I’m Making This Up As I Go

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Category GMing 800 x 450It’s been a long time since I got some death threats and harassment in my inbox and comment feed, apart from that one a$&hole who doesn’t know how to call attention to a potential error about katana. So, let’s see if I can’t incite some real rage. I’m going to talk about a big-a$& topic that a lot of people get very emotional about. And that a lot of people pass around a lot of utter s$&% advice. Well, I’m going to give it the complete Angry treatment. Analyze the s$&% out of it while insulting absolutely everyone who disagrees with me. And I’m even going to do it in several f$&%ing parts.

Improvisation. Making s$&% up as you go. Let’s do it. Let’s really dig down and get into the heart of it.

Why now? Well, because I’ve been talking every other week about building adventures. And we’ve been talking about planning scenes and pacing and all of that crap. And I keep mentioning in little throwaway lines how you can use the stuff I’m talking about to BOTH preplan s$&% AND to invent s$&% on the fly. See, building an adventure highlights a major weakness in the GMing arsenal. You can’t plan everything. Once you leave the confines of a dungeon where the players can only go where the walls let them, suddenly you can’t be ready for absolutely everything those dumba$&es might do. What if the f$&%wits decide to try to solve the murder mystery by going to a temple and consulting an oracle. “F$&%, clue gathering, let’s go ask God who did it.” You spent all of your time planting clues for a Sherlock Holmes game and they want to play some Greek tragedy.

And the thing is, even IN the dungeon, you can’t be ready for everything. What if the players retreat? What if the players decide to negotiation with the giant spiders using a wild shaped druid with Speak with Animals or some bulls$&% like that? You CAN’T be ready for all of that. You can’t be prepared for everything.

PART of adventure building is actually about being prepared for the things you’re not prepared for. I know that sounds like a goddamned paradox, and it sort of is, but it also isn’t. Which is also a paradox and isn’t this a delightful circle. If you know the shape of the adventure – where it begins, where it ends, and how it COULD get from one to the other – and if you know about the narrative elements like pacing and tone and themes and if you know about some other things we haven’t talked about yet like antagonists and extras, if you know all of that, you’re prepared to shuffle s$&% around. You can guess whether the villain will fall into the trap. You can figure out what information the oracle might have. And you can decide when the assassins need to show up to kick the pace in the pants. In point of fact, it’s not a bad idea for adventures to have a few “floating” scenes. Vague scenes that serve a purpose but aren’t planted anywhere in the structure. Scenes you can drop into the action when you need them to give a vital clue, speed up a game, slow down a game, introduce a plot element, or whatever.

But even planning for the unplanned is ultimately a losing battle. Players have an unerring ability to find the holes in your preparation and then want to fly a charmed dragon straight through them. It’s just the way it is. Think of it as Angry’s Law: “if there is something you aren’t ready to handle, players will do it.”

And so, the only solution is to be ready to handle ANYTHING.

And THAT is where improvisation comes in. In this first part, we’re going to explore the basic concept of improvisation and shoot some holes in stupid, crappy advice that people who aren’t me give.

Improvisation: What It Is and What It Ain’t

First of all, let’s be really clear on what improvisation is. Because when you say “improvise” people think “oh, you mean make s$&% up.” Well no. NO. That’s the first thing that leads to dumba$& advice like “any game prep is the same as railroading” or “your only prep should be a list of names, an unlabeled map, and a blank piece of paper.” It also leads to that interminable “yes, and…” bulls$&% and the smug arguments that “no, but…” is just as good. F$&% all that noise.

To improvise is to compose and perform without prior preparation. It comes from the Italian. And it comes from the same roots as “proviso,” “provision,” and “providence.” The “im” part is a prefix. You know, the same prefix that turns “possible” into “impossible.” Basically, it means “not provided.” Improvisation means “without planning or preparation.” That’s all.

Why am I going all “word of the week” here? Because the first and most important thing to understand about improvisation is that it doesn’t mean to bend over, drop your pants, and s$&% out ideas. It means to create and perform in one go. If you improvise an encounter, for example, you aren’t just vomiting forth some goblins in a room. That is NOT improvising an encounter. That’s s$&%ing on your game. Improvising an encounter means that, in your head, you create an encounter the moment you play it out. You come up with a dramatic question, a source of conflict, decision points, and any structural elements needed.

