Improvisational Gaming

You show up to the table, with a large binder of notes and plot hooks. Your adventure is fully fleshed out, you know every nook and cranny, every person and their motivations/goals. Then you sit down to play, and one of your players decides to do something unexpected. You panic, flipping through your binder frantically looking for the answer to only find there is none. Your face gets hot as blood rushes to it and are forced to come up with something on the spot.

In hindsight, you may or may not be satisfied with what was said, but regardless, it’s done. Improvising is just simply part of our hobby, like it or not. Some people excel where others shiver at the thought of something unplanned happening. What almost everyone can agree on, however, is that sometimes the most memorable moments are the ones that weren’t planned. Improvisation is a staple to my home game. I hardly write at all anymore for my campaign, I just show up to the table with a brief outline and let the characters show me the way. It took a while for me to get to that point with my plot, but man, is it rewarding.

Laying the groundwork for an improv-heavy game can be a little challenging. It’s very easy to have too much information or too little to the point where you need to take a minute and work it all over in your head. A good tool, if you’re not using a game like 13th Age or 5e that makes backgrounds essential, is to create a questionnaire for every player to fill out before a campaign. If each player has a background before you start thinking of your adventure, there’s something to grasp onto and flesh out for an interesting long term game. Having your players synergize when filling out these questionnaires only makes your life easier. The game, Dread employs this questionnaire as the only means of character creation. Definitely a good source to draw on.

More often than not, that alone can give birth to ideas for an overall plot for a campaign. In between your session zero and your first game, you should be thinking about what direction the PCs backgrounds and goals could steer them in. As an example: If a PC has a background as a simple farmer but has aspirations to become a ruler of some kind in order to instill justice and equality, that alone could be a whole campaign. From there you ask more questions:  Do you have any childhood friends that had similar goals? Where exactly were you from? Would you want strive to govern that area specifically? So on and so forth.

Throw those answers from four or five different people and you have a full arsenal of important pieces of information to mold into an overarching story. Once you have that bedrock, just playing around with various pieces of information and drawing connections between them becomes a campaign. Introducing new characters that through friend NPCs just becomes child’s play at that point.

Something to leapfrog off of that idea is bending your players’ speculations to your will. Paranoia and jumping to a conclusion can be the fuel for your machine. A player assuming that the killer of the duke must be his son instead of his butler might sound better to you, but the player to their left saying that it has to be from the outside could be more intriguing. If you have an answer in mind but the players come up with a better one, don’t be afraid to draw on that. A player being correct about a speculation will make them feel good, and it could potentially be a better plot point than your original idea.

NPCs tend to be the bane of a GM’s existence, simply because they take so much prep. If you’re playing a system like Pathfinder, they have a huge amount of stats that need to be considered before you throw them out there. What makes life easier is letting your players come up with the physical aspects of an NPC. That way, you can have generic stat blocks that can just be recycled. It keeps every NPC feeling fresh as a personality, is way less work than creating them all yourself, and gives the players agency. It also helps you understand what type of game your players want to be involved in, what elements they enjoy seeing in the story. Sometimes being a quiet observer is the best path, even for a GM who’s generally supposed to be the opposite.

The most important aspect of an improvisation role playing session is not in how you come up with what’s going on, believe it or not. It’s taking the time to get it right. Not only in the sense of practice, but don’t be afraid to take a coffee/bathroom/smoke break to mull over something a player has said for a moment. It’ll help you keep the story straight and engaging while incorporating something that a player wants. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with breaking the flow of a game for a moment to come up with the right answer. Your players will appreciate the effort rather than throwing some bollocks out there just to keep it moving.


When it comes to improv gaming, this is the tip of the iceberg! What techniques do you employ?


Stay Metal \m/

3 Comments on “Improvisational Gaming

  1. To improve correctly, first, I choose light and fast systems, my favorite being Savage Worlds.
    I also imagine some plots and important things but force myself not to script the story. So I always know where I want to lead the players but don’t anticipate by which way, it is their adventure and their choice.

    Like that, everything seems quite logic and they don’t really know what was prepared.

    To not let them figure out what was written and what is improvised, I use less and less pictures of the NPCs, places, stuff…

    I also use a lot what they say, it is unbelievable how a group of players can create is worst enemies or challenges 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi,

    A great article, I always like to read more about improv gaming.

    Like Gregory, I prefer a light set of rules to improvise around. My favourite is HeroQuest Glorantha, a narrative-style game by Robin D Laws. As a narrative game, the rules are simple to improvise around. Also, the contests produce graded outcomes, which sets the framework for building the narrative.

    All the best

    Liked by 1 person

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