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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?

Anyone!

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?"

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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!