In my final year of university I decided to knuckle down on a really long and complex piece of work that I felt my experience had built myself up to. No it wasn’t my dissertation. It was a massively open world Dungeons and Dragons game. I was going to have five different continents , dozens of factions all vying for power over one another. Dragon Kings of the North and Warrior monks of the east. The world would have its own complex pantheon and creation myths from the bottom up. The players could be anything they wanted, do anything they wanted. The world was going to live , act and react around them. In fact I was going to run multiple groups in the world at the same time and they’d see the effects of one another an be able to interact. It was ambitious, beautiful, mind exploding.
Unsurprisingly this didn’t exactly come to fruition especially as it coincided with the break up of a five year relationship and my rapid descent into mental health hell.
I called a hiatus on my group for a period. See I didn’t want to run as the goals I had set for myself above I realised were impossible in my current state. Of course they were also virtually impossible from the get go but I’ve a bad habit of my ambition never matching my actual capacity. My group eventually badgered me to just run a session and I went fuck it and did exactly that.
It was through this process that I learned how to improvise. For about half the year I ran a weekly , 6 hour ( God I miss university) D&D game with no prep what so ever. Before this I’d always meticulously planned my games. It wasn’t uncommon for me to bring a 3000 word document of prep to every session. So it was quite a step out of my comfort zone to say the least.
Yet I managed it and in the process I learned that I could carry a group through session after session with nothing but a stack of books, some hastily printed off maps and my wits and guile. Also probably a lot of cider.
The best part about improvisation is that you go to a session with as little idea as the players what they’re going to encounter and what will emerge from the various choices made at the table allowing you to be just as excited as they are. Emergent gameplay is a wonderful thing to behold and allows a group to stitch together memorable stories and adventures.
So I share with you now some of my tips on improvisation.
Always have maps.
Maps give the illusion you’ve been prepared. Hard ink printed on paper gives that impression. They offer a world of possibilities for your player to hold in their hand and explore. So print off village maps. Print off town maps. Print off dungeon maps. Now you’re saying ‘I don’t have time to draw a map! They’re arriving in 5 minutes!.’ That’s why you download one of the million maps off the internet. As long as you have the bare minimum amount of google fu your players will never know.
Then what do we put on the map? Good question. Just make that shit up. Some of the things will be self explanatory. The guard tower overlooking the town is unsur-fucking-prisingly a guard tower. Maybe the guard inside it is blind. Or dead (who killed him? MURDER MYSTERY TIME). Or hates Elves. Make that shit up. The forest on your world map is more than likely a forest. What are fantasy forests like? Probably a little evil, there’s likely some Ents, and a tribe of Gnolls, and some sort of cavernous dungeon where Illithids lie.
Don’t be afraid of tropes. I understand its cool for you to be contrarian and play your Dwarfs as sober, wise, philsophers and your Elves as bloodthirsty maniacs and your Orcs as gentle giants but tropes exist for a purpose within fantasy RPG games. They allow your players to quickly and easily understand a part of your game. Considering how vastly complex a fantasy world can be anything that reduces that mental load is a good thing. Especially when you don’t have prep time. So are you unsure how to play the Dwarven NPC you’ve just pulled out of your ass? Well he’s a Dwarf. So he’s probably drunk. He probably HATES Orcs and despises Elves. He probably wants gold. Maybe he tells the players to go find him some gold he heard about in a mine. Is it stereotypical? Yes. Will it be a fun adventure? Certainly can be.
Steal Steal Steal
There’s no shame in stealing. You just have to make sure your references are more esoteric than your players can work out. Everyone does it in creative fields. Tolkein stole from Nordicmythology, George RR Martin stole from Tolkein, JK Rowling stole from Enid Blyton and Dan Brown stole from a Thompson Holiday Brochure for Paris. Do the same.
At the time I was in University I was studying Classical Civilisations and ploughed the depths of history as a result. I was doing a module on Persian Kings so when the players decided to travel east I bullshitted all the various complex aspects of how the Eastern Kings worked. My players studisiously wrote them all down. These details made the game appear as though it had a vast degree more planning than it actually had. Which was none. The players as a result decided to travel east and put into action what they learned. I’d promptly forgotten them all by the next session. I was reading the book Neverwhere by Philip Pullman and stole the two nasty villains Mr Croup and Mr Vandameer from it to hound the players.
I’d recently watched the Mist and so when the players found themselves at another wise dull and generic inn I decided to have a mist descend upon them, with Eldritch horrors outside and people going slowly insane and dying inside.
You get the idea. Steal shit.
Stealing from literature and history is still kinda tricky though as you have to work out a way to gamify it. Luckily there are literally hundreds of game modules as well which you can liberally steal huge chunks out of. Need a village in a pinch? Barovia is a pretty cool place. Need a villain? How about the Necromancer Karalel from 4E Keep on the Shadowfell? Need a dungeon? How about the Sunless Citadel?
The 5E book ‘Tales from the Yawning Portal‘ is a fantastic resource to steal dungeons, monsters and villains from.
Random Encounters are your friend.
Nobody likes random encounters these days. Design seems to have gone in the direction of lovingly crafting a 5 hour encounter for your players complete with meticulously built monsters, swinging see-saw traps and random exploding macguffins. While set piece encounters are certainly fun random ones can still be engaging and surprising. They’re also an important balancing mechanic that prevents players from taking too many long rests that easily, stopping the dreaded 5 minute adventuring day . There’s a slew of random encounter generators and tables online, or you can create your own. (Yes I’m aware this counts as prepping something, but it takes 10 minutes and can give you hours of content)
Take this encounter table I’ve made for example. I designed it for a level 4 group.
NeverWinter Woods 15%
Roll per Hex, Roll per extended rest, Roll per short rest.
|1||2d6 Wolves||Rickety Bridge||Dead Magic zone||Instantly attack||10 foot|
|2||2d4 Hobgoblins||Stream||Wild Magic zone||Hostile||100 foot|
|3||1d4 Werewolf||Ruined Forest Temple||Weather change||Uncertain – negative||150 foot|
|4||1d6 Redcap Gnomes||Tribal Village||Ambush||Uncertain -positive||200 foot|
|5||Vampire||Vineyard Canyon||Merchant Caravan||Friendly||300 foot|
|6||Young Green Dragon||Henge||Roll a second encounter.||Enthusiastically friendly||400 foot|
This table includes a myriad of different combinations that allow for unique emergent gameplay, spikes to challenge the players with difficult encounters beyond their pay grade as well as a reaction chart to determine how whatever the players encounter treats them. There’s potential for the players. How would a group of Werewolf’s react to a party of rampaging Hobgoblins? Maybe they pretend they’re just helpless humans, the party saves them from the hobgoblins, they befriend one another and then the party is ambushed in the night by the group of werewolf’s. You could run an entire session just rolling on this table 3 times and sticking it together.
Lean on the game
Truth is some people are at your table just to play D&D, no matter what amount of prep you put into it they just want to throw down dice and kill shit. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a fun game and it mostly works incredibly well by itself. Even a simple scenario as a result, such as ‘4 Bandits led by an Ogre charge at you from the forest, roll initiative.’ creates engaging gameplay for your players.
Now don’t get me wrong. This style of play is not without its flaws. I would never advice to do what I did and run an entire campaign in this manner as you do lose the amount of depth you can have from actually planning and piecing together a campaign in a cohesive manner. This is good in a pinch but you will have a far more satisfying and less stressful experience if you do put some preparation in in advance.
I hope this has given you some encouragement towards improvising in your game and made the experience of not having enough prep a less stressful one.