Dm improvisation is when you have nothing planned and have no idea what to do but have to forge ahead. Players are unpredictable and can make you throw everything away. The game is ruined and it seems like you have to quit.
Dm improvisation is used when everything goes to hell and is based on adapting, having backup ideas, knowing the rules, and using your experience.
Yes, you might think that you don’t have material but you absolutely do. I found this out after a few years of running a 3-8 hour D&D session every day for 2 weeks, so let me share my insomnia experience with you.
Learning to improvise
It was in high school where I first learned about DM improvisation. Until this point, I had just run modules from AD&D and a planned homebrew setting. In high school, that changed.
My friends decided that they liked D&D which is awesome. You probably encountered this with friends who are new to D&D and like it. They wanted to play it every day and most of my time was committed to planning what to do for D&D. That is until we played every day for 2 weeks.
You might have learned how to improvise in a different situation. I hope that you didn’t have your friends wanting to play every day for 2 weeks. It might have happened in a similar situation where you and your group were playing for 6-12 hours. For others, you might have learned about how important Dm improvisation is when your story falls apart and the players want to keep playing.
Whatever situation brought you here, we all have 1 thing in common.
Everyone panics when they realize for the first time that they need to improvise. We usually address this panic by either trying to improvise or asking for extra time to plan.
Here is the thing. You cannot always ask to take time to think of what happens. If the players let an important figure die that the campaign was riding on you might be able to ask for time to plan. The players will still want to play though and you only have maybe 5 minutes to figure out what to do. 5 minutes will not save your campaign, so how do you adapt and improvise?
If you have read our article on world building then you should know how to prepare an environment. If you also read our article on how to prepare for a D&D session, you should have everything ready to adapt to your players’ antics.
Adapting first involves you having a solid environment. This place existed before the players and could exist without them. Since it can exist without the players it must have a system of order and every NPC must have their own desires/opinions.
If your players destroy everything and require dm improvisation then ask yourself, what would x NPC think and do?
This NPC could be very important or just someone that the PCs are talking to. Have them react appropriately to the players and that should give you enough time to think of something.
That is why you need to create a world that is self-sustaining. Once a world like this is made the players can be the center of the world and the world can adapt when the players change it. Speaking of players being the center of the world, you need to make the players just like another group of their prestige.
If the party is low-level mercenaries they should not be lauded as heroes to the realm. If the players are 12th level they probably should have enough accomplishments to make them heroes of the realm. Unless of course, they drop every quest and somehow got here through sheer luck.
Speaking of past failures.
Using failures and thinking up ideas.
No D&D party has completed every mission perfectly. If there is a group that has, that dungeon master is too nice or that group is extremely clever. I don’t think either of these groups exist for a sustained period of time. That is why you can use past failures to help improvise.
Dm improvisation is very easy if your players have failed missions. Think about what the repercussions of those failures would be. Make a quick scenario of what happened afterward and start making events happen that the players notice. Now you have improvised a whole new story that has personal investment for the players.
This is a great way to solve the problem of thinking up what to do next. If you have problems thinking up what to do next, you can ask the players what they are doing.
Talking to your players is almost always the best solution. You just need to talk to them without trying to get their input.
In this instance of talking to the players, you are trying to get them to give you time to thing and give you ideas. If the players have just done something to baffle you ask what they will do afterward to celebrate. If you still need more time and ideas, ask what they plan to do next. Every character has their own ambitions and you can gain some ideas from these ambitions.
There are other ways to help you form a game that is ready to help with dm improvisation.
I don’t always play with a group of chaotic players, but when everyone and every decision is chaos the linear storyline will not work.
We talked about sandbox gameplay vs linear gameplay in this article, but didn’t address how to make ideation for a sandbox game. Ideation is where you form the ideas for running your game and it will allow you to create a plot.
For sandbox ideation, you create a setting and have your players run free. There are options like do quest A, B, or C with a hidden option of do whatever you want and I might approve it.
An advanced option for sandbox and linear games is pocket ideas.
In a linear game, you make an end, beginning that is more fleshed out, and ideas for the middle. You almost always in a sandbox game are following the middle part of linear plot creation. This means that in both scenarios there is room for pocket ideas.
Pocket ideas are when you have a vague idea and develop it. This could be ‘the players encounter a dinosaur island.’ It doesn’t really make sense, but it can be worked into the main plot when developed.
These pocket ideas can be pulled out if the players do something chaotic. This is how I handle Dm improvisation most of the time when the plot is screwed up. That is why I cannot stress enough, write loose stories instead of whole stories. The game is meant to be a story told by the group and not just 1 person. If you write with pocket ideas that makes this happen naturally.
Pocket ideas are when the campaign is pretty much destroyed, but what about minor instances?
This is an old trick for Dms everywhere so I won’t spend too much time on it.
If the players do something crazy try to say yes and describe what happens next.
This old technique will force you to grow as a dungeon master and helps the story continue. Giving statements or world-building tips that were unintentional can be a blessing. Even if you have to work around them.
A good example is when my player decided to poof into existence their familiar. I asked if the familiar had a voice. If so, would I voice the familiar or them? They said I would and before I could think I started talking like an uneducated incompetent gangster. I realized this a few seconds after I started speaking and instead of retracting it I realized this was a thing now. I am voicing a rediculous raven familiar, and it is embarrassing and hard to do.
I did a yes and part to myself in this scenario, but you can do the same with players. If a player decides to disintegrate the temple statue you let them do it and deal with the consequences.
This concept isn’t too new or revolutionary, but it is worth it to put in there for new people to the concept.
You don’t know every rule to every situation. The rules of underwater basket weaving are unspecific. That is why you will need to make rulings on the fly.
This becomes much easier if you are familiar with the base rules. Acquaint yourself with the base rules and think about what you know. If there is a rules lawyer in the group who wants to make sure the rules are followed and not just gain a personal advantage, listen to them. Take their opinions into consideration, but veto them if you have to.
When asked, give a reason why the rules are the way they are or just tell them that it is a secret. If you do the latter, make sure that the players can learn about why the rules are different.
This also depends on your group. I generally like to go by the rules so I might spend 10-20 seconds looking something up to be sure. Some groups want to just go by the feel of the game and enjoy it.
If a rule takes more than 30 seconds to clarify, then make a ruling and move on. This is important for any group. You need to keep the game going, and Dm improvisation for rules is required for weird situations. If you ever need to really have Dm improvisation for rules the players will most likely go with your ruling and understand.
Dm improvisation is an art that is hard to master. When you first need to improvise you will probably panic. This is normal, but you can do better.
I hope that all the tips I have given you help make it easier when you have to improvise. Remember these steps and your games should go a lot smoother.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!