This is a game, not improv theatre…
Have you ever found yourself staring blankly at a room full of expectant players, your carefully prepared session thrown into disarray by a single unexpected decision? I have. Many times. The unpredictable nature of tabletop role-playing games can often leave even the most seasoned dungeon masters (DMs) scrambling for ideas. But contrary to popular belief, you can’t avoid this type of situation by being well prepared, it would just require way too much prep and also a fair bit of railroading. So the solution isn’t more prep, it’s to get good at improvising. As a DM you will be forced to improvise again and again, it’s just the way the game works.
But first of all, we need to align on what we mean by improvising. This guide is not about improvising as in improv theatre, TTRPGs are not theatre and as the DM you are not required or even encouraged to play theatre at the table. TTRPGs are first and foremost games. So this guide is about the gaming aspect of improvising, which is what you as the DM will be running into 99% of the time. This guide is not about improv theatre and how to act out elaborate NPC elaborate dialogue or weave a player’s novel of a backstory into your game world. This guide is about improvising the consequences of the players actions.
The basic TTRPG formula
The standard formula for the majority of all TTRPGs go like this: “You are at X and know Y, what do you do“. That’s the fundamental premise of TTRPGs, it’s true whatever situation the PCs are in. Here are three examples to showcase what I mean:
“You enter the dungeon and come into a circular room with doors to the north and east, it smells foul and feels cold, what do you do?”
“You are at the inn in the village by the river, you know your mission is to find the wealthy merchant’s missing shipment, what do you do?”
“You come to a raging river and the bridge that once stood has been swept away by the mighty water, what do you do?
So improvising as a DM is about figuring out the consequences of the players actions, as in:
Player: “I try to swim across the river”
Player: “I try to find someone shady in the tavern, someone that might have an affiliation to smugglers or a thieves guild”
Player: “I listen closely at both doors, are there any sounds coming from beyond?“
Sometimes you’ve already prepared the answers to the above questions, maybe you’ve decided that swimming across the river is possible but very difficult, so all that’s needed is the appropriate dice roll. But maybe you aren’t prepared for the players wanting to listen at the door in the dungeon, you haven’t written anything in your notes about the sounds in the dungeon, so here you will have to improvise.
Sometimes improvising is about coming up with suitable sounds in a haunted tomb, and sometimes it’s about making up an entire NPC with a motivation, faction affiliation and appearance. Regardless of which situation you are facing, the advice and tools in this guide will help you handle the situation smoothly.
The Fundamentals of improvisation as a DM
First, let’s take a look at the basics, the stuff that’s required for you to be able to improvise situations and rulings in a TTRPG in a good way.
Realism is you best friend
TTRPGs are rarely about realism, they are about escaping the every day grind and getting to live in a fantasy world together with your friends for a few hours. But that doesn’t mean that realism is the enemy, especially not when improvising.
As a DM you will find yourself in countless situations where you have to improvise. Maybe the players decided to go hunting for deer instead of going straight to the dungeon you had prepared, because they wanted some free food. Now how do you determine the rules for hunting deer? And should anything bad happen to them when out hunting? The answer is in realism.
Hunting deer is probably a matter of tracking, stalking and shooting a bow at some deer, perfect, there you have the rules for hunting the deer. But how many deer are there? I would probably roll 2D6, because my own experience with deer is seeing them from my car, and then I usually see 2-10 of them at a time, so 2D6 makes sense. How about other dangers? Well, what lives in the region that the adventure takes place in? Goblins, Owlbears? How do you determine if they run into any of those creatures? Just roll a couple of dice and refer to your mental image of the region the PCs are in. A combat encounter isn’t necessary, but it might happen if they hike around in the forest.
What about those situations where the players want to attempt to charm the queen or the village elder into giving them whatever ridiculous thing they want? I would just say no, why? Because it doesn’t make sense. Realism is your best friend when improvising, because we all share the same foundation for what is realistic and what’s not (maybe with a few exceptions) so leaning on that will always work. It doesn’t matter if you need to improvise rules for breaking a crystal door, charming a bugbear, sliding down a muddy hill while shooting a crossbow or determining if the hunting party is ambushed by goblins or not. Realism and a few dice rolls will always have your back.
The more detailed your scene descriptions are (up to a limit, of course), the more aligned your and your players’ shared understanding of the world will be. This will make it easier for both you and the players to understand what’s possible. In turn, this will make improvising the consequences of the players’ actions in a realistic way a lot easier.
