Posts Tagged ‘Improv’

It will likely be no surprise for any of you to learn I was in an improv troupe in college.

Me being hilarious (clearly) with my pal Vegas Lancaster back in 2008.

I know many of us Game Masters heard or read the old piece of advice to say, “Yes, and…” when a player throws out an idea as a way to build story cooperatively. That advice is often immediately followed up or preceded by the person telling you that this idea is a basic rule of improv comedy.

Why not apply improv comedy advice to RPGs? It makes sense. D&D is basically improv fantasy. Dread is basically improv horror. Night’s Black Agents is basically improv super spies vs vampires. And so on. It’s all collaborative storytelling.

The “Yes and…” technique is a handy piece of advice that I employ in my games (to a point, but that’s another post). It got me thinking, “Are there other improv comedy techniques or tips we can steal for our games?” Yes. A lot.

Today I want to share one mnemonic I learned in improv that helps establish scenes and brings NPCs to life. It helps when I need to create an NPC on the spot and breathes pizzaz into any generic shopkeeper or street urchin. It helps give named NPC 41 in a published adventure a personality and backstory without panic. It keeps you calm when the players zig and you expected them to zag. All you need to do is think, “LARCH.” That’s Location, Action, Relationship, Characterization, and History.

Location

When it comes to meeting an NPC, the first thing you should establish is their location. Where an NPC meet the player characters says a lot about that NPC. For instance, if the characters get an invitation to meet the NPC for a meal, do they dine in the common room of a run down tavern, the private club room of an upscale establishment, or the NPC’s home (which could be a home-cooked meal in a shack or a feast prepared by servants in a mansion)? Do they meet for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or afternoon tea? If the characters meet the NPC on the street, is a shadowy alley, paved main street, or trail in the wilderness? All of these details say quite a bit about the NPC by showing the characters where they feel most comfortable. Before you get into describing the NPC, describe their location.

Action

NPCs do not stand around and wait for the characters to approach them. They’re busy people! The evil cult leader is in performing a sacrificial ritual or reading an ancient tome or taking a nap when the characters roll up to her hidden swamp cave. A busy noble asks the characters to join him in his carriage as he rides from one appointment to the next. An urchin begs passersby for copper pieces as she shares rumors with the characters. A scientist browses through some album covers in a record shop as she casually passes the player characters her secret formula. Actions speak louder than words and clue the players into each NPC’s personality. By deciding what actions your NPCs are taking when they meet with PCs, it helps you as the GM settle into that particular character as well.

Relationships

NPCs should know other people and places in the world beyond the player characters. During conversations with the PCs they should mention friends, acquaintances, enemies, rivals, family, celebrities, favorite dining establishments, inns to avoid, and more.It is most fun to connect new NPCs to people and places already known by the characters. If the adventurers are referred to the NPC A by NPC B, NPC A should mention NPC B’s name and how they feel about that person.

You start to fill out your world with new connections and interesting relationships and plots when you do this. If NPC C hates NPC B who is friends with NPC A, then odds are NPC C also hates NPC A… but maybe not! (Wouldn’t that be interesting?) Forming these relationships helps establish an NPCs character by connecting them to the world and simultaneously builds out your world. It also helps the characters get an idea of who your NPCs are beyond their presented self. If the kindly grandma hates the noble paladin, someone is probably not what they seem.

Characterization

Personality and mannerisms are two important components to your NPC. When you’re making a new NPC write down an adjective and an character archetype and play to those ideas (e.g. Upstanding Criminal, Cowardly Clerk, Noble Henchmen, Loyal Politician, Mad Scientist). These words should have no strict interpretation. You are the only one who will ever see them. You decide what they mean. For instance “Mad Scientist” could mean an inventor who is angry, or a crazy supervillain with no post-graduate degree of any kind. By writing two words down next to the NPC’s name, you’ll remember more details about the character the next time they cross paths with the PCs.

