View Full Version : How well does doing a campaign entirely improvised go?

Mystic Muse
2010-05-25, 04:24 PM
Well, I assume all you DMs have improvised an entire session at least once.

This is the cranked up to eleven version of that.

I know what the campaign world is going to be like, I just have no clue how I want the campaign to go other than the BBEG. However, players tend to be screwy bunches anyway so I don't know if this is Necessarily a bad thing.

Now, I do at least still have about 20 days to plan a few sessions before the game ever starts but I'm wondering whether I should spend those 20 days planning (other than knowing what monsters I want to use at which levels) or just see how everything goes?

What is the playground's opinion on this?

2010-05-25, 04:28 PM
If you're comfortable with improvisational gaming, go for it. I am known for my sprawling, epic campaigns that last many months, but generally I don't really develop a story or a direction for the campaign until we've already been playing for weeks or months. I spend most of my time developing setting and characters, not plot or adventures.

The only real problem you may have is that D&D doesn't really lend itself to improvising monsters on the spot, so it's helpful to have canned encounters ready to go.

If you happen to have it, Dungeonscape has some really good strategies for designing modular encounters that can be used in an improvisational way, plus Rich Burlew co-wrote it so it's a groovy book anyhow.

2010-05-25, 04:31 PM
It really depends on how confident you feel about winging it.

If you want to keep things loose, you can dangle a few hooks in front of your players and see which one grabs them. Then, just make quick plans between sessions.

Take it one session at a time--at the end of a session, ask your players what they'd like to do next session and plan accordingly. If they get distracted and go another route, at least you've only lost one session's worth of planning--and that's only if you can't find a way to recycle that material and incorporate it somewhere else down the line.


2010-05-25, 04:31 PM
What are you good at making up on the fly?

I would second the idea of having crunchy encounters set up (you're familiar with how this ambush drake's breath weapon works, brushed up on Entangled because of the Dryad you expect them to fight, etc) and letting the party act as they please. Slot in appropriate encounters at appropriate times, and make sure the NPC's are interesting but don't take over the game.

Having a basic geography set up ahead of time can be helpful, but remember that nothing is set in stone until the players see it.

2010-05-25, 04:32 PM
If you have a villain, and the villain has a goal, then half the battle's done I think. How is your villain going to accomplish his goal? What allies, resources, travels, tricks, spells/magic, etc. will he employ? Run through in your head what would happen, if there were no PCs at all and no-one was going to interfere. Step 2 is considering how your PCs become involved. IMC, it was actually the villain who attacked the PCs out of nowhere, simply because they were powerful enough to threaten him even though they had no idea as to his plans or identity.

If you're willing to wait a few levels, you could run a few "standard" type adventures until the PCs are prominent, then have the villain learn about them via reputation and decide they're a threat that needs to be removed. Or you could have some other party who knows and opposes the villain's plan tap the PCs once they're high enough level. If you want to introduce the villain when they're still beginning level, you can have them get swept up in his plans--the town they are in is destroyed, or they're kidnapped, or someone's home village or family gets wiped out; not anything done personally, but as a side effect of the villain's larger moves.

More general advice for improvised gaming: Make "generic" stats that can be ported anywhere. Stat the "typical" defense force of a large city (generic crossbowman, generic spearman, generic horseman, etc) and one for smaller towns if they have one. Stat NPCs of a type liable to be found anywhere (e.g, generic farmer, generic politician, generic merchant, generic judge and lawyer, generic doctor, generic clothier and haberdasher, etc.)

If the PCs want to go somewhere where you know nothing is interesting going on, then tell them, don't make them role knowledge checks unless the're somewhere foreign. If they're in their own country, then they ought to know nothing interesting is in The Black Forest, Shephardsville, Weaversville, etc. If they insist, just say "you wander about the peaceful pastures and sunkissed hills. Only random shephards and the occasional wagoncart carrying sticks and straw pass you by." Or "the town is a place of business for clothiers/lumberjacks/wax makers, no one has any work for sellswords here."

It's not railroading if it's economic reality. If the PCs don't want to go explore the part of the map where you stuck your monsters, then nothing is going to happen to or for them. Offer them multiple patrons---maybe they'd rather not work for a King or Duke. In that case, the head of a Thieves' Guild may have a job for them, or a Church prelate. If they want "good work" then maybe someone needs a free company to clear bandits out of a forest.

2010-05-25, 04:32 PM
There's a saying around gaming forums: No plot survives contact with PCs. I generally find it works best for me and those I game with if I have the vaguest outline of a storyline in mind, without any firm ideas about how and why specific encounters come into being. It generally keeps the action from feeling forced, and lets the PCs run around based on clues dropped without my worrying about prioritizing information beforehand.

Mystic Muse
2010-05-25, 04:40 PM
I'm confident in my ability to DM at least a session completely improvised. The players in my current campaign (which won't resume for at least another 2 weeks:smallfrown:) all enjoy the sessions better when I make the whole thing up from scratch.

