There is plenty of information on how to better prepare for your tabletop roleplaying games, but what about how to better improvise during the session?
I have learned a few tips from people who think quickly on their feet and I think these techniques can help you improve your improvisational skills in each of your games.
These techniques will help the game move along and make the story have a natural flow; use them often enough and they will become second nature to your game master abilities!
What is Improv?
Wingin’ it, making it up as you go, responding on the fly, faking it till you make it, improvisation – all of these silly phrases define a performer creating content on the spot and under the pressure of an audience. In these techniques, the game master is the performer and the players are the audience. Improvisation, like any skill, can be developed with practice.
Two Techniques – Making Connections and Perspective Shifting
Improvisation can simply be done by gathering information from the table. You can do this by either connecting disparate objects or shifting your perspective.
Make Connections through Randomness
In stand up comedy, one of the most used techniques is to take a random topic from the audience. After one single word is accessed, the comedian takes the word and riffs off of that word into their bit. TTRPGs have forever used random tables for this very technique, for indeed, it generates a new thought, topic, encounter or idea into the mind of the gamemaster. However, the skill of improv comes into play as the game master draws the connection between the current situation and the random topic.
Here, the gamemaster is stuck as the players wander around the tomb. Despite the preparation made beforehand, the game is slowing down to a painful crawl through an empty space within the setting. The Gamemaster has nothing else prepared, so they grab a random table and roll the dice – the dice points to the word “crocodiles”.
There are three connections the game master can make between the current situation and the word “crocodiles”.
At first guess, one would think draw up 1 crocodile for each player and fight to the bloody finish. The crocodiles are hungry or mad, and if fighting is fun, then this works to continue the story.
Another choice is to incorporate the random word as some feature within the setting. In this case, the players arrive in the next room where a large statue of a crocodile stands in honorable worship during a ceremony. This provides some exploration for it requires further investigation on the player’s part. Now, the story can continue through the tomb as the players explore and introduce their own actions in the setting.
The final option is to use the random word to start up a social encounter. In this case, the players find an archeologist who made camp while selling crocodile based products. It’s all of the supplies available that a player would find in the rulebook, but with a crocodile theme. Clothing – but made from crocodile skin, a longsword, but inlaid with crocodile bone. Mechanically, all of these items grant a +1 bonus when used for or against all things crocodile.
In conclusion, use this improv technique of accessing a random word and connecting it to the story through something to fight, explore or interact.
Shift the Perspective by Listening
The second technique, like the first, uses the power of randomness, but rather you listen to the player’s talk through the story in order to fuel your next improvisational encounter.
While your players are plotting their next adventure, listen to the direction they are taking the story. One player speculates that there will be traps located in the dungeon, so he prepares a few methods to disarm them. Another player laughs about the last encounter she had with the shopkeeper who swindled her into buying a potion of giggling. The players all talk about the dungeon preparation and mention that after they get done clearing out the dungeon, they want to go back and inform the baron that they will escort him on a dangerous mission.
I’m prepared for the dungeon encounter, but I want to use my improvisational skills as well, so while the players are talking I scribble down three words.
I heard the word “trap” so I plan to deliver a trip wire that releases a swinging scythe. I make sure to place it well hidden in a long hallway bridge and deliver the blade to not the person who trips the wire, but the person behind them. And I make sure to put many of these wires in each tunnel, hoping that the one time the player forgets to check, the trap delivers a dangerous attack!
I heard about the potion of giggling and think that a great opportunity for it to be used is to set out food and drink in the guards room. I’ll make sure to describe the guards taking it easy, but ready to defend if the players are spotted. This spread of food and drink might prompt the player to use the giggling potion to incapacite a few guards.
I also heard something about the players wanting to help the baron on his dangerous journey across the wilds, so I make sure to have the players discover that the castle owner plans to send an envoy to attack the baron. This last piece of the improvisation helps me connect this dungeon to the next adventure. Now the players have some intel on the quest they already want to embark upon.
I know you spend hours preparing for your sessions, and as well as you know your players, you can’t possibly prepare for everything. Improvisational skills such as making disparate connections and listening to the perspective of the players will help you improve each session as well as build the skill of improvisation.
May your story continue.