Oct 28

Improv Gaming, Part 11: Improv at the Table


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmThis essay is the last major topic 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 ninth essay on the topic:


In this final part of the series, I pull together elements from all the other essays and run through my process at the table.



Starting the Session

The opening of each session is the most structured part of the game. The first third of my Session Outline Sheet is devoted to this introduction. After initially welcoming the Players, I run through awards and updates from the previous session. If I need to discuss anything about the game with the Players, then this is where I schedule it.


Once we are all ready to start the game, I read the scripted introduction to the session. This sets the scene for the Players and includes a brief review of previous events. The last part of this introduction segues smoothly into the instigating incident. Once this has been described to the Players, my role as GM steps back a little and control of the story shifts to the Players.



Building from the Opening

Once the instigating incident is introduced, the session often develops in one of two ways. The most organic one is when the Players’ responses to this initial story element result in further complications.


Most ways of dealing with the instigating incident require one or more contests. Each roll on the Narrative Outcomes table can add a fresh complication of its own. This is especially true of the “Yes, but . . .” and “No, but . . .” results. A few random cards here, and what began as a relatively simple obstacle can spiral into a complicated situation requiring the whole session to resolve.


Adding Fresh Story Input

The second type of session development is when the instigating incident is quickly resolved. This could be the result of some lucky rolls, or simply a good plan by the Players. For whatever reason, the challenge of the instigating incident has been resolved, and the Narrative Outcomes table did not create sufficient story input to keep the session going.


In this situation I turn to my story element cards. Each card is the basis for an encounter. I choose one of these cards, preferably a story element I can smoothly weave into the existing narrative. Adding a new encounter on the fly is probably the greatest improv challenge I face in a session.


My first choice is to look for a story element linked to the events of the instigating incident. This option weaves into the game smoothly, and appears as an extension to the first encounter. The ideal connection revolves around the actions of the Heroes. I especially like linking the next challenge to the Heroes’ solution to the first problem.


Swerving the Story

Sometimes no obvious link appears as I shuffle through my story element cards. In this scenario, the transition to the next scene is a little less smooth. However, an event linked to the location, or the actions of the main antagonists, is always an option. These default encounters reinforce the overall theme of the campaign, and fit almost anywhere.


There is no need to stress over scene jumps. Narrate the passage of time, or a change of location, then jump into the next scene. RPGs are episodic by nature, and there is no reason why the cut cannot appear within a session. If the encounters themselves are fun, then the transitions need not be perfectly smooth. The Players are likely to know you are improvising, and will accept a few jagged scene cuts along the way to a great session.


Devil in the Details

Along with improvising the encounters, the GM also needs to add flavour into a scene. The essence of improvisational gaming is the lack of game prep. Locations and GMCs are not prepared in advance, but all require details to bring them to life. GMC personality traits and reactions, along with location details, are improvised from a card drawn from the Skuld Deck.


When interpreting a card, I always keep in mind the underlying principles of story. I want to weave in previous events, especially when they were created by the Players. Likewise, I want to reinforce the themes of the campaign. Within these parameters, there is plenty of scope for improvisation. Drawing a random rune card merely gives me some prompts to spark my imagination.


Meanwhile, my reference sheets have names, locations and the game statistics I need to complete an encounter. These lists compile all the difficult details I could not improvise at the table. For everything else, I rely upon the Skuld Cards.


Ending the Session

During the session, I keep an eye on the time. As we approach the last hour of the session, I begin thinking about how to conclude the game. Every session cannot finish on a thrilling finale, but I aim for a conclusion to some part of the story. An extended contest, which need not always be a combat, is a good structure for the finale. The struggles of the session come to a head, then resolve in a series of rolls.


If such a contest is not possible, then my reserve option is to end with a cliff-hanger moment. A dramatic entrance, a sudden conflict or a plot revelation will all suffice. As ever, this works best if it builds upon events earlier in the session. Failing that, then this new input could be the introduction of one final story element.


Finally, I announce the end of the session. We then have a short period for the Players to wind down. This is the point when the Players can upgrade an ability to show how their Hero has learnt from the Session. We may also take a few minutes to chat about the game, before packing away for another week.




When I improvise, every session is different. However, this overview of my style highlights the main areas of improvisation, and how I use the tools from this series to create a story at the table. I love how an improvised session is more unpredictable for the GM. These days, I am often surprised at the events of a session. Improvisation can be a scary process, but it has been a liberating experience for me. I hope this improv gaming series has been helpful for you.


Is there anything else about improvisation you want to know? Have I skipped over any areas of the process? Have you tried any of these methods? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:



3 pings

  1. […] Something for the Weekend last week: Improv Gaming, Part 11: Improv at the Table […]

  2. […] Improv Gaming, Part 11: Improv at the Table […]

  3. […] Improv Gaming, Part 11: Improv at the Table […]

Leave a Reply