How many DMs have stressed over preparing every last detail for their upcoming game, only to find all of their hard work wasted when the players choose to go another direction? Not me! (anymore, that is)
Experience at the table has shown me that all the preparation in the world cannot outmatch a party’s ability to go off track. Instead, I improvise my games. I come up with an adventure hook, or two, and let the rest develop naturally. There is a certain challenge in this method of gaming, but the rewards have been fun, memorable, exciting games. In fact, my players tell me that the best games they’ve ever played with me are the ones that I made up on the go.
“But I can’t do that! I can’t come up with a game right off the top of my head! -Whiny DM”
Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up to help your improv game run smoothly:
Write things down!
You should take notes in any style of D&D game, but in an improv game it is all the more important! You will be coming up with NPCs, towns, and monsters on the fly – that’s a lot to remember, so write it down! Better yet, get a player to write that stuff down (be nice to your bards)! Get some index cards and fill them out every time you build a monster, trap or NPC. Protip: you can use them as templates, or even recurring characters, in another game!
Say “Yes, and…”!
This step is in every “improv help” guide ever written, but there’s a reason for that. When your players ask a question like, “Are there any Orcs in this cave?” you can say “Yes, and they’re hungry!” now you’ve gone from an empty cave to a orc-populated underground dungeon with a problem to solve. Boom, in two sentences – maybe 10 seconds. Simply by saying yes, you not only get your players excited but that’s one less idea for you to pull out of the air. After all, hearing “No.” over and over again is a momentum stopper for a party.
Utilize Your Players!
Your players are an excellent resource for quick ideas, bring them in on the creative process. When the party walks into a new town, they are going to ask questions. Use the last tip, “Yes, and…” to quickly populate a city (plus, now you know what your players are looking for). Also, let the players help with the naming of buildings and places – it will make them feel more at home in your “world.”
Let the game progress follow your players. Since you do not have a set schedule or prewritten encounters that need to take place, have the action flow naturally from the party’s actions and motives. If the players decide to ransack a town for loot, now the main conflict of the game can be about escaping the law.
If I could only give one piece of advice to new DMs, it would be this: Be Confident. I’ve met many players who have decided that they never want to DM a game because they say “I won’t be good at that.” Have some confidence, step up to the plate screen, and tell your story. If you lead with confidence your characters will pick up on that, and they will have confidence in you. Got it? Ok, go!