Someone requested that I write an entry on GM improvisation.
I wasn’t prepared for this, so here it goes.
Being the Game Master is a tough job. Rewarding, but tough. You are basically in charge of telling the structure of a story while external forces push and pull at your framework. You don’t want to railroad the characters, shoving them towards the end goal, but you also don’t want the world to be so open that they have no idea what to do next and spend the entire session bickering.
So, while you may have built up this session for the characters to rescue the kidnapped Prince MacGuffin, don’t be surprised instead when they want to pursue Nemod eht murum, the Demon of Palindrome. Even though you mentioned him offhand to flavor a scary spell book they read.
And never intended the players to chase him. Or ever meet him.
In these situations, there’s two courses of action you can take.
1. Don’t panic.
Just tell the players that you need 5-10 minutes to prep. That’s it. They’ll understand, and you can quickly work Nemod into the story. Maybe Nemod has information that you originally intended for them to get from the Ancient Library of the Lost City of Cliche. Maybe the Prince is actually Nemod in disguise. The key here becomes flexibility of your framework.
Being able to adapt to the unexpected is part of the fun of RPGs, both for GMs and players. If a player pursues an avenue that you weren’t expecting, make it work to your advantage! Maybe it leads to a twist that you never thought of, one that will be satisfying for the players because they slightly suspected something was awry but had no proof.
Or, it may just lead to a better story match for the players than the one you had planned. After all, storytelling is for the benefit of the players enjoyment. Without them on board, you’re just talking to yourself around a pizza-greased folding table, sticky with spilled Pepsi.
Sometimes players surprise you, and sometimes you surprise them right back by freaking out and throwing them way too many clues. Or in some cases, not enough.
This can actually be rewarding for players. By panicking, you change the standard storytelling dynamic and change things up, letting the players set the mood and pace. Suddenly, Nemod becomes a second antagonist you never expected. Or, Nemod is doing mysterious shit that even you don’t understand yet because, well, he’s mysterious. And you don’t understand him yet.
While this seems like a cheap way out, it can be an interesting storytelling tactic. You create a truly alien character because you don’t even understand their motives yet. It’s only after the fact, when everyone is gone and you’re having your regular post-game cry when you realize you can justify his actions through a specific point of view.
Maybe he’s been pulling the strings all along, or maybe the players have stumbled onto another, yet completely separate evil. Hell, maybe he becomes an unlikely ally, providing players with aid for a price.
As a player, I can tell you there’s few things I love more than getting one over on a demigod. Give them that enjoyment without even realizing you’re doing it until later.
Now, there is a third option I wasn’t going to mention. It’s the nuclear option that should only be used in certain circumstances.