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.