Folks who say they improv when they DM have a structure that they have often internalized. Here’s one type of structure that might help you out during those moments when you are brainstorming before a game or taking notes while DMing (PDF at the bottom of the post). NOTE: I’ve also included a PG version, Context, Cool Stuff and Consequences, in case you need to use this in a school or professional environment.
The worksheet below is meant to be a tool for jotting down bullet-points for pre-game daydreaming as well as in-game note-taking. Names, places, ideas, encounters, whatever inspirational bits you need when the game is on.
The questions on the sheet above are meant to inspire, not to overwhelm. Answer however many you need to feel comfortable walking into the game. You’ll find your rhythm and what you like to have when you walk up to the table.
They’re arriving at the place you’ve prepared. Tell them what they see, hear, smell. Tell them what the place looks like as they approach.Under Hollow Hills by Meguey and Vincent Baker
What is happening in your game? What dynamic forces are in motion? What is at stake? In Burning Wheel this is known as The Situation – the imbalance, problem or injustice that will drive the campaign forward.
Maps, heraldry, pinterest boards, inspiration lists (music, books, movies, etc.) are other ways to get that context in place.
There is an instinct to have a hidden antagonist and spend extraordinary amounts of time and energy hiding their presence from the players and the characters. Fight that instinct. Yes, Vecna is the Lich-God of Secrets and Sorcery but their secret bid for world dominance is more interesting if the players are one of the few to know the secret. The more the players know the more dynamic their plans can become and the more invested they are in learning more.
Have an idea what is happening just beyond what they can see and then watch for opportunities for them to uncover that lore. Don’t waste time and energy hiding information. The players will always see more mysteries just beyond the horizon and even if they know EVERYTHING there is still the thrill of what they will do with the information and how the future conflicts will shake out.
Leave some questions that you aren’t sure about. Have some NPC’s who could go to the Dark Side or become Born-again Paladins. If you aren’t sure where some lost lore ended up or how the players will uncover it, find out in play. The answer might become more clear once the players have kicked the tires of the world and gotten some dents in the fender. Let answers come to you in play not prep. Prep is for interesting questions and of course – cool shit.
Consequences are what end up at the table because the players’ actions. Cool Shit is about putting toys on the table because they bring you joy. It could be your favorite monster, or your favorite type of NPC (good teachers and sly, reasonable villains for me). Hopefully, the Cool Shit relates to the context and reacts to the consequences but sometimes strange things have travelled in from far reaches of your imagination.
What do you like in a story? Put some of that in. You are the Story Guide, after all.The Shadow of Yesterday by Clinton R. Nixon
Even if it is just Githyanki Hunting Party on your Shadowfell Encounter Table and you never get that encounter into the game, put the possibility of it out there.
Was there a part of a character’s back-story that you want to delve into or an NPC family member who you think is interesting? Get them in the game.
You are playing too. Have fun. Put a treat in there for yourself.
Sometimes this is when the players make an enemy and that enemy strikes back, looking for vengeance. Diversify those consequences. Maybe the enemy they have antagonized also has an enemy who sees the players’ chaotic conflicts as an opportunity. Let the players’ actions cause ripples across the world and inspire folk. Have a bard write a song about their prowess or a theatre troupe write a play about their exploits.
NPC’s react according to their goals and methods. Events snowball. You don’t need to “manage” the game. Action, reaction and consequences will drive everything.Blades in the Dark by John Harper
Make their actions a dynamic part of the world for good and/or for ill. I notice lots of rookie DM’s tend to look for negative consequences. Constant negative consequences might push players to avoid interacting with the world out of fear of causing any ripples in the pond. Find that balance based on the vibe of the table.
Think about what an NPC might’ve heard about the characters in a world of rumor and sorcery and how they might react. Make the characters’ actions meaningful.
Establish situations with several actors or factions pursuing their own ends. Let the players’ actions affect this environment, and let the consequences affect the players in turn.Principia Apocrypha, Elementary Axioms & Aphorisms on Running & Playing Tabletop RPGs in the Old School Style by Ben Milton, Steven Lumpkin and David Perry
I hope this structure is useful. If it helps (or fails miserably) I’d love to hear about why it worked or how it could be better.
This post was inspired by spending time on the DM Academy Subreddit; these are things I have found myself saying or thinking as I read new GM’s posts. Good luck!
Art assets in the corner of the C, C & C worksheet are from Feral Indie Studios.
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Blog of Judd Karlman from Daydreaming about Dragons