Saturday, September 24, 2011

Making It Up As You Go: Improvisational Ability

Most of us have all had the experience of running an improvised adventure. Back in the day we called them "random". Although personally I never liked that term. Even though there were hordes of random generation charts for adventure creation that could be used for just such a game. In fact the game was really designed for creative spontaneity of several sorts, in spite of where we might have taken it. That was evidently the way it was done in the original playtests. At any rate we probably have all come to a gaming session unprepared to DM beyond the merest hint of an idea, and maybe not even that.

The game may have flopped, and it may have been a smash hit. One of the remarkable things about this game is that it continues to surprise us at every turn. We are constantly being challenged on an intellectual and creative level by the things that come up within the game. At times it is a player doing something original or at least unexpected. At times it is the story flowing out of us like it was meant to be. Events align just right and we find ourselves coming up with things we never would have imagined on our own. It's one of the reasons I love this game.

So in a way the game is designed for improvisation. Embrace it fully. It is the nature of vehicle in which we play. Don't feel bad if your thoughts or the direction of the game goes differently than what you may or may not have had planned. If players wander off the edge of the map then make it up as you go. Embrace the possibilities this presents. And don't be afraid to come up with new mechanics or new rules, new monsters, new and unexpected twists and events. Things that color outside the lines so to speak. The thing about roleplaying in the games we play is that they were not designed to be driven by a pregenerated story. The game doesn't work that way. Embrace this fact and let the story unfold itself.

This sort of opportunism is essential to allowing the game to reach it's full potential. In the storytelling medium storytellers had stories that they told again and again. They were largely memorized. But the thing we often don't realize it that they were never memorized verbatim. They weren't scripted and they weren't like a Greek play or a Shakespearean drama. Storytellers memorized elements. Outlines. The basic facts of a story. And when they stood in front of the fire, or took the stage, they had to read their audience. They had to adapt the story to the time and the people they told it to.

Homer's Illiad worked exactly this way. The outline of the story we have finally written down had been preserved for ages in the minds of storytellers. It only became concretized when Homer wrote in down. Now when we think of Illiad we often think of Homer's telling. But the outline of the Illiad had been used by writers throughout time. The elements of the outline are preserved in telling a new rewritten tale, that though it contains the same elements is essentially a new story. Shakespeare's works have been rich fields for exactly such creations throughout time.

So are our truly great modules and adventures published by the genuinely creative designers, also templates which we use to write our own stories upon. The story you tell when you use an adventure or make your own or go completely random. Is not generated by the elements themselves. The true story the real interaction is between the PCs and the GM controlled and generated environment. Relying on preprinted materials is fine, I'm not saying you shouldn't do it that way. But don't set yourself up for some sort of scripted story. The PCs are walking into a preexisting situation. How they react and what they do may be very different from what you expect. Embrace this and be prepared to run with it.

This sort of opportunistic GMing must be cultivated as a quick thinking approach to player action. The players present you with something unexpected, or are the direction of the game is not going in the way you had anticipated. Fine. Don't think about what you had anticipated or planned or expected. Think instead about what the players are doing. You know the world around you. You have read the module or prepared the city, kingdom, dungeon or wilderness ahead of time. Or maybe you don't and your making it up as you go--even better! Consider the players' actions as fuel for what happens next. Think about the natural and at times unnatural consequences of their actions. And make it happen.

Say for example you had planned for the PCs to rescue a Princess kidnapped by an Ogre Mage. You hadn't really planned much beyond making a quick map of the Ogre Mage's caves. The adventure starts with the PCs being summoned by the King. The PCs arrive and you give in your best imitation of kingly speech an impassioned plea for their aide and offer a royal reward to boot. But the players aren't impressed. And though they reluctantly agree to the quest they quickly get sidetracked in the town visiting the local tavern. As a GM you have no idea why they are visiting the tavern, or avoiding the quest, despite several reminders that they king expects them to get underway immediately. To no avail however as they begin to seek out a local apothecary to see if they can purchase some poison--goodness isn't one of their alignment foci. So, what do you do?

Now right off the top of my head I see several possibilities. First poison is a controlled substance in this town. And when they get to the apothecary, a tall thin man with weasely features named Arndt, and ask for the black stuff, Arndt gives them the local thieves sign to see if they can identify themselves as such. Of course they can't, as the sign is known only to local thieves and assassins. This makes him suspicious and he says he doesn't carry the stuff. But if they come back at sundown he can have some brewed. Unknowingly to them Arndt is playing both sides of the street. As soon as the PCs leave he notifies the authorities to be ready at his place to arrest the ne'erdo wells. Of course Arndt extracts a fee from the constable for the information. And then Arndt promptly notifies the thieves and assassins guild--Thee Humble Cutters they call themselves, as the front for their business is a rather unprosperous harvesters union. And Arndt makes it clear to his under the counter regulars that there are unauthorized assassins operating in the region.

Three days later as the party is trying to break two of their number out of the dungeon while dodging assassination attempts by the Cutters, they catch a conversation by some guards that the Princess Marroway has evidently been sold to some adventurers from the south where slavery is common. (Actually this was my second choice. I wanted to have the Ogre Mage sacrifice her as a material component in an evil spell, but this way there is now a whole other adventure hook to the south.) And if the party doesn't realize that they are going to get framed for the slave trafficking, I simply let them hear the guards add that the King is sure the dastards who he hired to save thee princess were evidently slavers.

