Monday, February 22, 2010

A Template for Improvisation

This is a response to Martin Ralya's nice little post on improvising your game. It is a template designed for a low-notes, improvisational approach to gming. As I mention in my response to his article, I see templates as a great tool for organising your thoughts and developing your skills. With a lot of experience, they're probably unnecessary, but for those of us who lack that advantage, there are tools. I've tried to incorporate Martin's six points as to what constitutes good improvisation. The bold represent section headings; the underlined are sections to fill out; the italics represent my commentary on how to use the template.

I think this section is probably the bare minimum for what you need to prepare for an adventure. Of course, some GMs might require even less. If you're going for improvisation, bare minimum is probably the right amount.
Adventure name:
Good note-taking practice more than anything.
Main task:
A conflict to be resolved or task to be completed. Anything that lends tension can be a task, as it takes tension to drive the game. Doesn't necessarily have to be a "task" as such. Make the task clear as early in the game as possible.
Necessary objectives:
A brief list of encounters that will probably play out as a result of the main task. These are the plot points that piece the adventure together. You will probably want to develop them seperately in some kind of detail.
Supplementary objectives:
A set of encounters which MIGHT occur in the adventure. In a murder-mystery, a duel with the villain, or a shoot-out with gangsters, could very well happen, but a lot of it is down to player initiative. This list will flavour the adventure. If your supplementaries are full of violence, you'll have a violent adventure. If they're mostly about negotiation, you'll have a diplomacy-heavy adventure. It's worth thinking these through as possibilities so that you have some good encounters to use "on the spur of the moment" without binding yourself to them as tightly as your necessary objectives.
Work out the main cast. Minor characters can be improvised on the fly. Remember, if you're not going to re-use a character after a single encounter, or if they're only meant to pose a minor annoyance, you're better off using templates. No one's going to care that "Sergeant Lathias" of the Elven Guard is just a stock Elven Warrior with a Dex bonus and a cool sword rather than a unique NPC worked out in exquisite detail.

Following Martin's first point, in the early game you should explain the tension to the players and let them make some initial probes into it. Be open to their suggestions, let them catch some easy clues (nothing too vital, but be generous), and use it as a time to set the mood and, more importantly, to gather information about the party's intentions. Remember Martin's second point, to make sure the first encounter is a detailed one, and take your time. It will give the players their best clues as to what the adventure will be about.
My players understand the adventure as:
You may have planned a diplomatic adventure, but the players quickly decide they're here to be assassins. Oh well. Don't try to railroad them back onto what you hoped the adventure to be about. Enjoy the collaborative process.
My players are mostly interested in:
If the players are making plans, talking about future directions for development, or otherwise expressing interests in what they want to have happen, write it down immediately.

As you observe what the players are saying, jot down some ideas below.
I should emphasise:
Which of your pre-planned encounters should be played out in full? Review your notes you wrote before the game.
I should down-play:
You can strike from the list any supplementary objectives that seem irrelevant at this point. But maybe you have some vital plot-points. Include them, but expedite them. They'll probably bore your players. Of course, if they show more interest when you introduce them, feel free to play them out in full. This corresponds to point three.
I should modify:
If they're in a mood for a fight, add more goons. If they're in the mood to wheel and deal, remind yourself that the NPCs will ask questions before they shoot. And so on. "Raid the camp" will play out differently with stealthy, combative, and diplomatic emphases. This is related to Martin's fifth point.

As you meander through to mid-game, quickly take stock of the following. This is about gauging energy levels, Martin's sixth point.
How is everyone feeling, or what do they want?
Bored? Excited? Unsatisfied? They want a final fight? They want to figure out whodunnit? General mood at the table.
I should end the adventure:
Give yourself either a hard or soft time limit (30 minutes, or "soon", or "whenever.") Give yourself enough time to wrap things up to a satisfying conclusion, without having the feeling that something was missing. Of course, you can violate this self-imposed limit, but forcing yourself to consider the end of the adventure at this stage allows you to adapt your pacing to the mood of the group.
Scenes left to run:
Jot down a quick list of scenes you want to run. Maybe you decide that a scene previously vital is now not worth including. Maybe you decide that a scene previously unimportant would now add something interesting. Once again, this is about adjusting your pacing to the development of the game, adapting your plans to the real situation.

Take a big breath before the finale. Allow a brief lull. This corresponds to Martin's fourth point, and allows a bit of a drumroll before the narrative climax. The players should probably be aware that the finale is coming, though they might not know exactly what form it will take. Include a scene of either the night before the battle, them riding the train before the outlaws attack, looking over the blueprints of the bank vault, whatever. Again, listen to your players. Then go for it. Here is a checklist, as you've probably already planned out your final scene better than any other.
Are the other points in the plot resolved?
You may have to jetisson bits of your plot, remember.
Are the players properly prepared?
Decide for yourself what "properly" means. It may mean armed to the teeth and well-rested, or it may mean exhausted and on the edge of collapse, or anything in between. It depends what mood is needed for the last big scene to be effective. Remember, a sudden find or a boobie trap can shape the party faster than a bunch of long and drawn-out encounters. Let them do any planning they need to at this stage, assuming it's appropriate.
Has everyone had enough?
Not as in fed-up, but if the party still wants to interrogate one more witness, let them. If everyone's having a great time, you can add some more minor encounters that you wanted to, but once all the loose ends are wrapped up any more will reek of stalling.

After the final fight, take some time to wrap up the adventure. Use this section THROUGHOUT the adventure to remind yourself what should be addressed to wind down the game, recap progress, and give significance to events.
Minor victories:
If the party helps out a minor NPC, it might be worth having them named in the cheering mob at the end that greats the victorious conquerors. Or if they made a minor enemy, maybe that enemy can send them a nasty letter, reminding them they have unfinished business. As you go through the game, note down little victories so you can remind the party of everything they've accomplished.
Loose ends:
If you're forced to cut off a sub-plot for the sake of the session, remind the players that they never DID find Farmer MacGreggor's chickens, and that The Green Ghost is still at large. Note these down as the party turns away from minor threads. Of course, they may be utterly important by the end. In that case don't bother, or else risk a "so what."
Campaign framing:
In the course of one adventure, the party may change allegiances, influence the course of an ongoing conflict, or in some other way change the status of the campaign. Take note of how the party is altering the game in the long-term, to lend significance to their actions.

Your group may or may not have a post-game ritual. Maybe everyone goes over high points and low points in a formal way; maybe people just make some odd comments as they pack up their things; or maybe you just think about it on the ride home. Whatever you do, jot down some notes for future development. This is essentially the "PMI" (plus, minus, interesting) model for reflection and criticism.
Things that fared well (and why):
Things that fared poorly (and why):
Things that surprised me during the game: