How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Improv

Regardless of how often I tell myself that I need to prepare for sessions well in advance, I still find myself finalizing session details seconds before I drive my car to run the game. I’ve written how procrastination has fueled my campaign in the past and led to some dynamic moments, but it also creates a cycle of anxiety that repeats itself once every two weeks. The cycle goes something like this . . .

Finish a session and have every intention of waking up the next morning to write out some notes and plan the next possible steps in the campaign. Get distracted by other activities and put off said planning until “later.” Delay final preparations and increase my anxiety about the next gaming session. Stuff two weeks of planning into a few hours the night before (and day of) the next session. Run the session in an adrenaline-and-anxiety fused state and forget exactly how I pulled it off without the game totally collapsing on itself.

Rinse. Repeat.

I have been working to change this routine, and one way I’m challenging myself is to feel more comfortable improvising during a session. While I still relied on some final-minute planning and organization before the last session, I attempted to scale back on my preparation of specific events and allow for a greater amount of improvisation. I discuss the results of those efforts below, including a breakdown of observations from one of my long-time players about the improv-heavy session.

You Peek Around the Corner . . . Roll a d8

Two sessions ago, the adventuring party attended what they thought would be a friendly meeting with a prominent business leader in town, Leif. The party willingly entered an unknown building in town and allowed themselves to be escorted to a meeting room. The man escorting the party left the room and shortly thereafter, a poisonous gas filled the area. The party had an opportunity to resist the gas through a Skill Challenge, which they mostly failed leaving two party members Weakened and suffering attack penalties. A group of enemies rushed into the room after the gas cleared to kill the party, but the adventures survived the attack. The last session started immediately after the conclusion of the combat encounter.

In preparation for the session, I had several ideas in mind for the players. First, they were obviously in a hostile environment and would likely have to fight (or sneak, if so inclined) their way out of the building. Second, they likely wanted to know why the mysterious businessman, Leif, set them up an in effort to kill them. Without going into too much backstory in the campaign, some players believe the businessman is a former slave trader; they would likely search for proof of illegal activities. And third, several of the party members were eager to find a rich stash of treasure, which meant some of the players were willing to take chances if they got a good lead on loot.

Typically, I would plan specific combat- and skill-challenge encounters and map out the entire complex. I would designate specific areas for 1) exploration - an office, storeroom or library; 2) combat – patrols in the halls and a barracks area; 3) roleplaying – a room with unarmed employees of the businessman; and 4) pre-arranged treasure parcels. However, for the last session, I did not do any of this.

I wanted to add a bit of randomness to the session and determine how the players and I could link the chain of events in a logical manner during the night. To accomplish this, I took the various possibilities and created a very simple random events list based on a d8. As the he party attempts to find their way out of the building, they encounter:

  1. Lone employee
  2. Group of secretaries
  3. Two custodians
  4. Two guards
  5. Two guards w/ Supervisor
  6. Full guard patrol
  7. Change of shift for patrol w/ multiple guards
  8. Guards with Beast

For example, the group found a secret passage out of the original meeting room (where they were gassed) and found a tidy office space that was recently in use. I drew the room on the table and extended two halls leading in different directions. When the Rogue sneaked up to a corner to scout, I asked him to roll a d8 to fill in what he would see. I did not show the list of options to any of the players.

He rolled a 4 (Two guards), so I placed two guard minis on the map down the hallway. Since he succeeded on his Stealth skill check, I had the two guards moving away from his location and crisscrossing another hall that I drew on the table. Again, I had not created a map for the building ahead of time.

M. C. Escher would be a diabolical DM.

The party decided to sneak up on the guards, but since the entire party decided to rush them and the Wizard set fire to everything in the previous room (resulting in smoke billowing down the hall, the guards were able to gather their wits to avoid a surprise round. The two guards were quick work for the four-player party, but it allowed for a short dose of combat to jump-start the session.

The party then decided to explore another hallway and the Rogue once again peered around a corner. Another d8 was rolled, this time resulting in a 2 (Group of secretaries). I placed a female mini on the table and told the Rogue she represented several females hustling into a room down the hallway. I figured the employees would have heard some sounds of battle and searched for a safe place to hide.

The party quickly descended upon the room and found the women hiding. This led to an impromptu Skill Challenge as they attempted to interrogate the employees to learn about the building and businessman, Leif. The Wizard, still stinging from being trapped and almost killed, executed one of the workers with Magic Missile as part of his Intimidate check. (This brings up another topic of morality, alignment and consequences in the gaming world, but since the outcome of the current adventure is unresolved, I’ll save that commentary for another day.) Needless to say, the Intimidate check was successful and the party was able to eventually learn information about the building and Leif.

But since I didn’t know what the players would ask the employees, I had to create answers on the spot during the session. The employee mentioned the tight security and patrols in the building, including an area that was strictly off-limits to all employees. The employee guessed the area was a vault of some sort with all the security; after the word “vault” was dropped, the players delayed any notion of escape and focused on breaking open the vault to find treasure.

The party exited the room with the workers and moved in the general direction of the high-security area as described by the female employee. Once again, I asked for a roll of a d8. The result this time was a 6 (Full guard patrol); I wasn’t exactly sure what a Full guard patrol meant, but given how the first battle went, I decided to use four minis to represent two guards (same as the first combat encounter) and two different upper-tier guards (1 Controller, 1 Skirmisher).

The resulting combat at the intersection of two hallways provided a good deal of interesting scenarios since the tight quarters effected the blast and burst powers on both sides. With only four players and four monsters, the combat moved quickly. The party was able to dispatch three of the guards and caught up to and killed the fleeing fourth guard. By this point, I was aware that we had time for perhaps one more short combat encounter.

I engaged the Rogue in a few minor skill checks since he was very cautious about traps while approaching the vault door at the end of a hallway. He succeeded his checks and was able to open the vault. The party battled with two drones inside the vault, who would have appeared earlier if they rolled a 3 (Two custodians). The battle with the drones was over although they were able to dominate one of the players and cause a bit of a scare. At the end of the night, I used the Treasure Parcel table from the DMG (page 126) and had a player roll to determine what they found. Ahead of time, I did plan that one of the items found during the night would be a Ring of Protection, which was an item any of the players could use, so this was included in the parcel.

The session lasted approximately five hours and featured a good deal of exploration, three separate combat encounters, an interrogation skill challenge featuring some roleplaying with possible ramifications for future issues in the gaming world and a prosperous treasure hall from a vault deep inside hostile territory. The party has expended resources in the form of powers and surges and now needs to find a way out of the building. It sets up a variety of possible scenarios next session, and it was all accomplished with the simple table above, my players diving into the world to shape it to their own vision and me testing myself to create new NPCs, locations, background and events on the fly. It made for an exhilarating evening, and one that I would consider a success.

But Here’s The “But”

I received some interesting feedback from one of my players (and DM in my other campaign) that the session described above felt too random. And I believe he points out several potential pitfalls with this approach:

Having been in an open sandbox type or World before and currently, (I’m a player in Iddy’s campaign) there is a certain level of satisfaction and frustration in my opinion.

It is cool in that we can sort of choose what we want to do, where to go, and things can change dynamically. But it can be frustrating, because you can tell which encounters were planed and which ones aren’t. (not a knock on Iddy, you can tell with any DM). You also have to account for the whims of 4-5 other people which may or may not align with yours. So with sandbox, instead of 1 DM guiding the players, 5-6 players are guiding a DM. Ever try to take an impromptu road trip with 5 people? Something about too many cooks in the kitchen.

Our last session we ventured into a “Building/dungeon” to achieve our goal. After a battle or two it became apparent that the DM was randomly designing the dungeon. I don’t blame him, I’ve tried the same thing in the past. You think it sounds cool, might save some time, and want to give it a whirl. However as a player you suddenly realize the story is now in the hands of a d8, and my decision to go down this hallway or that hallway no longer matters.

This is a perfect spot for railroading the PC’s right back on track instead of sticking to the guns of the layout setup. Fortunately for us we found and interrogated a prisoner/worker, and via intimidation/diplomacy made her tell us the location where we were supposed to go. So I suspect Iddy (to his credit) formed a path in his mind, estimated an encounter between where we were and our objective, and railroaded us right back on track.

