I am extremely happy for February to be here because it means Winter is getting closer to ending and with it hopefully the seemingly annual lull in gaming activities that often afflicts our group of friends. There was an unintentional break from my regular D&D campaign from late November until the very end of January due to a combination of weather and horrible holiday scheduling conflicts. Last year I somehow managed to go from thinking about canceling my campaign in early December to running three full adventures within January alone. Thankfully my game got back into the swing of things two weeks ago and now I am gearing up for another adventure this weekend. As I’m getting back into planning my adventures, I’ve been thinking more and more about improvisation in tabletop RPGs.
Seeing as talk about improvising dungeon and location design during a guest spot on the DM Guys Podcast is what inspired me to begin the Architect DM series in the first place, it seems like fitting topic to discuss! If I had to guess I would say that over the last year of running my D&D campaign I improvise between 50% and 75% of any given adventure. This ratio has developed over time as I’ve learned that planning too much can be just as detrimental to my games as not planning at all. It might be an extremely common sense statement for some of you, but what I’ve come to realize is that the best way to prepare yourself for improvising in a tabletop RPG is to make sure that you have the right spread of elements available to you that aren’t too specific but are also clear enough that they will aid you as your improvise.
Tools to Match Your Style
If you look around the internet at various tools and posts or books offering advice on running RPGs, you will often come across tips such as generating a list of random names to pull for NPCs or random encounters to pull from if your party goes in an unexpected direction. This kind of advice is great, and it can be a real eye-opener for DMs struggling with those aspects of running. However, what I’ve found is that the list of names I generated and was used regularly throughout the Heroic Tier of my D&D game has gone almost entirely unused in the Paragon Tier. My campaign breaks down nicely into roughly one year per tier of play, so what this means is that while I used this resource quite a bit during my first year of regular DMing (ever) it was a resource that has become less useful to me as I’ve developed in my style.
These kind of tools might be great for some DMs, but in my experience I’ve begun to realize that some of the details such as NPC names and potential locations are exactly the types of things that I end up planning for my adventures. In fact, these are the extreme majority of what I plan for my games. I will detail a certain number of NPCs and it is these characters that really have been driving my adventures. Sure the list of names is handy on the occasion that my players encounter someone I was completely unprepared for, but the more adventures that I’ve planned in this way the more I’ve begun to anticipate the types of NPCs that might come into play and have planned for them before the adventure.
The Essence of Improvising
The main point I’m trying to get to is that improvising is heavily reliant on the repertoire of material that you have to draw from. Again, this seems like a common sense kind of statement but I am surprised at how little I’d thought about it before. All of this has come about as I’ve been exploring my style of DMing in an attempt to get to the essence of what allows me to improvise dungeons and locations with seemingly more ease then the other DMs I’ve talked to. The fact of the matter is that I have been designing locations for several years now as a profession, but I believe the essence of the improvising that I do comes from an intellectual tool box I have assembled to help when I am designing a location.
This “Tool Box” is exactly what I want to put into the Architect DM series as a whole. I’ve already begun it to a very small extent with my post about adding some structure into your dungeons, but that was really only the tip of the iceberg. I have to apologize because essentially this whole post has been one big preview for what’s to come in the future, but it is also a statement of goals and I also hope it creates an open forum for discussion of what I am attempting to do.
Some of the best ways you can help me achieve this goal is by commenting here or discussing with me on twitter (@Bartoneus), on the Critical Hits Facebook page, or by e-mail (see my signature below for my contact information) and letting me know if you have ever struggled with finding, designing, or using a location in your tabletop RPGs.
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM series.