Mean? Cruel? Evil? Maybe, but that is the world the PCs live in. I'm certainly not railroading them. They chose to enter a rather seedy and dangerous underbelly of the kingdom and are now caught up in it. Evidently that was what they wanted. So instead of the Ogre Mage's hobgoblin minions, they are now facing the Cutters and Kingly Justice. Ouch. Ah well. Such is the nature of improvisational play. The story happens because you are willing to take advantage of opportunities. Fortunately you have longer than the 5 minutes it took me to write this in actual game play. Your mind is churning and working the whole time. Take the opportunities the players give you and weave the story as you go.

This is Improvisational Ability. Opportunism in game related storytelling. Don't be afraid of it. Cultivate it and use it to it's full potential.


Master Of Grey Skull said...

I make up a considerable bit of every adventure that I DM. I think it's necessary to adjust a module in-game to make it pertinant to the PC or player and sometimes both.

But more than that, a life that's all too busy doesn't lend itself to proper preparation and I find myself having to fill in the blanks with bits and peices from my all too weak imagination. Most times, it helps the adventure move and makes it more rich. Other times, it's a "leap" from A to B and the players pick up on it. With time, though, it's steadily improved.

Other times I find myself having to change things up from a module because a certain part was written poorly or tied together too loosely for my adventurers to care to go down the pre-written module's story arc. Case in point, the Keep on The Shadowfell 4e module by Cordell and Mearls. Granted, the idea of heading back to the city after the first level of dungeon clearing is an option, it's a terrible one. What about all those kobolds you just cleared? Don't you thin Kalarel is going to find out during the two-day vacation the adventurers take? Geez, if Kalarel weren't so preoccupied with trying to open the portal that would let Orcus back into Toril, then maybe he'd have caught on that he hadn't heard back from that female half-elf spy he's employed! Whatever the case, I still cite user-error for the poor execution of that module.

However, I'm most guilty of improvisation when they're are inconsistencies with the party, i.e. a new PC needs to be brought in. That usually takes a detour from the normal campaign and seems to never be accomplished in less than 2 encounters and as many hours. But maybe my party just works more slowly than others.

In any case, improvisation is key to creating a more terrifying game for a group of players that doesn't seem to be scared of anything. Traps, ambushes, and tweaked monster stats gives me the extra edge against min/max-ers.

Buy the experiences that keep me up at night are the ones when improvision brings about severe consequences or utter death. Just last Saturday, all but one of the party was thrown into Charnel Lord's slide trap on the first level of The Pyramid of Shadows. Well, obviously Mearls and Wyatt (authors of this comparatively great module) didn't intend for ALL of the PCs to end up in the trap with a level 10 otyugh because the battle would've been over in a few rounds (something I'd normally cherish). So, to instigate the desired level of fatality, I gave my otyugh TWO hits every encounter. Well, the cleric died and the theif lost his left hand and 1d4 DEX points. Pretty severe. It bothered me Sunday morning, but all through church I itemized the reasons why what I did was realistic:

1. It was the monsters home turf that he'd been happily and quite successfully living in filth for several decades.
2. The Charnel Lord was hungery; beyond rats and the occassionaly wandering goblin, the otyugh saw a great opportunity to feed.
3. The party had fun; everyone lauded the session that night, as they always do when the majority of the party makes it through a session alive; they felt like they'd accomplished something.

And so, once again, I agree with our friendly BM (blog master), Chris, improvision is key to a good game. Improvising entire modules, improvising random encounters to adjust for unforeseeable party-specific variables, and improvisation in monster stats.

Great post, Chris. Keep 'em coming!

Chris said...

Hey MoGS! Sorry it took me so long to get back to this post. Life has been crazy!

I too improvise alot. The reason I do so is because I am never sure what the scenario and it's inhabitants are going to do ahead of time. I also stay surprised by the actions and choices of the party. which will of course influence how the NPCs react and the encounters unfold.

This has always been the way to game for me. I have never felt comfortable railroading PCs down a particular path. I tried it once and it didn't work very well.

The PCs have a real affect on the world, but the world also turns without them. The dynamic when these two forces meet are always a surprise. This requires a certain level of improvization and making it up as you go. It also requires you being okay with the PCs affecting the game world.

As to things getting deadly. Well, don't sweat it. It sounds like everything turned out well anyway. The key is to keep in mind you are not out to kill the PCs but to challenge them. There does have to be a balance, and I'm not talking about game balance. But a balance of action and rest. And by action I don't mean just fighting. I mean the PCs doing things.

Sure occasionally something your throw in or present in a certain manner may challenge the pcs to the level that they die or come out seriously changed in a bad way. Oh well. As long as you weren't thinking "How can I kill these rubes?" But instead were asking "What would be really cool next?" Then you're on safe ground imo.

The other option is to embrace far too much regularity or mundaness. If the adventure as written is giving you enough, fine. but i usually find that the GM has to guide story development in just the ways I am writing about in my last two posts.

Thanks for the insight!