At this weekend’s D&D game (in which I’m a player), our group took the game in a completely unexpected direction right out of the gate — and our GM wound up improvising the entire session. Virtually nothing he had prepped wound up seeing the light of day, and he improvised like a champ.

While there’s nothing at all wrong with letting your players know that you’re winging it, it’s much more satisfying to pull it off so well that they have no idea you were improvising at all. And that’s what our GM, Sam, did: At the end of the night, when he told us he’d improvised the whole session, I was surprised — it was smooth, it felt planned and we had fun.

From a player’s perspective, Sam nailed his improv not just because he’s a good GM, but because he did these five specific things.

Didn’t tell us he was winging it. Not a must, as noted, but more fun for everyone when it works. He didn’t miss a bit when making his wing it/don’t wing it decision.

Bought time on the sly. As it happened, the kickoff for the session was an encounter that naturally led to us doing a bit of careful planning (just not the planning Sam expected). That gave Sam plenty of time to figure out what to do next without needing to do any stalling.

Kept things simple. When you’re winging it, it’s best not to be too subtle, or to over-complicate things. Sam created a handful of fun scenes, and we never got bogged down in improv-cruft.

Used his resources wisely. Apart from time, I’m willing to bet Sam’s laptop came in handy — my guess is that he was looking at monster stats and notes from past adventures while fleshing things out on the fly. That would have been a lot more obvious without the laptop.

Delivered a kickass climax. The best improvised sessions end with a bang, and ours was a tough fight against a red dragon. For a party that’s fought mainly illithids, the dragon was also a nice change of pace.

When you’re a player, what do you look for in a well-improvised session? And as a GM, what tricks do you use to deliver this kind of experience?