Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Improvising: The GM's Backup Plan

The first seminar I went to on Friday was about Improvising a RPG game, hosted by Patrick Benson. While his own blog is at SinisterForces.com, GnomeStew.Com is where he contributes a lot.

all the links important to this article...
From the schedule
Game Code: SEM0900412
Gaming Group/Company: SinisterForces
Title: Improvising: The GM's Backup Plan
Description: Back from last year! As a GM we've all been there. Your players do something completely unexpected that makes all of your prep work useless! What's a GM to do? Improvise! Learn how you can save your adventure with a few behind the scenes adjustments and keep the action rolling at the gaming table. The secret? Improvisation is always planned in advance. Putting his money where his mouth is, your presenter will improvise this seminar on the spot!
The Talk

A few minutes late, he was introducing the portable GM kit when I walked in. I should point out that his presentation, in the spirit of the subject, was improvised.

The portable GM kit includes a generic flip map, like this one from Paizo, some non-permanent markers, dice, some home-made tokens (more on that presently) and I assume a rule book was discussed before I walked in.

The token idea he said he got from a web site he just learned about couldn't quite remember. I had to find later, but he did mention www.rptools.net for DM'ing applications. There you'll find something called the token tool application, which is useful for creating the images for the tokens if you're not into photo editing programs. He passed around some of the tokens he made using the process he'd just learned, and they looked perfect. The wood tokens with glued on images were light, sturdy, and substantive enough that it wouldn't be hard to pick them up and move them around on a map.


In the meat of the program Benson talked about first developing a plot on the fly. His trick was to pick a movie from a genre different than that of the game you're playing. The example he got from suggestions from the audience was "pulp" as the genre of the game, and the movie "Aliens", which is a SciFi genre film. Your players will tell you what genre they want to play and you will simply agree to run something in that genre. The game system you'll use is one you know well, but is otherwise irrelevant to this discussion.

If you're improvising, you can't plan it all out ahead of time, so you take it step by step.

Step One: Intro to the story, characters.

Step one, introduce the NPC's. Like in Aliens where the first scene is of the space marines getting out of the hypersleep pods, quickly throw out some names and something descriptive about each of them. He ticked off a bunch of characteristics or character types to include. What I wrote down was: the jerk, the boss, the annoying guy, the helpful one, etc. Mental note to develop a more expansive list to have on hand as reference material.

Step Two: Setting

Put them in a situation where they are stuck, but from which they can earn a way out. Following the example, he identified this in Aliens: the characters get stranded on the planet with the landing craft destroyed and the plot is basically surviving the aliens while they try to fly down a replacement drop-ship on remote and escape. Translating alien planet to the pulp genre, he suggested setting it in the jungle, and swapping out aliens with pygmies. The boat the expedition came from England aboard struck a high rock and needs to be repaired or some other way for getting out of the jungle needs to be discovered or created.

Some action happens, like the pygmies chuck a couple spears at NPC's off stage, just before the players start running out of questions. To make up pygmies on the fly, pick up any rule book with monsters in it and use the stats or features of that monster with just a new edifice. Playing d20 modern for the system? Pick up a D&D Monster Manual and look up goblin, call it a pygmy, and roll initiative.

Step 3, Tension

For tension, take cues from the players; be observant. The DM should have been paying attention to the players during the character introduction and setting. Take note of who the PC's like, and who they don't. They're going to need the PC's they don't like in order to succeed, and some --just some-- of the PC's they do like are going to die before the adventure is done, even if you don't know how right then. Also pay attention to the questions they ask. When they ask general questions, like, "What supplies are there on the ship," be general by saying something like, "all kinds of things, tons of things, the typical things you'd find on a ship going to an expedition to the jungle, and even some things you can't guess why they were brought." Obviously, you'll have to throw out something specific at the end, but the great thing about the way the previous answer is constructed is that you can pull out any random item and it will fit, and add interest as well. The players will start asking about specifics, like, "is there a tarp?" This is a good thing, because you can let the players think up the stuff that's there, so yes, there is canvas material.

Step Four: Rising Action

Say yes a lot, but don't give away the store. When they ask if there's canvas material, say, "Yes, but..." Give them what they want, but then there's a complication. Let them succeed, but success breeds a new challenge. The challenges escalate, every success means there's something harder yet to overcome. They succeed in building a hot air balloon from the canvas and found items, but it's not very good and once in the air it starts to come apart and now they have to choose where to land it, and the options are not good. This is the process for everything in the game, yes/but, success followed by complication, over and over.