2010-05-25, 04:44 PM
I've improvised several entire campaigns, and plan to continue to do so. However, it is somewhat system dependent. I can improvise in light versions of Fudge, but in D&D I would need to prep encounters and locations at the very least, just because of mechanics bogging me down.

2010-05-25, 04:46 PM
I'm confident in my ability to DM at least a session completely improvised. The players in my current campaign (which won't resume for at least another 2 weeks:smallfrown:) all enjoy the sessions better when I make the whole thing up from scratch.

Yah, just keep doing what you're doin'. Player feedback is the ultimate acid test, and if your players tell you it's good and it's not a strain on you, then UR DOIN IT RYT.

2010-05-25, 04:48 PM
My games are always improvised. But, what I do is I write up different encounters and NPCs and throw them in when useful

2010-05-25, 04:49 PM
Depends. Mostly it depends on the GM. The players matter a bit and so does the system.

I GMed a small campaign once that was entirely improvised. It was a good time, but definitely wonky.

I found 3.5 comfortable to improv, but not ideal. Making interesting combats took too much planning time.

4e is even worse in that regard. I don't have as good a handle on what enemies can do (although that's probably because I haven't played as much of it). The focus on terrain makes 4e fights very hard for me to improvise though. Maybe once I figure out what makes terrain interesting I'll feel better about it, but for now a good 4e fight requires a lot of planning.

Games that are less combat heavy are usually easier to run on the fly.

2010-05-25, 04:56 PM
I've taken sort of a middle-ground. I have a whole slew of notes, but none of them is anything specific. Just a general basic outline on the plot. In fact, the one time I did make specific notes for an encounter, it became really hard to fit everything in because, of course, no plan survives contact with the PC's.

We're playing Dark Heresy, so the players are part of the Inquisition. This gives them their motivation for stopping the bad guy: It's their job. He's a heretic, and needs to die.

They don't actually know who he is yet. They've fought a few of his flunkies and disrupted a number of his plans, but there are other plans and other flunkies. They just find out a little more about him with every flunky they kill or plan they disrupt.

And all of that has been improvised by me. There was one section of the campaign which lasted for three sessions of exploration, fighting, and general paranoia. My notes on it were two sentences briefly describing the location and what would be found there if they looked.

2010-05-25, 05:00 PM
Unless you DM on rails you HAVE to make it up as you go along, don't you?

I have a 'world', an end point and a couple of BBGGs (that's Good guys as my PCs are the BBEGs :) ). How they get there is up to them. Week to week I prepare challenges appropiate to what they are attempting to do, the rest hooks together off that. Mind you having an excuse to build a 4-6 person good aligned adventuring group to attack them with at random does take the pressure off a little...

I hate railroad plots as a player, so not a big fan of doing it as a DM. Mind you I'm not 100% sure what I'd do if my players said 'screw the plot' we're off for a dungeon crawl...

2010-05-25, 05:07 PM
Unless you DM on rails you HAVE to make it up as you go along, don't you?

Well, I've heard of super-DMs that will bother to state every possible detail on their world so that no matter where or what the PCs do he's ready for it.

But otherwise, +1 to what you've said. The players will want to do crazy stuff, and you'll need to know how to adapt quickly. It's not much of use planning a specific place or character and then see the players just go around it.

So yes, having a general idea of the campaign and then filling in the details depending on what the players do works pretty well.

2010-05-25, 05:10 PM
I have. There was one week last winter school was canceled for a week (really bad snow storm) and I was asked to DM. The entire 5 day campaign was made up on the spot. Of course it was a humorous campaign so people didn't care so much about names, quests, and NPC characters. Still, it was an entertaining campaign. Chaotic stupid, but entertaining.

2010-05-25, 05:36 PM
If you're confident in your improvisational skills, go for it. You can always get some planning done later if it doesn't work out.

I have had someone DMing a few sessions with no prep whatsoever and it was quite fun, after figuring out where we were and why we were there. Hilarious adventure, I forgot that Lycanthropes had to add their animal's racial HD so we had a Were-bear and a Were-tiger (me), among other things, on the same team at the same class level. We slaughtered everything we came across thanks to that and the game soon devolved into an afternoon spent cracking jokes and taking the food one person had brought with him (we gave most of it back, we actually ate maybe twenty pence worth of stuff over about five weeks) with occasional dice rolls to see how we managed to screw up despite being far too powerful (we once had someone shoot a homebrewed (but less powerful) version of Sargeant Detritus' "Piecemaker" at a prone foe lying on top of a party member).

He then ran a Half-Dragon campaign for a few weeks during which we became Vampires working for the more experienced Vampiresses who changed (tainted? cursed?) us, that collapsed even more quickly.