In this instance railroading was not a bad thing. It actually was the right thing to do. Else I would have gotten bored wandering around the random dungeon waiting for the magic number on a d8.

I thank him for the feedback! And want to briefly address the issues he presents.

The first observation is that it is easy for players to determine the encounters and plot points that are prepared and those that are designed in-the-moment of a gaming session. Since I use Masterplan to organize and run my campaign, this is probably even more obvious. I often write specific dialogue for NPCs and flavor text for specific locations. However, my description of other areas is more off-the-cuff and not as detailed; my players can certainly tell the difference. My options are to plan out every possible detail in advance (likely impossible and totally impractical) or change the way I introduce prepared NPCs and locations so they more closely resemble on-the-fly creations (more possible and practical). It is certainly an area I can work on in the future, and I wonder how other DMs handle this situation.

The second observation is that a game with too many players designing the world can get messy as each player has unique ambitions, goals and desires. As the DM, I somewhat enjoy the issues created by the clash of interests of the players and their PCs. The adventuring party in my campaign features a devote Cleric of Pelor, a power-hungry Wizard and a Rogue with an eye on more gold and treasure. Why would those three individuals always stay together and move in the same direction? It seems to me there should be a bit of drama and roleplaying to decide the next move in the campaign. Obviously, too much focus on intra-party politics can become a drag, but always having the DM direct the players is boring too. I think there can be a proper balance of the two methods. I often exchange emails with players to obtain backstory elements and motivations for their PCs. I then weave this into the campaign as options for quests; for example, the party can then decide if they want to focus on a quest that is more Cleric-centric or Wizard-centric.

The third observation is that by the DM asking players to roll a die before describing the next series of events, the DM is sending a clear signal to the players that the result on the die is deciding the outcome. In this sense, the DM is taking choice away from the players. The most obvious alternative would be to create the same random table but to quietly roll the d8 at the appropriate time behind the screen and follow through with the results; the evening is still filled with random elements but the players will not be aware of the session’s unpredictability. I believe both options have benefits and limitation, but I’m curious to hear how other players and DMs experience improvisation at the table.

Fourth, there is a general assumption being made the players are supposed to go somewhere in the world. As I mentioned previously, I did not plan out the session in great detail and never created the vault as the planned end point to the session. In fact, I had not planned to include a vault at all before the session started! But during the evening’s events, it seemed like a logical conclusion to the night. In many ways, I take the observation that I was railroading as a compliment since the vault seemed to be a coherent piece of the gaming world that was the preordained purpose of the players for the evening.

The final observation is that the random table should not hinge on a specific number coming up for the plot and party to advance the story. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, and did not paint myself into a corner by only having one of the die rolls result in the purpose for the players. The die results were possible obstacles and roleplaying opportunities. I was not even sure of the desired outcome going into the night, so I encourage DMs to avoid tying a specific desired outcome (such as the players locating the exit from the building) to only one die result. Instead, gauge the pulse of the players and session and use the random table to arrive at an end point that is logical for the evening and the campaign.

Final Thoughts

  • Extend yourself to include more random elements in your gaming sessions. Create a table of possible events, including combat and non-combat options for players to experience.
  • Prepare stat blocks for possible monsters ahead of time. For example, I created one big encounter with all possible monsters the players might run into during the night in Masterplan. When they stumbled upon a few of the monsters, I simply deleted the monsters I didn’t need at the beginning of each encounter.
  • Be aware of possible limitations of the random table of events. Do not hinge the most important outcome for the players on a specific die result. Consider rolling the table yourself so the players are not aware of the random nature of the encounter design. Mix and match prepared plot points and encounters with random elements to keep the campaign fresh and exciting.
  • If you prefer to prepare everything in advance but wish for the players to think there is more random elements in the gaming world, ask them to roll a die before describing the next event. Even though it’s scripted, the players will think the die roll had something to do with the outcome. I’m not advocating lying to players, but this is a potential method for decreasing the “railroading” vibe at the table if that is an issue with your group.
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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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23 Responses to How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Improv

  1. S'mon says:

    I think you did a good job, it’s a pity your player was (incorrectly) trying to second-guess you as to what was ‘random’ vs ‘railroaded’. It sounds like he was looking for tracks to get on, that he’s not comfortable with a genuine protagonist role. Some players are like that, especially if they’ve acquired bad habits from running or playing linear adventures. But I think most players appreciate a GM who can improvise and adapt to unexpected player actions.

