In any campaign that I have DM’d the players came up with some solution or go off toward some blank part of the map. That would send me scrambling to catch up to the player’s decisions, improvising my way to desperately trying to figure out what to do.
But, after a while, I realized that there had to be a better way than scrambling. Even though I am a proficient improviser, that doesn’t always translate into making the session fun. Instead, you can easily adapt to an unexpected player choice by having an understanding of the campaign setting, accepting player decisions as equal contributions to the story, and asking for time to prepare when you need it.
Let’s dive in!
The Power Of Worldbuilding
If you are using a pre-established setting, like the Forgotten Realms, running a prebuilt adventure, or running a campaign set in your own unique world, ground yourself in the setting so that if forced to change plans you know enough about the region to adapt.
So what kind of information should you read up on? I have found these points & tools to be pretty useful in giving me some consistent information to then improvise on.
- Names of local settlements, ruins, dungeons
- A basic idea of the character of the points of interest (a fishing town, a dwarven ruin, a dungeon made by a mad king, etc.)
- A random generator for names
- A brief understanding of the history of the area that could lead to conflict (like maybe orcs have been raiding villages nearby, or the region has been abandoned by the state recently)
Accepting Player Decisions
Dungeons & Dragons is a collaborative storytelling game, built by both the players and the dungeon master. Embrace this! Instead of relying on your own creativity, encourage and accept the decisions players make as valuable contributions to the story. They should shape the world as much as your worldbuilding.
There is a great basic rule in improv that can be easily applied to improvising a game session when entering into unprepared for territory:
“Yes, and” is a classic foundational rule in improvised performance. It can be broken down into two parts:
- “Yes” accept the offer given
- “And” add to the offer and expand the world of play
The true power comes with the “and” part of the rule. Add to the offers when improvising a session — each offer is precious and should be treated as a gift! Say yes and see what happens. Often this kind of collaboration creates a better session than anything I could have planned.
Sometimes an add can be a simple justification. Explaining why something exists can spark a new idea and can help you get back on your feet with a better idea of where to guide the players in the session.
Ask For Time When You Need It
Sometimes you just don’t have the time or the energy to improvise a whole new session. And that’s perfectly fine! In such instances communicate to your players that you’d need time to develop a new session, or ask them to stick with the adventure that you have.
Consider also why the players may not find the adventure on hand as appealing. Ask in a neutral way if the adventure is fun or if they’d prefer to do something else. There’s nothing worse than slogging through a session just to say you played D&D tonight. Some nights it’s better to leave the game unplayed.
If you need to take a break and create a new adventure, ask for that space and either agree to meet later or wait until the next session. You can even take suggestions of things to do from your players. I also like to turn to my player’s main wants and quests to develop a side quest around developing their characters. Not every session needs to have combat!
I hope these tips can help you next time that you find yourself striking out into the unknown!