“The goblins are here because they discover the last group of goblins the players murdered and they are tracking down the heroes to exact bloody revenge. Can the players drive them off and kill them or will they be captured and brought to goblin justice?” THAT is an encounter. Dramatic question and source of conflict. And it even tells you things about possible decision points. The goblins will probably not negotiate. They won’t be bribed. They are out for bloody vengeance.

Improvisation is a sort of Zen state. It isn’t acting without thought. It’s merely yoking action AND thought so there’s no difference between the one and the other. Action IS thought. Planning IS executing. By the way, yoga DID NOT come from yoke, as some people will tell you. Yeah, they sound similar, but they came from completely different languages on completely different f$&%ing continents.

If you get nothing else out of all of this, understand that improvisation is MORE than making s$&% up. It’s designing s$&% the moment you need it. It’s still design.

Why Improvisation is Actually the Most Important Thing Ever

In the past, I’ve snarked a LOT about improvisation. And the reason is because improvisation is something that every GM thinks they understand and every GMIng blog posts vapid, ultimately useless advice about. It’s also something that’s REALLY overvalued.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. How can I say improvisation is the most important thing ever and then complain people overvalue it? And the answer is “shut up, Daddy’s talking!”

Let’s explore that question by first understanding what it is about improvisation that makes it so f$&%ing important. Improvisation is what allows a role-playing game to BE a role-playing game. When you get down to it, role-playing is the act of making choices and dealing with the outcomes and consequences. The choices you make are the choices imaginary characters make in hypothetical universes. But that doesn’t matter. And THAT is what makes a role-playing game basically an act of interactive storytelling. Because stories are all about things that happen, the choices people make, and the consequences of those choices.

The problem is, in most mediums that allow for interactive storytelling – like video games or Choose Your Own Adventure type books – your choices are constrained. You are limited by what the writer or programmer thought to design into the product. You can go left or you can go right but you can’t turn around and go home. You can kill the goblin with light attacks, heavy attacks, or a ridiculous combo, but you can’t bribe the goblin or befriend it or enslave it. There are lots of reasons for these constraints. Technical, practical, and creative reasons. But they all come down to a very simple fact: imagination is infinite but it’s very difficult to write an infinite story. And even if you could write an infinite story, you probably couldn’t imagine ALL of the possible infinite choices any given person could make.

In addition to that, there’s also the idea that these stories take place in a simulated world. The world is being run by a computer or a book or whatever. And the world can only deal with interactions its programmed to deal with. Take, for example a simple example. In the Skylanders games, your character can’t jump. There is no jump button. But even if you could somehow send a signal to the computer that you wanted to jump, the computer couldn’t do anything with that. Because the computer doesn’t know how to make jumping work. It doesn’t understand gravity. It can’t calculate the height and range of a jump. It literally doesn’t know anything about physics it wasn’t programmed with.

So role-playing games came up with a novel solution: have a human brain stand in for the computer or book or whatever. Sure, I – the human brain behind the screen – may not have planned for you to befriend or bribe or enslave the goblin. But I’m armed with the same imagination you are. So, when you imagine befriending the goblin, I can also imagine that. And I can work out the outcome and the consequences.

And if you decide to do something not in the rulebooks, I have an intuitive grasp of how the natural laws of the world work. I might not know how to calculate from your mass and muscle power the force of your jump and therefore work out the initial velocity of your jump. And I may not know how to break the velocity down into its horizontal and vertical components based on simple trigonometry. And I may not be able to use the vertical initial velocity along with the acceleration due to gravity to calculate the vertical height and air time of the jump. And I may not know how to use the air time of your jump along with the horizontal component of your initial velocity to calculate the range of your jump. But I kind of know how jumping works and I can kind of imagine in my head a long jump and guess at a range that seems okay. Because I live in a world with physics and gravity.

By the way, I DO know how to calculate all of those things. I would just never DO THAT at the game table. Because players aren’t impressed by physics formulas. Players suck.

Also, that’s why most RPG worlds have the same physics as the real world. Because you can work out how things work.

Honestly, the only difference between Choose Your Own Adventure, Mass Effect, and D&D with a living, breathing person is the number of “degrees of freedom” you have in your choices on a range from around two to infinity. In point of fact, IN THEORY, the only constraints on what you can do in an RPG are constraints that arise from the fictional world. In Skylanders, there’s no reason a magical dragon or plant ninja couldn’t jump. They have f$&%ing leg muscles. The only reason they can’t is because of gameplay limitations. In D&D, there shouldn’t be any gameplay limitations. You can’t jump off a cliff, flap your arms, and fly in D&D. But that’s not because the game wasn’t built with a rule for it. It’s because the fictional world doesn’t actually work that way.

So, a GM HAS TO be ready to improvise. Without the ability to improvise, the game is not a super-awesome, infinitely-free-barring-fictional-world-constraints role-playing game. A computer could run it.

How Improvisation Ruins Everything

So, how is improvisation overvalued if it is literally the thing that makes an RPG work?

Well, let’s admit something. GMing is a lot of f$&%ing work. First of all, you have to know the goddamned rules. And there’s a lot of goddamned rules. And some of them are really stupid and nitpicky. Next, you have to be an expert on the fictional world. When a player asks a question about goblins or gravity or Nerab-Sul the God of Atlantis, you have to have an answer. And when a player tries to bribe or enslave a f$%&ing goblin, you’ve got to know whether that would actually work. You really do have to be ready to handle anything. And then, there’s the whole running actual adventures thing. You need to know the adventure. You need to read the thing, remember it, internalize it, and understand why it’s happening and who the characters are (the PCs and the NPCs) and what they want. And the gods help you if you decide to create your own adventures or worlds. Because that’s a whole other layer of work. And all of that ignores the administrative crap. Just convincing people to show up regularly for a game can be a chore in itself.

And that’s just the surface. To run a good game, a GM has to keep a lot of balls in the air. See, a role-playing game has to provide both a satisfying story and a fun gameplay experience. It has to be both. Remember that point. It’s SUPER IMPORTANT for part two. For now, I’m just going to leave it there. SO the GM has to understand things like pacing, tone, narrative structure, how to build engaging characters, and all that crap. And the GM also has to be able to provide meaningful challenges and fun obstacles and provide a feeling of advancement and excitement. And the GM has to do all of that cognizant of the fact that any one of those things can be shattered by the random number generators that determine who lives and who dies.

But improvisation seems like a goddamned panacea, right? It gets rid of all the work. Just make s$&% up. Make up whatever seems like a good, fun, interesting idea. And if people are laughing and having a good time, then you’re winning.

So you have all these GMs who have been at it for a long time telling you to learn how to improvise. It’ll save you a lot of trouble. Just make s$&% up and you’ll be fine. Blank paper, a few names on a map, a couple of random ideas, and you can weave a game out of that. Beyond that, just listen to your players. Whatever they say, whatever they want, whatever crazy-a$& theories they have, use them. Done and done.

And if the majority of GMs out there follow that advice, especially the newer ones, they will run s$&% games. Literally s$&%. Because, yes, improvisation CAN create Monty Python or Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. But most improvisation plays out like kids on a playground. “Well, my guy is a dinosaur and he EATS your guy?” “No, because my girl can shoot eye lasers and she can blast your dinosaur.” “No way! Because my dinosaur has laser armor!” And so on. Yes, THAT too is improvisation. Notice how it’s not compelling?

And that brings us back to the idea the improvisation is NOT actually making s$&% up. It’s designing in the moment. Good improvisation doesn’t save you anything. If anything, it makes life harder for you. Because if you want to do it well, you still need all the narrative crap and all the gamey crap to work, but you can’t think it through.

Improvisation is actually an ADVANCED GMing skill that, unfortunately, is required from the moment you start running games. And that is why I advise people to start running games with lots of constraints and heavy planning. You can improvise in small doses to build your skills while you learn all the other crap that goes into running a good game.

Of course, if all you want is a silly playground dickaround game, that’s your prerogative. But my website isn’t going to help you run that sort of game. In fact, my website is just going to frequently call you a f$&%wit.

What you will notice is that there’s NO ONE OUT THERE offering you advice on HOW to improvise. GMs tell you to use improvisation to make your game better. And they give you little useless aphorisms that they just repeat like zombie parrots. But no one is actually saying “hey, you need to make a rule call? Here’s how to do it.”

And THAT is what I’m going to do over the next several articles. Because I’m awesome. And I’m not afraid to try to explain something everyone thinks can’t be explained. Before we close this examination of the broad concept of improvisation, let’s look at one last central concept. And then, we’re going to break improvisation down into two different types of improvisation.

Improvisation as Precedent and How Choice Works

Bad improvisation can break your game. And it can be very hard to fix it. “But how, Angry,” I hear you saying. “You’re just making s$&% up which is what a role-playing game is all about. So what if I do something that doesn’t work. We can just never come back to it and forget it ever happened.”