    • Dungeon Maestro says:

      As the player in question, I will say this… I wasn’t looking for “tracks to get on” as you say. Having been a DM for over 25 years and player even longer it’s not about my comfort ability with a protagonist role. It’s about being able to identify the difference between the decisions I make as a player having a true impact or not.

      Having played in Iddy’s campaign for over 2 years, I can easily tell which encounters he has planned and which ones he has improvised. This is a pure familiarity issue. Iddy always asks for feedback, and having been in his shoes, I know how it can help. As I noted, he did improvise and “railroaded” (in a positive way) us back on track with the vault. Ergo we didn’t end up wandering a random dungeon for hours. Thank God.

      This is case where just hearing the story on the blog doesn’t give you the full impact of the difference in the campaign evening. From a players perspective, the ambush/trap scene I could tell was planned out, we were set up, trapped, and ambushed all to a script. It felt very well planned. The moment we went searching through the halls, I could tell immediately that it was random generated dungeon. I didn’t know the details of what the D8 meant but I did suspect it was an encounter based roll and not a mapping layout roll, which turned out to be true. I could tell because of how he drew the dungeon. It’s the subtle thing you notice when it’s someone you’ve played with for a while.

      Knowing Iddy, (and possible because I too have a degree in psychology) I could tell from his tone, hesitation, and other cues that he was “on the fly” and working with a random factor. My comments in the previous blog were about being able to tell the difference. Then I could tell when his light bulb went back on and we were headed for the final encounter. This is when he brought up the vault, and the party responded, you could immediately tell a difference.

      I do agree with you with your last comment though, we all appreciate a DM who can improvise and adapt to the unexpected. It’s an essential skill a good DM should have.

  2. Alphastream says:

    Sandbox is tough. The main issue I have with it is that given a choice between three possible encounters you barely planned and one that you really planned, players will want the one you really planned. And, rolling dice does create a disconnect.

    I wonder how the session would have gone if, rather than a d8, there were trigger points that through player choice determined what came next. For example, in a room you have various bits and depending on what the PCs interact with, that’s what shows up in the next room. Maybe they find a guard’s journal, so the next room has the guard’s enemies as ghosts. I’m still not convinced it works better than just one encounter, but it might work better.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thanks for commenting. I continue to work toward a good balance of allowing playing choice and having “set pieces” that are definitely going to happen. I enjoy building off choices the players make in the game, but it seems unwise to go in *every* direction the players discuss.

      If I was to do something like this again, I would certainly change it up a bit. And it seems the die rolling may present a disconnect from the story, so I’d find another way to achieve a similiar feeling of randomness (to me) without alerting the players overtly that I don’t even know what is going to happen next.

  3. Dungeon Maestro says:

    As the Player mentioned in Iddy’s campaign I will say that asking the players to roll a D8 isn’t the best idea. Rather your observation that secretly rolling a D8 is better is correct. It’s all about perception. What the PC’s don’t know, can’t hurt them. Old school random encounters worked this way. You didn’t ask the PC’s to roll for random encounters, the DM would just roll the dice secretly behind the screen and either did something, or did nothing. Often times simply rolling a die for no reason is a good way to keep players guessing. Otherwise every time you roll a dice the players suspect they are in danger or are missing something. So yes, randomization is ok in some regards as long as it’s not drawn out too long, and the PC’s are not aware of it.
    As a DM I will say this does take practice, but your ability to make that call when to stop the randomization and move to an end is the mark of a good DM. That’s the other benefit of secretly rolling, you and only you can either obey or direct the result, it’s your call based on your observations as a DM.

