An Attempt at Truly Improvisational DMing

Over the course of my DMing career, I’ve slowly moved from a rigid style to something looser. When I started off, I was one of those DMs who had to have every beat of the story planned, every NPC statted out with motivations, every monster unique and meaningful, and every map complete and detailed down to each five-foot square. The more I dealt with actual play, the more I realized I couldn’t work that way, and I adopted a looser policy, where I’m comfortable enough making things up on the fly but I do have some idea of where we’ve going. Lately I’ve been thinking I could handle full-on improvisational play, so this past week I put it to the test.

I like food and I like television, so unsurprisingly I’m a fan of the Food Network. It has a long-running game show, Chopped, where contestants are asked to make dishes with a limited time frame so judges can determine whose dishes were best. The quirk is that at the beginning of each round the contestants are given four ingredients, which they have not seen until immediately before the round begins, and they must use those ingredients in their dish in some way. A typical round might begin with the host asking “Can you make a delicious appetizer using ground lamb, napa cabbage, pomegranate jam, and boxed macaroni and cheese? You have twenty minutes, time starts now.” It’s basically improvisational cooking, and it’s a concept I’ve been mulling over applying to D&D for a while.

On Saturday my opportunity arose, as we’re in a lull for our normal campaign and I had three players who were up for shenanigans (one specifically requested something, and I quote, “crazypants”). I told them to create characters in Pathfinder, the system we know the best. That was literally all the advice I gave them. In fact, I told them specifically not to tell me their character concept or even level until we got to the session, and I deliberately planned absolutely nothing. When game started, I had them provide me with some Mad Libs-style adventure seeds. Here’s what I asked them for and their responses:

  • Place: A giant ship traveling between continents
  • Thing: Map
  • Creature: Hill giants named Fred

They all sent their answers over chat at once so none of them knew what the others had chosen, for maximum chaos. Since building an adventure off that seemed too easy, I asked for another round:

While they built macros for their characters in MapTool, I started building an adventure that involved all six of those seeds, appropriate for their level and party composition, complete with monster tokens and adventure maps. I ended up with a cult of Pazuzu who wanted to summon their lord to the Material Plane. Two of his initiates, hill giant monks with a combat style based around jumping around the battlefield, gained passage on the same giant ship as the party. When the ship passed by their island, they stole the ship’s maps and gave it to a belker acting as their accomplice. The party followed the belker to the island, where another initiate tried to talk them into joining the cult of slavering devotion to and domination by an evil extraplanar overlord friendship with a helpful, powerful god. In true D&D fashion they instead killed everybody.

The players, of course, had their own agenda. They conferred with each other on their characters, and they selected a theme they opted to keep secret. I was to induce what the theme was based on their character descriptions and actions. I only figured out shortly before the final battle that they were all playing Jedi as a bloodrager, a bard, and a swashbuckler/paladin, though I contend I would have figured it out earlier if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to figure out how the bard worked into things. They had a good time bantering about their secret theme, and I got my revenge by telling them their Jedi expies were now canon in a campaign setting based on Edwardian Europe, so we all had a laugh.

My goal was to test myself, to see whether I could pull a session out of thin air with zero prep time, and I think I succeeded. I’m certain I could have done it even faster than I did if I hadn’t had to deal with finding enemy portraits, writing their attack macros, and creating combat maps out of our tile resources. If I’d done it at a table, with my miniatures handy and a battlemat, I probably could have built the session in half the time. I will deduct points because I legitimately thought the Rock of Gibraltar was an island instead of peninsula, but the players were gracious enough not to call me on it. All told it worked out fairly well. I haven’t asked the players for a detailed grade but I’m giving myself a tentative B+.

Designing and running this session was a ton of fun, enough that I’m trying to again next week with the bonus seventh adventure seed “A sort of Pathfinder version of pre-Empire Star Wars”. I do think this concept for session design requires a really light mood. Everything was already a bit wacky, so nobody batted an eye when the cultists started talking about becoming one of Pazuzu’s friends by welcoming him into your life and mind. It also helped that I had resources available to me, like the NPC information on the Pathfinder SRD or the tokens and macros from previous campaigns where I’d already solved a lot of my output formatting problems. But that’s largely what I’ve said all along, where improvisational DMing works best when you have some way to fall back on numbers when you need them. As I’d thought, I wouldn’t be able to do it all the time, but as a one-shot or a breather session it’s a great break from normalcy.

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One Response to An Attempt at Truly Improvisational DMing

  1. Revenge of the nerd says:

    I think tv tropes has a tool that does something like this

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