Recently I’ve found myself improvising a lot. My roommates and I started playing Out of the Abyss and quite a fair amount of the module consists of random encounters as well as NPCs that are left up to the DM to define. It’s been a lot of fun and everyone has been really enjoying the more randomized aspects of it since they know that not even I can predict what can happen in a session a large amount of the time. I’ve found myself actually throwing a bit more improv into our main campaign lately since I’ve become a bit more comfortable with it and everyone seems to really enjoy it.
What is improvising?
Improvising is when you have to go off the original plan in your campaign and basically make up whatever is happening on the fly. Maybe the characters talked to an important NPC and asked questions you had not planned on answering, or they approached someone with hostility when you had not planned for them to do so. Regardless, it’s your job now to decide how these situations will pan out.
When to Improvise?
There are a lot of benefits to working on your improvisational skills. For instance, I may not have to take as much time planning ahead of time for some of the “less important” encounters for the next session. This will allow me to focus more on my main encounters or the main story, but still provide side quests and whatnot for the players to partake in. On the other hand, if players get really attached to a side story or quest you may end up spending more time fleshing that situation out instead of your original intentions.
In reality, D&D is really not a game that can be run on the fly 100% of the time. In my personal experience, I’ve found that using improv skills to supplement what you already had planned is probably the best way of going about it. Use whatever material you’ve written down as a reference for how you think the situation should play out. The best part about this is that you really cannot be wrong unless you do something silly like break continuity. Plot holes are dangerous things, but they can be fixed.
The “Notecard” Rule
When people run into trouble or have a hard time with improvising an encounter, it generally stems with how much they are improvising. This can be dealt with in a few ways, my favorite of which is what I call the “Notecard” rule. The idea of the “Notecard” rule is that you should be able to list all the important information for an NPC or special encounter on an index card.
There are two major benefits from planning your minor encounters this way. The first benefit is that you’ll have to decide exactly what information is necessary for the encounter to flow smoothly. This takes out any unnecessary “noise” that you’ll have to sift through to find information that’s relevant, making your encounters faster and more succinct. The second is that you won’t have to spend as much time planning these less-important encounters so you can again focus on the “meat” of the campaign.
For the record, I use the “Notecard” rule for most NPCs even if I do not intend to improvise player encounters with them. I like to write the NPC’s typical demeanor, their intentions, beliefs, and physical traits so that I can really get into character when I have to RP as them.
Random Encounter Generators
If you’re looking for filler encounters, or if you really cannot decide on 1 particular encounter to throw at a party just find a bunch! There are plenty of websites that have premade encounters all balanced out for you to use. You simply throw in the CR of the monsters and how many you want, or throw in the level and number of players at the table and out comes your encounter!
There are also generators for NPC names, treasure hoards, specific types of shops, and really anything else you could imagine for a D&D world. These allow you to pick something out of a list rather than having to think up something under pressure and on the fly. Personally I’m pretty good at thinking up these sort of things on the fly, but I know that’s a rare talent to have (I’m not trying to brag).
Regardless, there are many times where I’ll need a bit of extra help when I’m “under the gun” so to speak. This is when I’ll look up my favorite random ____ generator and hit the button for answers. I personally have used donjon for quite some time. I really liked it in my 3.5e game and they’ve since included generators for 5e that I have used off and on. The simplicity of it really draws me in since I’m looking for quick, concise answers.
Continuity is Key
The biggest challenge of doing a lot of improvisation is keeping continuity within your campaign. The best advice I can give so that you can ensure that you do not create large potholes in your campaign is to write a few notes down after each session. Write about exactly what happened so that you won’t forget for next session. The longer the break between sessions, the more detailed your notes should be!
I also like to do recaps for everyone before each session to remind us all what happens during the previous session(s). This is also a great way to remind yourself what happened so that you’ll avoid making continuity errors and slip ups during the current session.
I’ve certainly slipped up and caused a plot hole or forgotten about an event that I improvised that would effect the outcome of the current problem. You should obviously try your hardest not to let this happen, but there will always be room for mistakes in a game like D&D. Generally my players are pretty good about catching my slip ups, and when they’re right I’ll take back whatever I was wrong about or change it to a more favorable outcome on their end.
Improvisation is a great skill to pick up for running a campaign. Doing it well will save you a lot of time in planning out side quests/encounters as well as make room for more unique options for players to run into. Just be sure to really pick your battles when improvising as it can be a quick way to derail a campaign if done incorrectly, however the vast majority of the time I find it to be fairly harmless and very fun to do.
Basically, just set up guidelines for yourself and you’ll be alright for sure!