If you need to create an NPC on the fly, choose or roll on the table below. If you want to take things a step further, use the tables in my NPC mannerisms post.

d20 Adjective d20 Noun
1 Noble 1 Sodlier
2 Sleazy 2 Criminal
3 Reluctant 3 Henchman
4 Pious 4 Scientist
5 Cowardly 5 Politician
6 Stoic 6 Youth
7 Mad 7 Hermit
8 Exhausted 8 Spy
9 Worldly 9 Artist
10 Powerful 10 Scholar
11 Polite 11 Clerk
12 Rude 12 Urchin
13 Excitable 13 Devotee
14 Competitive 14 Outsider
15 Broken 15 Merchant
16 Optimistic 16 Parent
17 Bored 17 Laborer
18 Curious 18 Hunter
19 Cursed 19 Liar
20 Lonely 20 Leader

History

Your NPCs didn’t just suddenly appear in the world. They have been living in it their entire life (probably). What accomplishments do they still talk about that exist in the world at present? How do they feel about big world-shaking events of the past, or even smaller events, like what the PCs did on their last quest? NPCs should have feelings about events that transpired before they met the characters and should have an impact of their own (no matter how small) on the world. If the merchant up and leaves town because the PCs threatened him, how does the rest of the community react to see their favorite bait and tackle shop close its doors after 20 years because some hooligans scared Mr. Potter? Just like relationships, when you create history, you’re defining your NPC and worldbuilding at the same time.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new behind-the-scenes episode of the podcast Rudy Basso and I make, Have Spellbook, Will Travel, is up on the show’s site!

47ee0-1462462559930

Rudy and James have a chat with Liz So, the voice behind Veena the Water Nymph and various other roles.  They discuss forensics, the allure and fun in getting to play lots of different parts, and improv in D&D (again!).

Tweet your Levels Question of the Week at us or #levelsq on Twitter!  (Note: there wasn’t one this week because we haven’t done any recording recently.)

Send your mailbag questions via the Contact page.  We want to hear from you!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

A new Behind-the-Scenes episode of the podcast Rudy Basso and I make, Have Spellbook, Will Travel, is up on the show’s site!

47ee0-1462462559930


Ensemble member Vegas Lancaster joins Rudy and James to discuss his various villainous roles, super powered vegetable TV Show Pilots, and why improv and D&D go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

See Vegas with The Philly N Crowd!  Or check out his website for more info on his future shows!

Tweet your Levels Question of the Week at us or #levelsq on Twitter!

Send your mailbag questions via the Contact page.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

We’ve all be there. The PCs kill your villain in Act II instead of Act V. The players ignore all your tasty plot hooks and instead head into the forest you haven’t detailed to see if they can catch a pseudodragon to keep as a pet. You planned for them go left and they go right. When surprises come up in your game how can you save the session?

Surprises like these might seem like headaches which destroy your prep time, but I’m here to tell you they’re actually gifts that make your sessions and campaigns memorable. In this post I’ll show you how to take advantage of the opportunities these unexpected turns have to offer. Read on!

First Things First: Throw Nothing Away and Expect the Unexpected

If you do a lot of prep work for a session and then end up not using any of it, don’t tear out those notes and burn them in frustration! Save those notes because you might be able to use them in a future session, even if it’s for another campaign.

It also helps to have some improvisation resources ready to go just in case something pops up. This way you’ll have monsters, NPCs, encounters, and maybe even whole dungeons ready to drop-in at a moment’s notice. I did a whole post on these a while back so check it out.

Speaking of posts I’ve written on this subject it’s ok to take some time to prep when the players throw you for a loop. Check out my blog post that gives you a neat technique of asking players questions to keep them in the game while you prep.

Change in Mindset

Now that you’ve saved your prep work for future sessions and created a safety net of improvisation resources, it’s time to tackle the problem at hand – how can you turn this upset into an event that makes your campaign more layered? The first thing you have to do is not get frustrated. Great improvisers like Stephen Colbert never get frustrated during a scene or an interview, even if the person they’re interacting with is throwing up walls and blocking their every question and suggestion. In fact some of Colbert’s greatest interviews are with his most difficult guests. He can definitely turn surprises into opportunities and that’s because he’s not letting himself get frustrated.

