How to make improvisation seem planned in 14 easy steps

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Instant Campaign Builder Part III: Improvisation

This article is part of the Instant Campaign Builder Project.

Trust your improvisation skills

The tools and tips described in the Instant Campaign Builder Project can only be used successfully by a dungeon master willing to improvise. A lot!

Your D&D game will become more unpredictable, entertaining

Going with the flow and making stuff up on the fly is not a bad thing. I actually believe that it is beneficial to a D&D campaign. If you can keep the quality of improvised scenes high it should make your players feel like their characters can do anything and go anywhere. That is what will make a game more entertaining.

The DM’s paradox: prepare for improvisation

As paradoxal as it may seem improvisation can be prepared! I personally improvise anywhere from 0% to 100% of any given D&D game depending on what my unpredictable players decide to do. I must admit that sometimes they will notice that I improvise but only when I don’t follow my own advice (nobody’s perfect!).

So here are some handy tips to keep your campaign railroad free and your players impressed.

How to make improvization seem planned in 14 easy steps

  1. Extra maps
    • Print random maps and floorplans. If the PCs veer off-course you can use your spare maps as a foundation for the unexpected direction the players chose. Here is a link to 387 free D&D maps. You can also use a random dungeon generator. I like Jamis Buck’s dungeon generator.
  2. Name list
    • Print a long list of random names for NPCs that you have to create and introduce during the game. You can come up with names yourself but if you don’t feel like spending the mental energy you have other options. For a ridiculously long list of names you can check out a baby names website. You can also use WotC’s name generator for more fantasy targeted names.
  3. Geographic locations list
    • Print a list of geographic location names. You can come up with such names, look up a world map – yes, the real world – or use any random name. I often use professional athletes names for places. It’s a trick I picked up from one of my first DMs who had our characters explore the Bagwell Tower (Check out Jeff Bagwell’s statistics). In my current game, some of the action took place on the shores of the Ovechkin Sea (Alexander Ovechkin’s career stats). This works better if your players don’t like sports!
  4. Business list
  5. Think in scenes
    • You can divide your games in scenes. An encounter is usually a scene. For each scene you should have a beginning that hooks the characters into the scene, a middle where information and clues are gathered, or monsters fought, a climax, and then an ending. If your players opt for unexpected destinations you can still use a hook or scene resolution idea from scenes that haven’t been played out yet. You can then redesign the scenes from which you borrowed material later.
    • Hopefully that previous paragraph made sense. I have one whole article on scenes coming up in the Instant Campaign builder project. More on scenes very soon.
  6. Extra encounters
    • Read about 1 or 2 monsters in the Monster Manual and bookmark the page(s). If an unexpected scene calls for an encounter you can easily throw a creature at the party. If the creature you had chosen doesn’t quite fit the situation, just change the appearance of the creature and keep the stats. That way you don’t have to research a new monster during the game.
  7. Outline
    • Having a clear outline of your whole campaign will help you improvise because you can base your decisions on the big picture
  8. Side quests
    • Having a side quest ready will give your players the feeling that they can follow any lead and find a well prepared DM. I often used pre-made adventures for side-quests. Here is a list of 83 free D&D adventures.
  9. Give players loot
    • My players are suckers for loot. It will take their minds off the details of the adventure for a few minutes. I personally roll treasure at random after encounters – and that takes very little preparation! I also mentioned the benefits of handing out mysterious magic items in this article on how to prepare a game in less than 30 minutes.
  10. Quirky NPCs
    • Quirky, well-roleplayed, and unique NPCs hint at good preparation by the DM. Keep a list of NPC quirks handy. Anything will do: Excessive good humor, always mumbling, annoying vocal habit. The point is not to win an oscar. Johnn Four from RP Tips wrote this great article on NPC quirks that lists 40 NPC quirks. You should print that list.
  11. Take notes so you don’t forget
    • It’s easy to forget stuff you haven’t really planned. Being a note fiend is a good thing.
  12. Extra traps
    • This is not my area of expertise. I keep a sourcebook called Book of challenges handy for improvized traps but I rarely use it. Pitting the characters against an elaborate trap can keep them busy.
  13. Plant info on the fly
    • If you have a good idea of where your campaign is heading you should be able to plant clues that will help the characters achieve their main objective. You can plant information that you know will be useful only at the very end of the campaign if the opportunity arises. If your players have a good memory and take good notes, they could use that planted clue 5 or 6 games later and be very impressed by your DMing skills.
  14. Take a break
    • Something utterly unpredictable happened? Take a break and organize your thoughts. It’s not ideal for the gameflow but it sure beats looking unprepared.

What tricks do you use to make improvisation smoother? Let me know!

This article is part of the Instant Campaign Builder Project.

15 thoughts on “How to make improvisation seem planned in 14 easy steps”

  1. I used many of the suggestions above and my friends though i was reading from the book rather than improvising. Very helpful. My friends were impressed and I was impressed with myself.

  2. One further step I’ve found useful. As soon as possible after the end of the game session I go through my notes and work out whether the improvised people, places, and objects could have a deeper relevance. Can I weave them more tightly into the story? Did the players come up with ideas about them that I can decide are true? Is there anything that needs to be elaborated or decided on?

  3. Yes it may seem contradictory. Let me elaborate a little bit.

    A good campaign outline will allow you to improvise better between the mjor events in the campaign – even if the characters are not acting as expexted.

    Thinking in scenes (hook, action, climax, end) gives me a list of plot items that I can use at any moment of the game, although they would be ideally used as I planned.

    I hope this is clearer – or at least makes some kind of sense!

    And thanks for the kind words.

  4. Good summarizing, Yax!

    But, all in all, aren’t you contradicting yourself? :)

    Most of the items on the list make part of a campaign where you have things prepared.
    For instance, points 5 (Think in Scenes) and point 7 (Outline). These go against the “concept” of improvising. They require a good amount of preparation and knowledge.
    So, the way I see things, you made an excellent article on “How to structure your campaign”, including some hints to help improvising when the need arises (like having random maps at hand).

    Personally, I always felt that great campaigns have to be widely outlined, while giving the players the possibility to change every little thing.

    Please continue with this series. Until now all articles have been awesome!

  5. Telling your players what’s going on behind the scenes is always good. They can and will probably help you out if you tell them what you’re trying to do.

  6. That sounds very good. I would think that my players would know right away if I’m just inventing as I go.

    It still should reduce my prep time but I think confidence in my improv skillz will only come with practice.

    I guess i’ll just tell my players I’m experimenting with wide-open anti-railroading techniques

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