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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!