Video Games can make your RPG better!

...or how to get source material for your RPGs from AAA games.

Let's talk about video games for a while. While tabletop gaming has stayed more or less a niche hobby, video games have gone through quite a journey since their humble beginnings. There is no denying that video games' popularity sky-rocketed in the past decade or so. Thanks to that, AAA video game companies nowadays have budgets comparable to blockbuster movies. They spend a lot of money on writers, designers and artists. Not to mention paying for focus groups and playtesters to make sure the game is accessible and satisfying. There are a lot of creative and talented people working in the video games industry right now, making really awesome things. That's a lot of high quality art, plots, levels and other designs just waiting to be discovered.

Even if you are not an AAA gamer (like myself), you can take inspiration (or simply take ready-made pieces) from those blockbuster games and use it in your campaign. You can find everything - from detailed dungeon maps, through fully fleshed NPCs, interesting monsters, adventure and quests ideas to small things like magic items and weapons. You get some inspirational quality artwork to go with this as well. If you look at it the right way - all of this is a system-agnostic source material, that can be hacked and transplanted straight into your games. Just choose a video game with a similar setting to what you are currently running and you are good to go.

Apart from the ready made content, video games can teach us a bit about good design practices. Of course, not everything will seamlessly translate to the tabletop medium, but there are some interesting video game "mechanics" we can use in our sessions.

Video game artbooks, strategy guides and (most importantly) wikis hold a plethora of content for you to choose from. Fan curated wikis are the highlight of the bunch. What they lack in art, they make up with detailed descriptions and accessibility. After all, they are available freely online. Below you'll find examples of where and what to look for when mining those sources for good inspirational content.

Items, Weapons, Armor and all that jazz.

You can always use some more clutter in your games, right? Well, wikis (especially those for cRPGs) are the to go places for findings items that will fit your campaign. Almost every wiki will have a page dedicated to showcasing the games equipment. Like the ones for Dragon Age: Origins or Skyrim. Of course the damage and prices won't translate 1:1 to your system of choice, but you get some cool art and often some flavor text - really, that's all you need to introduce some new items.
It gets even better when you want some artifacts. Unique equipment from computer games will usually have a story behind it and much cooler design.
If you are simply looking for art to either represent the item during a session or for inspiration, you can't go wrong with artbooks. They will usually have a section dedicated to equipment filled with gorgeous concept art. It is worth investing into few AAA game artbooks.

Design wise, many computer games nowadays are moving away from simply giving the player better "stuff" as the game progresses. Sure, it seems logical to give  players more powerful weapons and armor every time they achieve something. The truth is, by doing so you will soon run into a power creep issues. On the tabletop side of gaming, this means that you have to make your enemies stronger to pose any challenge to the players. You are also taking away choice from the player. After all, it's a no-brainer to exchange the sword+2 with a mace+4.

To avoid that, you can experiment with Team Fortress 2 style item mechanics (as pictured above). Each of them has a strength and a weakness, so no single item is clearly better than the other. In games like that, players choose weapons based on their play style and current situation. Maybe the new crossbow is much more powerful but it is very loud, or take forever to reload? This way you allow your players to experiment with different tactics, which can be a fun experience. 

Level Design, dungeons, towns...and names?.

Every game needs to take place somewhere, so why not use what's already there? When you need a dungeon or a town, you can do much worse than "borrowing" one from a video game. Heck, cRPGs and action games are basically littered with them.
For maps your best bet is to go with a strategy guide. Wikis have maps here and there, but any strategy guide worth it's salt will have maps paired with detailed descriptions of what is found where. Getting few strategy guides shouldn't be a big burden, as they can be found online and in charity shops for next to nothing.

