GM Improvisation Mistakes that Everyone Makes

GM Improvisation Mistakes that Everyone Makes

Written by Luke Hart

Do your players frequently go left instead of right? Do they often do the thing you least expect? Of course, they do. You’re a game master, and they’re the players. This is normal. And you know exactly how to deal with it: improvising. However, are you doing it right? Here are the common improvisation mistakes that almost everyone makes and what to do instead.

Watch or listen to this article by clicking the video below.

#1 Not Knowing Your World

For whatever reason, not knowing the world in which your adventure is taking place makes improvisation more difficult. For example, I have been running games in the Forgotten Realms since high school. I know tons about it, so if I had to improvise things in the Forgotten Realms, it would be rather easy for me to do. I can just pick a city, town, or thing I am familiar with. However, Eberron is a kind of newish game setting for me. I’m currently running my Pathfinder 2 game in the world of Eberron, but I’m still reading about it, and what I have read about Eberron isn’t super locked into my brain quite yet. I don’t remember everything, so I might struggle a little to improvise in the world of Eberron.

For whatever reason, not knowing the world in which your adventure is taking place makes improvisation more difficult. I don’t exactly know why; there’s just something about having your brain immersed and filled with information about the world in which everything is happening. It just makes improvisation that much easier. So, I suggest becoming very familiar with the world in which you run your game.

One thing I do before every game session for Pathfinder 2 is get my Eberron game book out and read through different parts of it. It doesn’t even have to be the part where the adventures take place; it could just be something related. That stuff will come up organically during gameplay when players ask you a question.

They’ll want to do something or ask an NPC about something they would probably know, or they may find a book in a dungeon and want to know what’s in it. You don’t want to get stuck, like, “Oh, crap. It’s probably something about the game world, and if I only knew it better, I might be able to improvise something.” So anyway, before every Pathfinder 2 game, I read some of this to refresh my memory and learn more and more about the game world.

#2 Not Understanding Your Players’ Characters

Not all of my players create character backstories—you know, where they came from, what they did before becoming an adventurer, what motivates them now, why they became an adventurer, what they’re doing now, and their goals—that sort of thing. Although not all my players make those, I make a strong effort to read backstories and try to retain a little about them by making notes to keep them fresh in my mind. I do this because knowing my player characters’ backstories—what motivates them and what they care about—helps me improvise during the game.

For instance, I know that one player’s character, Kasim, is a follower of the Horned God, and his main motivation is to spread the faith of his deity. Right now, he is currently the Avatar of the Horned God because, after entering a different place called the Dark Shards, the Horned God’s existence was erased from the world’s memory. However, because he was a deity, he became jettisoned inside Kasim, making Kasim the Avatar of the Horned God. He is working to spread the faith and convert as many people as possible so the horned God might grow and be elevated again to the rank of deity.

I know that my player’s character, Dragar, was looking for his lost mother, which motivated him a lot. He was also looking for his brother. These motivated his character until he pulled a card from the deck of many things and lost his soul, which was jettisoned into an iron golem. The Mother of Nightmares controls this iron golem.

My point is I know their characters’ backstories and try to keep them fresh in my mind. Not only do I use that to prepare material for the games, but when something comes up during the game, it helps me improvise around their characters’ motivations and improvise things that appeal to my players. For instance, if they’re going off the path and do something I haven’t prepared for, I could pull them back on the path or point them toward something I have prepared or that might be more interesting to their backstories to motivate them.

Furthermore, knowing your PC’s backstories, motivations, and personalities allows you, the game master, to predict their actions. Imagine being able to build your adventures or game elements in a way that appeals to your players’ characters, making improvisation less necessary. When making plot hooks, build something that will appeal to your PCs.

For instance, I know that Kasim wants to get the Horned God back to the level of deity, so I can build plot hooks that appeal to that and say, “Hey, there’s this dungeon over here you need to clear; oh, and by the way, we heard there’s an artifact in there, too, which might help you become a deity.” Something like that will immediately appeal to Kasim.