Use “Yes and” responsibly
This isn’t improv theatre, you are not required to answer every proposition by the players with “Yes and”, definitely not. Just because a player wants something to be true doesn’t mean you have to improvise the whole thing. If it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t align with your view of the world you are playing in, feel free to say no. Being overly accommodating towards your players will only add more work to your already hefty workload as the DM. Also, you don’t have to alter whatever scenario you have prepared just because one player chose to write four pages of backstory including evil twins and a long lost uncle, that’s not how TTRPGs work.
While it’s natural to have a direction or end-goal in mind for your session, it’s essential to remain adaptable. The beauty of TTRPGs lies in its unpredictability, with player choices steering the course of events. Example: You’ve planned for the players to negotiate peace between two warring factions. However, during the game, they decide to side with one faction against the other. Instead of forcing them back to the negotiation table, you can adapt the scenario to their choice, leading to a different but equally engaging set of challenges and narratives. Stay on your toes and be ready to kill your darlings.
Improvisation demands confidence. Remember, you’re the master of the game world, equipped with knowledge of its lore, mechanics, and potential. When faced with unexpected player choices, rely on your understanding of the game’s universe and your storytelling abilities. Example: The players suddenly decide to venture into a forest that you hadn’t fleshed out. Drawing from your knowledge of the game’s lore, you recall a legend about a cursed tree in a similar forest setting. Using this as a base, you quickly craft a mini-adventure involving the cursed tree, turning an unplanned detour into a memorable encounter.
Don’t prep plot, it will never work out that way anyway
The old adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy finds a kindred spirit in the world of TTRPGs: no plot survives contact with the players. Essentially, this means that no matter how meticulously you’ve plotted out a storyline, players will invariably introduce variables you hadn’t considered. Their creativity, choices, and sheer unpredictability are what make the games dynamic, but they can also derail a rigid plotline.
Examples to illustrate the point
- The Unexpected Ally: Imagine you’ve set up a black-hearted villain, and your entire storyline revolves around the players pursuing and eventually confronting this antagonist. You’ve intricately crafted the villain’s motivations, plans, and the impact they have on the world. Then, in the first encounter, instead of attacking or avoiding the villain, your players try to empathize, negotiate, or even befriend them. A rigid plot would struggle to accommodate this choice, but a flexible approach can weave this unexpected twist into a compelling narrative.
- Skipping Content: You’ve created a maze-like dungeon, filled with traps, monsters, and puzzles, all leading to the final chamber where a significant plot revelation awaits. But instead of navigating the dungeon, your players find an inventive way to bypass it entirely—maybe by scaling the outer walls, teleporting, or negotiating with the guardian creature. If you’re married to the plot, such a move can be a nightmare. But if you’re adaptable, it becomes an opportunity to shift the challenge and narrative elsewhere.
Prepped plot vs. Prepped scenario: A concrete example
Plot-Driven Adventure: “The Cursed Amulet” Plot: The players learn of a cursed amulet that’s causing drought in their region. The storyline dictates that they must travel to three different temples, facing challenges at each, to collect keys that will unlock the vault holding the amulet. After retrieving it, they are to destroy it at Mount Vezuvan, the only place hot enough to melt it. The entire story is linear, with a predetermined sequence of events.
Potential Issues: What if the players decide to investigate if there’s another way to end the drought? Or they choose to steal the keys rather than complete the temple challenges? Or they negotiate with a dragon to melt the amulet instead of going to Mount Vezuvan?
Scenario-Driven Adventure: “Drought in Dryvale” Scenario: The town of Dryvale is experiencing a severe drought. Rumors suggest various causes—a cursed amulet, a displeased water deity, a dragon hoarding the region’s water sources, or a wizard’s failed experiment. Clues are scattered, and players choose which lead to follow.
How It Plays Out: Instead of a set path, players navigate the situation based on their decisions. They might end up negotiating with the dragon, seeking the wizard’s help to reverse his experiment, or delving into ancient ruins in search of the amulet. The outcome and events are determined by their actions and choices, not a pre-established sequence.
By focusing on scenarios rather than fixed plots, DMs provide a sandbox where players craft their narratives, making the adventures more organic, unpredictable and most of all, a lot more flexible, which in turn makes you job as the DM easier when you have to improvise.
