Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's Not Arbitrary When Chance Decides

My pendulum is swinging further away from improvisation towards writing more stuff down in advance.  There are some good benefits to having  written notes!  You can feed the players more relevant information through rumors, patrons, divination spells, and so forth.  You can drop content with a variety of danger into the setting, and generate verisimilitude by leaking information.  The game world depth becomes abundant and unavoidable.

We spend a lot of time out here on the blogs generating our random tables.  They're inspirational.  They let us throw some dice and abdicate a bit of decision making, opening up different avenues of creativity.  You know, the whole 'better to riff off a seed idea than start with a blank page…', that kind of thing.

When I started running the Black City campaign a month or so back, I planned to use random tables pretty heavily at the table, but decided that random tables were too slow for play. Then I dumped all of the random tables into excel and used various random generator algorithms to quickly build out content.  It still needed refinement and mental elbow grease to put some meat on the bones, but I had a good skeleton for getting started.

Musings about "preparation versus inspiration" have cropped up on the blogs the past few days.  Roger has an excellent post about the burdens of improvisation; the responsibility of making up content threatens to drive the DM towards balanced encounters, which risks a bland campaign.  He muses whether you would you knowingly throw your players against unbeatable opponents made up on the fly?  Noisms questions the zealotry of prep as the one-true-way; preparation is nice, but dropping the 4th wall once in a while isn't the apocalypse, either.  Whereas -C is also firmly on the side of preparing in advance.

I'm certainly seeing the benefits of preparing more in advance.  Geez, it can be a lot of work, but it feels good to have that stuff at the game table right at your fingertips.  So let me tip a hat towards my wise compatriots; prepare in advance, even if it just means scratching the barest notes you need.  Put your notes down in writing; pregenerated content is impartial and provides plausible deniability when crap hits the fan.  "No, seriously, there's always been a dragon in that room."  Improvise the details from your bare notes when you must.  When you need to create stuff whole cloth on the fly, use the dice and random factors to avoid your dull personal biases.  The dice are free to be arbitrary.  The dice are free to be interesting.


  1. I think trying to make random charts that are efficient and interesting enough for use during play, can end up giving you tools to make preparation before play a lot easier. So the whole prep/improv continuum slides back and forth for me as I gain experience as a DM (am able to improv some things better) and make better tools for myself (don't need to improv some things any more).

    I'm not so much worried about breaking the forth wall as slowing things down. My whole push towards silhouettes started because you can just see them and don't have to stop to read them.

  2. My take: Do both. Plan ahead to improvise. This sounds unusual, but it works. Take the old television show, "Who's Line".... A cable station was recently running the series a couple episodes every night. When viewed that way, rather than with a week in between, you start to see that the "professional" improv comics seem to have a set of pre-conceived characters, ideas, or one-liners that they can pull out in different situations.

    Do the same with the game.

    I'm running two different sandbox campaigns. I have a binder for each filled with locations, maps, and NPCs that I have prepared in advance. I also have a section filled with random tables. But the improv comes from my players deciding where they want to go.... The pre-prepared stuff helps the game not slow down simply because I can then say: "Ah, this would fit HERE" or "This NPC may be here."
    I also have some generic NPC stats already prepared without any assigned or pre-judged use. That way I can still utilize the random tables and such.