Freeform, Improvised Gming.


Advice


Has anyone ever tried to completely improv a session? I'd like to try my hand at coming up up with combat and story on the fly as the game progresses. Taking notes of what happens and using whatever becomes of the first session and the players choices as a guide for future sessions. Anyone have any experience with this style of gming?


I certainly have in the past, though not recently and not with pathfinder. A lot of my kingmaker sessions worked out to pretty improvisational due to the sandbox nature of that AP. As long as you have a good knowledge of the area the PCs are in, some good charts or notes on what they're likely to encounter, and hopefully access to a PC for quick reference to unexpected rules/monsters/spells, it should work well.

If you get stuck for an NPC, an old trick I have is to just rename someone I know IRL and try imagine how they'd react to a situation.


I've done it before. You either need to be pretty creative, or have self-starting players for it to work. Both is even better.

It's fun for a game or two but can burn you out quickly.


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Most of my sessions are like this actually... I don't run modules/adventure paths and i'm predominantly a sandbox gm. You sort of know what you'd like to do but its the players choice what they're doing, not yours. The challenge is in being able to create a story out of it and keep it interesting.

I believe the style is called 'simulationist'...

The rules and the map are the framework. The plot is a surprise/work in progress/living thing.

Lantern Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber

I've had to pull a session or two like this. Simply didn't have enough prep time, and only had very rough notes of where the story was going. Luckily, the game was run over Ventrillo and maptools, so the players couldn't see me frantically typing away as I tied together their ideas and plans into the greater narrative.

Heck, every once in awhile (okay, pretty much every session) the party swings off on some totally unexpected tangent, and I've got to gin up sections of the world that weren't even listed in my GM notes. The best advice that I can give on that front is to put down ideas as they come, whether you're going to use them in the current session or not. Build up an arsenal of plot hooks, NPCs, and locations that you can pull out of your kit when things go off in an unexpected direction. Letting the players inspire your decisions can make them feel like they've got more invested in the world, and it makes you look like you're a bit more all-knowing and awesome.


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Stockvillain wrote:
Letting the players inspire your decisions can make them feel like they've got more invested in the world, and it makes you look like you're a bit more all-knowing and awesome.

Exactly! I find the most memorable moments in gaming to come from this. The satisfaction of having the whole table come together to decide what they want to do is such a different feeling than having to mule-herd players through a module or listen to important plot details that they couldn't give a rats rump about.

Free your mind!

Although clearly I'm biased, I personally consider this to be the height of the role playing craft. The only caveats I can offer up is that it's like pulling teeth sometimes if you've got a table full of folks who, when you give them the stage and the pure freedom, and ask the almighty question 'what are you going to do?' are like. "uhhh.. I don't know"...

Thats when you gotta get back to being the gm and put some plot carrots in front of them. Little push here, little nudge there. Sometimes even the most idle consideration can snowball into the best campaign you've ever had.

If they absolutely can't come up with things to keep them busy then it's a good idea to make the players a member of an organization that gives them 'assignments', so you still control the throttle but leave the steering to them.

The Exchange RPG Superstar 2010 Top 16, Contributor

The less structure your game has, the more general prep work you have to have.

When I GM 'on the fly' usually I have a set of notes about the sort of things the players might encounter and a fairly good concept of potential encounter areas near them. GMing is storytelling and you need to be able to help the players fabricate a story out of thin air... it's tough to do, particularly if you want to create an evocative environment. "You see another 10x10 room", isn't really going to cut it. If that's all you can give, you are better sticking with a more structured scenario.

On the mechanical side, you need a pile of stat blocks to work from (though I have 'winged it' with no stat blocks or quickly improvised from existing). It's best to limit things to around a dozen critters before the game starts so you can have a good idea of the creatures powers and what sort of tactics they might use (and where the players might encounter them).

You need a map of some sort, and you should 'mentally mark' any traps/ secret doors or other unseen features before the players start onto the map. If you don't mentally fix secrets, it's too easy to drop them into place right in front of the players which isn't fair.

One thing to consider is keeping a stock encounter in reserve, which makes sense in a lot of environments. Then if your players jump the tracks completely, you can use that to stall while you are fleshing out the sections ahead.

NPC Codex, the NPC gallery in the GMG, and the Rival Guide are great places to pull random NPCs from on the fly. They aren't super optimized, but there is a big variety to pull from and they are all in the PRD so you can access them online if you need, or get the books so you can put faces to your villains.


Yes, but most often I have a basic structure I 'jam' around with input from the pcs (who are NEVER wholly predictable!)


A big part of free form is doing your homework ahead of time. Its like shadow boxing. If your boxing coach doesn't give you directions, and you don't make a conscious decision to work on something or to apply moves you have worked on recently, you will just do the same crap all the time - whatever is naturally appearing in your mind.

My point is, there is no such thing as prepless GMing. When you do "free form" you are just relying on all the prep you have done in the past to appear in your mind and for that to be good enough.

I have one GM that can free form Marvel because he has read comics his whole life, but can't free form anything else because he needs prep time to be ready.


