Do you hate prepping your RPGs? I do. Well…I thought I did.
Because I have many decades of play in me, I considered prep a necessary evil. Prep is necessary so you don’t have to improvise at the table. Prep as a preventive measure. It was so deeply embedded, so baked into the activity, that I never really stopped to think about the questions this begs. Specifically: what’s the role of the GM? If I’m there to deliver an exciting storyline, then hell no I can’t improvise around that. Just making shit up on the spot, ye gawds, what if I TPK everyone by mistake? What if I forget to hit an important narrative mark? What will the players think?
Spending so much creative time in a defensive crouch put me in an awful, adversarial head space.
Sandbox-style play was an evolution, I have to think both for practical and play-style reasons: put a dragon in this cave if there would be a dragon there. It’s not your job to protect the characters from their choices. If there’s a real threat of failure, your players will feel more satisfied with their victories than if you’ve curated the difficulty to their abilities. Sure, okay.
Sandbox prep begs the same question: what’s the role of the GM? I think if you’re doing a sandbox, the GM is expected to be an impartial referee, yeah? Don’t pull any punches, be true to the reality of the challenges, evaluate reasonable solutions.
Skip ahead some years. Now we have games with yet another expected GM role.
A big swath of storygames are designed, either implicitly or explicitly, around the idea that I first saw in Apocalypse World: play to find out. Beautiful, short, crisp, easy to understand. Don’t force the characters to follow a plot, don’t preplan, let the GM be surprised alongside the players. What’s gonna happen? Dunno, let’s play to find out. The facilitator will have to make stuff up as we go.
Many storygames of the past decade are built with tools to help GMs improvise during play. Some take the dice out of the GM’s hands, requiring them to make calls about how the fiction changes based on character actions. Over in the OSR side of things, procedural tools generate content on the spot as needed. I’d imagine there’s a general assumption of sandbox-style play here, too, which takes the load off the GM to balance threats against the PCs. And then in the trindie space, you’ve got games that combine both: be okay with letting events spool out organically, and here are some procedural tricks you can use to generate content on the fly.
I still hate prep to this day. But the prep I hate? It’s the defensive kind. It’s thinking through likely outcomes, coming up with “balanced” fights, anything appearing at the intersection of math and tactics.
But what if I told you that, rather than prepping to avoid having to improvise, you can prep specifically for improvisation?
Fertilizing the Fields
When I want to run an improvisational game, either because the game requires it (PbtA) or because I just don’t have the bandwidth for conventional prep in a more conventional game, I want to make sure I’ve made my, dunno…psychic play space as fertile as possible.
Acceptable Tonal Range
I know folks play music, look at Pinterest boards, engage in all kinds of other creative media to get their juices going. Me too! I think it’s the process of curating that stuff that matters more than actually listening, looking, reading. It’s establishing a vibe.
For me, vibe comes into play when I’m thinking about acceptable tonal ranges. If I want a kinetic, high-energy action game then I’ll curate my music to that. If I want to aim for melancholy, I’ll find a sad indie folk-rock list on Spotify. But that’s all in service to implant that acceptable tonal range in my mind and my heart, so my improvisation in-the-moment serves that plan.
Understand The Rules of Genre
Different than consuming for vibe, I’ll try and track down the media that exemplifies the genre in which we’re playing. Because it bores me to tears, I mostly avoid “genre fiction” when I’m reading for pleasure. You know, the stuff that shows up free on your Kindle. But it’s excellent research when you need to sharpen your understanding of the genre in question.
For good or ill, I have found many improvisation-focused games lean hard on a shared understanding of genre, specific media touch points, and trope rules. I, personally, do not love how reliant on tropes — verging on cliche — some folks are when they play and GM. I’ll go so far as to say I personally hate treating RPGs as other-media emulators, but that’s a deep rabbit hole and I’m not feeling salty on that point today. (Maybe I’ll write more about it in the future.) But when everyone accepts a baseline of genre rules, they’re sure easy to improvise inside.
I’m certain most “naturally improv-talented” GMs got that way by being very well versed in genre. They can tap into tropes quickly. They think in terms of genre. The naturally satisfying outcomes of pattern-completion are easy when everyone knows the pattern you’re going for.
Right Tools For the Job
Not every game is well suited for improvised play. Many mainstream storygame-type RPGs are, like PbtA and Forged in the Dark type games. But even if you’re playing a trad or trindie game you can do some prep in advance to make improvising within them easier.
Know the Incentives
Big one for me: do you understand your game’s economic cycles? Do you understand the incentives at work? If I’m getting ready to run a game for the first time, I’ll do up a cheat sheet of the rules (if it’s the kind of game that didn’t come with play references) to teach myself how it works. But I’ll also sketch out the economic cycles at work. How do characters advance? How do you earn in-play currencies? What play cycles repeat themselves and how do those cycles restart?
Knowing a game’s incentive schemes usually clues me in to what players will chase. That’s a huge leg up when you’re prepping to improvise. Within a session or two, I’ll also have a better idea of what other play elements are incentivizing each player. Some players value scene-chewing spotlight time more than advancement. Others might really love helping another PC be amazing.
This is a PbtA-specific bit of advice but I think you can broadly apply it. Bear with me a minute.
