If someone was to ask me what’s my style of DMing these days, I’d say it’s improvisational. Like a jazz musician I come to the table with a basic idea, usually a sheet of paper or two, and then I see where things go. Case in point, during a session not too long ago in the Duchy Campaign, the characters had been following a group of slavers and ended up in a port city a good deal away from their home turf. Now the base ideas I had was a couple tavern names, which tavern was home to the slavers, and a couple ship names and their captains. So think of that as the opening melody of a song. You might know the traditional version of the song. But then I say to the players, “what do you do?”
That’s when there’s a key change, a tempo change, or one of the trumpets decides for a solo. In the case of the game, one of the players has a background as a sailor and a backstory involving a pirate who took down a ship he’d been on, leaving him one of a few survivors. He’s got an axe to grind with pirates and especially this one. The player wants to go searching for information about this pirate and maybe even go track him down and get his revenge. And at that point my notes are less important. The pirate he’s been looking for hasn’t been named in everything we’d done, so I come up with a name. I know he’s a dragonborn, so I go with Bhrashk. Now in my homebrew world, the dragonborn are the product of some evil magic shenanigans that happened about 75 years ago. So I make the ruler of this city-state they’re in have a bounty out for this pirate. The party focuses on finding a way to track him down. Do some social interactions, a little skills fun, and bam, the party is joined up with a pirate hunting crew.
Most of what happened wasn’t in what I prepped, but being able to adapt and flow with the changes and in a way that for the most part my players didn’t realize I wasn’t prepared for, we got through the session in a fun way, I did some crazy voices, and the characters’ story moves on.
For the Imperium Campaign, the amount of improvising that I can do is slightly more limited because of the nature of the game mechanics, but it still happens a good deal. This happened early in the campaign and occasionally I wasn’t quite ready to handle it. Or, I’d over prepped situations, but luckily had material for what they chose.
Here’s my suggestions for DMs and how to improvise:
- Come up with the obstacles for the characters, but never the solutions
- Don’t get married to the material you’ve prepped
- Have a list of names for npcs, taverns, inns, ships, and cities
- Be confident
Remember that the characters live in a real, breathing, and living world. Nothing is stagnant just waiting for the pcs to show up. So for the Duchy group, the Duke who charged them to investigate the slavers isn’t going to be just sitting there waiting for them to come back. Life will keep moving and another group might come looking for them or come trying to track the slavers.
From this, you might definitely get the idea that I run sandbox style campaigns and you would be correct. I used to be a very linear plotted style campaign person, but that’s a lot of prep and it can stifle the creativity of the players. Nothing wrong with this style if that’s your comfort, but you can sometimes have players who when presented with choices x and y, decide they really want to see if there’s a z. Either you have to improvise that, shut them down with a no, or switch something around so they got either x or y, so that their choice didn’t really matter. If you say no or if the players feel like they’re getting railroaded back to the plot you as the DM want, they might get frustrated with you taking away their agency.
D&D is about shared storytelling and having fun. If you’re doing that, telling memorable stories and having fun, you’re winning at it. If anyone isn’t feeling the story or if folks aren’t having fun, then it’s time to talk with the players and find out what’s the problem. I especially suggest an occasional check in with your players to see how folks are feeling about things. See what they would like more of and what they would like less of.