For gameplay reasons you won't find vast mega-dungeons and truly city-sprawling settlements in video games. A small dungeon or a nice looking village/town (re-skinned from a video game "city") map can be found easily, usually with some cool location names, enemy types and some vistas to go along with it. Use the whole "set" or pick and choose what you want. Try to stay away from very iconic motives, especially names. You probably have players who know what Winterhelm, Megaton or Kaer-Morhen is, but not many of them will know where the Frostmere Crypt, Cottonwood Cove or Loc Muinne comes from. So, don't be afraid to take few names and put them in your campaign - video games are filled with good location and NPC names.

Monsters and other Enemies

Steal enemies. Plain and simple. The video game monster come not only with great artwork that can be an inspiration for narration, they also have their own tactics, flavor text and possible loot drops. More than this, many video game monsters have special moves and AI. Maybe they attack in swarm and explode upon deaths? Maybe they are immune or have a weakness against certain element? All of those things can be adapted to tabletop and they make for a fight. When looking for interesting monster AI, look outside the cRPG genre. Action games have a wider variety of monster behaviors. A good source for Boss enemies are MOBAs. Each "character" in any MOBA has a set of skills that can be translated to some cool RPG attacks. Because of recent MOBA popularity you can find very detailed wikis describing them. You can easily re-skin those characters to make an interesting boss encounter.

Is that all?

Not by a long shot. There is a lot more that can be mined from AAA games - NPCs, quests, subsystems, mechanics and we didn't even touched on the topic of music (game soundtracks make a great session background noise). There is also much more we can learn from analyzing the game's design choices. But this topic is way to big to fit into a blog post (and possibly my brain).

Bottom line is - AAA video games must be doing something right to stay so popular, so why not use some of their content in our hobby? Thanks to fan created wikis, official artbooks and strategy guides we are given great amount of inspirational tools. So, visit some game wikis, get some cheap strategy guides from your local charity store, invest in some artbooks from games you really enjoy and mash, hack and adapt this content to RPGs!

Magic: The (random) Creature & Adventure Generator

..or how to use Magic: The Gathering cards for improvisation and inspiration in RPG.

I just stumbled upon an interesting Gnome Stew's article: Troy’s Crock Pot: Draw a card, any card. Author Troy E. Taylor shows you how you can use your Magic The Gathering cards to create a quick and handy random creature encounter deck. It is an interesting read, but it simply boils down to "Hey, why won't we use those cards with great art as a random creature table?". There is much more you can do with Magic cards in a RPG than just draw creatures from it. 

When I was still playing/collecting MTG I used those cards as a big source of inspiration for my fantasy adventures. Now, after I sold all of mine MTG cards I am using a website that has every MTG card scan known in existence - If you are looking for something less high fantasy in style, you can always find scans from different card games - Card Game Database is a good starting point. If you search around the interwebs enough, you can find full card scans of almost any card game.

In this post I will focus on MTG cards, but those techniques apply to any card game - all you need is some evocative art and some text.

Savage Magic Creatures

Before we jump into different ways of using MTG cards I want to make a quick note on how use the Troy's random creature deck technique in Savage Worlds. Basically, you use it as described - but instead of creating stats for every single card, just choose a similar creature from bestiary and tweak it a bit. There is no need for fine-tuned creatures, especially if they are only used for random or one-off encounters.

I won't be uncovering uncharted lands here if I say, that all you should be re-skinning monsters. It is a good practice for a system like Savage Worlds that can save you a lot of time during unplanned sessions. Use any Savage Worlds bestiary you can find (there is a good free one here). Once you have chosen the mook add extra Edges or Monstrous Abilities to make it more thematic. Consider the card's name, type, special rules and flavor text as well as art when you decide what creature to base it on and what to add. When choosing the base creature - get something that poses a similar threat instead of something not just looks alike. You will have a much easier time tweaking the stats this way.