#3 Not Building Modular Game Elements

So, what is a modular game element? It’s an NPC, a trap, a puzzle, a magic item, an encounter, an adventure, or a location. They are elements you can drag and drop into your game wherever needed.

Imagine you have fully fleshed-out pieces of the game, like an entire adventure, mini-adventure, or encounter. They’re not just ideas or rough frameworks; they’re fully prepared and ready to go in your game. You’re designing these elements and not placing them at specific places or planning to use them necessarily, but you’re literally designing them so you can drag and drop them into your game wherever you need them. You have a folder, binder, or file on your computer where you can just grab these things when your players go off the track, you need something to fill in, or when there’s an “oh, crap” moment during your game. This makes it so that no matter where the players or their characters head off to, you have something to throw at them.

Let’s pretend your players decide to track down a criminal they heard about, and you have nothing planned for them. Well, you can reach into your modular game elements and pull out a dungeon map, a few encounters, a trap, an NPC, and a location.

Each of these elements is ready to run at the table. So, you have your dungeon at the location, for which you’ll use the dungeon map. As the characters explore the dungeon, they encounter the NPC you had ready to drag and drop. They’ll also run across the trap in a corridor somewhere, and they’ll fight or fast talk their way through the encounters you grabbed and dropped into your dungeon. Finally, they encounter the criminal you tacked onto one of the encounters you already had planned, and there you go.

They went off and did what they wanted, and you didn’t really have to plan that specific thing. Instead, you improvised using things you had already made and stitched them together to create a dungeon on the fly.

#4 Not Creating a Pool of Ideas

The drag-and-drop resources that are completely fleshed out are a thing, yes, but you don’t always have to have those, or you might not have tons of them. You can have a massive pool of ideas about various things and pull from those. One thing I do after every game is make a list of plot points based on what happened during the game that might show up later.

For instance, let’s pretend that the players got to the main boss at the end of their adventure. They defeated the boss, but the boss pleaded, “No, please don’t kill me.” The players are like, “All right, fine. If you stop doing bad stuff, we’ll let you go, but you gotta promise.” The boss is like, “I promise. I won’t do bad things.” Then the boss leaves, and the players are like, “Yay! We didn’t have to fight him.” But guess what? This is something you can pull back into your game later. Perhaps that big bad boss isn’t done. He might just go gather up some more cronies and get back to bad stuff in a different part of the world where those same adventurers may or may not run into him again.

Anyway, when things like this happen in my game, I write them down. At the bottom of every single journal page in my OneNote is a section for plot points. They’re organized, and I have them in bold and highlighted so I can easily find that list of ideas. There are things that I can pull on whenever I need to. I often pull on those ideas before a game session and plan adventures based on them. But there’s nothing to say that if I panic, my players go off somewhere, and I have no idea what will happen; I can’t just go down to my plot points really quick. I can improvise it on the fly because I had a plot point in my journal entry.

As a game master, I know it will appeal to my players because it’s something they already kind of did, and it’s now coming back to bite. But that’s what we do as game masters, right? We create drama and conflict. Without them, there’s nothing to do in the game world; there’s no reason to play the game. Yes, I’m taking something from their past and having it come back to bite them, but that’s my job. That’s what I do. And that’s what makes the game fun for me and for my players.

Having a pool of ideas is similar to modular game elements, but they’re just ideas; they’re not fully fleshed out. So, you don’t design the entire adventure; you just have the core idea. For instance, kobolds are taking over a barn, and then if you need it, you just drop in a plot hook.

The farmer rushes in, begging for help, and then you improvise the adventure as needed until you get to the end of the game session. Between game sessions, you can design the rest of the adventure. They might only get through part of the barn—barns are big, right? Then, the game session ends, and I can go think about how I want it to progress.

I have a really cool boss fight in this barn and want some special terrain effects, so maybe there are kobolds up in the rafters pulling planks from the walls and throwing them down. Maybe they have buckets of nails that they’re throwing down at the characters and setting the nails on fire. They’re doing some crazy stuff, so the straw in the barn is catching fire and becoming an inferno. The kobolds are throwing nails, and then a chimera swoops in—that’s the sort of thing I just improvised. If I’m unable to do that or just don’t want to, or I want it to be cooler, I can do that at home between sessions, right?