Tools for helping with improvisation in TTRPGs
Now to the stuff you’ve all been waiting for, the tools I recommend for making improvising as a DM easier and smoother. Here are 5 tools that will help you at the table:
- The bank of ideas: Start a note in your favorite note taking app on your phone. Whenever you come up with a cool idea, regardless if it’s lacks context or is super niche. Then whenever you need ideas, you’ve got your bank of ideas. I highly recommend doing this on your phone, because you’ll get good ideas at the most random times, in the shower, on your way to work, in when ordering lunch and so on, so you need to be able to write it down immediately.
- Random generators: There are random generators for everything and there is no shame in borrowing someone elses stuff. Our NPC generator for example is perfect for when you need an interesting NPC on the fly and our D66 tab.le of forest encounters will help you out when the players decide to go deer hunting… The charm of randomly generating stuff is that even you won’t know what’s going to happen and a healthy dose of randomness for everyone at the table is always fun!
- Thematic lists: Whether you need a suitable name for an improvised NPC in a viking themed village, a handfull of hex crawl locations or a lightning themed magic item, having a list ready will make your live a lot easier. Either build these kind of lists yourself and have them close by when running the game, or use stuff you find online.
- Oracle dice: A simple but powerful tool available to all DMs is the Oracle dice. It’s actually just a fancy name for a good old fashion coin toss, use it whenever you can’t or don’t want to decide the answer to one of your players questions. The most common way of doing this is using a D6 and having 1-2 mean “Bad for the players”, 3-4 mean “Neutral for the players” and 5-6 mean “Good for the players”. So if you end up in an improvised situation and one of the players ask if there is anything to hide behind as the enemy fire a volley of arrows, just roll a D6, on a 5-6 there’s plenty of cover, on a 3-4 there’s only cover for half the party and on a 1-2 they’d better brace for impact. The Oracle dice can be a true lifesaver!
- Recycle unused content: If players bypassed or missed an encounter, location, NPC, trap or piece of loot, save it (perhaps in your bank of ideas?). You can reintroduce it later, perhaps with a twist. Never let that valuable prep time go to waste!
Improvising characters and dialogues
Improvising NPCs and their dialogue with the players can feel extra scary, but don’t worry, there are great tools to help you navigate this effectively.
- Work with archetypes: Tropes are great for a reason, most people know what to expect from various tropes, so use that to your advantage. A greedy merchant, a mysterious wanderer, or a vengeful ghost are all pretty obvious characters and obvious is good when you have to improvise.
- NPC goals/motivations: The most important aspect to make an believable and easy to run NPC is making sure you are clear on the NPCs goal or motivation. If the NPCs goal is to become the most wealthy merchant in town, then he will most likely not offer a discount, he will most likely not increase the reward for killing the rats in his cellar and he will definitely not go out of his way to help “those darn tree hugging Druids trying to cure their pet moose“. Lean heavily on the motivations of your NPCs, it’ the key to easy and effective improvisation.
10 NPC motivations to get you going
Below are 10 NPC motivation that should fit in any scenario and pretty much any type of NPC. Hopefully they will help you get a flying start:
|1. Desire for Acceptance||Seeking validation and acceptance from the community or a particular group.|
|2. Pursuit of Safety||Prioritizing personal safety and the safety of loved ones.|
|3. Fear of Change||Resisting alterations in routine or environment.|
|4. Seeking Knowledge||Yearning to learn more about the world and its mysteries.|
|5. Drive for Independence||Striving to be free from reliance on others.|
|6. Loyalty to Tradition||Holding reverence for customs, rituals, and traditions.|
|7. Need for Recognition||Desiring acknowledgment and remembrance.|
|8. Quest for Justice||Seeking fairness and intervening in perceived wrongdoing.|
|9. Fear of Loneliness||Driven by a fear of being alone or forgotten.|
|10. Desire for Power||Craving control or influence over others.|
Closing thoughts on how to improvise as DM
The role of the DM is to be an impartial adjudicator of the rules. It’s important to stand in the middle, as in not with the players but also not against the players. The job is to run the world in a logical and realistic way. Your job is NOT to accommodate to the players’ whim and various fantasies, for the game to actually work you need to respect the world and the rules that is is based on.
Improvising is something most new DMs struggle with a lot, but don’t hate it, because once you’ve gotten used to it you will see that it’s the key thing that sets TTRPGs apart from other game types. Embrace the unpredictability, trust your instincts, and always be ready to weave a tale that will be remembered for ages.