Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Encoding Improvisation

Welcome to my contribution to the GM's Roundtable of Doom.  

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Marc Plourde:

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?


I have to admit I struggled with this one.  There are so many areas where I am trying to improve that it is hard to narrow it down to one.  I can definitely use more work on narrative improvisation and balancing attention across players during sessions.  I have more or less given up on developing voices.  What I am working on most, though, is documenting improvised components to create a consistent and reliable world.

"Random Interesting Stuff" by Joe Hackman (flikr)

There are a number of excellent resources to help GMs with improvisation.  I have been particularly impressed by Never Unprepared by Engine Publishing.   I also recommend Odyssey by the same publisher but it is less directly related to this topic.  In some ways, I am working on connecting improvisation to campaign management.

I have been happy with my ability to improvise in my role as GM.  However, this has opened up a new challenge.  I am relatively loose with adding elements to scenes through thick description of setting and action.  My players have appreciated this shift.  Many of them came from games that were thick systems (as did I).  Most of the discussion was about mechanics, the number on a die, the specific effects of a spell or ability, etc..  I have shifted the focus to the narrative of the sessions.  More time is spent role-playing.  We also devote more time to describing the environment and the actions (rather than the numerical results of die rolls).  In all, this has been a welcome change for my group.

The challenge is that improvisation introduces elements to the game world that should remain.  If I describe a window in a room, that window needs to be there throughout the encounter.  If the players return to the room, it should still be there.  When I am improvising, there is a chance that elements are added to the narrative that I later forget.  This requires that I place more of an emphasis on note-taking during the session to ensure that new elements are codified and remembered.

The most common problem is in improvising NPC characteristics.  When narrating an NPC, I often have to refer to elements of the character that I had not prepared (hair color, specifics of her or his background, etc.).  I want to maintain these elements in future encounters with the NPC.

There are also system implications for this note-taking.  In narratively focused games, the group will often encounter actions that aren't detailed in the books.  You will have to improvise a system to handle the action.  For instance, consider the scene in the second Hobbit movie where characters jump from barrel to barrel in a rushing river.  I doubt many systems have a specific rule set for the action of jumping from barrel to barrel.  In 3.X DnD, you might create a combination of a jumping and balancing task from the skill descriptions.  In 4e DnD, you could create a skill challenge.  In the Cypher System or a Gumshoe System, you could create a difficulty for the task.  It is important to create some consistency in these systems.  If you have a barrel jumping challenge later on, you want to handle it in a similar way.  This may require consistent difficulty ratings or similar handling of skills.  Documenting the challenge is essential to ensuring this consistency.

Of course, this can be difficult.  I get caught up in narrating and forget my responsibilities for documentation.  I don't have a magic bullet that I can recommend.  I play mostly on Roll20 so I have started a Google Doc where I keep notes.  I keep my combat notes (who has how many hit points, etc.) there along with narrative notes.  It has been a struggle but every session I take notes a little more thoroughly.  

The next step may be to develop a review process.  I should read through all of my notes and organize them.  I can pull out the new NPCs and their descriptions.  I can create a running list of house rules.  The act of recording the notes in session may be useful but reviewing the notes will greatly improve the chance that the improvised elements will become consistent elements of the campaign.

PS Now that I have worked ahead on my articles for the CypherCast Magazine, I should be back to a more regular blog schedule.  I hope to post about once a week from here on out.  

I suspect we will see a wide variety of answers to this prompt.  See some of the other responses in the roundtable on the following blogs.

John Clayton -- Files and Records
Evan Franke -- A Sage among His Books
John Marvin -- Dread Unicorn Games
Marc Plourde -- Inspiration Strike
Peter Smits -- Planeatery Express
Lex Starwalker -- Starwalker Studios
James Walls -- Living for Crits
(more to be added as they come in this week)


  1. You bring up some great points. Realm Works was designed to capture just this type of information, I really should give it another try.

  2. I may take a look at that but I am hard pressed to give up free tools if they work.