You can also have ideas for traps, encounters, NPCs, and such and just pull from that list when you need to fill in a gap. All right, I beat that one to death. Let’s go on to the next one.

#5 Not Having Backup Plans

OK, so I run an Ancient Dragon campaign for my patrons every month. One day, they said they wanted to go to Bau’Tianyan, so I prepared that dungeon. I’d had that dungeon prepared for something like three months. Anyway, they’re like, “Yeah, Luke. We’re gonna go there next and defeat Tianyan.” I said, “All right, guys. Let’s go.”

I got this dungeon ready, but during the last session, they ran across a planned random encounter, and the loot from this thing was crazy. They got a ring of three wishes and a luck blade that had two wishes, so they had five wishes. After that session, they sat in the Discord chat, discussing all these wishes and being stuck in the Dark Shards.

They thought they could probably wish to go home if they wanted to because there was some bad stuff happening there, so they could just wish to go back and take care of things and then return to the Dark Shards or something later. While they’re talking about this, I’m just thinking, “Oh, crap. What am I going to do here?” So I needed a backup plan if they decided, for whatever reason, to make a wish and not go to Bau’Tianyan, which we’d been waiting for around three months to go to.

Also, they were considering doing several different things. They might want to return to Waterdeep in particular because a mad titan was rampaging around after my players awakened it from a deep slumber. They’re responsible for this mad titan. It’s their fault, and now it’s destroying the world, so they’re thinking that maybe they should use a wish to go back and fight it.

By the way, their communication with the home office, their franchise representatives—their patron of sorts—was severed. Something bad had happened back home, and they could no longer communicate with their patron, so they thought they probably should go take care of it.

In addition, a while ago (this goes back to the plot points I keep track of), they ran into someone called the Queen of Worms. She was just a hag at the time, and she kept purple worms as friends, which is why she was called the Queen of Worms. They helped her defeat a black dragon, which allowed the Queen of Worms to rise in power, and she began taking over more and more territory.

One of my players, Kasim, had a link to the Queen of Worms because he drank some wine or something she offered him. Every so often, Kasim had visions and pictures of what the Queen of Worms could see. So, my players knew she was up to bad things, and an army of purple worms was rolling over the world.

Ultimately, my players decided to go back and wrap some stuff up. They were level 17, so they had the power and wherewithal to do some stuff, right? I needed a backup plan, so I quickly fleshed out this mad titan and what that encounter might look like. I fleshed out what happened to Waterdeep and what was happening with the surrounding area, and then I got to the Queen of Worms.

What if they want to go fight the Queen of Worms? Well, I got some stat blocks. I figured out who she was and who her minions would be, and I set that encounter up so that if they decided to go do those things, I had a basic framework. I had my backup plan. Was it fully fleshed out? No, it wasn’t. It would still require some improvisation on my part, but I had the nucleus of the idea. I had the stat blocks, the encounter, and the basic idea.

Once you have the basic idea and the fiddly bits like stat blocks that are harder to improvise on the fly, the little details are easier to fill in. So, figure out what your backup plan will be. They don’t have to be fully fleshed out, but you must have a general idea and prepare the things you don’t want to improvise on the fly. I don’t like making maps on the fly, and I for sure don’t want to create stat blocks. I also kind of don’t like creating encounters on the fly, but if I can have the maps, stat blocks, and encounters ready to go, I can pretty much fill in the rest.

So, definitely consider having a plan B and a plan C in case your players veer off the intended path. It could be a side quest, a random encounter, or an unexpected quiz, or you could pull it from the plot points you’ve been compiling in your game master journals after every game session.

 #6 Not Using “Yes, and. . .”

Let’s say the players are hunting down a criminal, and you throw some clues into the narrative. Finally, a player declares that the criminal must be hiding in the forest. As the game master, you accept that as true, even if it isn’t. And then you add an “and” to it in your head.