For example, the Festering Goblin (found using the Random button on above can use the statistics of a normal Goblin from Savage Worlds Deluxe Bestiary with the "Undead" Monstrous Ability added (he is a zombie after all). On top of that I would add something to represent his ability "When Festering Goblin dies, target creature gets -1/-1 until end of turn.". I see it as when you strike the final blow on this guy, all the maggots, spores or gases crawl out the carcass. It is not a powerful ability (-1/-1 in MTG is not a huge deal) so let just say 2d6 damage in Savage Worlds terms. That gives us an ability: 
  • Disease-ridden: Upon death all the corpse releases all of its disease spores and gases. All adjacent creatures must pass a Vigor test, or suffer 2d6 Damage.
Just like that we have created a new, thematic Savage Worlds monster based on the card. It has a interesting gameplay mechanic (exploding bodies, seen in so many video games) that can surprise the players. 

But Wait! There's More!

Drawing random magic cards can also  be used to create detailed adventure plots. While this won't give you a completely polished scenario, it will give you enough info for a hook and background for a session. It will guide your imagination and create possible scenes in the adventure. It is up to you to connect those seemingly random elements into a cohesive whole. You will draw (or use the random function from the magiccards website) to answer few questions that will generate the scenarios background. In the most basic format you should answer 4 questions: Who (the threat is), What (he plans to do), Where (it takes place) and Why (is he doing it). 

Let's take this technique for a spin, shall we? (I am choosing the cards below at random. I will click random tab on until I get something that fits). I have randomly chosen the following 4 cards (I skipped quite a few cards. I just chose things that looked cool and seemed to fit. This part took me around 10 min):

So, the villain of our piece will be a local honor guard. He seems to be possessed by a demon (Oni). Our key location is a mausoleum and the reason for all of it is a Foul Familiar. It may seem like a bit of random elements, but I already have a scenario idea in mind:

A Honor Guard has is trying to kill a strange phantasmic creature that takes control of citizens in his domain (took this solely from Foul Familiar's artwork). The Foul Familiar is a ghost of a person who was not ready to die and just wants to have a body again. He possesses people who are close to the mausoleum (where their body rests). It would all have been well, if the Honor Guard didn't start tracking it - now the spirit will try to posses someone and escape to have a "normal" life elsewhere. Unfortunately, the guard was very determinated to find out what is making people act strange. He was not able to trace it under normal circumstances, so he made a pact with a demon that will help him track this - what he believes is a- monstrosity. The way the Guard sees it - it is all for the greater good, he is protecting citizens by sacrificing himself. He plans to go into exile once he has done this duty (he's a honorable man after all). Aided by the demon, he is able to track the creature's current host, but any attempts on killing the creature end up in the host being dead (either from the Honor Guard's hand, or by the creature escaping from its host and taking its life with it). Now, the city is in terror. People start dying in mysterious ways and the town guard (of which the Honor Guard  is a somehow high ranking member) seems useless to stop it (after all the only the Honor Guard can see the creature, he slows down the investigation to finish his duty). This is where the players come in. Someone (a family member of one of the recent victims perhaps?) hires them to solve the crimes. What will players do when they find out it is an esteemed guard who is committing the crimes? Is he really following his duty, or is he so far under the demon's influence that he does not see he has become a villain?Will they side with the Guard or the Spirit?

Can you see how those few cards make your imagination going? While this is just a setup, I could write a whole scenario out of those 4 cards. Alas I am a lazy GM so I would much rather improvise from this little setup and see what players would do. I would probably prepare few previous murders for PCs to investigate, some NPCs with whom they can interact and go from there. So far, this whole thing took me a little over 30 minutes.

Once you are confident with creating something out of those 4 cards, feel free to ask yourself more questions and get more random cards as your answers. This way you can create a very detailed adventure...or a very detailed background that you can easily improvise from. Go on, give it a try and tell me what you think.

Possesed Corpse - a Savage Worlds Monster Template

In the last post I described a new Arcane Background - Blood Magic, that allows characters to use demon powers. The part of the deal with the devil is that the demon will take possession of the Blood Mage's corpse after he passed away. This post concentrates on those corpses.