Try it and see if they buy it. If so, give 'em more. If they don't like it, aren't excited by it, stop what you're doing and go in a different direction. If they love defending the other passengers on the ship from the pygmies, the pygmies are going to attack again, but bring bigger spears next time. If the PC's lazily roll the dice or whine about being confused by the complexities of combat, or just don't seem interested, then that's it for the pygmies. Now the chief pygmy comes to camp to offer a truce and give them something else to do. The fist encounters are the TV show pilot. Don't be afraid to cancel it and spin off a new series out of the old one. This goes for the setting, too. If in the first session the characters hate playing in the jungle, then the air balloon actually works and they sail out of there no problem. The next session one of the NPC's that the PC's had a strong reaction to is the hook for a new adventure in a new setting.


Improvising often equals causing delay. If the players have a plan, and then everything goes to plan, that encounter is over before you know it and now you have to come up with something else. If, though, some piece of their plan goes wrong or something unexpected and possibly better turns up, now they have to stop and discuss what to do. That gives you a minute to breathe and contemplate the next encounter.

He made it clear, though, that this tactic should not be overused. The players can't be foiled at every turn or they'll be frustrated.


In Q&A I asked about tips for improvising characters. He gave his quick character making method in three steps.
  1. Identify a distinguishing feature for the character, like an accent.
  2. Each NPC has one positive feature, one thing that's good or they do well
  3. Each NPC has a negative feature, like something annoying, or weakness or problem

His first tip for improvising maps was to just start drawing random shapes. After you've drawn a bit and when the players ask, "what's that" you then make something up that might kinda sorta fit.

He went on to suggest that every battle map have three characteristics.
  1. Start with normal terrain. Establish what's normal, like the trail.
  2. Include some terrain where there's a tactical advantage, but getting to it is a little difficult
  3. Include some terrain that produces a tactical disadvantage for people stuck in it

The theme of his answers during the Q & A portion of the presentation was that DM's should let players push the improvised campaign in the direction they seem to want it to go. He resisted a particular questioner who seemed frustrated that her players wanted to abandon her carefully crafted plot. His answer to her was, "fine, let them." He suggested she take all the material she developed, dress it up in the new motif the players want to play, and pick it up and put it in front of them in the direction they go.

Another thing he addressed in the Q&A wasn't really about improvising as much as general DM advice, which was how to deal with difficult players. One example was with what to do with parties that are determined to split up. He said to not be too nice to players who are not fair to the DM. He suggested that when players split up to do two different adventure paths, survey the players to find which group each player wants to join, and to send one group home. He was clear about saying "yes, you can do that" and to give the group being sent home a chance to change their minds, rather than saying no you can't do that or being a jerk when players actually respond the way you want.

The question of how to improvise culture, like politics, was answered with a little less well articulated advice, but he was doing his best to hang on at the end of a long, improvised presentation at that point.

Throughout, Benson was energetic, dynamic and engaging. He didn't have any annoying presentation ticks and the whole discussion was very accessible. Because the presentation was improvised, I certainly will try to catch it again next time. It's certain to take twists and turns into territory it did not travel this time. His blogs and articles are also worth the look, too.


You can give us all a hand if you comment on this post and leave your ideas for NPC character archetypes / handles that are easily accessible. "The Boss" is an easy handle, for example. "Drill Sargent" is another. We know how to portray these characters instantly.

1 comment:

VV_GM said...

Kevin - Thanks for the kind words! I was off my game on the political question. That is one reason why I like to improvise the seminar, because it forces me to address my own weaknesses. You can be sure that I will be putting more politics into my games because of that question.

NewbieDM gets credit for the tokens. Thanks for putting the link to that article up here for others to find. It is an excellent tutorial.

Some sotck characters that I portray frequently are the "Elder Teacher" who is an older person with a bit more knowledge than the PCs, but their body can't take the punishment of adventuring anymore. This NPC really helps to get the PCs up and running, but can quietly fade away once they are no longer needed.

The "Conspiracy Theorist" is a hindrance who can either get in the PCs' way, or who may be out to prove the PCs as being "fakes". Why? Because he or she sincerely believes that "flouride in drinking water is used for mind control" or something else that is ridiculous.

The "Burdened Monarch" is a good person in a position of authority who finds his or her hands tied by red tape. They may hire the PCs out of desperation, turn a blind eye to the PCs' activities, or be put int he awkward position of having to arrest the PCs because of that same red tape.

I hope those help! Thanks again!