    On your comment about the sandbox issue, where you said “I then weave this into the campaign as options for quests; for example, the party can then decide if they want to focus on a quest that is more Cleric-centric or Wizard-centric”.
    This is the drawback of sandbox. Why would the cleric want a wizard centric quest, and why would a wizard want a cleric centric quest? Sandbox usually works for the the players who speak up the most, or show up the most, which can be an issue when the “centric” character doesn’t show up. I.E. the final fight for the cleric centric storyline a few sessions back where the cleric wasn’t even there.
    This is why linear stories are usually fairly class neutral in nature. Meaning motivation is fairly equally distributed for all classes involved. Sandbox can be class neutral in nature, but stronger personalities tend to prevail….
    Lets look at the current campaign, There’s shape shifter threat which only one character is really involved in, George, since the only original member. There’s something about a Cleric temples, which I honestly don’t have a clue what it’s all about since it doesn’t really apply to my character or involve my character, there’s the Dwarven thing which again seemed to revolve more around the Dwarf character which I’m still fuzzy on what happened except to know we didn’t get paid; and finally there is the New Leif threat who just tried to kill me after stealing some of my workers (which finally got Morgoth’s attention). So from a players perspective, I’ve still got no real clue on two of the 4 story lines, mildly vested in one (since I was a player in that one with another character), and heavily interested in the last which actually directly affected my character.

    Compare that to the Linear Scales of War campaign, where the entire party is vested in preventing a global war, regardless of which character they have played or how long they’ve been in the campaign.

    This is ups and downs of Sandbox. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. All I’m saying is player interest, waxes and wanes depending on which centric topic is being explored. I’ve seen this from a DM standpoint, and a player standpoint. It’s one reason I tend to prefer more linear stories. In my experience, Sandbox’s tend to not have many “endings” but maybe some small ones with another cliffhanger. Linear quests usually have a climax and resolution at some point.

    • The Id DM says:

      AJ, I think you make some good points. For example, if a roll of 4 came up three consecutive times on the d8 roll (as presented above) then the party would get very bored with fighting the same guards all the time. Fortunately for me, each die roll resulted in a different outcome and shifted from combat to roleplaying to combat so the session did not get stale. In the future, I would likely do away with the players rolling a d8 and keep things more “random” in another way.

      The discussion of our two campaigns is interesting (at least to us!) because they are run differently, and I think there are strengths and limitations to both approaches. My campaign has been hurt at times by players leaving the group. Major storylines set up back in Level 1 are still unresolved at Level 13. Part of the reason for them being unresolved is I haven’t forced the party to deal with the issue, and I have been deliberate in spreading out information about the plot. I think the sweeping narrative, but the downside is that people have left the campaign or changed characters since Level 1. I’d probably be better served by having shorter story arcs like the contained island a few months back.

      The flip side is your campaign, which is a published adventure through WotC. In that game, my character is a living, breathing Stat Block. A few of us have attempted to roleplay some ideas about our character, but each player’s motivations are really secondary. We’re playing through the module, and I don’t even know if any of the other players have constructed a backstory for the characters. There has been some turnover (and PC deaths) in your group, but it doesn’t really matter if the parts change. The story stays the same whether I show up with my Rogue or create a new character down the road.

      The idea of investment in the story is a good one to delve into. I enjoy the hell out of playing in your campaign, but I’m not terribly “vested” in preventing a global war. It just happens to be what the module calls for. The most interesting moments and NPCs to me in your campaign are likely sequences or characters that you improvised (I’m making an assumption there) like the airship’s pilot recently and the cleric from many encounters ago. Those moments (that felt more improvised than scripted) are what I tend to enjoy. Now perhaps some of those are scripted very well in the module, so I realize my assumptions here could be inaccurate.

      I think it demonstrates that different players like different play styles. And that’s not a good or a bad thing, but something that all DMs and groups need to be aware of. If the group is on the same page, then the game can function in either direction.

    • The Id DM says:

      It must be the flair you add that I enjoy. :)

  4. Popesixtus says:

    Here’s my experience with sandbox: understanding, cultivating, and rewarding PC motivation is, I believe, the key to sandbox. When a PC isn’t locked into a railroad, they will make choices based on what is important to their character. They could be motivated by a set of values (monetary gain, sense of benevolence, revenge), or an NPC they care about, or by some external compulsion… it could be anything, as long as its there and real and impactful to the PC.

