It’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$&%.