Friday, March 23, 2012

How Much Improvisation?

Yesterday I reviewed The Armitage Files, a Trail of Cthulhu campaign setting that supports improvised horror investigations.  The idea behind the book is revolutionary to me, because the investigation and horror genre, with its intricate mysteries and clues, is usually so scripted and plotted.  But it did get me thinking about improvisation and gaming and the curious fault lines I see in the gaming community.

All dungeon masters and referees have to do an amount of improvisation every game session - even a fully scripted adventure requires the game master to take on the personae of the NPC's and antagonists in the scenario and pull dialogue, mannerisms, and narration out of the creative void.

But choosing to portray a scripted character a certain way is quite a bit different than randomly generating game content on the fly and embellishing a wide range of details.  Let's say the party moves to an unmapped section of the setting and the DM consults his or her big book of random tables and starts rolling for inspiration, then quickly cobbles together what it is the group is encountering.  Contrast the approach of the referee that makes stuff up using dice for inspiration, to the DM that just makes stuff up as they go along, completely winging it without the tables.  We're not as far apart in spirit as we are in practice.

Then there's improvisation that happens on the other side of the screen.  Do you allow your players any co-creation in the setting?  A simple way is incorporating elements of a character's background into the campaign - like letting the player create details for their home village, and then making those details important to the ongoing narrative.  Many newer games systematize ways for the players to seize control and enhance the setting with their own additions.  For example, many games might have an "underworld contacts" skill or point spend option, so when the group arrives in a new place, the shady character in the group might already have a fence or a connection to the local black market, and be able to define that contact on the fly.

Using the common D&D sandbox, consider the differences between these three examples - first, the group enters a new hex, the Dungeon Master consults the hex key, and begins describing the village of Thought-Up-Yesterday.  In someone else's campaign, the referee rolls a bunch of dice, consults their random hex content generators, sees that it results in a village, and begins quickly jotting down details for the village of Just-Made-Up, perhaps using his or her village content tables for elaboration.

Consider  a more extreme example:  "As you guys walk through the woods, you start to smell chimney fires and see a small village down in the glen…"  The referee turns to the elf player, whose character is from the area.  "Can you go ahead and let us know the details of this village?"  In this case, the ref completely turns the control over to the player to define a setting element;  "Ah yes", the player says, "this is the village of Just-Made-Up, inhabited by smelly, shoeless, pig-riding halflings.  The reason the elves put up with them this close to the beloved Homewood, is because they look like small, sad children.  Smelly children."

There's another technique of improvisation, too, when the referee is listening to the players and (secretly) incorporates their ideas into the game whenever he or she thinks the player's ideas are more interesting than the original plan.  The bad guy in the adventure is the rich mayor, but the players are convinced it's really the timid butler, and they go through elaborate measures to spy on the butler, to explain how the butler committed the crime, to identify him as the secret power behind everything.  The referee decides that recasting the butler as an international criminal in disguise, is a lot more interesting, and the players pat themselves on the back for ferreting out the ref's "real" story.

The question of how much improvisation you use at the table seems dependent on group expectations - it's a  what-do-we-expect-out-of-gaming kind of question.  Are the players expecting an immersive world to explore?  Knowing that content is generated on the fly or improvised can impair immersion or belief in the setting.  Are the players creative types that see the campaign as a joint venture, and want the opportunity to put their stamp on the story?  The village of Just-Made-Up, with its pig-riding smelly halflings, might become a lasting fixture in the campaign and the butt of ongoing jokes, enjoyed by the group for years later.

There are cross cutting concerns with improvisation, like its effect on player agency or whether it leads to illusionism, or a rail road.  These concerns are orthogonal ; improvisation is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be misused or misapplied.  For instance, I won't fudge dice in dramatic situations, but I have no problem improvising non-player characters and then incorporating them into the ongoing campaign.

Seems like a good time for a new gamer poll - how do you use improvisation in your games?  There's a new gadget in the upper right with the poll questions.


  1. Most of my D&D gaming career, I pretty much made things up on the fly (beyond maybe drawing a map) and spiced things with a random table or two. Moving into games more complicated mechanically (like GURPS or D&D iterations after AD&D), I had to adapt to making more stuff up ahead of times.

    In all cases, I good suggestion from the players (whether they knew they were suggests something or not) might get incorporated. Only in recent years have I specifically encouraged players to contribute in this way though and the results of that have been mixed.

    In my current Weird Adventures game using a Pathfinder/GUMSHOE hybrid, I've had to plan things out more than is typical to make sure the clues are there while trying to be as agnostic as possible about how/when players encounter said clues.

  2. Knowing that content is generated on the fly or improvised can impair immersion or belief in the setting.

    If it's clear to my players that I am generating stuff during play relying on randomness (as opposed to adjudicating something like combat using randomness), I can tell that they immediately stop caring. They want to move on to the "real" content. I think this bit you wrote that I quoted above explains why. It pulls them out of the setting. Thus, for me, making things up on the fly generally works better that generating from tables on the fly, which always seems cumbersome.

    Pregenerating things using randomness ("deep design" in Matt Finch's terms) is of course completely different, because it is not immediately obvious to the players how it is generated.

  3. Man, that's a real interesting perception, Brendan, one I need to think further on. OSR folks tend to fetishize random tables, and there are a number of complaints against improv - palette shifting or illusionism, for instance - but I tend to agree that some uses of random tables can trigger that response, "this is filler, let's get on to the real thing". And we don't always specify when we're publishing random tables whether they're 'brainstorming tables' for use ahead of the game, versus 'fast tables' for use during the game.