I’m a lazy Game Master. I tend to come up with the dots but leave the connecting between them for improvisation during the game. One trick that I’ve fallen into is something that could help people feel more comfortable with running games is retroactive improvising.
Basically, what I mean by this is making things up during the session and then after the session figuring out how they fit. There’s some writing advice from Neil Gaiman which is that authors should use their second draft to make it seem like they planned their first draft ahead of time. Applied to RPGs this means that GMs have time in between sessions to make it look like all their off-the-cuff additions to the narrative were planned and involved in the story.
Enthusiasm is Easier to Ride than Create
A lot of details don’t need to be worked out ahead of time, if your players are going to a tavern in town or they want to call up a friend from their past then these can be made up on the fly. Random generation tables can help fill in details of the world (especially the fantastic Fantasy Name Generator that I have open pretty much every session) and it’s much easier to spend time preparing to improvise than try to create all the details of a fictional world beforehand. It’s going to be a moment of playing time so throwing it together is fairly low-stakes.
Sometimes, though, you make up something and the table loves it. A funny NPC that becomes a beloved side character, a location that characters spend way too more time exploring than you planned on, a setting detail that inspires a lot of speculation and love… It’s great to purposefully create elements that players love but these organic moments are fun as well. In a game of Adventures in Middle-earth, I sent my players to an elven refuge from Wilderland Adventures that I loved. I thought it would be a fun set piece, a little look at lost ages of Rhovanion, but the players immediately decided they wanted to fix it up. It ballooned to take up most of the session and I knew I couldn’t let that go. A little bit later they’d rebuilt it into a powerful fortress that changed the destiny of Wilderland.
This sort of kismet creates items that players are emotionally invested in which, as any Game Master knows, is one of the hardest part of running a game. It’s so much easier to capitalize on these emotional investments than try to create them from scratch (although that’s a skill to hone as well).
Recast and Rethink
When you get this little moment of game magic, take some time afterwards to figure out how to build on it. Think about the long-term plans for your story and see where this fortunate improvisation can find a home. Is there an NPC that can be ditched in favor of this new one that players love? Can that upcoming scene take place at their new favorite hangout rather than wherever you had it before? Does any part of the upcoming plot have potential connections to the setting detail that captured their imaginations?
Sometimes the answer is “no,” and that’s alright. Shoehorning in something that feels wrong to you won’t help the game so don’t force things. If the answer is really that you just don’t want to ditch the stuff you’ve already written than that’s alright too, but make sure you aren’t losing out on something because of a little pride. When you can make this sort of substitution, though, it feels like a power up in your Game Mastering ability.
Here are a few examples from my recent games (if any of my players are reading, this is the place to stop).
- In my ongoing Invisible Sun game, I decided that an NPC at a party was really the demon known as Mr. Agon in disguise. There was really no reason for this other than I wanted to seed the party with some fun hooks and I love the look and story of this canon NPC. This happened to be one of the hooks that the PC a the party grabbed hard (the guy was offering him some valuable secrets) and I made a note to find a place for him later. In our most recent session I wanted to dial up the tension with a fight that would send the PCs running and I remembered that Mr. Agon was hanging out there. He showed up in demon form and nearly killed them before they ran. Now they have a mortal enemy and they don’t even know that he’s showed up previously in disguise, a secret that will really sting when it’s revealed.
- In my City of Mist campaign, the private eye in the group had a client come to him asking for help finding her cat. I wanted to hammer home how his newly-launched PI business was struggling but the players laughed about it and it was a memorable detail. Afterwards I decided that this memorable moment should be more than just a throwaway detail and that this cat should be a fun feline Rift from one of the official books (you know which one if you’ve read it). When the PC sullenly snags this cat for a lackluster job it’ll turn into something much more interesting and it’ll seem like I had this scheme from the start!
- Characters in a D&D campaign that wrapped recently had a visit to an oracle early on. I didn’t want to limit what they could asked so I used some Tarokka cards to randomly create visions to feed them. Once I had the visions I wrote out some plotlines for the rest of the campaign that made it seem like my oracle scene was referencing the larger plot, when it was really the other way around.
- The few times I’ve dealt with time travel this has been an important part of my toolset. Scenes in the future are filled with lots of memorable details that seem completely unimportant (a person in a weird hat, a message flashed across a screen) so that when PCs go into the past they can “create” those details in a way that seems like I actually planned this whole thing out to the nth degree.
These specific examples are from my campaign, but I doubt I’m the only one out there with stories like this! Let me know yours in the comments and we can pat each other on the back for our creativity.