Tangent: RPGs, and Prepping vs Improvisation

Something that I’m curious about is seeing a comparison of how other people GMing games balance before-hand preparation with off-the-cuff improvisation. I’ve tried games slanted heavily towards both, and would like to talk a bit about my thoughts on the different styles before finding out what your preferred style is.

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My early games of GMing, huddled around a flickering candle (To set the dramatic mood) on a Boy Scout campout, were entirely freeform/improvised (And the rules were little better than that). I found that this was a good way to roll with the punches, as the players tended to act wild and crazy at the best of times, and were backstabbing murderhobos at the worst. We had numerous interesting adventures, including poisoning an entire town using reagents recovered from a disabled trap and turning the entire contents of a blacksmith’s shop into a medieval armored tank. But just as often we’d get bogged down, as I would struggle to come up with names or objectives in the scant seconds before attention spans began to wane and out-loud musings on the worth of another character’s possessions were uttered.

Another example of this would be the Simple D6 game I ran for The Ship Moves setting. While I had a general plotline figured out (Players were looking for a huge stolen Rivet, turns out the Necrons stole it for nefarious purposes), the rest was highly improvisational and ran heavily off of the “Rule of Cool” for whatever idea piqued my interest at the time. This included raiding a Tau base, repairing a failing fusion reactor, escaping a Tyranid infestation, and discovering a tribe of humans who worshiped a long-dead Space Marine who had crashed there.

However, the game lost a great deal of steam and died near the end, partly because the format of imageboards isn’t ideal for longer-running games, partly because I foolishly tried to force the ending into occurring much sooner than the pacing would indicate, but a significant reason would likely be that towards the end I was somewhat scrabbling for ideas, and some of the encounters and events (Like finding a lost tribe in a jungle and a Commissar who was corrupted by the Necrons, Borg-style) feel incredibly out of place in retrospect.

Overall, I’d have to say the pros of improvised GMing are that it has absolutely no prep time, can roll with obstinate/random player groups, and if done with a bit of care you can avoid having a plot point or similar important nugget of information deduced way before it was planned to be. However, the cons are that it can easily feel forced or lose momentum, and there’s a risk that plots can feel very short-term or insignificant because it’s so difficult to judge the pacing of the story.

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The other end of the spectrum is structured preparation, getting stories, characters, encounters and more all figured out well ahead of the game itself. In this case, I think the most prepared game I’ve run was called Arevean Nights (Apologies for the terrible formatting, as it was made before several Obsidian Portal  site updates). I had spent the better part of six months detailing everything from the map, to cultures, important figures, the entire (initial) story arc, and even city layouts. Before each session I would spend at least an hour or two each week preparing encounters, story progression, and some contingency encounters/plots. What I found with this format was that it was incredibly convenient when the players pointed to the map and said “We want to sail here” that I could simply flip to the appropriate bit of my rules and give them a colorful description without resorting to chunks of silence as I figured out what should be where they indicated. It also allowed me to add a bit more depth to my NPC portrayals, as I could better tell what might motivate a NPC and how to portray their mannerisms if they had ulterior motives without accidentally overblowing it.

The big drawback was that I still had to resort to freeform improv to fill in if they went “off the map” or interacted in ways I hadn’t anticipated with other characters, or even encounters and plotlines. I felt that this was notably harder than regular improvised GMing, because not only was I trying to come up with new material, but I was also trying to avoid stepping on the toes of the elements I’d already laid out beforehand. In addition to this, there was (For me, at least) a very strong compulsion to force players “back on the rails,” which is generally a bad idea as it tends to cause players to dig in their heels and be annoyed that their choices are being arbitrarily restricted, and frustrated as a GM because the players are bucking your hours and hours (or more) of blood, sweat, and tears.

For prepared GMing, I feel like it’s strengths definitely include being much more difficult to be caught off guard, and that you can afford to give characters and stories more gravitas because of a deeper understanding of motivations and the expected pacing of the story. The drawbacks are that if your established story bits are interrupted, it can really throw off the pacing of the story, and is much harder to improvise for than if you had no pre-established bits of story beforehand.

Nowadays, I probably prepare around 25-50% of my story, and improvise the rest, using sites like Donjon’s RPG tools and Chaotic Shiny to help me in coming up with quick adventure ideas, names, personalities, and then using my prep time to fill in the gaps to make a coherent and interesting story. Go ahead and vote below to tell me what your preferred GMing style is. If you’re a player, which style do you prefer when your GM prepares (or doesn’t)?

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4 thoughts on “Tangent: RPGs, and Prepping vs Improvisation

  1. Great Topic!

    I like you have tried running games and played in games that use both techniques but have come to the conclusion that my GMing works best with a bit of both. I now have two types of storyline ongoing in any RPG I run a World Events story – that will be going on regardless of what the players actually do in game, so if they ignore it the plot still progresses. This is preplanned in terms of when and rough events as well as any Key Npcs who will have rich backgrounds and vibrant personalities.

    I also utilise subplots that are personal to the characters, but these are developed to how the player wishes to progress and will only ever have as much depth as the player in question wishes to pursue and although I will eventually have these sketched out I go in with nothing and let the characters define what personal stories they wish to build on.