Possessed Corpse is a template that you can add to any character and/or monster in Savage Worlds. After all, any creature can get possessed, even if they did not sign a blood pact with a demon... some were simply in wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe they were a part of ritual demon binding or maybe they died close to a demonic shrine, who knows?

To create a Possessed Corpse  you need to take statistics of your "victim" and add the below template on top of them. Note that the Possesed Corpse will have access to all of the previous owner's Skills, Edged & Hindrances - with the exception of AB: Miracles and anything connected to it.

Possessed Corpse Template

Attributes: Strenght +2 steps, Vigor +1 step, Dexterity -1 step
Skills: Fighting +2 steps, Intimidation +2 steps
Parry +2, Toughness +1
Charisma: -4
• Demonic Claws: Str +D8
• Immunity to poison and disease.
Infernal Stamina:  +2 bonus to recover from being Shaken.
Resistant to Normal Weapons: suffer only half-damage from non-magical attacks except for cold iron and/or blessed weapons
Weakness (Cold Iron/Blessed weapons): take normal damage from pure iron and/or blessed weapons.

The possession of the corpse takes mere moments. Once the creature falls dead its body starts bulging with muscles, grows claws and turns more bestial to resemble the demon that possess it. After a turn, the newly Possessed Corpse rises.

Once the Possessed Corpse is killed, the demon returns to its native realm, possibly plotting revenge on the person who banished it.


For some demons, possessing a corpse is the only way in to the mortal realm. They won't be as powerful as if they would manifest in their true form - after all, they are limited by this mortal flesh. This is why they tend possess fresh corpses - those still strong and functioning. Muscles, joints, senses - all at the disposal of the demon who projects its consciousness and takes control of this flesh. No matter what kind of creature the "donor" was, the Possessed Corpse has the intelligence and the personality of the demon who possessed it. Even if it can't communicate it (like a possessed animal for example), it will still have the demon cunning - if limited by animalistic or mortal urges. Rules wise they still use their original Intelligence Die for tests, as those are the limitation of the host body.

Those corpse possessing demons do not have to be bloodthirsty killers. More often than not, they will have a much more sophisticated agenda for the time they gets to spend in the mortal realm. While, some might want to kill the Player Characters, others might want to barter or work with them... maybe even sign a new Blood Pact? The demons in my campaigns are usually cunning puppeteer types - a much more interesting foe than straight up monsters attacking the PCs.

Savage Worlds Arcane Background: Blood Magic

Time to come back to some Savage Worlds content with a new Arcane Background - Blood Magic.

Arcane Background: Blood Magic

Requirements: Special (Make a pact with a demon)
Arcane Skills: Blood Magic (Vigor)
Starting Power Points: Special (see below)
Starting Powers: 3 - can be chosen from ranks higher than the character.

You are one of the brave or foolish enough to make a pact with a demon. The demon lends you its powers, In exchange for your life force - your blood. There is one more caveat, after you die the demon will take over your corpse... but, you won't be needing your body then, right?

Powers & Trappings: There is a plethora of demons in existence, so no trappings and powers are excluded. Discuss with your GM what kind of demon you have signed a pact with to narrow down the power and trappings choice. You can also choose Powers from ranks beyond your own. There is only one rule that you need to follow - Any helpful powers (like Healing or Armor) can only be cast on you.

Blood Magic: You don't have Power Points of your own, you borrow the demon's power. You cast spells using "No Power Points" rule from Savage Worlds Deluxe. You are doing so by letting some of your blood as a sacrifice to the demon. This blood manifests into a spell. The act of bloodletting won't cause a Wound if it's done with a small blade, but can make you Shaken if done wrong (Failure on Blood Magic Test). If you wish, you can sacrifice more blood to fuel the spell. Each Wound you deal to yourself (it's a free action)  gives you +2 to the Blood Magic roll. You can do the same by sacrificing the life force of others, but it requires a Multiple Action Penalty during combat. 

Demon Mark: After buying this Edge and every time you buy a new Power Edge, your body changes a little to resemble the demon who helps you. Your eyes or skin might change color, you can start growing horns or claws. The final decision of how exactly your body changes is up to the GM, but It should be based on the type of demon with whom you have a pact with. Each of those marks give you -1 to Charisma if visible.

Demon Blood: Using demonic powers taints your blood. Not only you are considered a demonic entity, but you can also loose control and give in to the demon inside you. Each time you roll a 1 on a Blood Magic skill die, test your Spirit. If you fail, you loose control for a short while - the GM will decide your action for your next turn based on the demon's agenda. Similar thing happens if the character is Incapacitated - but this time the demon takes over for D6 turns (or minutes if out of combat)

***GM's Notes***

I first wrote Blood Magic as a tool for GMs (well, myself as a GM). At that time it was a re-skin of AB: Magic with a small extra rule - after death of the blood mage, the demon takes over his body. This was basically my take on the old arcade-games trick to let the characters face off a "second form of the boss" - in this case a corpse inhabited by a demon. You can also wait and make a return of the big bad few sessions later. Will the demon seek vengeance on Player Characters, or will it be grateful for killing the old owner of said corpse? 

After playing a bit in a dark fantasy setting, I introduced the player version of Blood Magic - and it was a blast! Mainly because some of the less Smart or Spirited characters had a decent shot at using magic. I had a successful barbaric blood mage who would fight with an axe and use the powers to buff himself. He was the inspiration for negative Charisma modifiers. It started as scars from bloodletting, but the demon marks soon followed. This modifier is a double edged sword, it can be bad for persuasion and general interaction, but great for intimidation.

Have I mentioned that this Arcane Background is not really a Background Edge? Because it isn't! A character can make a demon pact if there is an occasion for it during their adventures. They still need to spend EXP for this edge, but now you can buy some magic power outside of character creation! So GMs - feel free to tempt your players with this power. After all, if (when?) their character dies you'l have a great new nemesis for the party!

As for the power and trapping selection - it is up to the individual GM and their campaign. In my fantasy game there were different kinds of demons (deception, frost, fire etc.) that had their own available powers and trappings. You might want to stay with a generic red-hellfire-demon theme and some blood related spell trappings, if you are aiming for more dark and grim theme. 

As for casting the spells, all rules from "No Power Points" apply, except from Backlash rules. Instead, you loose control over your character for a turn on a 1 on Arcane Skill Die. As for sacrificing others - it is usually kept for out of combat bonuses, as multi-action penalty negates the bonus unless you'll deal more than one Wound. My players sacrificed some animals outside of battle to get this bonus. I would also allow sacrificing as a free action during combat if your victim is willing or bound.

Last, but not least - You can use this Arcane Background outside of fantasy. After all many modern horror campaigns have demons. You can even fit it into a sci-fi campaign by re-skinning the demon to some alien symbiote or AI that takes over nanobots inside your body.

Stay tuned for a template that you can apply to any creature after the demon has taken over their corpse.

Who, What, Where, When, Why, How to improvise - part 2

In Part 1 of this article we established that a key to successful improvisation is to “Ask questions and use the answers”. If you want to create more fleshed out details you should ask yourself more than one question. Feel free to use a variant of the 5Whys technique. Don't concentrate on just the Whys - use any open ended question word (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How) you can/want to get more interesting answers. 

Before we move any further, try improvising some content for your current game from one of the questions below. Ask yourself a chain of at least 3 questions based on your previous answers to see what you can come up with. To get detail - think about your current game - the setting, the player characters and their past.

  • Who lives in this house?
  • What does this stranger want from you?
  • Where is the artifact hidden?
  • When will the assassin strike?
  • Why is there blood here?
  • How did this beast got in here?

