who is forced into the act to protect the kids? Was another member of the organisation a double agent all along? Be aware of PC back stories here, as they can help to weave this into the game all the more seamlessly.

Whatever you prepare for this, remember, its objective is to reacquaint the players with the plot. Somewhere in this single session mini game is an obvious clue to get the game back on target. Maybe it’s a map to the key item or location, perhaps the a dying bad guy whispers the name “Keyser Soze” before breathing his last; whatever it is, it’s a great big sign to the players saying “go here if you want to follow the plot.”

Take 40 minutes or so to map out the location and know what the key detail is the party will find here.

Plot attack!

I think it was Mickey Spilane who once said, “. . . whenever I don’t know what to do next, I have the bad guys kick in the door and start shooting!” — and trust me, this is great advice. Have the plot hit the PCs –- hard, fast and brutal. Don’t wimp out here; make it an “engage with the plot or die” type of situation. How did the plot find the PCs? Go back to your themes again –- in our case, betrayal; someone ratted them out! You can figure out who and why later on. Once again, an awareness of PC back stories can help to smooth out the wrinkles as to who/how/why the plot suddenly went after the PCs.

The PCs hare off after “Tangent X” . . . so go with it!

OK so as players are want to do, they have decided “helium filled inflatable bananas” are suddenly important . . . and our theme is betrayal . . . and we want to get the party back into the plot if we can . . .

So X (helium filled bananas) has no intrinsic worth, and the sense of betrayal will be when the PCs find this out . . . but we want the PCs to feel as though they were participating in the main story arc the whole time. So how can we work this tangent into our existing structure?

With betrayal as our theme we say the plot agents set “X” (the helium filled inflatables shop) up as bait. Maybe it was bait for the PCs, or for anther agent in the story? It’s hard to script what exactly this will be as we don’t have a detailed campaign to fit it into, but hopefully you’re getting the hang of the “theme shapes the game” concept and you now have the tools wing it with style when the party go running off after the balloon shop keeper’s daughter, or his delivery van, or perhaps their holiday cottage in the mountains, or whatever bright shiny thing has grabbed their attention this session.

So if I apply my “Tangent X prep,” using the theme of betrayal, to the concept of “Helium filled balloons” this is what I get (hopefully you will get something else).

All this talk of Mickey Spillane has got me thinking noir crime capers, so let’s say The Balloon Shop is actually part of the drug distribution ring the PCs are after, sending “crank” across state when inside the weights for the helium filled balloons! (Yes it’s a huge coincidence, but we are in troubled waters here!)

Now, GM, is that enough betrayal for you? What if the drug balloon weights are deliberately planted on the PCs to implicate them?

Still not enough betrayal? What if the balloon is not really part of the drug distribution ring after all? The bad guys are aware of the PC investigation and decided to use their own sudden interest in balloons against them to flush out the entire investigation team so they know who to watch out for? (!)

Again, don’t spend too long over thinking this. It’s off the cuff, it’s all in response to PC induced madness. Just generate NPCs, use the theme cues listed earlier, and you can figure out how the bad guys figured all this out between game sessions when no one is looking. Just talk fast, smile knowingly, and if pushed say something like “Oh I’m sure you will figure it out eventually . . .” — then in the downtime between sessions you can backwards engineer who knew what and how, and how they tricked the PCs into it. Once again, don’t over think it. This is your recovery stance, not the main drive of your campaign.

Change the characters

Okay, the players are stuck. The plot is derailed, nothing’s gone well, and you have not managed to integrate the helium banana thing into you game in any useful way. You have two choices, give up, or maybe accept that the PCs were not the right people to solve this problem.

How about switching to some new characters that have the right combinations of skills and motivations to take the story forward? Now for some systems generating a bunch of new characters from scratch may be too much work, but perhaps you can float the idea and see how it goes? Maybe the NPC they have met along the way can go on to complete the story?

Ask the players

‘Fess up, GM: If you’re not sure what to do next, ask the players. The odds are they will have a great idea of what should happen next!

There you go, hope that helps at some point in the future.