One of the key creative skills is the ability to improvise. For a lot of GMs, however, improvisation is thought about in terms of “pulling stuff out of thin air”. To my mind, improvisation is best performed within the rigorous boundaries of a creative practice that encourages the GM to use tools to help them.
Some people use improvisation as a short hand for “prep done while at the table”. This approach requires the GM to toggle between running and adjudicating the game while also creating new content just a few moments ahead of the player characters. I am really bad at this because toggling between tasks means I do both badly.
It’s a fact that so-called “multi-tasking” is a myth, repeatedly dismissed by psychology under experimental conditions, and that “switching” between tasks loses you a good chunk of your brainpower as you toggle between them.
Instead, I prefer a prep approach that places tools for improvisation into my hands at the table. The classic wandering encounter table is an example of this: I have determined some potential encounter ideas but I am excited to discover which exact combination of those encounters will make an appearance at the table.
The advantage of pre-designed possibilities is that I can make sure they fit the tone, style, power level, and style of my game. Instead of randomly or wildly adding in content, I get to pre-select the broad range of options but leave the specifics of what turns up to the roll of the dice on the night.
Where I am very open to more random tools is in areas where inspiration is served by largely random input. A favourite tool at my table is the GM Apprentice card deck, which I love to use for NPC names, small descriptive tidbits to liven up scenes, and generally suggesting items that might be on a corpse. I find that small details added at random can lessen my cognitive load and allow me to focus back on running and adjudicating the game.
Overall, improvisation is more than “thinking up stuff on the fly”. It’s a deliberate approach to providing interesting content and ideas while giving flexibility to how that stuff will show up in the game on the night.
What I am suggesting is that we be more deliberate in our improvisation. Don’t leave it 100% to chance but neither force yourself to think up cool stuff entirely without a framework. Find the balance that frees you to focus on the interactions at the table while providing you with some surprises along the way.
I find the hard part isn’t the improv during the game, but building that improv into the story I was intending to tell and making it cohesive enough to not seem forced
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