Let's Talk About Prepping To Improvise

After I wrote my last post (Let's Talk About Railroading), published it and sent it off into the blogosphere to be brain-masticated and spat back out, I realized that I should have added a bit of Joesky Tax at the end because it was kind of rant-y. For that, I apologize; I'll definitely try to do better in the near future. If today's post gets rant-y or persuade-y or argument-y, I promise I'll Joesky Tax it up.

Improvisational non sequitur
Right. Well. In my last post, I talked about why Railroading sucks and is bad for you and you should never do it and it gives you cancer and rots your teeth and makes you sterile. If cancer is "terminal, tumorous bad perspective," teeth is "your creative process" and sterile is "unable to cope with things you didn't plan for." But Railroading persists as a problem in gaming because some DMs don't learn how to roll with the punches their players throw them, don't learn how to make shit up on the fly, don't learn how to invent a dungeon as they're running it.

I cannot teach you how to do this stuff.

I am not you, I do not know how you learn, I do not know how you think, I cannot tailor a thought process to someone who lives in a space that is not my skull.

Instead, I can teach you how to teach yourself to do this stuff by giving you a process for when you're stuck.

First, let me state that I am a huge fan of practice. As I've mentioned before, I was a touring musician in the late 90's, but before that, I was a jazz-trained tenor sax player for most of my youth. I did not pick up that skill over night. I did not learn to play a bass the first time I held one. I did not know how to use my voice as an instrument the first time I stood in front of a microphone. Or the second, or the third or the whenever you get the idea. All of these things took practice and DMing does, too. The problem is that it is almost impossible to practice DMing while you're not actually DMing. It's like if you're a musician and the only time you get to practice is while you're actually playing a show. That's fucking tough. It is kind of how you practice when you're in the middle of a tour, but that's a different story. It is to say, however, that every time you DM, you should be looking at it as an opportunity to improve, because that's what practice is: you learn from your successes and mistakes so that hopefully you'll make fewer of the latter and more of the former.

Second, let me state that this post comes pretty much from the conversation started here:  https://plus.google.com/+AdamMuszkiewicz/posts/GpMrguPCmkH  Mad props to +Doug Kovacs+Harley Stroh+Frank Turfler and everyone else who participated in that conversation. It was excellent and one of the best discussions I've had about "how to DM" in a while.

Third, it is of tantamount importance to recognize that your game is about whatever the fuck it is that the player characters are doing. It is not about some plot you have in mind. It's not about your NPCs. It's not about the setting's background, the nation states, cults, kings, shadow cabals or whatever the fuck you've set in motion. The plot of your campaign is precisely and entirely the things that the player characters get themselves up to. That's it. All other things in the campaign are tangential to that core truth.

Improvisational non sequitur II: improv hullabaloo
I talk to a lot of DMs who state that they have problems with improvisation. +D.j. Chadwick, it's not just you. When I talk to them, I realize that they typically have managed to identify a more specific problem than "me no improvise good," but for some reason take that one specific problem and conflate it to improv at large. My wife, +Kathryn Muszkiewicz, for example, always bemoans her inability to come up with names. This is a thing she knows about herself. I think most DMs can identify something like this that they wish they did better.

The thing is, you can only get better if you practice. Merely identifying the problem is only the first step. Once you know what the problem is, you have to take steps to make it better. Far too many people seem to thing that once you know what a problem is, it should just magically get better and stop being a problem anymore. That is insane. In order to actually get better at a thing, you have to learn how to overcome shortcomings like these. Katie, for example, realized that she should keep a list of names handy when she's going to need them. Bam, that part of the problem accounted for, not exactly solved, but at least smoothed over. Katie used a tool she knew how to use (namely, a list... of names) and implemented that instead of just beating her head up against a wall.

Here's the process you can use to make your DMing practice count for something when trying to improve your improv game:

  1. DM A Game. This is important. You cannot develop these skills in a vacuum or while contemplating your navel.
  2. Note anything that takes you more than five minutes to figure out and WRITE IT DOWN. I know you think you will remember it; you won't. If you don't write it down now, it will be lost to time and you will have missed an opportunity to improve.
  3. In between sessions, check your notes for the stuff you wrote down and invent a tool that would have solved the stumbling block. Yes, it's important that you invent this tool, rather than just copy it from someone else because the act of invention is precisely what you're doing during improv and here's your chance to make something up on your own time when there's no pressure on. Get yourself used to making things up when you're not in front of the group. 
    1. It's important to note that this "tool" I mention can be anything. It can be an encounter or a random encounter table. It can be the precise name you're looking for or a whole list of names, each as good as the others. I like to make tables that I will use, or come up with strange dice mechanisms because that's what I do. You know you far better than I do, so you'll be able to figure out what tools work better for you. If not, try any and all of them.
  4. Show up to your next session with your shiny new tool. Even if you don't use said tool, at least you've got it. 
  5. During the next session, find new stuff to write down, rinse and repeat.
  6. When you're really, really stuck, make the players deal with the consequence of something they've already done or failed to do. Remember all those plot hooks you fed them that they didn't take? Bring them back as further-developed plot line. Did they blow all their cash on carousing last time they were in port? Well, turns out one of the players had such a good time, he's now got a mewling newborn named after him... Stuff like that. Consequences. 
I feel like I've still got a ton of stuff to say about this, but we'll leave it here. If you, dear reader of these fine Dispatches, have any questions about improv prep or DM improv in general, please, feel free to drop a comment. I'll happily respond to the best of my ability to help you solve your improv problems/issues/challenges. This, of all things RPG-wise, is my particular jam.