I thought this would be a very informative topic to blog about, since not every DM makes it their highest priority to preplan every little piece of information shoved into a campaign. This is especially important to read if you’re thinking about making your first campaign. I’ll be talking about Narrative Improvisation; which is a lot like taking an antique German cuckoo clock, and then asking someone to add a built-in toaster oven.
This was a few months ago, I had been running a face-to-face session of AD&D2 with some friends while up at camp, and this was our very first session. These people were all very new to the D&D scene, however a few of them had played Pathfinder, Warhammer 4k, and I think even Zombicide before; so they had a grasp of how tabletops worked. So there I was, having set out what I thought was a pretty simple AB route quest, with PCs that had no previous ties. They made a mess of the city, practically ruining my campaign plots before I could even get started! I tried to unite them with a common purpose in an inciting incident – this is why I don’t do this type of session.
Before the main quest, I had basically been throwing mini plot points at them so that the PCs could get acquainted with their surroundings, and the players could flesh out their characters in relation to others on the party. However, one important player of mine skipped the session and I couldn’t run the campaign properly without modifications.
Narrative Improvisation, or Improv for short; is when you add story elements to your game on the fly. Or, another way of explaining it would be everything in game that isn’t governed by a die roll. This includes things such as characters, setting details, backstories, and things of the like. Something off the top of me head that I could add into my campaign right now would be an NPC apothecary owner who gives a potion for rabies to the PCs to save hir elven sister-in-law. That’s a story element made with Narrative Improvisation!
Improv is the Worst
Speaking as a DM, it’s literally the worst thing you can do, ever. I do it every session and I emplore you, please do not do it unless you absolutely need to. It’s absolutely terrible and that isn’t hyperbole.
Structure of a Campaign
So I’ve talked a lot about running a campaign in past blog posts, but not about what constitutes a good campaign. Every campaign needs motivation, resolution, and a path that connects the two. Then, there’s also the importance of foreshadowing, and telegraphing, as well as consistency to make sure that your PCs are making good decisions about how the scene and adventure advance. You need to start with lots of options for them, then narrow it down to a common end point for the players. Our brains expect stories to form a certain shape, and the more you play, the easier it will become to write good and satisfying campaigns.
It’s hard, and a lot like pulling teeth. Creating a deadline for campaigns is something I struggle with constantly, and it also requires practice. Clearly, I haven’t practiced enough. However, Improv is basically creating the deadline of ‘immediately’. You need to train your brain to not be judgmental of all your ideas just because they seem ‘stupid’, but at the same time be wary of ideas that don’t fit the overall tone of the story!
“DM Rhys, if it’s literally the worst thing you can think of next to having to sit beside a stranger on public transit, then why do it?” Good question. Us DMs do it because our players will ask and do things that we’re unprepared for. They ask some pretty silly questions, like “What kingdoms trade with [input city from 3 sessions ago], and does the trade stop during winter months?” They might also try and leave the city, escaping the adventure, unbeknownst to them. This is where Narrative Improvisation comes quite in handy.
The second reason I’ve used Improv is because the pace of my game feels off, of that I’ve begun to lose a player – they’ve become disinterested with the amount (or lack thereof) of action sequences. Sometimes people just have a different way of being pulled into the game, and as a DM you need to be able to recognize this and diffuse the situation! Learn your players’ body language.
Another reason is that you have to remember that all actions have consequences. For example, if a PC bullies too many shopkeepers, word may get around the taverns and Merchants’ Guild that they’re kind of a nuisance, and will inflate prices, or just stop selling all together!
The final reason, which is really the worst reason, is that you may have a cool idea and want to test it out with your game to see how smoothly it runs. This is literally the worst reason to Improv something. This is also the category that 90% of my Narrative Improvisation falls into, and I am a disgrace.
How To Improv Well
All in all, the reasons don’t really matter; you’re either doing Improv because of your players’ stupidity or your own, but the key is to do it well! In order to do this, you have to understand the value of good ideas. In situations where you’re going to Improv, you just need to do something that isn’t horrible since that would be reductive to the players’ experience. Consistency, and tone are always a concern, but it’s easy to keep in mind when you know how your world works and how it ebbs and flows.
Never improvise when you don’t have to! This is very important. You don’t want to ruin your plot or risk ruining you entire game unless you can see in the very near future that this is going to careen of course and go through the hypothetical guardrail, becoming a fiery mess at the bottom of a cliff. However, some DMs always improvise, and brag about how open-ended their games are, with only a few names, some monster statblocks, and index cards; don’t be like them.
Write everything down! I shouldn’t have to tell you this if you’ve been a DM for a while, but if you’re new, this is good advice! You’re never going to remember all that lore and those NPCs off the top of your head a few sessions from now. Who was that Dwarf who you ran into in the prison? He had no beard and carried a crossbow, but that’s all you can remember. Will he make a comeback? Write it down!
Improvisation is A-Okay
The only problem with Narrative Improvisation is that it can become the easy way out of creating a fully fleshed out campaign. It’s a good way to get lazy. However, it can also make your games harder to run, and could ultimately end up ruining a few of them. You also can’t under rely on it, either. You must find balance between preplanning your campaign and winging it during game night; no one can tell you where that happy little spot is. Don’t trust anyone who thinks they can!
Head home, rifter.