Content of the article: "An interesting, impromptu session… tried something new, and it worked!"
This isn't advice, just a story.
I had an interesting experience the other day. I'd been running this homebrew campaign for like 20+ sessions now. This time I was busy and had zero time to prep at all before the session. I had to improvise, and I ended up trying a bunch of new things that… worked surprisingly well. This group is very into roleplay, as in we usually only run one combat encounter per 3 hour session if even at all.
So we're talking about real life stuff and I just start doodling abstract art looking rectangles on the board in Tabletop Simulator while we're waiting to begin. Someone asks what this is, and where we are, and without really thinking about it I say we're in a dream, and this is the library of the mad wizard the group had encountered before. I was kinda joking, but they just rolled with it.
Naturally I had no idea what happened in the dream, so I just kept asking the players what their characters could remember. I had a few roll for perception while I fed really vague details. But somehow those details were enough for them to latch onto and build momentum into a conversation, and now this dream they all had is a huge part of what's going on. They thought the mad wizard was trying to communicate with them through some kind of sending spell, or perhaps it was the gods. What could it mean? So they set out with that in mind…
At one point I remembered they had missed their NPC companion, so I gave them a new one – this time, a Tiefling who had been chased out of his village by a bunch of angry villagers who blamed him for the undead invasion that was going on. I made that up on the spot by remembering a NYT article I'd read earlier about discrimination and taboos, and was like, how would this group (especially the Paladin) handle a helpless teenage Tiefling warlock who made a pact with the evil god Bane who is also their arch-enemy? Turned out to be a total shock for them, and again it helped them get into character more than anything I've ever prepared in advance before. There was conflict within the party, but they ultimately allowed the Tiefling to follow them, and it added another layer of cool RP for the rest of the game. I think it worked well because I read the room first – I designed the encounter based on the moment. It was improv.
They were carrying a corrupt artifact they'd gotten from a villain earlier, and brought it to this monastery to figure out what to do with it. The elven monks there had been debating what to do about the corruption in the forest for 200 years, which seems like a long time to the mostly human party. One side wanted to intervene, the other wanted to let nature take its course. The group wanted to figure out how to convince the monks to solve their dispute and figure out what to do with the artifact.
I made up another thing, and ended up having them do this combat ritual to expedite the debate, where the two disagreeing factions of monks meditated and conjured shadows on the battlefield representing their disagreement (because I didn't have any stat blocks or NPCs prepped), and the party fought them off. With each attack, I had each PC state their character's intentions, or how their character feels about the overall dispute. When they swung at the conjured shadows, they would hear the voices of the monks either agreeing, the shadow fading away, or issuing a "rebuttal" by summoning another shadow. I just figured that out because I'd been talking about Plato with my friends earlier and the monastery reminded me of this magical Athenaeum where old elves debate philosophy forever… and mixed that with some anime demons I'd seen recently.
Some characters were more or less into the whole thing, but all of the players really made an effort to be their characters and sync up. I was amazed – we'd always had good roleplay, but this was another level IMO. The Paladin was motivated by justice, the Monk was motivated by balance, the Rogue was motivated by self-interest, the Wizard was motivated by knowledge. I couldn't have made this shit up in advance. They succeeded at the encounter, and as a reward I just gave them full access to the monastery, and told them the monks would agree to follow their plan as far as the artifact was concerned, provided it didn't violate any of their sacred codes.
Anyway – just wanted to share this as an example of how totally letting go of the story can produce (what felt like to me) amazing results. I wouldn't have done this on Session 1 or even Session 10, but it made a lot of sense for Session 25 or whatever it was. I feel like these guys can almost run the campaign without me now. I don't have to prep a damn thing anymore, it just prepped itself.
I'd been running with The Alexandrian's "prep situations" mantra, but I don't even know if I need to do that anymore at this point. It's more like "set up situations in real time" now, for me. I'm continuing to be impressed by how little information my group needs in order to make a good story come alive. And I think pure-improv DMing is sweet. I'm just yes-anding with the rest of them, but as the narrator. It's like meta-improv with dice.
Anyone else had really good results with pure improv/zero prep? I'm starting to challenge the idea that DMs need to do anything in advance for the game to work. I know it's a crazy idea, but this just came out of nowhere and we had a lot of fun. It's not that I'm showing up with no material – I'm just basing everything off the players, their characters and what we've done in past sessions under this overarching theme of the world map I created in the beginning. Maybe it's just a late-stage campaign thing. Who knows. It was cool!
- For Lazy DM’s: How to prep a session in 3 steps or less or your money back!
- Had a session planned but it fell through? No problem!
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