Jul 15

Improv Gaming, Part 4: More Story Elements


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmThis essay is the next part in the series exploring my approach to the liberating practice of improvised gaming. I hope you can take something useful from my techniques, and ease your progress towards faster prep.


See my Improv GM page for more articles on this topic.


In my approach to improv gaming, I have seven supports:

  • Background Reading
  • My Players
  • Instigating Incident
  • Collection of Story Elements
  • Reference Sheets
  • Narrative Outcomes Table
  • Skuld Cards


This is my fourth essay on the topic:


Part 4 describes three more story elements.


Collection of Story Elements

As noted last week, the story elements are another aspect of improvisation I prepare in advance. These story elements are scenes, or the seeds for scenes, written on mini-index cards. My five colour-coded categories are:

  • Challenges
  • Characters
  • Items
  • Locations
  • Themes



This essay explores the next three types of story element. Part five concludes this section of improv gaming by looking at the final category and providing some guidelines on using these story elements at the table.



My second category of story elements deals with characters, the GMCs which add colour and drama to the game. This is the area I struggle with the most, as I know I need to present these characters better at the table. We achieve moments of roleplaying, but there is definite room for improvement in this area.


I use white cards for the characters, as this is the most common story element, and I can buy packs of white index cards. There is a lot of information to include on a character card:

  • Name
  • Species
  • Sex
  • Role
  • Appearance – enough for a thumbnail sketch, usually highlighting general build and a distinguishing feature, so that all my humans do not look alike
  • Acting – hints for my portrayal of the GMC at the table
  • Aspect – a dominant rune, and an associated personality trait
  • But – a conflict, secret or other plot hook. This does not always impact the game, but gives the GMC some depth and gives me something to work with should the Players show increased interest in the character.
  • Notes – This summarizes any information or background I want the GMC to convey to the Players during the encounter. This is often left blank, if the role of the GMC is enough to produce a conflict with the Heroes, or otherwise guide the encounter.


I have long struggled with deciding what information to include in these summaries. On the one hand, I want to present a detailed picture of an engaging GMC. Conversely, information overload gives me too much to deal with at the table. I need brief notes, quickly understood, to keep the story moving. Yet, each GMC should be distinct, hopefully memorable, and consistently portrayed at each meeting. I am not certain I have balanced this conflict, but this is where I am at the moment.



  • Botholfir the Hawk
    • Human – Achean
    • Male
    • Ghost Fleet Captain
    • Appearance – muscular, gnarled skin
    • Acting – mocking sarcasm
    • Aspect – Desire, hasty
    • But – outcast, raised by elves in Sigil
    • Notes – survived two battles with Heroes



The previous story elements are often the focus of a scene. The next element, items, are far more like components. Recorded on yellow cards, the items are special objects which often influence the motivations of GMCs, or serve as goals for the Heroes. Such goals often involve acquiring, or protecting the item, but other options are possible.


Typically, these items are magical, which matches the tropes of the fantasy genre. I prefer details to emerge during play, so the initial description of the item is typically vague. The role of the item in the campaign background often denotes the item’s power, yet leaves the exact details vague. Following the principles of Chekhov’s gun, I want the item to be used by the Heroes at some point in the campaign. Ultimately, this is a Player choice, but one of my goals as the GM is to push the Players towards at least debating whether to use the item or not.



  • Fourth Breath of Orlanth
    • Trap’s Fealdir’s Wings
    • Holds Rivornwen’s sleeping body


This item is a casket of powerful air created during the Microscope game as part of the brainstorming for the Fortress of Crows campaign. The casket has featured in one session, but Player interest in the item was low. However, the campaign villain is focused on retrieving the wings, so the Fourth Breath will return to the story later. Hopefully more details will emerge when the spotlight shifts to this item, but for now the entry is little more than background details.


Read more about the Microscope game and the background it created



Another component category of story elements are locations. These are written on pink cards, and note places of interest outside the Fortress of Crows. Much as I like brainstorming locations with the Players, it is also helpful to have a few generic locations as part of my improv cards. These notes are kept short, as the details will be tailored according to the needs of the scene. During my prep I list various prompts about the location, to ease the pressure of improvising suitable details during play.


These locations are separate from the one in the Fortress, which are detailed in a folder available for the Players to access during play



  • Driftwood Grove
    • Home to Pelagornis/Elves/Djinn? – some potential obstacles for the Heroes
    • Outlaws or Traders? – additional motivations for the residents
    • Source of timber – one reason why the Heroes might care about the site


Improv 4 More SE QConclusion

Here we explored three more of my story elements. Part 5 will conclude the review of story elements by explaining the final category, before discussing how I use these story elements at the table. I am sorry these have taken so long to cover, but the topic was made clearer by the inclusion of examples.


How do you prepare your GMCs? What traits do you note? How would you weave background items into your story? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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