Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Planning Spontaneity: How Prep Helps You Improvise

Dominic Matte
I've talked to and read about DMs who spend hours prepping a session only to have their players do something unexpected, and then be forced to scramble mid-session to come up with something on the fly. Improvisation can be hard in the heat of the moment, especially if you haven't practised it.

It might seem a little counterintuitive, but lots of preparation - or more specifically, the right kind of preparation - can really help you deal with unexpected scenarios when your players try something crazy.

When I prepare a campaign, I like to have the entire world ready before the players ever set foot in it. This is often too ambitious, and isn't something everyone needs to do, but basically the goal is to be ready for anything. No matter where the players go, who they talk to, or what they do, if I've prepared everything in advance I know exactly what will happen in even the most unexpected of scenarios. You can get exactly the same effect without overpreparing as long as you stay at least one step ahead of your players in terms of prep. You don't need the entire continent and world history mapped out - you can easily manage by knowing what's in the surrounding area rather than the whole world, since the players have to move through the surrounding area before they can get to the rest of the world.

I've gotten slightly off track already. Preparing a certain amount of content isn't what's important; preparing the right content is. Let's go to an example, shall we?

In a recent session, my party was tasked with stealing a holy sword blessed by Corellon from the captain of an elven garrison. Given how the party had acted in the past, I prepared it as a stealth heist scenario: I mapped out the garrison, planned patrol routes and guard shifts, and set up a bunch of options for the party to create distractions or recruit help.

Of course, no matter how much I think I know how my party is going to handle something, that's never a guarantee. I had expected them to wait until nightfall when the guards would be reduced, and sneak in from the trees above the garrison. What actually happened is that they walked right up to the front gate and asked to be let inside.

This approach had never even occurred to me, given how this party has a track record of avoiding unnecessary combat and confrontation. The easy thing to do in this scenario would have been to say no, they won't open the gate, you'll have to sneak your way in - because I had prepared a stealth scenario.

Fortunately, I had also prepared a quick writeup of the general mentality and demeanour of the soldiers in the garrison, as well as more specific personalities for the fort's officers and important figures. When the party told me their plan and how they were approaching it, I was able to quickly determine how the various personalities in the garrison would react to the situation, and the party ended up with some intense but friendly combat and some new allies.

The personality writeup is what saved my ass here. Knowing how your various NPCs react and interact  should be an absolute top priority during prep time. You don't need a full and complex backstory explaining how and why each NPC came to be who they are - all you need is a short paragraph, no more than a few sentences, describing major personality traits and maybe a few quirks. The captain in the above example is described quite simply in my notes: he's stern, proud, and a stickler for rules, but he loves to fight and rarely gets the chance to spar with new opponents. But with this simple description, the basic profile of the other soldiers, and a thorough garrison layout gave me plenty of room to improvise some interesting interactions and combat.

What I'm getting at with all this is that you don't have to plan for every possible outcome or break your back trying to account for all the zany things your party might try. Don't worry so much about setting up options and contingencies - focus on setting up a functional framework that can react and adapt. As only one person it's impossible to plan for everything. Everyone thinks about and approaches the game differently. Players will always find a way to surprise you, no matter how well you think you know their characters.

But with the right prep work, you can convince them that you planned for everything all along.

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