Improvising a gaming session when you’re running it is one of the hardest things to do in the fantasy gaming arena. I have seen those who are past masters at it (i.e. my brother Shaun) and I’ve seen people absolutely horrible at it. (i.e. Dan, a DM from high school I used to game with) When you take a walk off the beaten path of the script or a pre-written module, something magical happens. Something which can sometimes make a game an absolute cluster f**k, but can also make a decent game, into an EPIC game.
Here are 5 Tips to help you on your way to flying by the seat of your pants and making sure you don’t fall flat.
1. Know the basics of the system you’re playing in. Inside and out.
Improvising is not something that newbies to the system should try, at least not right away. Once you are familiar with the resolution mechanics and rules of the system than you will feel comfortable arbitrating the rules when your plans go awry. Luckily, most systems are predicated on the idea of one mechanic or one set of mechanics. (i.e. D20 system, Cortex system)
I don’t mean copy the entire table of modifiers from the PHB, or the entire PHB for that matter. I mean stats that you will absolutely need, plot points and characters you can use in a pinch, and a way to keep track of events in-game. I personally use an offline wiki for all my gaming notes for all my groups (running or otherwise) and can make pages and new links to notes in half a second. Most of the time, the simple act of writing notes will make you remember them anyway, making the information that much easier to recall.
Have specific pages of the rulebooks bookmarked and highlighted (if you’re one of the guys, like me, who mark up your books with notes and highlighting) for quick reference.
I have gotten more story ideas from novels and textbooks than I care to mention. I have even plundered my most recent Star Wars campaign idea from the erotic novel series “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Relax, it’s the stalker plot in the second book, I don’t do the whole “sex in gaming” thing. But, even more that out of game, is the resources IN-GAME. Reading more fantasy and historical texts give you ammunition that you can pull out of your butt when you need to find a new direction to run a campaign, on the spur of the moment.
Read everything you can get your hands on. Fantasy, historical, sci-fi, computing. Read it all, you’d be surprised at where your game goes.
4. Keep calm, be fearless and act like everything is exactly the way you wanted it to happen.
Don’t be afraid to make a bad move. For example, I ended up misreading the rules on Tripping and Coup ‘de Grace. As a result, my group easily killed my main villain, whom I had created to literally be hell to my PC’s. I was absolutely unsure of where to go next. So, I started insinuating that he was just a pawn in the game of power between the New Republic and the new faction of Sith that had sprung up. I immediately brought a new villain into the mix and the session was even better than it was before. (I made sure to re-read the tripping and coup ‘de grace rules, I can assure you)
Because of the fact that I never alluded to this being outside of my plan, they thought that the villian they had dispatched was a feint. As a result, the new Sith faction has a mysterious air about it that would not have happened had my main villain not been killed stupidly. The ensuing campaign was full of twists and turns with the PC’s never fully believing what they were told. And of course, being the devious DM I am, I exploited this and created one of the most memorable campaigns I’ve had to date.
5. If you’re not having fun, change something.
A roleplaying game is played for fun, not for any other reason. If they want to attempt to destroy a convoy, let them and allow the session flow from that decision. If they seem to be bored, throw in a surprise. If they’re getting complacent, throw in a villain they couldn’t possibly beat, kill a few of them and give them a way to defeat it.
Besides, if you’re not doing a pre-published module or adventure, they won’t know the difference. Throw in everything but the kitchen sink, or even throw THAT in.
Start improvising games and you’ll see your sessions get really interesting, really fast.