Well, NOT SO. Remember, the core of a role-playing game, the one thing at the heart of every RPG, is choice. Players make choices. They make choices that they think imaginary people would make in hypothetical situations.

Think about how YOU (real you) make choices in life. Good and bad. Here you are, in a situation, and you have to make a choice. And you make that choice based on the idea that you want some desired outcome. You want something out of that choice. Do you eat that last donut? Well, donuts taste good and you want to taste that donut. Right? You want to enjoy that donut. And you figure the action of eating the donut will likely lead you to enjoying the taste of the donut, right?

But you also know that the action has consequences. Every time you make a choice, you know that the effects of that choice ripple forward. If you eat the last donut, Steve won’t get any donuts. And Steve will be sad. And the donut is unhealthy. If you eat it, you’re eating too many calories.

From there, your brain is in conflict. On the one hand, eating the donut leads to enjoying the delicious taste of donut. On the other, it leads to Steve being mad and you eating too many calories. And then your brain has to resolve the conflict. Maybe you don’t eat the donut because it isn’t worth Steve’s anger and the extra calories. Or maybe you eat the donut because Steve is always whining about something anyway, so who cares. And one extra donut is not going to suddenly add two inches to your waistline. Or maybe you eat the donut, lie to Steve so he doesn’t know it was you, and spent an extra thirty minutes on the Stairmaster to compensate.

It doesn’t matter how you decide. That’s how people make decisions. They have desires, they imagine the outcome of the action, they assess how likely the action is to fulfill their desires, and they try to imagine the consequences, and they weigh all of that.

The ability to make decisions is entirely based on your perceived ability to predict the future. And you make decisions based on all of your past experiences and your understanding of the world. You know donuts are delicious and Steve is a whiny b$&% and you know that going over your calorie count this one time isn’t a big deal. You also know how calories and health and exercise work. Now, to be clear, you might actually be right or wrong or misinformed about any of that s$&%. But that doesn’t mean your brain isn’t considering all of that s$&%. Or whatever s$&% your particular brain feels is important. For example, my brain doesn’t give a f$&% about Steve but it does give a f$&% about diabetes and it knows that a sugary donut is dangerous.

Imagine if, suddenly, tomorrow, without warning, donuts suddenly contained six hundred thousand calories. Eat one donut, gain 30 pounds. Imagine if, suddenly, tomorrow, Steve became a homicidal maniac and swore to kill the next person who took their donut. You eat the donut, suddenly, your pants burst open as thirty pounds of flab explode out of your gut, and while you’re trying to figure out what the hell is happening, Steve shoots you dead.

If the rules of the world change, suddenly, your ability to make decisions is completely f$&%ing ruined. But, let’s say you survive Steve’s attempted murder. A few days later, in the hospital, the nurse brings you a donut. Will you eat it? Hell no. But what if suddenly today, donuts contain negative seven hundred thousand calories. If you eat it, you LOSE 40 pounds. You’d never know it.

Careless improvisation f$&%s with decision making ability. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sudden change of character or a sudden change to the physics of the world. The fact is, when these things change suddenly, players can’t make good choices anymore. You’re essentially forcing them to act at random. And that RUINS role-playing.

Now, I’m not saying sudden, unexplained changes don’t happen in the real world. They happen all the time. Steve MIGHT snap tomorrow. You never know. And you’d be completely blindsided when he shot you dead. And we have to accept that in the real world because there’s a lot going on in the real world we don’t control.

But fiction is ultimately a fantasy of control and cause-and-effect. For our very survival, we NEED to believe that we can make good choices and the rules don’t change constantly. And that’s why all of our stories follow the rules of cause-and-effect and why characters that behave at random ruin stories. From a narrative perspective, we need consistency because that is what our brain craves.

From a gameplay perspective, consistency is at the core of fairness. You make strategic decisions based on perceived outcomes and risks. Sure, if you choose a risky action with a really good positive outcome, you’re probably going to fail. But you know that going in. If you choose a sure thing and roll a one on the die, you accept that s$&% happens. But if yesterday’s sure thing becomes today’s huge risk, suddenly you feel cheated.

