Improvising As a GM

I recently was talking with my wife, Dr. James, about how one gets to be a “Reactive GM.” That prompted me to pull out a webpage that I’d saved a while ago entitled The Ultimate Guide to Improv. I don’t know about ultimate but it does include 101 excellent tips for being a good improver. I think about this list a lot and there are some tips in particular that really speak to being a GM.

Give Yourself Blind Offers (#90)

This is something you see time and again in really compelling actual plays. In improv parlance, a “blind offer” is some object you mime picking up and you let the other actors determine what you’re holding. Try this with your players but saying they walk into a tavern (or even just “a building”) and then ask the players what they see inside. Not only does this free up your creativity but it stops the phenomenon of players drifting off during your descriptions. They pay attention because it’s their description too!

Now, the advice here is “give yourself blind offers” and it’s anyone’s guess what that means in the context of a roleplaying game. Here’s how I see it, though: leave some parts of your story blank or only with a loose idea of what you want and see what the players say. Have the villain hint at their plot and then when the PCs are recovering they say “oh man, I bet he’s going to hijack the prince’s ship!” Not a bad plan, you say to yourself, that’s exactly where he’s headed now. You might have had another plan in place or you might have had no plan but let the players’ reactions steer your thinking on the subject.

Image © Monte Cook Games

Let Go Of Your Great Idea (#95)

This is a difficult one since most of us become GMs because we have amazing stories to tell. Lots of advice columns will tell you not to push your story at the expense of players’ enjoyment but I really like the way that it’s written on this page. You have an idea for a story that you picture being really great. Maybe it will be and maybe it won’t be: you don’t know until your players interact with it and give their own side of the story. If you get obsessed with creating the story you had in your head you might very well miss an amazing story that’s ready to unroll organically at the table.

Play With How You Move (#60)

This is something that can up your game pretty easily while GMing. Accents can take some practice and adopting new sayings and metaphors can be tough to do consistently but if you start moving while speaking it will draw your players in. Hunch forward and narrow your eyes while speaking as the angry barbarian chieftain. Make grand gestures while speaking as the powerful merchant. This tip makes me think a lot of the “character’s spine,” a term that I learned about in Episode One of Character Evolution Cast which I’ve recommended before and certainly will again.

This can also help you separate out NPCs that sound the same: if your players joke that all your NPCs of a certain sort sound the same (like all of Paolo’s NPCs sounding like Jimmy Stewart on The Film Reroll) then give them distinctive physical gestures to make them different. One lofty Elvish lord moves slowly and precisely, another lofty Elvish lord is stock-still with a perpetual scowl, while the other laughs a lot and fidgets with things. The best part is that your characters will begin to diverge as they are shaped by the physical movements and just adopting the movements will bring you quickly back into character even if you haven’t played that NPC in a while.

Image © Modiphius Entertainment

Learn to Speak Gibberish with Cards (#86)

This is a great piece of advice and one that is a celebrated tool of Matt Mercer, DM to the world. When your NPCs start speaking in Dwarvish or French or Ewok you can just say “he says something in [[insert language here]].” This is perfectly fine for the most part and it’s usually what you see in books and such. However, in really awesome stories like A Song of Ice and Fire, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and others there are frequently times when some foreign-language dialogue pops up. This is a way to keep up the immersion and to make the players feel like their characters.

Let’s say you’re playing a game set in World War II and your players are captured by German soldiers. You don’t speak German but instead of just saying “the leader says something to the others in German” you say “the leader gestures with his pistol and says ‘Getsen alles vor rimstak.'” Your players still have no real information (even if they speak German themselves) but they can puzzle a bit. “Getsen… that sounds like ‘get’ and then I think alles means ‘everyone’ or something. Are they going to look for the villagers we left hiding in that building or are they saying to gather us up? And what’s rimstak? I don’t like the sound of it…”

Get All Taoist: Use a Mantra (#61)

I touched on this (ha ha) with Play With How You Move but using a touchstone can bring you back into character even if you haven’t portrayed that NPC for months. Come up with something that embodies them and say it over and over in the back of your head while you are playing them. For a cyberpunk hacker you might say “Work the system. Work the system.” while for their merc friend full of implants you might say “Strong and tough. Strong and tough.” Nothing too fancy and not even something they’re likely to say, but if you get into the headspace of these characters with a mantra then you can switch between them by switching up your mantra or recall that headspace by saying it a few times in preparation.