For many people this is easier said than done. In the moment the upset happens, forget about what you planned and focus on moving the story forward. Many of us have heard of the, “Yes and…” technique and that comes out of this mindset. Accept the action of the players. That’s your “Yes.” Then it’s time to build on those actions. That’s your “and…”

Seizing Opportunities

When players go off the rails I can usually figure out where to take the story next by asking myself one of the following questions.

Who Cares? This is a big one that can solve a lot of your problems without asking anything else. Which NPCs and villains will care about the actions of the PCs. For instance if the PCs are asked by a noble to rescue her son from the orcs who kidnapped him and the PCs instead decide to perform a caper to steal potions from the apothecary, who cares? Well probably the apothecary and anybody who works for him, the city guards, and the mother of the child who was snubbed by the PCs in her time of need. Now that you have those three elements you can think up a quick adventure from there.

The apothecary (an NPC mage with stats quickly pulled from your improvisation resources) has a few devious traps ready for any intruders and he also can teleport back to the place in a moment’s notice if an alarm is tripped thanks to a scroll he carries with him at all times. After being robbed the town guard comes looking for the PCs or they might come to the place in the middle of the night if the PCs set off a noisy trap or battle the apothecary. If the PCs pull the caper off without a hitch, there’s still one surprise for them – the mother of the child followed them in the night to beg for help one last time. She instead saw them break into the apothecary and reports them to the town guard who come and confront the PCs the next morning. Blam – a whole session planned just like that by asking a single question, staying cool, and having my improvisation resources at the ready.

What Are the NPCs Doing? While the PCs go off on their own or take an unexpected action, what are the other NPCs up to? If they decide to ignore the quest for a red dragon’s hoard offered by a patron and instead go off in search of magical components for a new spell the wizard is researching, what does the patron do in that time? And the dragon? Maybe they easily find the wizard’s components only to return to town to find the patron hired less-skilled adventurers to go after the hoard only to awaken and anger the dragon who is now burning everything in sight.

This question works for NPCs that the players might have forgotten about or haven’t met. So the PCs want to run off in a random direction to delve into a big complex and you need time to prepare? No problem. Maybe that kobold who got away 10 sessions ago returns with some bigger, badder troll friends which begins a thrilling chase sequence. Maybe the a bunch of bandits stop the PCs on the road and using a handy pre-made map you have a wilderness dungeon brawl. Maybe the PCs kill your villain earlier than you think and the fiend’s mother, brother, friend, or lover attacks during the celebratory feast.

What Else Have I Got? If the PCs throw a wrench in your plans, turn to your published modules or previously unplayed-but-prepared scenarios. Can they be easily adjusted on the fly to fit in your current session? Do they work with the new direction the players have taken the story? If you can pull an adventure right out of a book, PDF, or some old notes then steer the story that way.

You might even consider blowing things up to buy yourself some time. Maybe the ground splits open and they find themselves in one of Princes of the Apocalypse‘s many dungeons or the inn where they decide to stay on the road is actually The Wererat Den and they get wrapped up in an adventure no one realized was happening tonight.

What’s The Most Interesting Event That Could Happen Next? When all else fails this is an excellent question to ask yourself. The players have left you totally stumped with their zig so it’s time for you to really turn this campaign on its head and zag. Did they kill your big bad way too early? Guess who immediately rises as a lich, death knight, vampire, or something else undead and teleports away ominously. Or maybe this big bad’s death serves as a sacrifice to call forth an even bigger bad that begins chasing the characters. PCs galavanting away from a quest you prepared? Throw something entirely new and unexpected in their path like a white dragon wearing a ring of fire elemental command living in a volcano who scoops one of them up as a meal. Feel free to take the story in off on a short side quest for the session while you figure things out. You’ll probably even find a way to tie the side quest into your main campaign story after the session when you’ve had some time to think on it.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I’m a busy dude. I’ve got this blog, two podcasts, a job, a girlfriend, and awesome people in my life. All of these deserve my attention on a regular basis. Not to mention all the normal life stuff we do each day like commuting, cooking, cleaning, exercising, laundry, and more.  Some of you might have all those commitments, plus a few more like, oh I don’t know… pets or kids. So what are we to do when we also have D&D games to run?

