This essay is one more 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.
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 sixth essay on the topic:
- Part 3 dealt with the challenge story element.
- Part 4 outlined three more story elements.
- Part 5 offered guidelines on using story elements at the table.
Part 6 explores the various reference sheets I have in my GM folder.
These reference sheets are another resource I prepare in advance. Unlike the story elements, these sheets are not intended for a single use. I use the sheets as long-term reference, sometimes only refreshing them at the end of a campaign. Typically, these sheets give me a ready source of details to weave into my improvisation. Access to such small details give my improvisation depth and help provide an illusion of readiness for the Players.
I use the following reference sheets when I improvise:
- Cheat Sheet
- Location Aspects
- List of Names
- GMC Personalities
- Combat Abilities
The broadest of my reference sheets is what I call my cheat sheet. This list is similar to a compilation of the story elements. However, this sheet is created at the start of the campaign. It lists all manner of facts about the setting, so perhaps gazetteer would be a better name.
Over time I have developed a broad background to my campaign setting. Such a large database is unwieldy to consult in the middle of a session. The cheat sheet brings together the salient facts about the current location of the game, enabling me to improvise my way through the world and stay true to my established background.
The exact nature of the cheat sheet varies according to the setting. When we were playing in Sigil, it included lists of quarters and major elemental planes. The current Fortress of Crows campaign cheat sheet has the following categories:
- Factions – political groupings, allied, independent and opponents
- Planar Geography – the quadrants and zones of Valinor
- Cities – major Valinor cities, with notes on inhabitants
- Ships – names for airships
- Creatures – basic descriptions of main planar species
- Materials – notes on planar building material
One of the most popular parts of my game is when we all brainstorm a location. This process generates three aspects about a specific location, and perhaps details a GMC strongly associated with that location.
- I have written before about the process of brainstorming with Players
- The Huginn’s Fables: Locations posts present examples of brainstorming
The Players love it when I weave a location aspect back into the story. I have a folder about the Fortress of Crows as an open resource during the game. When the story focuses on a location, I pull out the relevant sheet and see which aspect might influence the story.
List of Names
The next two reference sheets deal with GMCs. The first is a list of suitable names. I established naming lists for each of the main cultures in the setting. Most are grids of at least 100 names, often separate lists for males and females. A few cultures have compound names, where the name is randomly formed from several components.
Rather than consult these tables during play, I prepare a list of names in advance. This list is weighted towards the current location. Thus, the Fortress of Crows list has many elven and djinn names, but only a few troll ones. Whenever a new GMC is introduced, I scan the list for a suitable name. The chosen name is then crossed out, to prevent repetition. Should any category of names run low, I generate more entries during the week, and print out a new list for the weekend game.
The other aspect of a GMC is their personality. Once again, I have a large collection of random tables to create varied personalities. These are far too cumbersome to use at the table. Pre-rolled personalities are the solution.
For the Personality reference sheet, I list the last four traits of the GMC, as described on my GMC story element card. These four traits are:
- Appearance – highlighting general build and a distinguishing feature
- Acting – ways to portray the GMC at the table
- Aspect – a dominant rune, and an associated personality trait
- But – a conflict, secret or other plot hook
The first three are listed as a package on the reference sheet, while the But traits have their own list. This way I can mix the personality of the GMC with a conflict appropriate to their role. The combination creates an interesting individual for the scene. Not every trait makes it into the scene, but the personality sheet gives me enough detail to work with during the game. Should the Players decide to engage the GMC in deeper conversation, then I still have a framework to rely upon.
This final reference sheet is the most mechanical of them all. Even though my beloved HeroQuest is relatively rules-lite, there are still some mechanics. I find it more engaging when opponents of the Heroes have colourful abilities of their own. If I were to rely upon improvising every ability at the table, then there would be too much repetition.
Instead, I prepare a list of suitable abilities for generic opponents, such as:
- Warrior Hero
Entries such as Thugs and Non-combatants are intended for gangs of minions. A series of smaller boxes beneath the abilities presents distinguishing minion traits. These distinguish the individuals within the crowd, and avoid labels such a “Thug number 1” and “Bandit number 3”.
Whenever the story leads to combat, I choose an appropriate set of abilities. I often re-skin these entries several times over the course of a campaign, to tweak the abilities to match the exact opponent. However, such minor changes take very little mental effort, enabling me to focus on the Heroes and their story.
My reference sheets provide the missing ingredients which allow me to take the story wherever the Players want to go. They ensure a ready supply of details to animate these unexpected destinations. There are always times when the Players surprise me, yet the reference sheets cover the bulk of situations and smooth my improvisation process.
They are also another safety net for me, which gives me more confidence to start a session with minimal preparation. Appropriate reference sheets result in faster prep and more story.
Do you use reference sheets? What setting notes do you prepare? How could I improve my cheat sheet? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Improv Gaming 5, using story elements Successes
- Something for the Weekend next week: Year 3 Report