That said, no one knows everything about every choice they make. And that’s fine. We accept that. Even in fiction. But we HAVE TO believe there’s a reason out there somewhere. Even if we don’t know what that reason is. If Steve does turn in to a homicidal maniac overnight, we have to believe that something caused that happen. A repressed memory resurfaced. A tragic event struck last night. Steve got possessed by a demon. Whatever.

And that is how improvisation can ruin your game. The moment you improvise, you are introducing new information about the world. A new character. A new rule. A new law of physics. A new trait. A new motivation. And players will try to fit that into the context of the world they already know AND use it to shape future decisions. And for both narrative and gameplay reasons, that HAS TO work.

Anything you design on the spot has to fit everything that has come before and will be a part of everything that comes after. And THAT is why, first and foremost, improvisation BUILDS ON what you already know, it doesn’t replace foreknowledge. The more you know, the stronger your improvisation. Whether it’s the rules of the game, the history of goblins, or the truth about Atlantis, having those things in your head helps you maintain consistency whenever you have to invent more of the world.

In point of fact, through improvisation, you are NOT inventing the world, you’re revealing the world.

The Two Kinds of Improv

And now let’s end by briefly breaking improvisation down into two different broad categories. The first type of improvisation is the type you rely on when you need to make a call about how an action works. When a player tries a weird action that isn’t covered in the rules or when two game effects run into each other in an unexpected way, you need to resolve that. That’s mechanical improvisation. It’s improvisation mainly about the way the game and the world work.

When the events of the game go off in an unexpected direction or when you decide to add a new element to the game – a scene, a character, a piece of lore, whatever – whenever you are adding new elements to the story, we’ll call that narrative improvisation.

Narrative and mechanical improvisation rely on consistency and foreknowledge. And everything I’ve discussed above applies to both. But there are differences in the details. And that is why each deserves its own discussion. So, in the next two parts of this series, we’ll talk about “How to Make Rules Calls” and “How to Invent New Story Elements on the Fly.”

Because I’m the only bada$& on the internet willing to actually tell you how to do this s$&%.

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28 thoughts on “I’m Making This Up As I Go

  1. Two thumbs up. Looking forward to the sequels.

    I actually think that “grounded” improvisation – where you build on existing stuff rather than pulling new things out of your arsenal is EASIER; at least for certain types of people.

  2. Tell me more about this laser-arm dinosaur!

    In all honesty, though, this article was great. Every time I read one of your articles, I just want to bring my current campaign to a screeching halt so I can regroup and try again with all the information I get.


  3. Great article.

    And now I feel the need to write the players guide to D&D improv 😉

    You hit it dead right, any great actor will tell you that improv is hard and actually takes a lot of work, knowing the character, scene, world etc. The difference is that the best make that look easy. Just like a great GM.

  4. Your description of the doughnut that suddenly has 600,000 calories, and your friend Steve who goes psycho on you and shoots you dead for no reason… I’ve known a couple GMs who do S@#$ exactly like that. Abandoned their games many, many years ago. Rather play in no game than a crazy crap one.

  5. I’ve heard you talk about GMing Dungeon World, so do you handle that? Do you make a whole world as you might for D&D, follow the book’s instructions to play “fast and loose”, or have I totally missed the boat on this one?

  6. You wrote about how, when improvising, you may break the game because by inadvertedly changing how the game world works. I can see that but I’ve noticed how that may happen when preparing for a game and following the rules. That may sound criptic, allow me to explain.

    I’m running a 5e game and 5e is full of rules and ways to break them. You can only attack or disengage unless you are a rogue. Things like that. And when designing monsters the DMG basically tells you to throw all the PHB rules out the window.

    So I design creatures who can disengage as a bonus action by their innate ability to insult you to your core, acolytes who can fire a cantrip AND a crossbow bolt because that is cool and within damage numbers given in the DMG. Stuff like that. And as a result, my players are getting uncertain about how the game and the world works. My resident rules lawyer is very much annoyed with me.

    So how do you design consistently in a game that is constantly breaking it’s own rules? Let alone improvise.

    • The monsters could always have special abilities that grant those things. A special ability that allows it to fire a cantrip and a crossbow, etc. That’s following the rules. You’re just skipping a step.

      Though the rules are all meant for players anyway. 5e isn’t like 3.5 where you design NPCs and monsters like you’re building your own PC basically.

    • There are precedents for monsters that can disengage as a bonus action (goblins) and spells that only require a bonus action to cast (Spiritual Weapon). There’s a whole section in the DMG on designing your own monsters, and Angry has a series on such things.

