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.
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:
- Lone employee
- Group of secretaries
- Two custodians
- Two guards
- Two guards w/ Supervisor
- Full guard patrol
- Change of shift for patrol w/ multiple guards
- 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.
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.
- 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.