The Art of “Winging it”

Improvisation isn’t really an art as such but it can work extremely well when your players go off on one of those tangents that they love to do so often… and I know some players love doing it to games. The secret is: don’t let them know that you’re winging it. Or give them enough rope to hang themselves. Whatever works 🙂

Some of my most fun games have been run off a few notes and maps, and both myself and the players have enjoyed them immensely. It’s actually quite straightforward to run an improvised game, although you paradoxically need to plan ahead to a certain extent. Make sure that you’ve got a pile of stock NPCs or monsters to use and that you’ve a few encounters that you can throw in to break things up.

Among the improvisation techniques I’ve used, the application of “imminent peril” is probably one of the best. It puts PCs in a situation where they have to keep moving as they are being chased or are up against the clock. It worked very well in my first game of Ashes of Freedom as the group are pursued across Volkrania by the Mandragora, trying to avoid their forces and warn the capital. Encounters with heavily armed patrols and unrelenting attacks meant that the PCs (and players!) had little time to rest. The game was almost entirely improvised – as long as you’ve got the stats for some stock characters/encounters you (and your players) can have a great time!

Another of my favourites is the total improv(isation) campaign – all your plot is centred upon the PC actions and their consequences. This can be hugely difficult to plan for obvious reasons, so its pretty heavy work for the GM and can be difficult to run. Take away the toys. PCs thrown in prison or going undercover are not going to have much more than their own wits to help them out. Against the Odds was built upon this premise, with the group being escaped prisoners: no armour, food, weapons, or gear. The players would have to rely on their wits and creativity – particularly since they escaped into an area known as the Hellswamp. I’d planned to make the campaign about toppling the ruler, and creating a resistance force/rebellion.

Superhero/spy games are a great fun to improvise in, where you can wing it freely and give the players free rein as it were. I remember playing in a Marvel Superheroes game many years ago that basically focussed on us opposing the robotic Sentinels (long before the X-Men movies!). Oh, the elaborate schemes we came up with…

Anyway here’s some basic thoughts when improvising:

  • Be consistent – treat anything you improvise as part of the game “canon” from that point on. Keep some NPC names and stats pregenerated.
  • Let your players create their own encounter -“This looks like a great place for an ambush!” or “There’s going to be undead” 🙂
  • Don’t railroad the players – gentle encouragement is better than forcing them back onto the original plot.
  • Keep your cool – don’t get discouraged or annoyed when the players do something unexpected.
  • Adapt the ideas into your game. In Ashes of Freedom, a chariot race originally intended as a background actually provided a number of sessions that were fun!
  • Roll with it – enjoy yourself! If your players ignore the dungeon you’ve spent weeks designing and decide to go on an ocean cruise let them do so. Then maroon them on a mysterious desert island. With non-euclidean geometry.
  • Don’t be too “out there” with your improvisations – try and keep the flavour of your game intact. Humorous side quests can be fun – in moderation.
  • Don’t indulge individual players too much – remember, RPGs are social games.  Give each player enough of their own air time, returning to individuals afterwards.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at and regularly play RPGs.