      As long as you’re making these decisions in the design process, and keeping challenge in line with your party’s level, you’re not breaking continuity, you’re presenting consistent monsters with abilities that the players have to overcome.

    • Just be consistent about it. Goblins disengage as a bonus action? Consider that a racial ability – don’t let orcs start doing it. Cultists attack and cast a cantrip in the same turn? Fighters who choose the Eldritch Knight archetype can do that, too. It should be abundantly clear that different characters can do different things with their action allotment; wizards can’t attack twice in the same action, and paladins can’t use Bardic Inspiration, etc.

    • Thanx for the replies but you are missing the point. 5e is a game in which half the rules are ways to break the other half of the rules. Moreover, PCs play by different rules than NPCs and monsters. Because the game tells you how to break which rules doesn’t make it a consistent rule.

      For instance: when a PC closes on a monster he does not know if and how the monster will be able to break engagement. Does it disengage? Does it have a special option to disengage as a bonus action, in which case your fucked twice since you will get hit but may not be in a position to hit back. It is very hard to make good tactical decisions in 5e.

      All this is by the rules. And I like the freedom the DMG gave me as a DM for designing monsters. But the unpredictability of the monsters’ powers, and the way they break the rules willy nilly, change how the world works on a regular basis. At which point my players are scratching their collective heads, throw all tactics out the window and start grinding through combat. Which sucks.

      • If they are missing the point, it’s because you might not be saying it clearly enough.

        I see your point as being: “Monster Creation allows me to do many neat and interesting things, but my players keep getting blindsided and have taken to throwing strategy out the window for fly-by-the-seat-of-their-collective-pants tactics. The rules allow me to do this but it ruins the game for my players.”

        I apologise if I’m reading your message wrong, but they are talking to that point by saying be consistent. Having them encounter the creatures multiple times is the key here (I do not know if you do this or not, so sorry if you are already doing this), and having a racial set of abilities that all the creatures possess regardless of role help to inform the players. Strategy can only be made when you have a good idea of what you are encountering.

        If your point is that your players are getting frustrated because you are “breaking” the rules, try getting into a conversation (NOT ARGUMENT) about what they think the GM’s job is, and what you think that job is. Find out why they are against you using Rule 0, and try to find that sweet middle ground where you are having fun, they are having fun and everything is moonshine and hazy days for everybody. If anyone cannot (or worse, will not) compromise to reach that middle ground, that person (or persons) might be better off finding another group to game with (possibly GMing their own game where they can follow the rules in the book).

        Sorry for the long post…

      • Definitely agree with what Hedisus said about using the same creatures multiple times. Players shouldn’t know what a creature can do the first time they ever run into it; the thrill of uncertainty is one of the key factors that makes combats fun. Once they’re experienced and have some fights under their belt, though, what they *should* be able to do is to say to themselves, “We’ve defeated goblins, orcs, and cultists before, so we can come up with a strategy to deal with this evil shrine run by the cultists and their orc and goblin lackeys.”

        Of course, even then you should still throw a monkey wrench their way here and there – an orc chieftain with an ability they haven’t seen before, or a high priest with better spells – but the lion’s share of the enemies are a known quantity. The ability of the adventurers to account and plan for the capabilities of the majority of their opponents is part of their reward for successfully dealing with those threats in the past.

      • But since when are the players supposed to know the monster’s abilities? Since when do monsters all fit into the same box? This is how it’s supposed to be. They should just be more careful instead of facerolling combat.

        • They are supposed to know the monster’s abilities if they research the monsters in game or have encountered the enemies before.
          Angry also had a rant over on The Mad Adventurers Society page that covered pop culture and how players should have at least heard of some of the more prominent enemies that exist in the world through plays or tales passed from mentor to student.
          The article in question was “You Can’t Possibly Know That” on page 7 of the archive. It is a very good read in my opinion.

          • I agree with this, if your players feel cheated by having a monster surprise them with new abilities that mess with the way they think the world works, one approach can be to provide opportunities to learn in advance.Without this, it can feel like a ‘gotcha’.
            I’m wondering if it’s useful to think of this as if it is a type of a ‘trap’ and use some of Angry’s advice about trap foreshadowing.. .

      • [I’ve paraphrased the comment that resided here. I’ve shortened it up while retaining it’s essential point. -The Angry GM]

        “Waaaahhhhhh blargle wargle my favorite edition is the best and yours sucks argle blargle droool.”