“The criminal is hiding in the forest, and he has convinced a bunch of fey creatures to help hide and protect him.” Then, when the players are tromping around the forest and confront the fey creatures trying to protect the criminal, a player declares, “I bet he’s hiding in that ravine. We should go down.” And you accept that as true—the criminal is in the ravine, even if you had decided beforehand that he was somewhere else—and add to it. “The criminal is hiding in the ravine in a partially submerged cave system carved out by water.” Thus, you continue creating the scenario as you go along.

“Yes, and. . .” is a classic improvisation technique, and this is how it goes. When a player has an idea or thinks a thing is true, you accept it. You say “yes” to it, and then you add an “and” to it, something additional that is also true. As this goes back and forth, you build upon the original and craft a narrative around it from the ground up.

I think many people don’t understand or overlook the fact that the players aren’t aware of when you’re using “yes, and.” Building upon something your players said isn’t the only way to use it. Forget about the players; this is you, the game master, improvising in your head, thinking things through, and figuring stuff out. Use “yes, and” with yourself, and if your players ask a question, just blurt out an answer. There it is. It’s on the table. It’s been said, and you can’t take it back. Now, you have to add an “and” to it so you accept that thing you just made up. Just keep making it up as you go. Keep saying “yes, and.” Throw it on the table, accept it as true, and add to it.

With practice, your players won’t even know you’re making it up. Don’t worry if it makes sense. Your players will question and theorize, trying to figure out why something doesn’t make sense. They’ll come up with theories to solve the mystery. All of this drama is cool; it makes adventures interesting. Your players may also talk amongst themselves, which is your opportunity to think about how you can build on it. You might also consider taking quick notes off to the side on your notepad or computer screen if you’re playing online. That way, you can keep track of them in the future. After all, they might not go do that thing right away.

#7 OVERUSING “Yes, and. . .”

Players have crazy ideas at times, and you can’t just accept every idea they spit out. “Well, the criminal is heading out to sea because they’re going after sunken treasure.” If you accept every idea they put forth, if everything is a yes, then everything in the game will start to feel contrived. Not everybody is always right; sometimes, you might think a thing is true and act on a premise that turns out to be false, only to later discover that something else was needed to make it feel authentic.

So, you want to avoid using “yes, and” too much because it will kill the similitude that makes suspending disbelief impossible. It can make the players think that all they have to do is say something, and they know it will be true because the game master is always saying yes. Sometimes, you should say “no, but” to what they say; what they think can’t always be right.

Another reason to not just say yes to everything is that sometimes the ideas are just bad. There’s nothing wrong with throwing out a bad idea. So, for those reasons, instead of “yes, and” we use “no, but” here you tell your players no but give them a consolation prize. It’s a participation trophy in D terms or role-playing terms. It’s a different option instead of the one that they had considered. “No, the criminal is not in the forest. You have looked everywhere. But, you run across some fae who have noticed increased activity along the road just west of the forest.

#8 Trying to Do Everything Yourself

When you’re improvising during a game, you often have to give information to your players and answer their questions. Well, sometimes you give answers that make no sense because you’re giving them quickly, are under pressure, just plain screw up, or whatever. And then, in your head, you’re thinking, “Crap, I’m screwed,” and you’re scrambling to think about why the answer is what you just said it is.

However, just relax. Not only can mysteries be really cool—even when erroneously created—but you don’t need to worry about your players questioning why. If they do, just give them your poker face. You don’t have to explain anything; they need to figure it out themselves. Then you can just sit there and listen to your players wondering how that thing could be that way and coming up with theories. Then you can just pick one of them to be true if you want. The bottom line is: steal their ideas when you don’t have any of your own or when their idea turns out to be better than yours.

#9 Expecting to Improve Without Practice

OK, yeah. So, you’re just going to watch this video or read an article somewhere, and then bam. Overnight, you’ll be like a magical expert at improvisation and a crazy awesome genius at it. No—it’s not going to happen. Like almost anything else in life, you need to get some practice in. Yes, you’ll probably not be very good at first. You’ll probably stumble over your words, and it’ll be miserable. OK. But don’t give up. Stick with it, and you’ll get better.

