#RPGaDay2021 Day 13: Improvise

The other alternatives for today were intriguing, but I couldn’t avoid the natural pull of talking about one of my favorite things in tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs): to Improvise.

The Cost of Fictional Utter Freedom

One of the most attractive aspects of a TTRPG when compared with, let’s say, a computer/console RPG (that has better graphics and even better characters/plot/world-building/etc) or a choose your own adventure book/board game is that TTRPGs are truly free. 

Whereas in any of the above-mentioned alternatives your options, however many they may be, are limited, in TTRPGs you can do whatever thing you want—without offending or making other people uncomfortable, of course. Don’t be a jerk.

And yet that wonderful freedom comes at a cost: this can only work if our GM is flexible and imaginative enough to improvise the reactions and consequences our actions have on the fictional world.

Et Nihilo Nihil Fit

“Nothing Comes From Nothing”: that’s what that famous philosophical dictum in Latin means.

And that’s a good thing for GMs to remember when we have to improvise.

I don’t know why, but it seems that every time we discuss improvising, a lot of us imagine the GM pulling an answer out of thin air, without any connection to what has already occurred in the fictional world.

This, I think, is an unintended result of the way we have seen creativity described and presented to us throughout our lives. We are often told that geniuses come up with stuff out of nowhere, getting their “Eureka!” moments in total isolation of everything that goes on around them.

The truth, I believe, it’s quite the opposite.

Although I’m no genius, the times that I come up with stuff is usually related to what I’m doing in one way or another. It may not seem so at the time, but the connection exists if you pay attention.

That being said, I believe that improvising, especially in TTRPGs, is often that can be helped by some smart preparation, which translates as having appropriate tools at your disposal while doing so.

Tools to Improvise Upon

I’ve mentioned them before, and it’s something that others seem to agree with: a good list of names is something invaluable to improvise characters on the spot.

“Good” in this case means curated; i.e. that you’ve dedicated at least some time to go over the names, choosing those that appear more suitable to get stuck in people’s memories. I often tend to pronounce them out loud, trying to catch whether they’ll come up easily or become an unintended tongue twister.

Another great tool to improvise is a good list of adjectives, especially if they are divided in useful categories, such as “Landscapes”, “Weather”, “Attacks”, and “Defenses”, just to name a few. The idea here is that you have a list you can rely on whenever you have to improvise a description. I think this is a much better practice than trying to write convoluted descriptions before playing because the times when you’re improvising I doubt that you’ll be able to come up with the same fluid, high quality stuff. In this sense, it is better to have a more stable performance all across the board than having these highs and lows, in my opinion.

Finally, and depending on the system you’re using, having some ready to use stat blocks can be a blessing. In systems like Fate or most Powered by the Apocalypse games, for example, you have predetermined templates for NPCs, depending on their relative importance to the story. Having these near at hand can help you improvise a conflict without any interruptions in the narrative flow.

And speaking of… 

The Narrative Flow

The main reason why I (and many others, I think) go to all this trouble in order to be good at improvising, is so we can have a smooth narrative flow. Ideally we all imagine that the game session goes from beginning to end without any hiccups, especially none on our part as Game Masters (GMs). The players may stumble or forget stuff, but we aren’t supposed to.

In truth, however, I’ve discovered that it is often better to be honest with ourselves and take a break, for example, if “I’m not feeling it”, so to speak. I stand up, walk around, and think about what’s going on in the game. Where should it naturally go from here? How can I inject some drama subtly? 

As you can see, I think that most of what we do as GMs is smoke and mirrors, an effort to make the players forget, at least for a while, that we are just creating all this stuff as we go, that the fictional world may only exists in our minds but that, while they’re playing, it feels as solid and real as the one we live in.

Or at least that’s the hope and goal, I should say.

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