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4 common improvisation pitfalls

Written by Expy - Published on November 23, 2007

Improvisation is arguably the most important skill a DM can have.  If you don’t want to improvise ever again just buy the World’s Largest Dungeon – you’ll be good for a while.

When I prepare my sessions I always leave room for improvisation.  The main reason I do this is that I want my players to feel like they can do anything.  But with the usual unpredictability of D&D players improvisation can be dangerous.

4 common pitfalls of improvisation

  1. Players can’t decide what they’re going to do!  They don’t feel like they have one logical – or obvious – plan of action so they stall and don’t do anything.  I usually take care of these situations by simply telling my players that they can choose any of the 4 or 5 options they have at least considered.  That should make them feel confident enough to take a decision and know they haven’t missed an important clue.
  2. The DM takes noticeably more time to react when improvising – which inevitably leads to meta-gaming.  If that happens to you, you could prepare an extra battle map, an extra dungeon map, and a few random monster stats and even random descriptions before the start of a campaign.  The players will notice that you’re looking for something in your notes – not just winging it – and feel like you’re on top of things.
  3. The DM takes an important decision lightly.  A PC or a villain could die because of decisions you take on the fly, and that could influence your whole campaign.  I’ve also personally handed out magic items that caused an imbalance in the game.  It can take a few sessions to overcome an improvisation error so feel free to take a break and think things over if the action is unraveling too fast.
  4. The DM doesn’t take notes.  I hate it when my players come up with something I improvised but I don’t remember anything about it and didn’t take notes from that scene or encounter.  This also leads to meta-gaming: the DM doesn’t remember so it’s not important.  A DM should always be taking notes – even when playing out a carefully planned adventure.

Practice makes perfect

A fun way to practice your improvisation skill would be to throw a throne war party!  You can also read the improvisation entry on the GMing wiki.

What about you?

I’m sure there are a lot more common pitfalls out there.  What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to improvisation?

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Written by Expy

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4 Responses to “4 common improvisation pitfalls”
  1. Pal Mercy says:

    How do you NOT hesitate when players come up with something completely retarded? They can always meta-game out of their most stupid mistakes. It’s the only slighty dumb actions that kill.

  2. Dave T. Game says:

    Hmm, I don’t know that the metagaming in this case is a problem. I think that’s one of those social contract things- I try to tell my players ahead of time that some things will be improvised, but that doesn’t make it any less important to the story. If players ask what was improvised or not, after the game I’ll tell them, but that really shouldn’t matter. (It’s also why I feel comfortable saying, hey, I need a few minute break to catch up.)

    The other points are key. Try not to do anything in the heat of improvision that you’ll regret later, and taking notes on what actually ended up happening is very important. This is true both on the big (uhh, they killed the duke) and the small (what did we decide that tavern’s name should be again?)

  3. Erica says:

    Even in a well planned game, players come up with the most insane things to do. My style is pretty simple. Even if my players have come up with something totally unexpectable (and they do) I give a sort of knowing smile. Mentally, I’m pulling out a back up plan, or just grabbing at something random to do, but the knowing smile makes them think that I already planned for exactly what they’re doing.

    I’ve had players make comments in my hearing about how I plan for everything. Even if you stare at them meditatively, or quirk an eyebrow, if you are reacting to their plans with anything other than a blank stare, they’ll probably think you’re ready for them.

  4. ScottM says:

    In some games and prep styles, constant improvisation is the rule of the day. The thing that would shock the players would be a speech off a note card or searching through notes. [The more improv/less prep style can be jarring when it’s the exception. If you use a different prep style, it will feel consistent with the rest of your game. Of course, prep light usually works better with system light games, rather than D&D and its cousins.]

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