Image © Monte Cook Games

Try On Different Personality Types (#40)

This is something to do with minor NPCs and it can help you make a big impression with the important ones. You don’t want your PCs to finally get an audience with the king and realize as soon as you start talking that your king sounds like Mel Brooks. Try out your “Powerful and Stuck-Up” personality out with a minor baron that the party will meet once, then again with some lord who is about to get killed by raiders. It doesn’t matter if these folks sound dumb, you’re tossing them aside as soon as the scene’s over! Then when you get to the Big Character who will be around for a long time you’ve got a good handle on what works for this sort of personality.

Be Altered (#6)

This is some great advice to draw your players in. When they talk, react to what they’re saying. It seems pretty obvious but if you aren’t thinking about it you might just forget to do it! If you’re staring into the middle distance all the time your players feel like they’re talking to a wall and you’ll struggle to get emotional portrayals out of them. Worse yet, they might feel like their words and actions aren’t really impacting the NPCs so they stop treating them like people. I don’t know about you, but I am guilty of this a lot and I see the effects when I do it. I’ll be so focused on portraying this grand wizard and my PCs are just shrugging and I realize that we’re on two separate bandwidths.

Image © Magpie Games

Make And Practice with Lists (#54)

This is a big part of improvising as a GM and one reason why I love random tables like those of Michael Shea’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, The Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, and the Science Division Supplement for Star Trek Adventures. First of all, I want to say flat out that using a random table is not “lazy” or “cheating.” Even if you’re the world’s greatest GM you can run into creative slumps or ruts and it’s good to have some injection of new ideas. You can also get exhausted coming up with things on the fly all the time and it’s better to save your energy for arbitrating mechanics and things like that. Plus it lets you make use of all the ideas spilling out of your head, something I’ll talk about more just below.

The next step, though, is making your own lists which lets you fill in gaps that your sourcebooks don’t have. This means coming up with tables you wish you had but that aren’t really blockbuster sellers for professional writers: random appearances of rabbits, random designs of ballgowns, or random coffee names. Similarly, there are things that are going to be so helpful just for your group like personalized issues (10 People that Jack Owes Money To), niche interests (12 Fashion Trends in Waterdeep This Season), or ways to perpetuate quirks and gags (6d6 Table for Folksy Sayings by the Druid Maffeter). It’s also a fun way to play between sessions: players have the characters’ backstories and side projects, DMs have worldbuilding and random tables.

Thinking of Five Ideas Is Easier Than Thinking of One (#41)

I see this entering RPGs in two ways. First, as I alluded to just above, rather than decide something you can make a random table for it and come up with ten ideas, then let the dice decide which one you use. Secondly, in the moment you can come up with a bunch of ideas and then decide after they’re out there which ones are best.

Let me explain: I see the following situation a lot at tables. The party is talking to an NPC who has a mission for them and they ask how the NPC thinks they might proceed. You want the players to think it up on their own but it makes sense for the NPC to suggest something so they throw out an idea but make it clear that the adventurers can decide whatever they like. Then the party goes with that NPC’s idea and they stop discussing. It’s nobody’s fault but what if that NPC says “you’re the professionals, but I had a few ideas” and throws out five. The players are still likely to pick one of those five but they at least discuss it and maybe meld two or strike outside the box.

This is also a good way to hide an important feature in a room. A classic situation in Call of Cthulhu is PCs looking over a library for suspicious tomes, and often there are several red herrings and then the one with all the clues. If you haven’t planned ahead of time you might be stammering for a few ideas and then toss in the real one with a cool name and the players game the system and go right for the cool-sounding one. Instead, come up with five names for books, then afterwards pick which one you is the right one. The players can’t read your poker face because as you’re saying them not even you know which is the right one. Boom. System un-gamed.

Image © Posthuman Studios

Make the Other Person Look Good (#3)

I want to end on this one because I think it touches on a common misconception about GMing for both Gamemasters and players. There are opposite sides of the GM screen but they aren’t different teams. Players don’t “win” the game by beating a scenario and GMs don’t “win” with a total-party-kill. You guys are there to have fun and any hobby where a solid percentage of the group is not having fun unless the other is despairing has some issues.

The best idea from the Masks RPG (and there are a lot of good ideas there) is for the MC to be a superfan of the PCs. This means that you give them opportunities to shine because everyone likes it when the protagonist does something cool, and it means you think about ways that you can bring their background into the fore so that the protagonists get to show how deep and interesting they are. It also means that you give them challenges to solve because a protagonist who waltzes through life isn’t too exciting. Have swinging ropes ready for the swashbuckler, have the bard’s reputation precede her, include a ceremony honoring the druid by the local circle. When the PCs take your opportunities and triumph over your bad guys it doesn’t reflect badly on you, it’s just an opportunity for the whole table to celebrate!

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