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You Want to Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 2)

Written by Steve - Published on November 26, 2009

Read part 1 »

Last week, I talked about a few of the “rules” of improv, and discussed the concepts of “Yes, and…”, Agreement, and Asking Open Questions.  This week, I’d like to get into specifics a little more and suggest some really concrete things you can do when in the heat of a session to set yourself up for success later.  I’m going to pull the curtain back a little on improvisation in this series, but hopefully it will only add to your enjoyment of improv as you’ll know how much work and effort goes into the art.  Behind the scenes, the big thing that both improv scenes and D&D sessions have in common is that they are both messy, chaotic experiences that are made up as a group.  While it is always good to have a plan, you’ll need to be flexible.

Unfortunately, both improv performers and Dungeon Masters can suffer from the need to overplan and overthink a story.  When (not if) your players attempt to go “off the map” and head away from your carefully-crafted script, you’re going to have to think on your feet a little bit.  Dungeon Masters will try to come up with every possible contingency, every possible outcome, and every possible direction a party of adventurers could go – and then try to prepare for them all.  This is, of course, impossible… but that doesn’t stop a few individuals from trying any way.

If this describes your personal style, I am not judging you, but I am willing to bet that you’ve spent countless hours preparing stories and have pages upon pages of stuff that no one has ever seen.  In addition to eliminating paperwork, this will also eliminate the frustration you feel when your players don’t open every single door in your hand-crafted dungeon.  If you’ve never experienced this freedom in your game before, I’m about to blow your mind.  Honestly, you’re in for a treat.  “Making stuff up” is an art form, and one that can radically decrease prep time and exponentially increase fun.

When I run a game, just as when I perform improv, I firmly believe that it is not my job to write the entire story.  Let me repeat that.

My job as the Dungeon Master is not to determine the entire story ahead of time.  I’ve spent my time trying to corral the players into the plotlines detailed in an adventure module, and can tell you that you will have better luck trying to herd cats.  The players in my games are the heroes, and their job is not just to play the game by rolling the dice when I tell them to, but to make up the story along with me.

My job as a performer or Dungeon Master is not to write a script that the players must follow, either.  I’ve tried that, and likewise found it to be a lot of work for me and extremely frustrating for the players.  I’ve discovered that as a Dungeon Master, my job consists of two main roles: to have a basic story outline, and to be the referee.  The DM is the final arbiter of decisions—not so I can have an ego trip—but so that the group can come to a quick decision and get back to playing.  According to that prepared outline, I’ll throw challenges at the players for them to overcome (in a specific order and at specific times) as they work towards the completion of certain goals.  If they can think up a creative way to overcome that challenge, whether that challenge is a puzzle or a monster, I let them use it – and then claim it as my own.  Some of my best gaming sessions happened when players believed that their own ideas were “The Solution” I had planned all along.

ESTABLISH WHO, WHAT, AND WHERE
Alright, but what does all this have to do with improv?  An improv scene begins the moments the light come up, and it is the performers’ first point of order to set the scene for the audience.  You see, the players in an improv scene already know where they are before they say a word.  They automatically know the moment they step on stage.  Not because they plan it out ahead of time, but because whoever speaks first sets the scene, and the other performer agrees.  Remember?  “Yes, and…” with an agreement.  That’s the reality of the scene and then the performers can tell a story based in that reality.

As the Dungeon Master, you need to let the players know where they are, what the room looks like and who else might be in there – but don’t overdo it!  When describing a location, a room, or a scene, your players just need key information: who is there (Monsters? Allies?), what they’re doing (Attacking? Sleeping?), and where they are (Standing by the door? Huddled in the corner?).  Even if you’re using a pre-made adventure, the text boxes are NOT there so you can read them aloud verbatim.  They are there to give you an idea of exactly what critical information you need to provide to the players.  Aside from those three things, give the players a little bit of detail, like how badly the sewer smells, or if the room is dusty, or if it’s dark, or if there are rotting corpses strewn across the floor.  Something descriptive, but again, don’t go overboard.

DON’T DICTATE ACTION
While your partner sets the scene, it is your job to listen.  I cannot emphasize this enough in improv.  A good improviser will give you all kinds of gifts if you’re listening for them.  Alternately, while you set the scene, your partner’s job is to listen as intensely as they can to you.  Many improv performers are so busy making sure their partner is doing the “right thing” that they forget that they’re supposed to making this up as they go.  This is a major component in improv scenes, as your job is not to direct, but to listen.  I know.  It sounds basic, but it is an easy trap to fall in to.

