Running a Tabletop Roleplaying Game is challenging. There are a thousand little speed bumps that can derail things, from interpersonal issues at the table to the ever-dreaded scheduling issues. But beyond the stuff outside of the game there is one of the biggest things that throws game masters of every system for a loop. Player agency. At some point, someone at your table is going to do something unexpected, for good or for ill. They will befriend an NPC you had no plans for and haphazardly name ‘Boblin the goblin’. They will follow a clue that you never intended to even be a clue. They will successfully defeat your Big Bad before he even gets a chance to monologue at them.
That is when the diligent game master will have to rely on the most versatile tool at their disposal. Improv.
Improvising your way out of any given unexpected circumstance is a time honored game master tradition that goes back to the earliest days of the hobby. It can lead to some of the most memorable moments in a game or, if done deftly, players can think that was your plan all along. But it is high wire act that can be very intimidating to folks. “Just make it up?” you may say, “But I’ve got all these notes!”
I know. I know. It’s tough, to be sure. You have this story in your head as a game master. Themes and narrative beats that you see playing out in a certain way. So when your chaos gremlin players do something unexpected, inventive or just downright idiotic there is an instinct to say, “No! It doesn’t work like that!”
Fight that urge.
An overly controlling game master can be the death of some TTRPG groups when the players feel like they are being forced through the motions of whatever story you have in mind. Something I have to even remind myself from time to time is that my players are the main characters of this story we are telling together. I might have ideas about where it can go or what can happen but ultimately it is up to the players to pursue their own goals and play how they like.
But the goal isn’t to always say “yes”, it is knowing when not to say “no”. Like any discussion or negotiation, there is an ebb and flow to group storytelling. Tabletop RPGs offer a structure and guidelines to that give and take. The rulesets for different systems allowing the whole table to agree at the outset of play on what is permissible in the structure of the game. Nothing is stopping the friendly game master from reminding players what is or isn’t possible within the rules of the game, but you cross a line when you start dictating how a player should respond to a given scenario.
The old improv adage of “Yes, and…” are good watchwords, allowing you to consider how to highlight how your players choose to go about things but you shouldn’t be a slave to them. “Yes, but…” becomes the friend of the improvising game master.
“Yes, you managed to kill the dragon I wanted to escape while it was attempting to fly away by leaping onto its back but now you are falling on a dead dragon. What do you do?”
Good TTRPG improv is about letting the players feel vindicated for their decisions while still holding them responsible for the outcome. Sure, they may have managed to redirect the flow of a river into the underground goblin stronghold but do all the monsters inside just sit around and wait to drown? Rolling with the punches is the key.
And if the Game Masters nightmare comes to pass and your players somehow bypass a huge swath of planned content? Stuff you’ve spent hours preparing and setting up for and they just managed to talk a giant eagle into flying them over the cursed valley? Here’s the fun trick. The players never saw what you had planned, so use it somewhere else. Be modular. Cut and paste encounters you thought were going to be awesome and stick them someplace else. Slap a fresh coat of paint on that undead ferryman and suddenly you have a sickly dark elf at a different river crossing somewhere down the stretch.
You don’t have to abandon what you design just because your players find a way to skip it. There is no such thing as wasted effort when it comes to being a game master. It’s just a matter of sticking those things in your back pocket and finding somewhere to use them later. Because you spent a lot of time making that sweet ferryman encounter. You practiced a voice and everything! Why leave it on the cutting room floor just because your players had the bright idea to call in their favor with the Eagle Lords way earlier than you had anticipated?
I’m definitely not sore about it.
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