I have a fair ammount of acting experience, the bulk of which is improv work, so I'm not worried about being able to come up with something quick and interesting. My issue will be handling the nuances of pathfinders rule system, and intermixing a grasp of that with the sense of combat and story I'd like to instill.
The two groups I play in have been Gm'd by my younger brother, who while functional as a Gm, seems to prefer one group over the other. He tends to gravitate towards telling a better story in the preferred group, doesn't ever cancel meetings and generally provokes a diverse range of interesting combat scenarios while in the other group, it is quite the opposite case. He cancels the games on a semi-regular basis because he says he didn't have enough time to plan out the night (It's the hardcover ROTR we're playing) and has a tendancy to act like we're some vast inconvinience to him (when he asked us if he could gm for the group).
So, now I'm setting up to take over the group and cast aside ROTR for a later date, so we can get an actual story moving that isn't all tied up in what's written out for us and I can take the reigns of Gming from my brother who obviously doesn't want to run this group anymore.

Liberty's Edge

I have done on-the-fly GMing many times. This took place in my own campaign setting as a wilderness hex crawl. To me, that was the most freeform experience ever. The PCs liked it. Everything they did helped to co-create my game world. As a result it was really just as much their world as it was one that I brought into being. Fun times!


You need to prep a few things to run a good game without prep :-)

Have some level appropriate npc's starter out is a good start. Some they can fight, and some they can use as contacts...

A general idea of where they start... Forgotten realms? Golarion? Home brew? City? Wilderness?

An idea what your players want... Undeads? Social? Evil chars?

And tell your players you are not running an AP! they should know the world is theirs for the taking... IF THEY TELL A GOOD STORY,not if they are waiting for you to trll them everything...

My experience is that free firm is harder on the players than on the GM...

Scarab Sages

Thanks for starting this thread up. I'll be starting my first GMing experience soon in a world I've been writing stories and tinkering in on my own time since I was young (17 or so years in the making so far). I planned to free-form the first session to get a feel for the characters in-character and see where they wanted to go. This thread has given me some good advice on running that kind of game. It will eventually narrow into a less sandbox adventure, but for the first session at least I'll probably be free forming.
Thanks again, to everyone.


You have to be really familiar with the rules, but it's not too hard. I do it often, and it usually turns out pretty well. Some types of adventures require more prep, though. Mysteries, for instance.


You might want to check out 3.5 private sanctuary (podcast) episode 212 No Prep Dming - here They talk to the author of a pdf on just this sort of thing and he seemed to have alot of good ideas (you could obviously pick up the pdf as well) though there are some system issues, the advice and concepts would apply.


Thanks for all the suggestions folks.


Nation Prophetic wrote:
Has anyone ever tried to completely improv a session? I'd like to try my hand at coming up up with combat and story on the fly as the game progresses. Taking notes of what happens and using whatever becomes of the first session and the players choices as a guide for future sessions. Anyone have any experience with this style of gming?

I pretty much run every RPG ever completely on the fly like this. I don't take notes, though. If it was memorable, I'll remember it--if it wasn't, nobody else will remember, either, so it won't matter if I forget it.

It works great. My recommendation, however, is to make sure the game's premise has a driving goal in it.

Simple Survival is a good one for a lot of games. It always works for White Wolf's "you're a monster" type games (since surviving as a vampire has its own difficulties), or for a Firefly/Shadowrun type thing where you're basically some kind of mercenary freelancers who need constant work to stay alive. You could also set up some apocalypse or other world shaking event that the PCs will get involved in, but leave the path wide open.

Actually, for the first time in 20 years of running games, I'm trying my hand at a module (Serpent Skull), and its weird having stuff done beforehand. I don't think it's going to work out, actually, because book 2 is so railroady. I'm probably going to just run book 1 (which I love and is very much like a game I'd run) and then do my own thing after that.


Vincent Takeda wrote:

Most of my sessions are like this actually... I don't run modules/adventure paths and i'm predominantly a sandbox gm. You sort of know what you'd like to do but its the players choice what they're doing, not yours. The challenge is in being able to create a story out of it and keep it interesting.

I believe the style is called 'simulationist'...

The rules and the map are the framework. The plot is a surprise/work in progress/living thing.

Addicting, too. Once you experience how magical the game can actually be, it's pretty painful to "go back" to playing pre-written stuff because it ever after feels like you're being forced to play along rather than playing, yourself.


That's all I do is "On the Fly" GMing, because what ever I have planned for my players, they always do the unexpected and go in search of something else. I take notes about what they do. When I talk out of my ass about important places or whatnot, I make them take notes. It works at our table, it might not work at someone else's though.


Aunt Tony wrote:
Vincent Takeda wrote:

Most of my sessions are like this actually... I don't run modules/adventure paths and i'm predominantly a sandbox gm. You sort of know what you'd like to do but its the players choice what they're doing, not yours. The challenge is in being able to create a story out of it and keep it interesting.

I believe the style is called 'simulationist'...

The rules and the map are the framework. The plot is a surprise/work in progress/living thing.

Addicting, too. Once you experience how magical the game can actually be, it's pretty painful to "go back" to playing pre-written stuff because it ever after feels like you're being forced to play along rather than playing, yourself.

Super mega entirely agree.

Liberty's Edge

While I have never done any d20 on the fly stuff, I have done A LOT of world of darkness improv. It wasn't until I started playing d20 games on a regular basis did I learn how awesome it was to actually prepare for a game and how much easier it is with the right amount of prep work. That said, I had some very interesting games using improv with the WoD games, but because the horse isn't dead yet, knowing the rules is much needed.

@Vincent Takeda and Aunt Tony: Maybe it's because I started doing thing's the other way around, maybe it's because I haven't run a d20 Improv game yet, but I feel the opposite. I only include the improv portions in side-quests that the characters suddenly come up with and average dialog that isn't supposed to be something crazy and cool. I haven't had any complaints so I must be doing SOMETHING right, though I have no idea what it is.


Alcomus wrote:

While I have never done any d20 on the fly stuff, I have done A LOT of world of darkness improv. It wasn't until I started playing d20 games on a regular basis did I learn how awesome it was to actually prepare for a game and how much easier it is with the right amount of prep work. That said, I had some very interesting games using improv with the WoD games, but because the horse isn't dead yet, knowing the rules is much needed.

@Vincent Takeda and Aunt Tony: Maybe it's because I started doing thing's the other way around, maybe it's because I haven't run a d20 Improv game yet, but I feel the opposite. I only include the improv portions in side-quests that the characters suddenly come up with and average dialog that isn't supposed to be something crazy and cool. I haven't had any complaints so I must be doing SOMETHING right, though I have no idea what it is.

I started full improv with AD&D. I was like 8 or 9 when I ran my first game and I didn't even know a module was a thing.

Now that I'm trying the module thing, I don't really like it. I feel like it's a lot more work, honestly, because I have to actually read it ahead of time and be prepared and navigate the book during the game (thank God for bookmarked .pdfs).

When I improv, I do zero work. It's way easier.

My group(s) like it equally, regardless of which way I do it--turns out they actually thought I was planning everything all along. They never realized my notebook was empty behind the screen.


I was DM 90% of the time as a kid, and almost every session I ran in high school (2nd ed) was made up on the spot. Writing or prepping a module seemed like so much work back then! I don't claim to be an all-star DM, and seldom take up the mantle anymore, but I have retained the ability to glide forward even when the train hops the tracks (railroad pun unintentional). If anything my games became a little more fantastic, but more dynamic, when that happened. I prep everything these days, as I live by the mantra that Improvisation > Preparation, so the more I prep the better I improv. I can't cover every scenario though, and on a few occasions I have told a party "You can go this way if you want, but I'm warning you now that I have absolutely nothing prepared for it."

I kinda want to try freeform again. Might be fun.


I generally try to run all my games improv. style. Though I have ran a AP. It was fun...but did add alot of side missions and such.

My problem is having the right players. One group I am a regular GM for are really good at doing things together...the other group I sometimes run for are a little more problem. I either have people who are waiting for me...or lone wolves who can't be bothered to include others. So the game I ran for them kinda fell apart. If I was going to run something else for that group I'll probably go for alot more structure at first.

Liberty's Edge

mplindustries wrote:
Alcomus wrote:

While I have never done any d20 on the fly stuff, I have done A LOT of world of darkness improv. It wasn't until I started playing d20 games on a regular basis did I learn how awesome it was to actually prepare for a game and how much easier it is with the right amount of prep work. That said, I had some very interesting games using improv with the WoD games, but because the horse isn't dead yet, knowing the rules is much needed.

@Vincent Takeda and Aunt Tony: Maybe it's because I started doing thing's the other way around, maybe it's because I haven't run a d20 Improv game yet, but I feel the opposite. I only include the improv portions in side-quests that the characters suddenly come up with and average dialog that isn't supposed to be something crazy and cool. I haven't had any complaints so I must be doing SOMETHING right, though I have no idea what it is.

I started full improv with AD&D. I was like 8 or 9 when I ran my first game and I didn't even know a module was a thing.

Now that I'm trying the module thing, I don't really like it. I feel like it's a lot more work, honestly, because I have to actually read it ahead of time and be prepared and navigate the book during the game (thank God for bookmarked .pdfs).

When I improv, I do zero work. It's way easier.

My group(s) like it equally, regardless of which way I do it--turns out they actually thought I was planning everything all along. They never realized my notebook was empty behind the screen.

Just to clarify my earlier post, I still haven't run a module or AP yet, just home brew campaigns that I have prepped for, with big story arcs and stuff. Will be starting RotR soon, though, so maybe I will feel the pain of running NPC's that I didn't make myself, and stories that I don't know in and out. TBH, never really felt the need to shell out the cash for most stories when I can just make them up, but PFS sounds awesome and I want in on it.

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