There are some exceptions to this, but for the most part, a Dungeon Master doesn’t tell the players what to do.  I know this sounds contradictory to everything a DM knows to be true, but again, your job is not to write the story, it is to set up challenges and obstacles, and it’s your players’ job to find the solution – whatever that solution may be.  If the players want to negotiate with the giant instead of attacking, is that really so bad?  Why would it not work?  It’s pretty simple to swap out a skill challenge for a combat encounter, and make the negotiations seem part of your carefully planned adventure.  As a DM, your job is never to tell the party what they’re doing.  You can suggest.  You can recommend.  Just don’t command.  As soon as you start telling the party what to do, it ceases to be interactive and becomes a passive experience for them.  So just ask, “What are you guys doing? You want to investigate or move on?

DON’T TALK ABOUT PAST (OR FUTURE) EVENTS
Be in the now.  This is absolutely vital in improv scenes.  When two performers start talking about how cool some future event is going to be, it only serves to highlight how boring the present situation really is.  “Oh man, I can’t wait for that really exciting thing to happen later.”  “Yeah, it’ll be great.” Likewise with the past – no one wants to hear about how exciting something was that they didn’t get to see.  “Remember that time we were really funny and that really entertaining thing happened?”  “Yeah, that was great.”  “Sigh.” This is how you disconnect with an audience.

As a Dungeon Master, I try not to talk about future events – this means (as a general rule) that I shy away from augury, prophecy, fortune tellers, and the like, because it locks you in to a specific course of action.  Prophecies and predictions tend to limit both player and DM choices, and even though I am currently breaking my own rule by including several pieces of a Dragonmark Prophecy in my Eberron game, this was a conscious decision and not the norm.  The past is a little more flexible, but at the same time, I try not to “invent” things from a character’s past unless the player has mentioned it previously in games or in their pre-written back stories.  If you must deal with the future (as in time-travel or prophecy plot lines), take the advice of an expert and do what Nostradamus did: be vague.  Don’t get into specifics, but use descriptions and phrases that could be interpreted multiple ways – then, whichever one happens was the “correct” one.

A good Dungeon Master, like a good improviser, can set themselves up for success by doing a lot of easy, little things.  Listen.  Agree.  Add details.  Be in the now.  Your players are there to help you write the story, and they will appreciate you letting them have a say in the way their game unfolds.  Set the scene, ask what the party wants to do, and then be in the present.  Relax, you don’t have to make it all up by yourself, and no one expects you to do it all ahead of time.  You should have an idea, or a general concept, and then start the ball rolling.  I’m not saying that a Dungeon Master shouldn’t prepare for the game, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if that preparation took a lot less time?

Read part 3 »

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Written by Steve

Born in London, Ontario (that’s in Canada, eh), Steve joined the U.S. Navy in 1996 and served as a linguist, traveled around the world, and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where he performs improv comedy, writes fiction, and plays a lot of games. In an attempt to legitimize all this game-playing, Steve is going back to school for an Interactive Media degree with an emphasis in Game Design.

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10 Responses to “You Want to Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 2)”
  1. kathulhu says:

    “Some of my best gaming sessions happened when players believed that their own ideas were “The Solution” I had planned all along.” — My DM is evil like that. I took us a while to catch onto what he was doing. But I think it’s cool when he uses my ideas. It makes me feel pretty darn clever.

  2. Steve says:

    Are you saying I’m evil? Hmm… I’m strangely comfortable with that. :)

    When your DM appropriates your idea, I’m glad you can take is as the compliment that it is. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.

  3. Eoghan says:

    I enjoyed reading that and I like the angle you present and the experience you bring to the table.

    Thanks again.

  4. Scott says:

    Some really solid and great advice, thanks.

    A couple of months ago i started using a new form of Skill challenge as the 4e skill system wasn’t working for me. In short it is a percentile roll with a certain degree of success or failure depending on the PC’s skill level and the Difficulty of the task.