        • [I’ve paraphrased the comment that resided here. I’ve shortened it up while retaining it’s essential point. -The Angry GM]

          “Nuh uh! MY favorite is the best and you’re a big ole bed wetting doody head!”

  7. I like to have lots of floating quests, not connected to anything and kinda short to be resolved, but at the same time intriguing or with some kind of moral dilemma to it, and when I need to add some excitement, or if what’s happening in the game has something to do with one of those quests, I ground them to the game and connect them to whatever is happening at the moment.

    Seems to be working, but probably Angry can improve even further my improvisation skills.

    Thanks for the article, looking forward to the next ones.

  8. Great post, at least you don’t shy away from indicatinng how tough a job GMing actually is. To run a game world with a high set of internal cohesiveness an cause-and-effect pairing makes for awesome stories but requires an impressive array of skills and/or OCDs. Most people don’t have the inclination or the time (I know because I’ve played in their games and they in mine lol). GMing is like writing or acting, most people feel “given the chance I’d be a diamond in the rough” but unfortunately its not really true. It takes work

    Ultimately the game can only be as good as the GM, which is why pen and paper RPGs are a probably a dying hobby. Both “new-skool” and OSR were both a reaction to the lack of good GM skills, the former by co-opting the players into helping the GM with the job and the latter by returning back in time to when GMs a lot of control of a minimal ruleset and could thus focus more on random tables for story inspiration in an effort to making good “gameplay and story”

    sorry…is this a blog-length comment?

  9. I’m loving this subject! I’ve never thought of mechanical elements as being improvised! When I’m uncertain about mechanical elements of the game, I rule in the players favour to keep things moving, but with the idea that I’ll look it up and run it properly in future. I’m really curious now, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of this topic!

    • I’ve honestly found that ruling in the player’s favor if I’m not sure works fine… as long as I am clear about it. “Hey guys, I’m not 100% sure on this, but for now we’ll do it this way – I’ll check the rules later and let you know before the next session if we’re gonna have to change it.”

      And I’m on of those DMs who lately has been lazy as hell… “my players never do what I had planned, so I’m just gonna wing it, I’d have to do that anyway.” I think I need to stop doing that. Even if I have to wing it sometimes, having a more consistent world and plan will be much better in the long run. Way more work, but I think my players will enjoy themselves more.

      One of my friends DMs, and he drew out a map of the region we’re in, and all sorts of stuff… I don’t think I’ll do that (so much as saying “the elf town is over that way, the dwarves live in that mountain to the south, and the big human capital city is 5 days thataway” type thing is good enough for me), but I do think I need to at least plan out the distances, and include time constraints, and explain how things work a lot better. I’m REALLY bad at imparting information, because I try to make my players ask everything… but I realize now that I ask certain things, and they ask entirely different things I had no plan for, and end up saying “meeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhh” and just giving up on trying to plan. Heh.

  10. Pingback: The players guide to role playing #DND #RPG #Pathfinder – FreeRangeGeek's Adventures

  11. This has got to be the only actually useful GMing blog on the information superhighway. Seriously. Never before have I seen articles with much thought put into them. Kudos, Angry.

  12. This is terrific – there’s excellent, excellent stuff in here. In your argument on the history of RPGs, you’ve reversed the progression: RPGS preceded choose-your-own-adventure books (Steve Jackson’s game books are the missing link) and CRPGs (like Adventure, Eamon, and Wizardry). CRPG designers are STILL trying to capture the free flow of interactivity and collective imagination that many of them first experienced with tabletop RPGs. The ones that have succeeded best have usually done so by bringing the human imagination freely into the equation – even WoW, with its utterly linear quest lines, has built its success out of the human communities that form within the game, keeping the game open for free, unending play.
    I think it would not contradict your hypothesis to note that two of the most critical elements in successful stage improv (or impro) are observation and connection. A successfully improvising GM pays attention to what’s going on, and builds new opportunities out of what is already there in the game, what the players are already playing with, by creating unforeseen connections out of material that’s already too familiar. When Gygax & Arneson armed kobolds with submachine guns and put sorcerers up against panzer divisions, they were quite literally working with existing miniatures (and accompanying rules) on hand – rules they already knew, applied in ways they hadn’t thought of yet.

  13. Moral of the story: A donut a day may or may not keep the doctor away, but there’s only one way to find out.

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