How do you become a good GM? How do you keep the excitement and the thrill of adventure alive? Are you a good improvisator, and how do you get better as a improvisator? These are tricky questions with many possible answers, but armed with over 15 years of GMing and 8 years as a professional of performing arts, I’m now going to share you few of my favorite tips and tricks for semi-improvised gameplay and emergent storytelling.
However, let’s first define what we talk about when we use terms like semi-improvised gameplay or emergent storytelling. These are gaming styles, or game-design styles, and here I’m referring strictly to tabletop role-playing, not computer gaming, theater or literature. They are choices of gaming style you make before you start to play. When you say you are playing a game based on improvisation and you want the story be emergent, you are essentially saying that you don’t know in advance what’s going to happen, and you expect to come up with interesting ideas during the play. Emergent storytelling is a group effort, an adventure where you as a group of people, decide to sit down together for a few hours, and see what’s going to happen. You make an unspoken agreement that you are going to spend this time together, and do your best to enjoy every moment to the best of your abilities, and none of you knows beforehand what kind of story is going to unravel during your game session.
This is a choice of style. If you want to play a game where the GM has a pre-planned the adventure that the players will follow, you can do that, and by no means it’s any worse. I’m going to refer to this gaming style as fixed adventure gaming, for the lack of a better term. I’m specifically not talking about no-prep, zero-prep or not-planned gaming, because the main difference is not the amount of planning, but rather the quality of planning (that is, what kind of planning you do). It’s also not a black and white decision, you can opt to keep parts of the adventure open for emergent storytelling, and keep the main lines of the plot fixed and pre-planned. There are various GM guides based on this idea, e.g. see this blog post or this article, and you may even benefit from following some of these advice, even when you later choose to go for more improvised style.
Okay! So gimme answers!
Tip #1 : Encourage a style of active playing
Start the game by talking about the style of the game! As a GM you have something pre-planned, but you don’t know really know what’s going to happen. The story might branch wherever the player characters take it, and as the GM you try to do your best to keep the game going. Good stories are often really about the characters and their choices, how they choose to deal with the various situations. Tell your players that you also expect that they do their job too, and you expect active playing from their part. That means, players should be ready to take action, put their characters in danger, and feel free to make bad choices for the sake of a good adventure. They don’t necessarily need stupidity, but they need to do decisions that have consequences. Being active can be even simple things like looking around, expecting thing to happen, and making loaded questions, that is, asking questions while having assumptions.
For example, in a market environment, player might ask “so, I feel like my character is fond of pretty things, so.. I guess I’m going around.. would there be something… red and nice looking there?” And this kind of question helps the GM enormously, it’s already giving choices for the GM to respond, making assumptions, it even tells something about the character’s personality. GM might then come up with an NPC that notices the PC’s desire for beauty, and this might further spring into an interesting social interaction. Compare this with a plain question “what do I see in the market?” This is not a bad style of gaming, as it’s at least asking a question, but the responsibility of creativity is now more given to the GM, and it leads to more GM tells a story -kind of situation, whereas you were really looking for gaming style, where the story would be emerging from the social interaction around the gaming table (or virtual gaming table in these times of coronavirus pandemic).
You have a group of people, so use the creativity of all of the members, so you are more likely to come up with something interesting.
Tip #2 : Feed your players
This is not about physically feeding them, although that might actually be a good bonus tip that helps their brain cells tick a bit faster. What I mean about feeding the players, is giving them options and ideas to respond to. Describe the scenes in detail, and help everyone to get a good idea of the scene you are playing. If you know your player characters, you might describe things that you expect them to notice. When describing scenes and locations, try to also describe the feeling of the scene, but let your player characters decide on their own how they feel about your scene. Use different sensations, describe smells and sounds, and encourage your players to try to find significance from these details. You might use tools like Syrinscape or play some background audio soundscapes to help you out to get everyone really absorbed in the scene.
Be ready to make conflicts, make things difficult for you player characters, and give them goals to strive for. Make their expectations falter, bring about things that complicate their doings. Don’t give things easily, but make them struggle. The key part of good stories is the struggle itself, and the story what happens when the characters strive to reach that goal. Make the story branch into side quests and other endeavors, as what happens in-between is really the story, not whether the main characters get there or not.
Whenever you players feel like they don’t have something to do, or the game feels like stalling, bring about an encounter or make something happen. Various NPC’s are good tools for this, you may also use groups of people, or natural events, to give your players something to attach and respond to. For being good in this, it might really be useful to be prepared, therefore, see the next tip:
Tip #3 : Know your backgrounds
Before the game starts, you should have a few ideas prepared beforehand. Maybe you have a list of few NPC characters, or a list of things that might happen, and you know enough of your world, about it’s factions, social rules etc. so that it’s easy to come up with material to feed your players. It’s also about preparing your mind, having a few ideas where the game could go, instead of just expecting to come up with good ideas during the play. The more you GM, the better you get at this, and you will expand your intuition of storytelling, but it’s nonetheless a good idea to extend your creativity by having a few lists and background notes around you.
Depending on the setting, read or design the important parts of your gaming environment. If you are using a ready-made setting, like Bliaron, read the chapters of the world that you use in your game. Get a feeling what kind of people live in that area of the world, and what kind of tensions there are between the people and what makes player characters somehow stand out. What makes their views or goals conflicting with the world around them. This is the kind of planning that helps you to create conflicts, and feed your players, encouraging them to also feed your imagination as a GM.
Tip #4 : Empower your players
It’s not only the GM that needs to get creative juices flowing, but the same goes for the players. As a GM, you should help your players to be prepared to take on the role of active players. It’s really important to take some time for character creation, and in Bliaron, pay close attention when choosing the Culture and the Religion for the character. These backgrounds already tell a lot how your character sees the world, and give ideas for interactions. All in all, backgrounds, ideologies and social contacts of the PC’s are the main fuel for the players to come up with creative content.
Some knowledge of the world in general is also important, but you also don’t need to give it all out at once. It’s often better to go deep into character creation, and think of the world closest to the PC’s and come up with details related to the characters. Talk about few general rules of the world, and you may even keep some thing on need-to-know basis, telling the players only about what their characters know about the world, and then be creative about what their characters think about the outside world. You might even come up with false details how your characters think about the world, as this will also likely fuel an interesting conflict later up in the story.
Tip #5 : Embrace failure
Improvisation is always about taking a risk. You never ultimately know whether you come up with good ideas, or whether your story just falls apart. You might forget important details, make some serious mistakes that make the story hard to believe, and sometimes you just face a block and feel like your creativity is used up, and you can’t come up with any good ideas. Talk about this before you begin, that you know that you are taking a risk, and you don’t know whether this particular story will be good. This also includes the ideology that it’s the responsibility of all of you to come up with a good role-playing session, and it’s a step further from the fairly common ideology where “GM is the entertainer” and “players are the audience”. Everyone is there to enjoy the game, and everyone should do their best.
And when you fail, it’s not the end of the world. It’s a game after all, and if it doesn’t seem like working, you should all strive to make it better. Or start a new game, perhaps have a break, and try again. Steer away from blaming anyone, as blame doesn’t bring out the good in anyone. Just knowing that you might fail, is usually the best medicine for not failing. If your expectations are high, and you are easily bothered by failures, it’s more likely that you end up moaning about bad games. If you choose to do improvisation, you will fail, sooner or later. Just don’t make it the end of the world. Laugh about it, accept it, maybe take a break, and don’t lose your faith in the good moments, as those are deemed to come up too, and they are not likely that far away after all.