    That’s why I think a lot of the work in sandbox happens at character and party creation. Any work the player puts into their PC’s backstory, personality, or set of goals gives them a compass that helps them choose between whatever options before them. What’s better, they’ll care about the choice. Two doors in a dungeon hallway isn’t a very meaningful sandbox. But if one door smells of very expensive incense and old loot, while the screams of an innocent maiden can be heard behind another, then it becomes a meaningful and fun choice. The PCs will have an established compass to help them make the choice (i.e. greed for phat lootz, or a desire to save innocents), but it only guides them; they are still free to choose. Just like a compass isn’t a map; it doesn’t exactly specify where they should go, but it does orient them a bit, which is sometimes all you need to make a choice feel meaningful.

    The background stuff can apply to a whole party as well. Do the members of the party share similar values, so that they make similar choices? If they don’t (the dwarf wants gold, the elf wants to protect his clan, the human wants to smash people faces), are they happy to take turns fulfilling their goals? Do the PCs feel enough kinship/ respect with one another to have one PCs back while they are “in the spotlight” for an adventure?

    I also think a good sandbox DM will also think a couple of steps ahead of the party, and litters any adventure with stuff for everyone. To answer the question, “why would a cleric want a wizard centric quest?”, a DM who knows what makes the cleric tick could drop stuff that interests the cleric (and any PC) right into in the middle of that thing. An adventure in an abandoned evil wizard’s tower might have a profane idol for the cleric to smash because that evil wizard worshiped the archnemesis of the cleric’s deity, for example.

    Even for the most hardcore of my players who hates backstory and just wants to hack stuff apart, I can get them to write seven sentences about their character because they know I will reward them by featuring their stories and giving them meaningful choices to play with. With my first level party, I was able to put up a board at the inn that had “job for money”, “job for powerful items”, “job to help random innocents” and “job to help family’s clan” and watch them go. I knew about their PCs, so I was able to limit their choices to meaningful ones to them – no “job for political power” or “job to investigate murder” for them.

    Of course, I won’t do this at, say, LFR. Those players get the railroad, and are very happy with it.

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for the suggestions. I certainly try to blend the adventures so any one plot element furthers several stories. I was simplifying above when I talked about the Cleric-centric vs. Wizard-centric storylines. As you pointed out, each moment should have some appeal to everyone in the party. But I don’t mind when the party disagrees about the next course of action; I find that rewarding to watch the interactions around the table when two players want to join an alliance with a suspect NPC, while three other players want to refuse the alliance and take their chances in a hostile environment.

      Once again, I think it’s a balancing act. Creating moments that foster dissent within the party *all* the time isn’t going to make for a fun campaign. But sprinkling in those moments can be a good thing to have players speak from their character’s point of view.

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  6. S'mon says:

    Re rolling dice in the sandbox – I take a very open approach, I roll all my dice in the open, and I will often tell the players what I am rolling for – “1 in 6 chance of encounter… 1…. 85% on encounter chart… 1d8 troglodytes…. roll 3… What’s your Passive Perception?”

    I find making everything very transparent works well for my style. The players get a good understanding of how the game and the world works, which helps them make informed decisions. I would not try to hide whether a dungeon was pre-mapped, for instance. I don’t want players trying to read my subtle facial tics to see if I’m improvising – I want them to be clear what is going on, in meta-game terms.

    • I’ve found that transparency can be something of a mixed bag.

      For example, when executing random dungeon layouts or random dungeon stocking, I’ve always found that players check out if they find out what I’m doing. As long as I maintain the illusion that everything has been prepared in advance, they’re OK with it. But if they realize it’s being randomly generated, they stop caring. I think it’s because this (a) creates a primal violation of their sense that they’re exploring a real place and (b) it renders their choices irrelevant.

      In a similar fashion, the “exploration” in the new D&D boardgames from WotC is irrelevant: You get the same tiles no matter where you go. But when we played using a set of house rules in which we pre-laid the tiles it had the immediate effect of reintroducing the element of exploration into the game.

      OTOH, I’ve never had any problems with players knowing that I’m checking for random encounters. I think the difference is that random encounters (when properly executed) represent the living quality of the world (these creatures are moving around in complex ways).

