On Improv…

OK, I’ve spent some time talking about fudging.  Now let’s look at the other side of the coin: improv.  Back in college I had a friend who spent a lot of time building background for his games.  As players, we delighted in taking the game in bizarre directions he never fore-saw, forcing him to toss all those notes and create something brand new from scratch.  Sure, we may have taken this too far once by all creating Zulu warriors for his frozen tundra setting.  At the time we thought it a form of good-natured ribbing of our friend.  I think though we were actually on to something, as the game was invariably more fun when he was forced to make it up as we went rather than actually present his prepared material.

Improv and fudging are both methods a GM uses for the same purpose.  They both speak to the flow of the game.  The GM uses them to try and help mold the game into a pleasing story arc.  That’s pretty much where the similarities end though.  Fudging implies a preconceived story, and the GM’s efforts to guide the game in such a way to follow that story.  I’m speaking here not just of detailed dice fudging, but general fudging of any game mechanic outcome, as is apparent in the previous post’s quote from The Shattered Isle:

Yes, a gamemaster is supposed to be neutral, but you know how you want the adventure to go, so make it work out.

The inverse is improv, used when the adventure is in a place the GM never imagined.  He must make things up as he goes, create new content on the fly that may or may not hook in to what he already had prepared.  Another interesting difference here is that in general fudging happens when the plot is mostly GM driven, while improv happens when the plot is player driven.

It should be apparent now that I’m clearly favoring improv over fudging.  There’s probably one key difference between the two that explains why the latter does seem to occur more frequently: fudging is easy, improv is difficult.

Spoiler Alert – What follows includes details about my adventure Come What May, which I ran once when Delta came up to visit a while back and am scheduled to run at the upcoming GenCon.  I may run it again for another group of locals either before or after GenCon.  If you are one of the people scheduled to play it at GenCon, or are someone who plays in my local one-shots who did not play the first time I ran this, you may want to stop reading now.

I’ve been experimenting recently with my convention/one-shot games to try and find ways to better arm myself to include more improv.  My adventure Come What May is the outcome.  I started with a pretty simple and well-used plot hook: a girl has gone missing and the players must rescue her.  I then created three major NPCs with physical locations tied to them that could be where she ended up: an evil wizard who needs human sacrifice for his dark rituals, a band of thieves who may seek to ransom a prisoner (or find other uses for her), and a band of slavers who kidnap innocent people and hide them in a secret location until they can be transported to distant lands for sale.  I then tossed in some minor NPCs who may have been involved in the disappearance in some ancillary way and could act as starting points for the investigation: a madame who needs new girls for her patrons, a bishop who secretly partakes of the madame’s services, a group of crooked watchmen who sell their services as thugs to any of the above.  For a final twist, I added a second missing girl, in case the players reach one of these destinations too quickly they can discover they’ve rescued the wrong girl, who in turn may have some info on where the right girl is.

So, some good elements there, plenty to build on — and that’s where I stop. What actually happened?  How will the game play out?  I have no idea.  I don’t want to know.  It’s basically the complete opposite of that quote up there.  I have no idea what I want to happen, but I have a ton of ideas of what might have happened.  I’ll decide what happened when I’m actually at the table and can get a sense of what possibilities the players seem excited about.

Actually, I’m toying with creating a more action-packed intro scene.  The first time I ran this I gave all the players little nuggets of background info to work into their characters and then just threw them into the tavern where the girl was last seen.  This fell a little flat, especially as some of the players ended up with hooks to parts of the adventure they never explored, meaning some players were far more engaged than others.  I think next time I’ll forgo this and simply hit the players with some action up front to get them to gel as a group (maybe the thieves will try to rob them on their way into town), and then if that doesn’t go anywhere create some kind of friendly NPC who will beg them for their help to get them looking for the girl.  That way, the players can indulge in the same improv I do, finding reasons their character cares about the plot as they play, rather than having some preconceived content they have to try and work in.

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