Terrible DM for anything long-running and had little-to-no control over the players' behaviour (I must have had a natural 20 the time I stepped in, stunned silence for a few seconds followed by nervous laughter:smallbiggrin:) but great for non-serious one-shots. Doesn't go to or run sessions in the group I play with anymore, which is kind of sad 'cause those sessions were far more relaxed about out-of-game chatter than my regular game and it was nice being the eldest player. Oh well.

In summary: if you think you could manage it you may as well try, it may turn out well even if not as you expected (and seriously, there are players, what are the chances of a plot going as expected:smalltongue:).

2010-05-25, 05:38 PM
Well, I've heard of super-DMs that will bother to state every possible detail on their world so that no matter where or what the PCs do he's ready for it.

This is how I TRY to DM, but sometimes PCs are quite impressive in their utter stupidity.

Anywho, to answer the question, for me almost all of my campaigns are improvised (or at the very least, made up about an hour before the session), but my setting almost never is. I have a worldbuilding obsession, so I basically spend my free time expanding on the details of my world. Then I turn a tiny section of that world into a sandbox and start making quests for it.

Fouredged Sword
2010-05-25, 06:04 PM
I improve with one exception. I map. I map like a madman. I get out some nice B sized sheets of paper and draw out my world. My players from real life games will talk about the three foot by five foot maps that get made of the game world.

I find it allows me to let the PC's really wander. If they want to go into the woods, they can save some farm from an angry bear. If they want to go into the swamp, then lizardmen. It works out great. Always have a distraction planed, so if you need to you can stall for a sesion and plan for the next. Bandits work great, they are scaleable, have loot, and take a sesion to track back to thier base for more looting of bodies.

It's most fun when the maps have basic logic to the design. One side of the mountains is dry, the other is wet. stuff like that. Also it's fun to set up some dice rules to generate teraine. Grab a arrow die from a warhammer dice set and generate some mountains. Everything else is generated by them.

2010-05-25, 06:07 PM
You've already done more planning than I did for my 2 year long campaign that just ended. It went great. Most of the crowning moments of awesome were totally improvised.

It went like this: I figured out what things were in a small part of the world where the PCs started. I figured out what would happen in the first session, to introduce the players to the world. That was pretty much it. The rest of the game was the players interacting with the world, and the things that naturally spawned from those interactions.

2010-05-25, 09:06 PM
Games that are less combat heavy are usually easier to run on the fly.

Actually, I've found it to be quite the opposite. In combat-light campaigns you need more worldly details in order to ensure that there's something keeping the players interested, be it clever puzzles, trap-filled dungeons, or political intrigue. On the contrary, combat need not be so detail heavy. You can easily just whip together a gang of baddies, throw 'em at the PCs, and come up with an explanation later.

The greatest game of D&D I ever ran was totally improvised. As in: I had absolutely no idea what the heck I was doing. I didn't have a single encounter or even a shred of a story prepared. The result was a fairly coherent plot (assisted in it's creation by some rather creative players) and an amazingly action-packed campaign that stretched from level 11 to level 23!

The trick is, really, to just be willing to totally b.s. when you have to. For my campaign, all encounters were created by flipping to the back of the monster manual (where the lists by CR are located) and throwing together some monsters that sounded cool. To avoid boredom, reskinning monsters helped immensely; just use something generic, but describe it in an excitingly abnormal manner. Furthermore, lying about the dice is key. For my campaign, if a stat for something wasn't immediately at hand, the ensuing roll consisted of 1d20 + [DM-arbitrary-fun-enhancement-bonus] versus a DC that was generally a convenient multiple of 5.

All that being said, however, if you are not already good at improvising and bluffing, or if you have annoying players who care about "rules", then I wouldn't recommend you try this. I know from experience that total improvisation isn't always a good thing...

Mystic Muse
2010-05-25, 09:48 PM
Hmm. Actually I can't decide.

Should the end boss be a well known Dracolich or a well known Demilich? AKA Dragotha and........I can't believe I can't think of his name. The word "Arrancar" keeps popping in my head. Stupid bleach.:smallannoyed:

2010-05-25, 10:22 PM
Take notes as you go - that way you can be consistent even when winging it.

I let the party wander at will - I won't bore them with quiet strolls in the countryside. If they're in a boring part of the setting I ambush them, steal their stuff and run away toward a more exciting location. Or I try to assassinate one of them, and the assassin is from a more exciting location. Or any number of things. There is no boring place in any of my campaigns - the excitement comes to you. The heroes are just that - and there are enough bad guys who know it to make their lives interesting. What, you think only friendly wizards ever use crystal balls?

As far as the last question goes - what level is the party going to be when they get there? They'd better be pretty tough; both of those beasties are kinda nasty.

Mystic Muse
2010-05-25, 10:26 PM
Acerak! that's his name.

And they'll be level 28-30

2010-05-25, 10:41 PM
Dragons are cooler. Go with the Dracolich.