Friendly Advice: Improv


“IT’S JUST… HOW COMFORTABLE ARE YOU KNOWING THAT YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO DO SOMETHING AMAZING IN FRONT OF THESE PEOPLE, BUT UNTIL YOU GET OUT AND START DOING IT YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS?”


-JASON MANTZOUKAS

The quote above is about comedy, but it applies to the art of Dungeon Mastering just as well. It wasn’t something I had to deal with when I first started DMing because I was 10 years old and I had no expectations and neither did my friends. As I got older, however, a lot more was expected of me since I had been doing it so long, and I began to wonder if it was even possible to continually impress a group of people enough to keep them coming back week after week. 

The secret, my friends, is improv.

In my last Friendly Advice entry you wanted to be a Dungeon Master. I also warned you about the perils of over-preparing for a game. Now I want to explain to you how to deal with player actions that you didn’t account for, as well as what to do when you run a last minute game. No pre-made adventure could possibly cover every outcome of player deeds, but with good improv skills in your toolkit, you’ll be able to convince your players that you spent the last week doing nothing but prep.

Listen to Your Players

An entire campaign could be created by simply listening to your players theorize about your game’s world, and it’s the best way to turn a suddenly boring adventure into an exciting night. Let me give you an example:

DM: Okay, so you pursue the jewel thief down the alleyway, but when you emerge into the street he is long gone.

Player 1: Great, another one got away. I'm getting tired of chasing these guys all over town just for them to disappear at the last minute. You'd think I was being targeted by an illusionist!

Player 2: Didn't we fight an illusionist last year? He had a whole dungeon that ended up just being figments of our imagination.

DM: Hmmm...

Now, the players don’t know you didn’t have this illusionist in your back pocket the whole time. As far as they’re aware you’re a mastermind of intrigue and plotting that puts you on par with Napoleon. In reality, though, they did all the planning for you, linking a current threat with an old one that you didn’t connect yourself.

Don’t let your players know you’ve done this, as a magician should never reveal their tricks, and it’ll be pretty obvious next time it happens. It also gives an odd sense of satisfaction to players, for having guessed at your plots. Player immersion and investment in the story should always be rewarded with some expectations coming true.

Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t do any prep at all and instead just run the game by the seat of your pants, but that’s only going to work for so long. Having a good basis for your game, a setting that you know well, allows you to build things on it on the fly with your players, and, if you do it right, they won’t even notice. Here’s a couple handy tips:

  • If you’re going to create an encounter on the fly, keep it appropriate to the setting and environment. There’s nothing weirder than finding Mermaids in the desert. Although, if you can think of a good enough reason for it quick enough, it could be the hook to a new adventure.
  • Come up with a list of voices, names, mannerisms, and descriptors and create a d20 table to roll on. This means you can come up with a new NPC in just seconds. 
  • Really desperate? Roll on the random encounter table without letting the players know and work it into the story. Or you can take a pre-made adventure and change it to suit your needs. There’s no shame in either, a good Dungeon Masters uses all the tools available to them.
  • Practice when you watch TV. Most of us have a way to pause what we watch, so pause a show or movie in a random point and try to create your own version of what you think the next few scenes would be.

With enough use, you’ll be able to take anything your players can dish at you, and they’ll respect you all the more for it. 

Remember:

No D&D at all is better than bad D&D.

-Some nerds

One thought on “Friendly Advice: Improv

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  1. Hey, I just wanted to say that your blog has helped me prepare for my first time dming. I can’t wait for more to come out. Keep it up!

    Like

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