    As soon as my players suggest an action my immeadiate response is ‘yes and roll…’ I find this method has really let the imaginative players thrive, the out-of-the-box players achieve the insane schemes and my quiet and uninvolved player become involved. The fact that some of the ideas and subsequent Amazing Success rolls has completely bypassed planned problems and encounters took awhile to get used to but now if they skip a major event due to being pure awesome at what they do, i don’t drag them down kicking and screaming to my convinient plot point i just take a second to adjust it and present it to them later to continue the story moving along. They never know the difference as it comes across far more naturally.

    Finally before i finish my rant. One of my all time favourite Improv scenes was building up a nefariously trapped dungeon all night only to have my players want to continue after the alotted time. I didn’t have the dungeon planned at all but said yes anyway. Every single trap and puzzle they came across was improvised, and every solution was of thier making. To this day they were the best puzzles i’ve ever used and one of my best games.

    Thanks Steve

  5. Steve says:

    Awesome rant, Scott! I’d be interested in seeing the nuts and bolts of your new Skill Challenge mechanics. Would you be wiling to e-mail them or DM me?

    HAHA! “Yes, and roll…” is the perfect improv update to “Yes, and…”!

  6. Scott says:

    Before you continue reading this comment please be aware it is an off topic response to Steve’s request for the workings of my Skill Challenge system

    Secondly, I run a Homebrew game and have not tested this with 4e.

    To begin with, I removed the Atr bonus on all Skills. Thus the skill is only ever equal to the amount of Skill Points spent on it.

    Each skill check relies on a d% roll and has 6 possible outcomes. A standard skill check has a Pass/Fail Mark of 50% and the possible outcomes would be as follows:

    99 – 90, Critical Fail
    89 – 70, Great Fail
    69 – 50, Minor Fail
    49 – 30, Minor Pass
    29 – 10, Great Pass
    09 – 00, Amazing pass

    The starting Pass/Fail Mark depends on the PC’s Skill Level compared to the difficulty level of the challenge or obstacle. A Skill level of 2 against a difficulty of 1 would grant the PC with a +1 to their d% roll. This moves the Pass/Fail Mark to 60%, granting the PC a higher likely of passing. Whereas a Skill level of 1 against a difficulty of 2 would give the PC a -1 to their d% roll. With the Pass/Fail Mark at 40% they have less possibility of succeeding.

    No matter the odds, a 99 is always a Critical Fail and a 00 is always an Amazing Pass.

    Using this system a Rogue with an Acrobatics of 5 wants to scale the wall of the local Watch from the dark alley, The difficulty is 3 (1 for low visibility, 1 for lack of hand holds and 1 for the Moss covering the wall). His Acrobatics score grants him a +2 to the Skill Check and a Pass/Fail Mark of 70. The Rogue rolls an 82 which is a Minor Fail and slides back to the ground unsuccessful but unharmed and unseen. The lumbering Barbarian wants to try and jump the two stories onto the roof. His Athletics is 4 and with a difficulty of 7 he has a -3 on the Skill Check. Any roll over 20 and he fails to some extent. Rolling a 09 he has a Minor Pass and leaps amazingly into the managing to slam his axe head into the awning and pull himself up. Rolling a 64 with a -3 means a Critical Fail in which case the Barbarian leaps dramatically into the air only to fall short and land hard onto some crates with an almighty thud that alerts the nearby guards. The Barbarian takes some HP damage, a negative to his Fort save and the Entire party has to survive one round of CA against them as the Guards have them surrounded and try to arrest them.

    I hope this something within this system works nearly as well as it has for me.

    Finally, the ‘Yes and Roll’ was from ChattyDM a couple of days ago and I forgot to reference it, my bad.

    Thanks, Scott

  7. Ray Wenderlich says:

    Improv can definitely make some memorable scenes in an adventure. In one of my games the group was making their way to the back door of a church that was filled with an undead invasion. I was describing how the group could see a large horde of shapes moving behind the stained glass windows, for flavor, thinking they would move on to the back door where my planned adventure had begun.

    Then one of the group members decided to throw a rock through the stained glass window! So I had to improvise and have a horde of undead, and made up some custom/interesting abilities for the horde on the fly as well. It turned out to be quite fun and entertaining, and since then I’ve tried to be more in the “outline” mode you describe to allow more unpredictability and choice from the players.

  8. Steve says:

    Nice one, Ray! Never underestimate your players’ ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. Switching to “outline” mode saves time and energy since the players are going to surprise you anyway. ;)

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