I have found, quite often, that PbtA prep instructions are pretty half-assed. I’ve met so many designers who proudly declare that they run “improv heavy” games, and don’t need to prep. And it shows in their games. Since they don’t believe in prep, designers will drop “something” into a rules text because it “should” be in there – Apocalypse World, after all, has it – and not because it’s useful. The great offender here is half-assed Clock ripoffs.
Bad Clock prep is listing things that will happen as a Clock (fuse, storm, front, etc.) ticks down. I find this stiff and weird to fit into an organic game. I’ve done these Clocks and I usually end up ignoring the work I put into them. The situation on the ground doesn’t reflect the list of events I came up with weeks or months ago.
Good Clock prep is thinking through changes to the situation.
“The Honey Crips Gang burns down Dremmer’s hardhold” is a specific event. The fiction may or may not reflect a context in which burning down a hardhold makes sense. So I might instead write it: “Dremmer loses control of his hardhold to a rival gang.” It’s broader but also much easier to drive toward. Dremmer might lose control in any number of ways! Any number of rival gangs may be the cause! But the important thing is that, at that point in the clock, knowing that NPC stands to lose control of something valuable is a change in situation.
Pulling back from PbtA games, I’d say you can put Clock-like tools into play in any game. But focus instead on shifts in situation, not specific events. Imagine what play looks like when that situation comes to pass. I find that enormously easier than trying to shoehorn a burned-down house into the story.
Why, Not What
I feel like one place inexperienced-with-improv GMs stumble is not knowing the difference between an obstacle and a situation.
Dungeons? Those are maps full of obstacles. Monsters, obstacles. NPCs you need to beat by any means? Obstacles. Traps? Environmental hazards? Curses? All obstacles. Obstacles are so deeply baked into conventional roleplaying that I think many (most?) experienced players evaluate their play experience purely in their ability to overcome obstacles.
Situations, on the other hand, are organic within the fiction. They’re the context leading to the obstacles. Depending on the game, you can disregard situation. You don’t give a shit why this dungeon is full of treasure, right? I mean, unless knowing gives you a leg up in overcoming its obstacles.
Situations are unresolved points of tension. They’re unexploded bombs, tightened springs, whatever metaphor you’d like. They’re also, in my mind, constantly in motion. As situations resolve, they also lead to new situations. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t a situation.
Keep situations at the forefront of your play and your prep. The moment you’ve stopped thinking about context, you’ve started thinking about obstacles.
Situation Maps Once Again
One technique for understanding your game’s situation I’ve talked about before is the situation map. The very short version of this is:
- Very clearly map out relationships between characters and organizations (follow that link, it’s good stuff), and
- Labeling situations that are currently in play among those relationships. Put them in view so the players can see them too. Trusting your players to put that knowledge to good use is always more important than springing a big reveal on them, in my experience.
R-map + situations = situation map.
Another why-not-what aspect of prepping to improvise is to have a very firm grasp of your game-fiction’s underlying motivations and pressures at work. What motivates an NPC? What goals does an organization actually have? What diegetic incentives are these things chasing? You can improvise action once you’ve got a firm grasp of the whys of your world. Always, always be thinking about the in-fiction logic of why things work the way they do.
It’s likely that, unless you’re playing a game that is entirely improvised, you’ll need to do a little of both kinds of prep. Stats for obstacles, knowing what drives your world, a clear understanding of tropes, and a clearly expressed acceptable tonal range.
I like finding a happy medium in trindie-type games where, if you need stats (because it’s the kind of game where GM assets have math), there’s a nice list of small/medium/large versions of expected obstacles: certain kinds of NPC (soldier, merchant, families), or monsters, or whatever. Burning Wheel, I think, does 1d/2d/3d NPCs, where literally everything they’ll ever roll is one, two or three dice, with an extra die for the thing they’re supposed to be good at at the GM’s discretion. This requires the GM and players have a fundamentally non-adversarial relationship, though. If you can just pull a number out of your ass, and it’s an absurdly large “I win!” value, you’ve just told the players you’re more interested in beating them than in collaborating to create a believable situation. But that’s not always on the GM, and some players will still find themselves craving adversity.
As a practical matter, unless you’re running a game purpose-built to be improvised, expect to do some of the old-fashioned prep. But do it in broad strokes, not specific, technical “builds.”
Okay But Why?
If you made it this far you might be asking yourself, why prep for improv when the best part of improv is not having to prep? I have thoughts!
- Is the lack of prep really the best part of improv? There are other benefits, too: discovering your visceral creativity when you’re not overthinking it, being able to adapt to the tempo and temperature of the table, stumbling into surprising outcomes along with the players.
- Prepped improv feels different than unprepped improv, in my experience. Unprepped improvisation I think is more sensitive to the unfettered table energy that can build up to the point of being manic energy. Maybe this is just me, but when I’m totally running a game off the cuff, it’s so easy to drive for more and more and MOAR excitement. And…maybe that’s not the best thing for your game. Particularly if you’re running a long series, which brings me to…
- You can build toward longer play when you take control of your tempo. I suspect one secret to long-form play, which I have found frequently difficult in storygames, is that it requires discipline. If you ramp up every session to a point of manic energy, how long can you keep that up? If you hold some energy in reserve and get very intentional about tone and pacing, you may find the game wants to run longer.
- Finally and not trivially, it’s a form of lonely fun that still provides dividends. Maybe you end up with an elaborate situation map instead of an elaborate village/dungeon/planet map, but it’s still nice to be able to revisit your game between sessions.