    I must say I do not like it when I am creating too much on the spare of the moment and I feel it leads to a poorer quality of my story telling, but my players have always said they do enjoy my improvised stuff so maybe I am overly critical of myself in this regard. On the other hand I do have an issue of letting go of some NPC’s that I really like in terms of depth and character and realise this is something I need to work on as players can be malicious gits from time to time. 😀

    From the group I usually game with (7 different players in total, but not all play all games or systems and there are many players that I’ve only played with in a single campaign in addition to these core guys) 2 others and myself have always filled the role of GM depending on who wants to run what and has a good idea etc though there is normally a que of systems and campaigns waiting to be run (I have 2 campaigns for different games I am ready to run when there is a gap and time) and we all have slightly different styles only in GMing style but also of system, concept and story, this does lead to a very diverse RPG enviroment and I feel is most definitely a good thing.

    Personally I GM very Grimdark campaigns and try to keep a solid sense of realism in my games, this means that in a fantasy setting for example I base random encounters on the region and setting not a characters level so if the players are stupid enough to attack a giant at 1st level rather than run for the hills or to try and out wit it then I will happily have said giant bite the head off the first guys, stamp on the second and pick up two more a stick them in his bag for later munchies and the poor wizard at the back will get picked up and then forgotten about while the giant goes and scratches its arse. :p I am also very good with mechanics and have the ability to spot exploits and synergies in a game very quickly but I also am often surprised when my players do things that from a mechanic point of view are suicidal because they do not see and have even close to my understanding of numbers and systems. On the other hand I do not have the ability to bring NPC’s to life as they can and I have no knack for language at all…

    One of my friends runs very prep heavy games, with highly detailed stories and often cut scene like narratives for main plot points, he is generally a lot easier going on the characters as he is gets more enjoyment from the telling of his stories than from realism. The other friend is the best improvised GM I have ever seen, he has concepts for key characters but more as roles to be acted (he has a Drama degree, so is fantastic at acting roles as his characters really come to life) on the other hand his maths skills and more so his understanding of numbers means he often has difficulty getting the mechanical balance right during his games which will often lead to his major villains going down in a flash in the first load of big encounters and then he will over compensate later leading to a TPK against foes we were supposed to breaze past.

    Wow this is huge so I will stop there. 😀

  2. Thanks for the reply!

    I personally love the idea of World Events in games, but I’m always hesitant to include them because I’m afraid my players will either blow it off (And get annoyed later when the enemy army invades or the king is assassinated or whatever) and get mad later about something that might look a lot like a deus ex machina, or that as a GM I’ll completely forget during a “fade to black” passage of time during a session and throw stuff off. I mean to do it one day, I just have a plateful of (irrational) worries about running it.

    I envy you for our gaming groups 🙂 I have one session of 4e we’re about to start in person and play every other week, and am running a Warhammer 50K (The Ship Moves) using Simple D6 on RpgGeek, but I would love to have more folks nearby to play more games (And with more systems too!). I’ve been dying to find enough folks nearby who are both familiar with Warhammer’s setting and like RPGs enough to put down the trays of minis and play a non-wargame for once.

    • Personally I love the WFRP setting though I use a mix of 1st ed back ground and 3rd ed background as the storm of Chaos has so much more atmosphere when its about to drop not when dare I say it Grimgor walks up to Archeon and Nuts him one so they all go home…

      Now also you have to consider the rumours around why Rick Priestly left GW HQ because as I heard it he want Tamurkan which was supposed to be the first of 4 Chaos related setting books to be the End of the Warhammer World, its apocalypse because lets be honest it would be the end if the Invasion happened, unless Nagash was there to stop him, but stupid Sigmar got in his way when he was trying to close the ripe in the realms caused by the Great Sky Chariot of the oldones, so instead of having the ultimate antithesis of Chaos March up there and laugh at the god attempts to claim the souls of the damned Sigmar decided he wanted to be a demi god, and equipped with his thunder hammer cursed the Warhammer world in damnation. On the other hand the third Age of Nagash is upon us, though Valenish (Spelling is wrong no doubt – its Vlads real name, as he was the first Von Carstein and a servant of Nagash the twat got the one ring stolen before he was killed.

      Regardless my love of the setting is the morale issues and the way the various systems really do provide benefits for siding with the Dark Powers, horrific curses but my god that powers irresistible, I am the dark voice that whispers when I run Warhammer, that niggling knowledge that could spark into true power, I reward those who fall to my whispers but such knowledge is fickle and will always lead to damnation if your not careful.

      As for the 40K settings I do like a lot of it but I physically hate Space Marines, and the fact they have there own RPG literally makes my skin crawl. On the other hand Rogue Trader has the best scope of a RPG I’ve played, the setting is very strong but the options are so wider and varied, you can be leading a fleet into battle with a rival Trader and his xeno scum allies one session and the next you heading back towards to the Callxius system as someone has challenged your right to warrent – but you need to be careful mind you dont want to be flying into the Imperium in a Grand cruiser at the head of a fleet of cruisers and escort class ships the the local battlefleet will likely take that the wrong way. The following session you looking for information on a unclaimed system said to hold untold wealth it requires you to go to a Xeno orbital space station where ninety percent of the species you have no idea what are, let alone running the risk of possible bounties placed on you by your rivals or that descenting Uncle, and any Merc willing to go after a rogue trader is seriously not the sort of person you want to be having a discussion with, unless of course your on your Grand cruiser and have 200,000 tons of ordinance pointed in his direction, then you might come to an arrangement in terms of dealing with said problem Uncle and his false claim.

      That’s just my initial thoughts on those settings, literally the first things that came into my head.

      Crimsonsun :p

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