Prep Time

Now, my life isn’t always so crazy. I often have at least some time to prepare for my D&D games, though almost always less than I would like. So how do I go about preparing for an adventure? I always start with an outline. It’s very bare bones to start but I try to at least put the following in there.

  1. A very basic idea of what might happen during the session. Sometimes this is no more than a paragraph or a few bullet points.
  2. A basic description of expected combat encounters, including number and names of creatures to be used. Descriptions start as simple as “5 orcs, 2 shamans, and a pit trap.”
  3. Names of NPCs the players will come across, their motive, and a quick distinguishing characteristic such as a club foot or funny accent to help make them memorable. This could be something like, “Famnoodle Breswick, gnome bard of Dark Whispers, wants to kill Bragonian nobles who are also slavers, has hook instead of left hand.”
  4. I jot down twists and turns I could throw into the session to make things interesting in the main storyline as it comes to me (to make this easier, use Google Drive so you can ideas on the fly). These things might include, but are not limited to, a villain having a hidden weakness or strength, a helpful NPC showing up, revealing an NPC as a double-crosser, other threats coming into play the party may not be aware of, and pieces of a character’s background coming into play. These are good for me to have in the case of the unexpected, I can whip out a PC’s long lost brother returning after decades if the players are having trouble figuring out what to do or if a story feels boring or uninteresting. It helps keep the players on their toes. Remember that not every twist needs to be a Red Wedding.

After that I go back and flesh out my outline depending on how much prep time I have. I usually start by fleshing out encounters and dungeons fully, then bullet points for any social interactions and exploration, followed by descriptive read aloud text (in the rare event that I have time for it). Of course I don’t want to over prepare.

Be An Idea Pack Rat

If I do over prepare, I find I try and steer my players too hard in the direction I prepared for, mostly because I don’t want my work to go to waste. Remember, D&D is a collaborative story, and it’s best when you let everyone have a say. If players want to go off the rails let them. Not over preparing will help with that, but when you have a cool idea you’re excited about and the time to do so, you can’t help but flesh it out. Also, sometimes you don’t over prepare, but players go to the unexpected place or so far off the rails, anything you did prepare still feels like it was for naught. Fear not! If players miss something you spent time on, save it for later. After all, when players go off the rails, its often because they’re doing something fun and unexpected, and that’s the kind of play we all want to embrace. Heck, I’d venture to say that for many people, it’s the reason they play tabletop RPGs.

While I certainly don’t think railroading adventurers is a good idea, I do think holding on to something your players missed is. Say they decided to wait outside the red dragon’s lair and fight her in the open rather than delve into her volcanic lair. Don’t throw out that graph paper or start talking to your adventurers about the cool monsters they could have fought and treasure they might have if they had “done what they were supposed to.” Save that dungeon, its secrets, and bust it out when your players take on a fire giant or clan of devils. So when you do prep something, hold onto it. It will help you in the future when you have less time to prep, and need to rely on improv.

Improv Resources

All right. Let’s get down to it. Sometimes you don’t have any time at all to prepare or sometimes players decide to zig when you were sure they’d zag. Have no fear! Improv is useful in all D&D sessions (you can’t possibly plan everything) and the more freedom you allow yourself, the more you will be comfortable giving your players.