      As another example, however, I’ve been playing a lot of Technoir. In this game, the entire scenario structure for the evening is randomly generated, the players know it, and it doesn’t seem to matter. This may be a matter of different expectations (very possible; Technoir has a lot of STG elements to it). It may also be because the player’s decisions still have an impact on HOW the plot is generated. (IOW, their choices don’t become irrelevant.)

      The psychology of all this is interesting to consider. For example, I find it amazing that i can say, “I don’t have this prepped. I’m going to go into the other room for 10 minutes and prep it.” And they’ll be totally cool with that. But if I randomly prep it at the table — BAM — they check out. (And this is behavior which I’ve seen in more than a dozen players across multiple groups.)

      • Dungeon Maestro says:

        Very much agree with your assessment.

      • The Id DM says:

        Justin, I did that about a year ago. The party decided they really wanted to pursue a goal that I didn’t expect. It was able halfway through the session, so I requested for the group to take a short break. During that break, I put together a couple of NPCs and some combat encounters to lead them to their goal. The group didn’t seem to mind the short break, and it gave me a few moments to collect my thoughts and organize the rest of the session.

      • S'mon says:

        I agree, actually – I would not randomly generate dungeon layout at-table. The things I do often randomly generate include:
        1. Random encounters.
        2. For AD&D, the NPC reaction roll, which determines their predisposition.

        Those are both Schrodingers, it’s reasonable that the probability wave only collapses at that time. Whereas the dungeon has been there a long time, normally, and random generation at table would hurt suspension of disbelief. I might improvise a layout I think most reasonable, but I wouldn’t roll it.

        Today I rolled openly for random lair treasure – the PCs had killed a man-eating ape, then tracked down its undetailed lair. The rolls were for what the beast might have gathered – nothing, as it turned out. I think that worked ok.

      • Schrodingers. I like that.

        Re: Random treasure generation at the table. Players always love this. It’s like playing the lottery, but you’re always a winner. ;)

      • Dungeon Maestro says:

        I have a very funny story regarding wandering monsters and random treasure. First edition rules to preface this. DM rolled a random encounter for our high level party. Decided to roll what we ran across in front of us… Result = Great Wyrm Red Dragon!!! We were happy and a bit nervous. First round of combat our wizard tries to polymorph the dragon into a mushroom…. yeah right… 99% magic resistance, Save Vs Spell = 2…
        Rolled the magic resistance came up 100%… We were laughing our butts off… DM rolled the save and murmured the fatal words “can only fail on a 1″…….. Result = 1!!! Dragon turned into mushroom!!!!

        As we howled and the DM shook his head in disbelief we chanted for random treasure, so the DM obliged. Going down the old “Treasure Types” was always fun, and rolling for treasure…

        However it became the DM’s turn to laugh as the same high % rolling kept occurring and we ended up with a treasure better suited for a single orc. It was so pathetic it could have fit into a bag…. not a sack,,, a BAG!!!… it was literally a dragon treasure you could Pee over, as it came to be known…

        And that,,,, is karma…

      • Dungeon Maestro says:

        Also in that same vein, I was the beneficiary of unfortunate DM rolls, once when I hit a Lich with a Mace of Disruption on the first round of combat… Failed magic resistance and saving throw, lich turns to dust…

        It appropriate RP manner, my character looked at the rest of the party… “That wasn’t hard at all, these guys are pansies.”.

        Obviously I was ‘in character’ corrected later… =)

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  8. Contrail says:

    When building a sandbox you do not need to know everything, just build a layout of the place the players are … this gives the indication the area is pre-made even if what is around the corner is decided by a d8.

    Oh and never use random loot …. it shows after a second week your players got stuff they don’t currently have a use for!
    ….Also you need combat mobs planned … but don’t we always?

    The only thing that in my opinion is hard/time consuming is player NPC dialogue. (and it makes a game feel rail roaded more than anything if you script them)

    If players want to chat with a character you have to improvise some or all of the text for. Feel free to make them do some of the work! If a player does not attempt to direct a conversation, then end it … “role play check failed” … do not ever take the easy option and just give players the information there were “investigating” for. (it breeds bad habits and rail roads).

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