Welcome back to the Beginner’s Guide for Dungeon Masters series! In my previous articles, I discussed ways to plan ahead for your Dungeon Master sessions, from making your world come alive to choosing your players, to being prepared to take care of those people who play at your table. There is a lot of preparation that can be done to make your life easier the night of the game. But no amount of preparation can truly anticipate what the players will do.
Improv is short for improvisation, and it is the other side of the coin from planning. Planning is important for crucial story beats. The core driving plot should always be planned out and a constant, looming threat and motivator for the party. But it is equally important to let your players choose how to approach that problem.. Sometimes, that comes with very unexpected ideas for how to proceed. You might show up to a session and your players just decide instead of progressing the story to make a side trip to a library. You probably didn’t prepare a library, but now you are making one up on the fly. Improvisation is essential to effective dungeon mastering because you simply cannot account for everything your players will do.
My favorite moment (semi)recently in the show Critical Role came when (spoilers here for C2E93) Jester, the blue tiefling trickster cleric, bartered for the soul of her friend from an ancient green hag… using a blueberry cupcake sprinkled with magic dust. While other party members offered their own souls, their fealty, or even sabotaging peace talks in a war, here comes the unassuming and disarmingly charming trickster cleric with a blueberry cupcake and the first social interaction that the hag had in decades. (end spoilers) Nobody could have prepared for that solution. And it was easily one of the most memorable moments of the entire campaign.
It is important to leave room in your planning for improvisation. You present a problem to your players, and leave it to them to find a solution. Be open to solutions that you did not anticipate. Especially if you have spellcasters, unexpected uses for spells abound. Harmless magic items might not be as harmless as they seem. Players faced with a problem that has no clear solution become extremely creative. And if the solution you had planned for is sidestepped, you have to adapt. You have to improvise.
Consider the following situation. Your players are facing a massively uneven fight, and are tasked with dueling a demon general at dawn to end a war. The players are prepared, they have all of their spells prepped, they talk tactics all week between sessions… and at the first session when they return, the wizard casts Leomund’s Tiny Hut right before dawn. This spell prevents anyone besides the party from entering or attacking anyone inside, and allows the party to retreat inside the hut after they take their turns. It lasts for 8 hours and does not require concentration.
Suddenly, the fact that your demon general has legendary actions and resistances and gets four attacks every turn doesn’t matter. He can’t attack the party inside the hut. He can’t charm them. He can’t hit them with fireball. He’s got no answer. His best answer is to use his reaction attack or to ready action attack one player character when they emerge from the dome, a severe handicap considering the amount of firepower he would have on a given round otherwise.
There are a few ways to handle this. If this feels like too much of a cop out for the party, the demon general could have Dispel Magic at his disposal, and he simply removes the hut from the fight. Now the demon general is down a spell slot at no cost to the party, and they maybe got a round of cheap shots in. Or, if you are suitably impressed with the plan and don’t feel like modifying the general on the fly, have him fight at a disadvantage, or move away from the hut until the eight hour duration expires… though the wizard could simply cast it again so that the hut never expires. Maybe the demon general, suitably impressed, offers a deal instead. Your big plan for a huge boss fight is suddenly over before it started. You have to improvise. But moments like that stick with your players, because they outsmarted the enemy and got a good win from it.
Another example – maybe the players are on a boat. While the simple act of boarding a boat is very ill-advised, players still do it. There is a whole section of the Monster Manual dedicated to underwater monsters. As Dungeon Masters, the urge to use them can get overwhelming. But if the players have Control Water and simply speedboat away from an encounter? That’s clever. Improvise. Allow them their solution. Will it cut out an hour-long combat session you had planned? Yes, but that’s the beauty of Dungeons and Dragons. The players tell the story as much as you, the DM. You can always recycle that encounter later; after all, the monster still knows the players are there. And now they know the players have Control Water and will use that tactic, so the monsters will be better prepared for next time. The players get their win, your world adapts, and the players get to see several layers of results and consequences from their cleverness. This leads to a more immersive and involved game for them.
Improvisation can only be done well with proper planning ahead of time. Endless improvisation will eventually be obvious to your players, while rigid adherence to your planning is no fun at all. Why choose a small town to visit if every single town is going to be the one town you prepared ahead of time? Why roll insight if you fail to see through the bad guy’s lie at the start of the encounter with a roll over 20? If a player manages to undermine your whole encounter, you need to be prepared to improvise around that. You prepared a situation, and the players circumvented it. Improvisation means still responding to that in a way that challenges your players, rather than saying the players’ plans did not work. Improvisation is crucial to saying “yes” to your players more often than saying “no” to them. Because any time you say “no” to your players, you take away their ability to take part in the story. Not everything they try needs to work. But if they have a clever idea, you should always reward that, not punish it by powering past it for the sake of preserving your plan for the session. Even if it doesn’t always work, make sure you reward the players in some way, even if that’s just one more clue to the nature of the puzzle or problem they’re facing. Dungeons and Dragons is at its best when things go off the rails a little bit. Embrace it.
See you next session!
Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire