At my current point in life, I’m finding myself extremely busy with work and with running Dungeons & Dragons, but with very little time to set aside to preparing adventures (or writing reviews or blog posts). I steal what time I can, but I’m not always able to do the preparation I want to.
(I’m hoping things get less frantic later this year; there have just been a few important work projects that have demanded much attention).
It’s not a good tactic to completely improvise sessions all the time. It can work, but it also can fail horribly. However, the more you do it, the better you get at it, and I’m getting a lot of practice at present!
Improvisation works best if you have a good basis to work from. In the case of my Greyhawk game, I know a lot about the world we’re playing in. I should – I’ve been running campaigns in it for the past 20 years! Thus, I have a wealth of details relating to history, characters and places at my fingertips. I knew that my group was making their way through Verbobonc, a town quite close to the Temple of Elemental Evil, and that Prince Thrommel had not been rescued in my version of the world. I also knew that one of the player characters had been raised by the thieves’ guild. This led to a situation where a gnome thief, who had emigrated to Verbobonc from Greyhawk, asked the PCs to investigate the Lost Tomb of Thrommel, somewhere to the south of the town. That’s pretty much all I’d planned as we started the session.
I’m planning to make Iuz a major villain as the campaign, so it made sense for the One Mandatory Wilderness Encounter to be with a scouting party of orcs that were also looking for the Tomb. (Why did the gnome discover it at the same time as Iuz? No idea, but it’s something to think about and expand into a seed for further adventures). The group fireballed the orcs, so I decided that this burnt their tabards and thus stopped the party identifying them as Iuz’s forces. The fireball started a forest fire, so I threw in a patrol of elves that castigated the group and fined them for starting the fire. This distracted the party enough from the orcs so they were quite surprised when, after they found and began investigating the tomb, they heard the war horns of Iuz sounding nearby. As one of the PCs hails from near the land of Iuz, I could use that to let the players know what was happening.
In the tomb, they found the casket empty – but a hole had been bored through the rock to tunnels below. There the party escaped, only to be attacked by Xorn – an earth creature. Thus, the Temple of Elemental Earth began to manifest itself. More will be discovered in the next session, as they attempt to lure the pursuing orcs into the mazey tunnels and get the monsters therein to slaughter them.
I expect most DMs would plan this all out beforehand, but I was improvising almost all of it. I was drawing the map of the dungeon as the group explored it. I was stocking it with encounters that were fun as they entered each new room. I don’t recommend doing this all the time, but it is possible to do. The trick is to have enough of a base of knowledge so that you can draw elements together to provide an entertaining experience. At least, that’s half of it. The other half is to pay attention to how the players react to the session. If they’re enjoying it, you’re doing it right. If they aren’t, you should work out what they’re not enjoying and change that to something they do enjoy.
I was lucky: they really liked this session.
Even in sessions where I prepare, my notes can be a bit… sparse!
Those are the notes for an Original D&D game I ran on Saturday. They’re about as bare-bones as you can get – just monsters and notes on treasure. The notes on the mural were added as a reminder of something the party discovered – and that I had made up on the spot. This is a large distance away from what you get in published adventures. If I were to turn these notes into a published adventure, much detail would have to be added.
For instance, the first encounter could become this:
That describes what the players found in the room, as I improvised the description of the mural. The note about damage to the mural is based on how the players actually discovered the secret door: the cleric of Law, upon seeing the mural was dedicated to Chaos, decided to smash it with his mace. Discovering the door that way sounded cool, so they did!
The point of all this is that you don’t have to prepare adventures to published standards to run them. You can do it from just a few notes, or nothing at all. However, having a set of resources to draw upon – monster stats, sample traps, plot seeds, NPC descriptions – can make all of it easier. Improvising doesn’t mean you have to invent everything; it’s often just choosing which items to use from those available to you!
You’re fortunate with D&D: pre-designed monsters, treasures and traps are available to you in abundance. Don’t forget to read the books, so you can get ideas about what and when to use them. From there, it’s a case of trusting yourself and paying attention to how your players react. Write down what works, so that you can come back to it later and see if it can be expanded upon.
For me, this process is the best part of the game. If you ever give me a choice of what to do, I’ll be a Dungeon Master. It’s so much fun!