Improvisational GMing is becoming more and more of an accepted practice in our hobby, to the point where many gamers actually expect it. Today we want to cover a few of our favorite basic go-to moves for when a player does something unexpected. Hopefully these ideas will prove useful to you in your own games as GMs or at least get you thinking of more ways to handle your unexpected player actions.
Keep in mind that these improvisations are geared towards players that are invested in the story. Games benefit greatly from feeding off of player enthusiasm and energy. If a player is trying to derail your game or do something unexpected for meta-game reasons, that is just an unwanted distraction.
Unexpected Interest in an NPC
Sometimes an NPC becomes more interesting than they were originally intended. Maybe the PC grabs a random young boy to send a message for them. Maybe a hero gets smitten by a princess. Or maybe the innocent beggar does something that the players find suspicious and obsess over. It happens to GMs all the time: an unimportant NPC suddenly gets pulled into the spotlight by the players.
The tricky part of having an unimportant NPC become important lies in the conflict. If you’ve already planned out your adventure, then you have already assigned all the important NPCs to the important NPC roles your adventure needs. But if you dismiss an NPC that the players show interest in, they are likely to become less invested in your world and thus less curious about those NPCs you intended to be important.
I find that the easiest thing to do is make that NPC what the players expect, or at least as close as makes sense. If the PCs suspect a random NPC of being the main villain for example, have them working for the main villain so you don’t waste all the work invested in the actual villain NPC. On the other hand, if the party really likes a shop keeper you pulled out of a hat for a random shopping trip, have them continue to be a shop keeper the next time the party is in the area.
Avoiding the Intended Path
Starting the planned adventure is often the hardest part of a game, since it is often easy to keep adventurers moving once they are already hooked. But sometimes the hook is ignored, or sometimes the player characters become obsessed with their own path to pursue. Whatever the reason, a lot of hard prep work gets lost and potentially wasted when the party completely ignores the path you intended for them to travel.
Sometimes you can force the party on the intended path by making all choices leading to that path. But this can quickly frustrate players. If they think that they can go left or right, but the right is a dead end, then there is a disappointment that translates into a lack of value. “Why would you ask me what I want to do if you are just going to make me do this?” or “Why should I roll the dice if even a natural 20 still gets me captured.”
The most obvious solution is to have multiple paths prepared, but that takes a lot of work ahead of time, most of which will be wasted as only one path can be chosen. If you need to railroad your party but want them to feel like they are making choices, be sure to reward them for those choices. That dead end will suddenly feel like the right choice if there is a treasure chest there. Players can accept an inevitable capture so long as their rolls accomplish something, such as giving their captor a scar or missing digit for the trouble.
No Idea What To Do
Nothing halts an adventure like a bad roll that needed to be good to advance or a puzzle that the party just cannot figure out. Or at the worst of times, a PC dies and the rest of the party does not know how to move on without them. What do you do when your party has no idea what to do?
Spoon feeding clues and GM-splaining what a party needs to do will kill your adventure. Players want to feel clever as much as they want to feel like their choices matter. Having an NPC suddenly appear with the needed information is not much better than just telling the players what they need to do, either.
Normally you can avoid these situations by allowing bad rolls to succeed with a cost, but if you still find yourself stuck in this sort of situation, add a new element. It doesn’t have to be a monster kicking down a door or a terrible trap going off, though these distractions do work well. It could also be an animal skittering across the floor or a sudden change in temperature. Little changes spur players on.
Always have some options in mind for what your party can and might do. Have some small rewards in mind to offer that the party can feel good about getting but could also do without. And take notes so that fun NPCs or encounters can make repeat appearances.
Improvisation really is easy. You just say the first thing that comes to mind. But having GOOD improvisation that does not lead you to all sorts of terrible places just takes a little practice and a few reliable moves.
If you have any improvisational moves that you rely on, or a good story about a time a party through you for a loop, feel free to share it. We’d love to hear from you!