ABCs of GMing – Improvisation

Author’s Note: After a long hiatus due to a career change and getting married, I have returned to continue my series on GMing.  Sorry to have left you guys at “H” for so long! Or, you know, sorry for coming back. It depends on how you prefer to look at it.


I for ImprovisationThe ABCs of GMing

The ABCs of GMing is an ongoing series about the different skills and ideas needed to run a successful tabletop game.



When our series first started, we talked about Adaptability and learning to design games that can cater to the whims of your players. This time, we take a step ahead of Adaptability with Improvisation. In Adaptability, we addressed different aspects of your game where you can prepare for the inevitable side-tracking your players will take part in. With Improvisation, we’re going to focus on some tips and tricks on how to seamlessly flow into (or against, depending on the situation) your players drifting off the beaten path. With a little extra preparation and practice, you can make the whims of your party look like deliberate plot points.

These guys are ok too...

These guys are ok too…

Firstly, a quick primer on Improvisation (as to now I let my inner theatre geek get some exposure). Some of you may be familiar with improvisational theatre, which was helped made popular in American culture by a certain TV show hosted by Drew Carey (though older folks may remember the original BBC series hosted by Clive Anderson in the late 80s  and 90s). As silly and off-the-cuff as the TV show – and similar groups – may seem, there is still a method to its madness.

And all of the tips and tricks on that stage also apply to gaming.



In order to properly improv your story, you need to have your materials at hand. A key way to do this is make sure anything you may need to reference is easily accessible, either by having pre-printed stats and tables at hand, or a ready system of knowing exactly where to look for the information. In theatre, it’s essential to know exactly where all your costumes and props are backstage, because you don’t have much time between scenes to change your costume and load the fake gun with pop caps. While the world of storytelling is more forgiving than a stage production, it can still be a huge momentum killer having to stop the action when a player has an obscure trick they want to pull off. I envy storytellers that seem to have an endless ability to memorize rules, statistics and other random minutiae that help them get past these situations. However, if you’re like me, you can’t remember every single detail. Be sure to know where to look for those rules and stats.

small booksAnother way to prepare is to be mindful of what skills your party members possess. If there’s a character with a very high Survival skill, be sure you know what that skill can do and the difficulty level of different tests with said skill. While players may still get creative with their lesser-known skills, they will more often than not rely on the core competencies of their characters. Having a great understanding ahead of time of those core skills and abilities helps you quickly handle any situation that may come up, which in turn affords you more time to prepare for those times when you do need to improvise.



Improvisation is a practiced art like any other form of theatre. So, for your games, you need to practice how to handle your party’s side-tracking. While on paper this may seem like an absurd concept, it really isn’t when at the table. As a GM, you have experienced GMing or have been a player before. You undoubtedly have experience with tabletop gaming, and in most situations, you’ve played with your friends in the past. This is your biggest advantage.

Imagine the Possibilities.

Imagine the possibilities – since your players are.

For instance, consider the setting your characters are in, and review the situations your story is going to put them in across the next few sessions. Now, put yourself in their shoes. How would you react? What would your instincts be? It may be an obvious choice for you to shoot out the tires on that car to stop the bad guy from getting away, but what about the player that says “I want to blow up that building two blocks down the road so the rubble stops the getaway car”?

Sure, it’s funny, but I bet you can think of at least one player you know that would have that kind of response without missing a beat. So, then, what are the rules for blowing up buildings? What’s the barrier rating of the foundation of the building? Is it a newer building made out of concrete and steel, or is it an older, historic building made from brick and mortar? What are the rules for blowing it up in such a way that the rubble blocks the road?

To practice this, think of all the ways that you, The Player, would handle the situation. Better yet, use anecdotes of previous games you’ve played with all the same players. With a foundation of plausible possibilities, you can prepare for them and be ready to execute these harebrained schemes. If you feel really ambitious (and have the time to do so), write these possibilities on scraps of paper and throw them into a cup. Practice the story elements you have worked out, and at junction points in the game, pull from the hat and see what crazy idea your party could come up with. Of course, then you have to respond to that idea as quickly as you can without delaying your game by digging through sourcebooks and notes.


Know Thine Limits

Sometimes you can't let them go down the rabbit hole.

Sometimes you can’t let them go down the rabbit hole.

Even the craziest improv scenarios have some sort of confines as to what they can and cannot do. As much as you want your players to have freedom playing their characters, know when their sidetracking become a detriment. It’s one thing to adapt to their impulses, but it’s another to let them take over your story. While there’s no real way to practice or be truly prepared for situations when a player causes the story to go off the rails, you need to be aware of the potential consequences.

Sometimes, a sidetrack that takes up an extra gaming session is worth the time if the group as a whole is having fun with it and it’s not a hindrance to your story. But more often than not, there will be a single player who sidetracks and inadvertently takes over half the session on a wild goose chase. Know when to say ‘no’ to your players and when to tell them their sidetracks are dead-ends. While some variety to your story is fun for your players, straying too far from the main plot can muddle the game with inconsequential actions and ultimately make the game less enjoyable for everyone.

Next time, I’ll be talking about Justification, and knowing the right and wrong times to use the “Iron Fist of the GM” maneuver. In the meantime, feel free to tell us about your own noteworthy tales of improvisational GMing on our social media pages!

P.S. It’s good to be back!


Photo Credits: Second City by Second City; Book Stack by Wyoming_Jackrabbit; Infinite Flash by jev55; Rabbit Hole by Jay Cuthrell.