It might seem tricky at first to come up with good answers on your own, but don't be discouraged. The goal of this silly exercise is to make you more confident with asking yourself open ended questions when fishing for answers, not to come up with great answer. Inspiration for great content will come to you as you play the game - party's previous exploits, setting details or even a piece of art... heck, maybe even one of those dreaded random tables! 

Now you know how to create some random content on the spot, let's see how to use it during a game.

Where to Start?

First of all, don't be afraid to fail when you start. Not everything you come up with on the spot will be gold. Even with years of practice, some things that you will come up with won't be great - and I speak from personal experience on that front. Don't get discouraged

When you are stating tinkering with improv, create a "safe space" in your game where you can fail and it won't matter. You can use a trick that I was almost abusing when I was starting - creating "side quests".

Prepare for your session as you would normally. 
As you do, identify some spots in the adventure, where player characters have some down time or are doing something that requires a lot of time - travelling, investigating, research etc. Now think of a few small things that COULD happen during this time. Ask yourself "What can happen to the [player] during [x]?". Meeting strangers while travelling, getting pick-pocketed while in a busy market - that sort of things. Write down few of those small things. If you want to experiment with random tables - come up with 6 things, so you can roll a D6 to find out what happens during the game.

As you get to this spot in the adventure, choose one of the things to happen to player characters. Let them interact with it. They will you some questions about the encounter and from that you can come up with some answers using the open ended questions. Just ask yourself a series of them in your mind and come up with something - anything. If it is not a great answer, nothing is lost - PCs will continue down your planned adventure. If, however, some of your answers will spark the players imagination - they will follow this little unscripted plot. Now you will have to ask yourself more questions to create more content. (Pro Tip: If you are short for ideas on the spot, excuse yourself to the bathroom or to grab a drink - use this time to come up with something juicy).

The beauty of this "side quest" approach is that you can stop it an any time without disturbing the overall plot. So whatever you come up with, you won't work yourself into a corner - plotwise. This way, you can't lose!
A word to the wise: before you start doing this often, tell your players that random things can happen to their characters. After all - it is a living world and not everything is connected to the adventure at hand.

What and When to Improvise?

When you are starting out, you should focus on improvising small details and adding some side quests for flavor. Add random details to the scripted content - maybe use a sense that you don't normally cover in your narration. Smell can be a powerful tool here, just add random smells to NPCs and locations. Add some small details to anything you can. A shield the PC found is not just a generic shield, it has dents, old blood stains and has a coat of arms of a local barony on it. Suddenly everything in the game world will seem more alive and complete. From that, players will ask you questions. Who did this shield belonged to? Did we just kill a noble? 

Those questions should be a trigger for you. They are an opportunity. They mean that the player is interested in some aspect of the world and they want to investigate it further. You want to answer those questions. Each of them is a potential side quest. And you know what a collection of interconnected side-quests is? A whole adventure. Unscripted! Just like that! 

Your players are your biggest asset when it comes to sparking your imagination. They will give you the ideas that you can develop on the spot into plots. Adventures created this way will seem more organic, more connected to the characters. You no longer require to come up with mysterious strangers to give the PCs a task. Players themselves are being proactive into creating their own adventures. You bait them with some random detail, and they will basically create the scenario for you. It's that simple - all you need to do is to answer some questions!

Go! Start Improvising!

Who, What, Where, When, Why, How to improvise - part 1

If you followed this blog for a while you know that I love all kinds of improv in my tabletop roleplaying. I am pushing things like hexcrawl and random tables down my readers' throats for quite some time now... and will continue to do so. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy scripted adventures as much as any of you, but the constrains of adult life usually stop me from preparing those. So I turn to more free-form games - narrative RPGs, story games - basically things that were created for zero prep gaming. Those are great, but usually not suitable for long-term play. So, if I want to run a long term campaign in a traditional RPG, I improvise a lot.

And so can YOU!

The aim of this article is to show you how to start improvising during the game. I want to focus on the basics and give you the tools, so you can start tinkering with improv yourself. My approach to improv is by no means the only way to improvise during session, but it is something that has worked for me for years. I hope it will do the same for you.