Many of you have heard this, but the first thing to remember is saying, “Yes, and…” when a player asks if he or she can do something. Everything from, “Can we ignore the noble’s pleas to save his daughter from the vampire lord, and hunt some dragons instead?” You might say, “Yes, and you’ve heard there’s a competing band of dragon hunters in the area, who would probably have information on the closest dragon’s whereabouts.” Boom! Look at the layers of adventure you’ve just added by saying, “Yes, and…” You can always caution adventurers that if they ignore the noble his daughter might die and there could be worse consequences, but they may still choose to ignore that. Don’t worry about it. Write it down and have those consequences come back to bite them at a later date! Saying, “Yes, and…” is difficult at first, but trust me, the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better your game will be for it.

So what else do I use to help me out in improv situations when I have no time to prepare. Check out the list of resources I use below! There’s already a lot of great fan-created resources and more out there for fifth edition D&D and having a computer or tablet will definitely make your improv life easier.

Google Drive

If you’ve been following this blog it should come as no surprise that I love Google Drive. There are two documents I use, in addition to the outline above, which help immensely when I have to improv my way through part or the entirety of a session.

  • Hooks Document This document contains all the hanging plot threads of my game. I organize them into categories, I have one for each PC, which includes threads given to me in their character’s background (my father went missing when I was a child…) and things which pop up along the way (remember last week when I snuck off on my own and robbed a dragon…). Then I have two more categories. One is for threads hanging from the game’s main story (The Brotherhood of the Moon is trying to kill all shifters) and the other is for side quests (we agreed to help the local law enforcement take out a den of orange spice dealers). If I have nothing prepared I look at the document. I might say to myself, “Oh yeah, our warforged barbarian Grolox has slavers hunting for him. Let’s have them show up at the inn.” That’s a great jumping off point for me.
  • Wiki and Recap Document I share this document with my players. One or more of them acts as a scribe for the party, listing all the characters, places, and organizations they come across and detailing the events of each session. If I don’t have anything to pull from the Hooks Document above, I’ll take a quick gander here and ask myself some fast questions. What if a defeated foe had a lover out for vengeance, or returned from the grave as an undead? Who is the real power behind The Servants? What if some new evil moved into the aberrant ruins right outside of the city where the adventurers are staying?
Official Wizards of the Coast D&D PDFs

The Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide are great, but when I’m improving I don’t want to spend a bunch of time flipping through books looking for the right rule, magic item, or monster. That’s why I rely on the PDFs below. Searchability is huge when you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Using the documents below, I can search for the exact heading I want, or for a specific phrase like “Challenge 10.” The best part is these PDFs are free so go get them!

Fan-Created Content

We’re only a few months into the release of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons and there’s already a lot of fan created content out there. Here are a few things I like to keep open on the old laptop when I’m playing in case of improvisation. In fact I use these even when I’m in the planning stages for a session, because it makes life so much easier.

  • Encounter Builder – The rules for building encounters are difficult. If you’ve tried it, you know. Luckily Kobold Fight Club has made it super, duper easy with this encounter builder which also generates random encounters, tracks encounters, saves encounters, and allows you to manage encounters. It’s pretty awesome. Check it out!
  • Monsters By Challenge Rating – This isn’t one I actually have on my laptop, but I do have it taped to the back, inside cover of my Monster Manual. You can thank Mike Shea of Critical Hits for this perfectly sized monster by challenge rating index, which was missing from the book itself.
  • Monster Sorter – Of course, Ari Marmell’s monster sorter doesn’t fit into the back of your Monster Manual, but it does have the ability to be sorted in various categories including challenge rating, name, type, and more. This is a must have!
  • Spell Sorter – Similarly, Ari Marmell has come to the rescue again. Do you wish there was a list organizing spells by school of magic? Overall level? Class? Have no fear, Ari is here!
  • Merric’s Musings’ List of 5E Adventures – Tons of adventures for all levels, many free.
  • Free Game Resources on World Builder Blog – Magic itemsmonstersD&D fifth edition rules modulesbackgroundsspellsadventures, and more created by yours truly.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends, share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!