Also, the more experience you have as a game master, the easier improvisation usually gets. So, if you’re a new game master, don’t worry. It’s OK. It will be difficult and frustrating, and it might make you feel anxious and nervous. I get that. But if you stick with it and keep going, practice more, and keep running whatever game you like running, you’ll get better at improvisation. You gain more experience, and you have more things floating around in your head that you can draw on to improvise with.

#10 Not Redirecting Your Players

I’m constantly doing this in my games. As my players are talking about what they’re going to do and making plans, I’m listening, thinking, and planning myself: “If they do that, then I’m going to do this.” Or, “That’s the wrong direction. What can I do to get things back on track?”

This happened recently in my Ancient Dragon game, where the group was discussing going to Ozz Jimkor. This is an important town in the Dark Shards because that’s where they produce and grow most of the area’s food supply. They were talking about going there because they were headed in that direction and were kind of close, but I hadn’t fleshed out that town. I’d been a little lazy. I had a note in my journal to flesh out that town because there was a good chance they’d go there, but every time I did game prep, I would just ignore my note.

I kept thinking, “Ah, they’re not gonna go there. Just don’t worry about it. It’s not that big of a deal.” Well, they were really serious about maybe going to Ozz Jimkor, and I was panicking, so I thought about the couple of places I had fleshed out. I had Margarit the Lich ready for them to visit, which they’d also talked about visiting, and I’d had Bau’Tianyan ready for months. I began plotting how to redirect them to one of these places instead.

Oftentimes, when players wander off course, the game master just accepts it and then scrambles to create content for them. However, you don’t have to just accept it. Instead, when players wander off course, weave subtle things into the narrative that pushes them back on course.

For example, if the group is trying to find a character’s missing mother and is convinced she is in a swamp somewhere, they might begin traveling about the swamp with little success. So, you might pop an NPC into the swamp that tells them about an old tower where they might look. And, of course, as it turns out, the PC’s mother was actually there the entire time.

#11 Not Re-skinning

This is the age-old technique of just moving a thing from place X to place Z because that’s where the players were going, or using an adventure you had prepared to assault a baron’s castle in place of the criminal band’s stronghold because the players decided to go based on a rumor they heard—and you weren’t ready for it.

Sometimes, we game masters can just be too strict about things. “Look; no, no. The mother is in the tower over here by the mountain. The tower and the mother are not in the swamp. I don’t care how long you all want to wander around that swamp. You’re not gonna find the mother there; that tower’s not gonna be there. You’re just gonna have random encounters and soggy boots and leeches eating you. Yeah, you’re just gonna be covered with leeches for weeks because the tower is over there, darn it!”

However, it doesn’t always have to be how you planned things out. If players go in an unexpected direction, you can “re-skin” or repurpose pre-planned scenarios, encounters, or characters to fit the new situation. For instance, in the previous example of the PC’s missing mother, if the characters are gallivanting around the swamp, you could just plop the tower down in the swamp over the next rise. Who said the tower just had to be in the mountains to the east?

#12 Not Buying Time

Sometimes, you just need time to think; improvisation takes a little brain power. You’re stumped, and you can just feel that tightness in your chest; you can feel the heat rising, and you can feel yourself clamping down and panicking. You’re just thinking, “Holy crap. I have no idea what I’m gonna do.” Your mind goes blank, and you have five people staring at you, waiting for you to just drop something amazing, but you just can’t do it.

Well, that’s when you grab your books and stall. “Hey, guys, just hold on a second. I’m gonna take a bio break. I’ll be right back. Just discuss among yourselves, go get some pizza, and I’ll be right back.” Give yourself 15 minutes, and don’t worry. The books are still clean, and you have figured out what you’ll do next.

But that’s just one way you can stall for time. Another way you can buy yourself some time when the group is going in a direction you didn’t plan for is just to throw something else in there. This can come from pre-modular game elements you have prepared or a resource like Lair Magazine. Just go into an issue of Lair Magazine, grab an encounter and a map, and throw it down. There you go. You’re running something fun and cool at the game session that you didn’t prepare, but you’re buying time so the group can have a game.

