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  • Writer's pictureShannon Rampe

Microblog: Improvising Tips from GM Cellar

The extremely creative and talented folks over at GM Cellar launched their highly entertaining and useful actual-play show on YouTube this week, Dragons from Scratch.

An "actual-play" show, for those outside the TTRPG space, is a show in which you get to actually watch people play a tabletop role-playing game, learning about the game, seeing the story develop, and coming to know the players as well as their characters. The hook for Dragons from Scratch is that the game master, Christopher Campbell, has done zero prep work. Nada, zip, zilch. He is improvising the entire session on the fly. It's amusing and insightful, and the producers have helpfully included cute popups that explain techniques Christopher is using to keep the game flowing from beat to beat.

I loved the first episode and I am looking forward to seeing where and how the show develops, as well as to seeing what other exciting developments the creative team at GM Cellar comes up with.

Since I was feeling inspired by GM Cellar's video this week, I thought I'd share with you three of my own tips for improvising at the table. While I am a GM that believes in at least some preparation, being able to improvise when the players veer off course is an absolutely essential skill for GMs to have.

Tip 1: Keep a list of NPC names handy. Spice up your list by including heritage and a personality trait.

When the player characters tell you they want to ask a guard directions to the dungeon, you can keep it super high-level, but moments like this offer fun opportunities for improvisational role-play. But chances are you haven't prepared details about every generic NPC in the entire world! Having a short list of names behind the screen makes it easier to quickly bring a character to life. This is a super-common recommendation, but I also like to include species/heritage and one or two personality traits, allowing you to produce memorable characters on the fly.

After all, Skarr Feldspar, the gnome with a chip on his shoulder is infinitely more memorable than just "the guard." In addition to an opportunity for role-playing, details like this help your world to feel real and have depth. It's the iceberg theory of worldbuilding but at a micro scale. Don't feel like you need to go overboard though; trying to flesh out every possible character the PCs might encounter can slow the game to a crawl. But inserting memorable characters here and there certainly livens things up!

Tip 2: When the players want to do something totally unexpected and unplanned for, take five.

No matter how much preparation you do, your players will always come up with something unexpected. Sometimes this takes things totally off course and in a different direction than you know what to do with. This is a great time to take a five-minute break. Use that time to jot down some ideas - NPCs, locations, possible threats or complications the party might encounter. Don't worry about whether the ideas are terrible or great, just write them down with them and see what you find. Often this few minutes is enough to spark your imagination. Then, when you pick the session back up, pivot to your idea list to help you adapt on the fly.

Tip 3: Follow the players' lead.

One of the ideas I love in Justin Alexander's new book, So You Want to Be a Gamemaster is the notion that the fundamental responsibility of the GM is making a ruling. Give the PCs a few details and they will tell you what they want to do. You make a ruling as to whether they achieve their desired outcome or not (using the rules and/or dice rolls), and then describe how the situation has changed. The PCs react to the new situation, and you make another ruling.

This circular call and response is the core cycle of a roleplaying game. If you are improvising, you don't have to know what the big plot is or have every encounter planned out. If you have a starting point and a hook for the PCs, they'll start acting, and then all you have to do is make a ruling and describe the outcome. Of course, being familiar with the rules for whatever game you're playing is essential, but if you can make a ruling and describe the outcome, you can improvise at the table.


That's it for this week's blog. Three tips that will hopefully help you to be more comfortable and have more fun when improvising.

Be sure to check out GM Cellar and Dragons From Scratch! Give them a like and subscribe to their channel if you enjoy it. And while you're liking and subscribing and sharing all the love, go ahead and subscribe to my newsletter for more content like this and share this blog post on social media.

Thanks for reading!

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