Behing the Screens – Improv, GMing, and You

In all the years that I’ve GM’d, I’ve come to learn one valuable and undeniable truth. Players will always surprise you. It doesn’t matter how much reading you’ve done, how many contingencies you’ve come up with, or how long you’ve plotted and planned. In the end, players will find a way to surprise you. Sooner or later you’re going to end up in a situation that is decidedly off of the rails that you’ve so carefully laid out. Today’s topic will focus on how you, as a GM, can adapt to things that your players might ask that so that you can improvise a fun and creative story that can still be tied back into the plot.

Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters and dialogue of a game, scene, or story are made up in the moment. In the context of your game, great improv can do a lot to enhance your players’ fun at the table through the incorporation of their ideas and the opportunity to interact with story structures of their own creation. If you say yes to a player’s crazy plan you’re validating his opinion and giving him the opportunity to stand heroically in the spotlight.

What do I mean by this? Let’s use a basic example. The PCs are hired to rescue an NPC from a group of thugs hiding out in an abandoned warehouse. The thugs are alert and on the lookout for just such a rescue attempt. The read-a-loud text for the encounter might look something like this.

This small warehouse sits alone at the edge of town. All the windows are smashed and the front door hangs slightly ajar. The flickering light of a few lanterns can be seen within but otherwise the warehouse appears to be abandoned.

Now, this encounter could be nothing more than a straight forward kick-down-the-door , roll for initiative, defeat the bandits, and save the hostage. That might be how it’s written in the module or exactly how you prepared it to run. But your players don’t know that. They’re most likely not even thinking about how the encounter is written. They’re probably thinking about how they can get in the room and subdue the thugs before anyone can harm the hostage. And they’re probably trying to figure out the best way to do that. If your players are anything like mine they’re probably going to try and hatch a ridiculously harebrained scheme.

Most read-a-loud text printed in published adventures is about 50 to 100 words long. There’s just enough there to paint a decent picture of the room or area the PCs are in but not enough to overload or bore the players with extraneous detail. But chances are there’s not enough information there to satisfy what a creative player will want to know in order to implement aforementioned harebrained scheme. So on come the questions with varying levels of specificity:

“Is there a backdoor?”

“How thick are the walls?”

“Can I get onto the roof?”

“Is there a chandelier? What? I’m a swashbuckler…”

“Have we seen anyone else coming or going?”

“Are there any squirrels around?”

Chances are that most questions posed by your players are beyond what the read-a-loud text, encounter map, or your notes will have detailed. But your players’ actions (see above: harebrained scheme) heavily depends on the answers. They might want to sneak in through the back. Or they might want to climb onto the roof. Or they might even want to polymorph into a squirrel so that they can blend in with the native rodent population and unobtrusively drop the warehouse chandelier on the thugs’ hapless heads.

So what do you do? Well one thing you could do is give a flat answer. You could just say that if it’s not in the book/notes than it’s not there. This is probably the worst of all possible answers. In improv terms you’ve just denied the premise. That is to say you stifled the creative potential of the encounter by flat out rejecting an idea posed by a player. Not only have you shut him down but you also haven’t offered anything for him to go with in its place.

The next thing you could do is confirm that there is indeed a door/chandelier/local squirrel population. This validates your players’ ideas and allows them to take the next step towards their harebrained scheme objective. That’s good, but it’s still not ideal because it’s still not really adding anything to the encounter. Worse yet, repeated allowances without additions might allow a particularly devious player to run roughshod over the narrative without any policing on your part. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but you want to be aware of the possibility it happening.

The better options involve helping to build the scene by adding something of your own. Saying something like, “Yes, you see someone coming to and going from the warehouse and it’s someone you recognize” or “No, there’s no backdoor but you do find an entrance to a storm cellar” builds upon the framework that was offered by your players and allows them the opportunity to react to the options that you presented all while you maintain narrative control of the encounter.

In improv this is commonly referred to as “yes, and…” and “no, but…”. In both situations you and your players are collaboratively developing a scene as it goes off the rails. Sure, it takes a lot more creative investment than the kick-down-the-door approach. But the potential fun at the table should be well worth it. You will feel like a better GM because your players are having a good time. And your players will feel like clever and competent adventurers because they got to come up with a unique solution to a problem. Everybody wins.

Any questions on how you might have improvised a specific encounter? Have a fun story you want to share? Leave it in the comments below!

Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

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