While the group plays that scenario, you have time to think about the other thing they want to do. By the way, if needed, you can stall until the end of the game session; oftentimes, encounters take a long time. If you throw them an encounter with a puzzle in a little mini-adventure, it could bulk out that game session until you get to the end. Then, you have time before the next session to actually plan.

#13 Not Delegating

Once, for my Hand of Light Group, they had cleared the enemies from a sewer compound and decided to make it their base. “This is gonna be our base, and we want to spruce this place up. We want to throw some traps and cool crap in here and get this all outfitted.” Now, as the game master, I could have thought I had to figure this out, that I had to help them do this and make all the decisions, but why go through all that effort?

This is why I delegated it all to them, “All right. You guys decide what you want to do with your base, where you want to place different traps, and what defenses you want to have. If this is going to be like the research area with the library, you guys take care of that.” They might ask me a thing or two, like is it possible to do X or Y, or could we have this, and I’ll give them an answer or explain the cost, but they get to improvise the details—not me.

My point here is to gauge your players in the improvisation process. You don’t have to improvise everything yourself. Obviously, this doesn’t work for everything, and not everything will work for them. However, many things do. For instance, knowing everything in advance can be difficult if we’re talking about world-building. But if you have a player whose character is from a certain region and something comes up in the game about that region, you can just ask your player, “What do you know is true about that region?” Allow them to improvise and create something about that region or town they grew up in.

Take some of that work and burden and give it to your players; there’s a chance they’ll enjoy that act of creation. They get to poke at and do stuff to the game world or other things that they normally don’t get to do. When your players get to do it, that’s really cool, “I just designed this city,” or “I got to name this forest, and I chose the creatures in it.” They are now taking ownership of a small bit of the game, which might help it stick in their brains a little more and make them more invested in your game world. Not only is it better for them and they can be really happy, you just took that work off your shoulders and made your life easier in many ways.

#14 Ignoring Clues from Your Players

I’m always listening to my players’ chatter during my games. I was in one game once where the game master always had his head in the books and wasn’t paying attention to us. He was always doing his own thing when the players were talking amongst themselves. When they weren’t actively asking the game master a question or declaring an action, the players would just talk about themselves, and the game master ignored us.

The problem with that is, many times, player chatter could give the game master a clue about what they want to do next. If they pay attention to players, they will know they want to do something. It’s kind of like Ozz Jimkor and how I knew they were talking about going there, and that eventually they would, so I should probably plan it. I didn’t plan it, but if you were better than me, then you know you could have planned it, and you could be ready for it instead of having to improvise or scramble to redirect them.

I did this a lot when I was running Curse of Strahd. I gave my players 12 plot books with tons of different things they could go off and do in that world. I’m just tossing them out like candy, like go do this and go do that and go do that. My players are like, well, crap. What do we do, and what has Luke prepared? Well, I didn’t have all of them prepared. I had maybe two, but many times, I only had one prepared. There were 12 plot hooks and 12 things they could go do, but only one was prepared. Why?

I was listening to my players and their chat matter. I knew what they were most interested in and which things they thought were most urgent. They’d think something sounded really important, and they should probably go talk to the Abbott over there because bad things were happening. Or they would say, “This thing is closer to us, so let’s go there because it’s on the way.”

So, I listened to their chatter. That allows me to better plan my game sessions because I know what they will most likely do next. Listen to your players when they talk, especially when they are talking with each other. You know, the player group discussions that don’t involve you. This is not a time to zone out; pay attention! Your players often give clues about what they’ll do next, both short- and long-term. Then, you can prepare those things in advance without improvising.

#15 Not Eating Enough Bacon

Bacon has been scientifically proven to increase one’s ability to improvise. I personally suggest two packs of bacon a week, preferably with eggs, cheese, and biscuits—and not the nasty ones from McDonald’s. Make them yourself. There’s nothing like bacon in the morning frying on the griddle with eggs—it’s delicious.

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