Why Improvise?

I started improvising my games because I had less and less time to spend on my session prep. If you are having the same issue, I strongly encourage you to give improv a try. Even if the session is not as polished as a fully preped one, it is still better than no session at all, especially when time is a valuable commodity.
I kept improvising, because this style of GMing gives me a similar feeling to that of a player. The sense of wonder, discovery and surprise that every session brings. You won't know what hides around next corner. While you might know who the bad guy is, but you have no idea how the players will stop him. If you had been GMing for a long time, this approach will feel like a breath of fresh air. Not knowing all the details of the plot might seem a bit scary, but trust me, it is very rewarding and will create amazing stories.
Lastly, the way I improvise (or maybe just explain improvisation) includes some techniques that you will find helpful in your life away from table. They are are used in training programs for journalism, management and general problem solving. While I might sound like a snake oil salesman trying to push some dodgy product on you, those techniques (even if looking and sounding silly) can help in your everyday life.

Who Can Improvise?


No, honestly - anyone can improvise. It is a skill and like many others, can be learnt. Wannabe actors pay good money for improv classes. You, as a tabletop roleplayer, have a head start. If you had even been a player - you have improvised. If you ever had to wrangle players back to the plot while GMing - you have improvised.

It might not seem as such, because it was just a small part in a larger, pre-scripted, scenario. But this is exactly how you start. No one is asking you to start a session with 0 preparation and come up with an amazing story right away. I want you to start small and level up your improv skill over time. Improvisation is an art that builds up on input of others. In tabletop RPG terms it might be your PCs' past exploits, their background and their knowledge. It will also be based on the rules and contents of the world you are playing in. Lastly, the extra input will come from the players themselves - your friends around the table. Don't be afraid to share the improv load.

How to Improvise?

This is it. This is the Holy Grail that you traveled here for. Gone trough all those lines of text. Dear gods, so many letters! Now, the secrets to successful improvisation lay before you. Finally, you discover that to become an Improv GM you have to...

Ask Questions.

I know, I know. It seems quite disappointing, but this is the trick to improvisation during a session. Whenever you need to introduce some unscripted element in your games you need to ask yourself few open ended questions. You know, those questions that start with Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. They are called Five Ws (or as I knew them in the UK, 5 bums on the rugby post) and are commonly used in nformation-gathering. This is the exact formula I am using when I need to come up with something on the spot.

Let's say I need to introduce a NPC. I will ask myself few questions about him. How does he look like? What is his agenda? Where do players meet him? I go trough the same process with places, items, even with players questions: "What's in this castle?"

You don't have to answer all the questions that come to your mind. Answer the ones you can and go from there. Keep your answers within the boundaries of the setting. The castle might be owned by a baron who dabbles in necromancy in a dark fantasy, or it can be overrun by monsters crawling out of a portal in the dungeon in a heroic game. Each answer should lead you to a new question. Why does the baron want necromantic powers? Where does the portal lead to? Don't be afraid to introduce details from the PCs past. The baron has gone corrupt after you cleared out his black market and killed his lover, he wants to bring them back. The portal leads to a dimension where you banished that demon - he plots revenge by opening it near you. With a little practice you will be able to create content for your game like that in seconds.

Bottom line, to be good at improvisation you need to “Ask questions and use the answers”. Just remember to take details for your answer from the setting and the player characters' past - this will create truly memorable encounters.

Oh, one more thing - if you can't think of a good answer for your question, don't be afraid to ask the players. You can do it either "out of character" by just saying - "what do you think is in there?" or root it in the game world by connecting it to the player characters - "You used to serve under barons in this kingdom, do you remember anything about this castle?"


It is getting late and the post is getting long, so I will split it in two. Stay tuned for answers to such mind-boggling questions like: "Where to Start?" and "What and When to Improvise?"
Edit: Now you can check out Part 2!