How I learned to stop worrying and hate the plot: Improv is kinder than planning

I ran a game on Saturday, and it underlined a lot of what I’m actively useless at when it comes to GMing.


The game in question is 13th Age, and we’re on session ten now – enough for my players to have found their feet in a new system, and for me to write far too many plot threads and leave them all just… sort of… hanging around, like the sort of plot threads you’d find hanging off the sleeve of a plot jumper.

After an adventure against goblin mercenaries in the elven woods and a quest to liberate a lighthouse on an underground island from inter-dimensional fungus terrors, all my players requested something with a few more NPCs in. I agreed, because a) LISTEN TO YOUR PLAYERS and b) I quite like play-acting, because it’s more fun than statting out another squad of monsters then watching their heads get bashed in by the barbarian.

So I put them off for a week with a brawl against some pirate gnolls (always fun) then they hit the city of Drakkenhall – a city that more than half of them had visited at some point, but not one with solid connections that they could leverage like they could in Axis.


Then, before the game on Saturday, I had a cup of coffee and got out my A3 pad and started sketching out a relationship map. Because that’s what you have in a city, right? People. People with personalities and desires. Create enough of them, give them a scarcity of resources, and position the players in such a way that they can effect the outcome. That’s RIPE for adventure and intrigue, yeah?

The planning takes me two and a half hours, and that’s about five times as long as I’d normally spend prepping for a game – when my players are poking around a dungeon, or decapitating goblins in the elven woods – but I’m happy with it. I’ve got plots, schemes. I’m pushing the players apart and together in some interesting ways. I’m excited to see what develops.

Then the players hit it, and it all falls apart.

I’d forgotten the fundamental rule of adventure planning; try not to. (And, I mean, how can you “plan” an “adventure?” I think excess preparation downgrades any decent Adventure to the rank of Excursion, or maybe even a Ramble.)

Blurry, but that's probably good to avoid plot spoilers.
Small and burry, but that at least avoids plot spoilers.


I’d given the players some leads, and of course they ignored them in favour of getting drunk and picking fights in bars, because up until now I’ve run cities and ports incredibly loosely, and a favourite activity amongst players is to roll up their sleeves and reach into the Lucky Dip that is my brain to see what they get.

Within half an hour of starting play, because I say Yes to things my players suggest, I (and the players) have already invented: one High Elf drug dealer and a ludicrous fantasy drug called Clip that gives you Violent Telepathy, one bar part-owned by schoolgirls with a pit-fighting arena, one magical college, and an entire subculture of drow bars (they use too many curtains and smoke a lot).

My plots – my schemes – are sitting on the paper in front of me, weighing me down like anchors. “You could always go report to the church of Sollus,” I say to our Cleric, noticing all the strands arcing off that central point on my relationship map. When the group finally arrives, it’s nowhere near as interesting as the previous encounters. “Here’s the plot,” my NPC seems to say, “why don’t you go and chase it.” Even the names I’d prepared seemed heavy on my tongue as I read them out – the rival churches of The Vagabond Saint, The Silvered Ones, the Riverfolk Chapel, if I’d made them up on the spot, would have sounded pretty good.

As it stood, I stopped halfway through a sentence and had to look them up, and you could hear the momentum of play stumble and fall over. The whole scene played out like it was viewed through a tinted car window; all muted noise and indistinct colours. No-one cared about what was going on. They were here to receive the plot. This was a social obligation, a tax for playing the game.

And across town, the other half of the group are in the invented-on-the-spot schoolgirl pitfighting bar called The Slap And Tackle, and the ex-schoolgirl Barbarian is getting ready to beat up a tamed owlbear in single combat, and we’re formulating the four stages involved in an owlbear duel (Hooting, Circling, Face-Slapping, Arm-Ripping) and the fighter is blind drunk and betting his share of the pirate ship on the owlbear after he fluffed a Gambling check and it’s happening, you know, the whole scene is buzzing and we can smell the owlbear blood and hear the booming hoots and feel the sawdust under our feet.

And on top of the church spire, the other players watch their Quest Log update: “Investigate the Obvious Plothook the GM has given you!” as they spot the cult member watching them from an adjacent rooftop, and weigh up the odds of pursuit, and decide to leave it for another day.

Fun fact: my version of Drakkenhall is, basically, Istanbul with elves in it. This is following on from a fine tradition of "invented" places in my games with names such as "Essentially Venice" and "Almost Entirely Holland." (I went to Istanbul, once, and a journalist from Stuff magazine threw up all over my feet.)
Fun fact: my version of Drakkenhall is, basically, Istanbul with elves in it. This is following on from a fine tradition of “invented” places in my games with names such as “Essentially Venice” and “Almost Entirely Holland.” (I went to Istanbul, once, and a journalist from Stuff magazine threw up all over my feet.)


I struggle with games, some times, because I base a lot of my self-worth on my ability to run games well and on a bad day it’s hard to think “Out of ten sessions, this is the only weak session” from “I am a terrible person and if this game was a horse you’d shoot it.” I’m getting better. I’ve got a good group, and they understand my process.

(It wasn’t a weak session, this one, by the way. We had a fag break, and then they met four identical Kenku tailors called The Brothers Korvid, and then the Barbarian took the rest of the party to meet her fabulously wealthy parents who live in the city, who I also had to make up, and it was a challenge to play Disapproving Mother, let me tell you, but I made it work)

But you know what made it harder to run, in my head? Not that it was difficult to try and weave the players into a plot of my own creation (that’s a different topic for a different time), but that it was prepared ahead of time. It stopped being a group activity and became a performance, and I felt hot under the stage-lights. The slightest mis-step felt blown out of proportion until I’m freezing mid-sentence, unsure of what to say or do. The cogs behind the world creak to a shuddering halt, and the backdrop starts to look paper-thin.

My normal method of making up Local Colour is to turn the questions back onto a player; if they ask “Is there a Wizard’s Guild here?” then you say “I dunno, is there?” and “Sure, how is it different?” or “No, tell me why that is though” then spinning out their suggestions into something great, working with them to gain steam. It means that they’re involved in the bones of the game, and it takes a lot of the pressure off me. 13th Age, as a game system, actively encourages that too, and when you skip over the parts of the game that bake it in, the play can feel a little dry and undefined.

But also, in theatrical terms, it’s improv, not a play. We are far more forgiving of improv than we are of plays. Improv is a duel, a back-and-forth, and even messing it up can be funny if pitched correctly, if the audience are buying into it. You’re doing the best you can with whatever you have to hand.

Plays often hinge on that assumption that this is a fantasy world, displayed on stage, and it must hold up to inspection without falling over. If something doesn’t make sense in improv, you can discard it or try to manhandle it into the story; if something doesn’t make sense in a play, you’ve got a bad script. Or a bad director.

And then the shame kicks in, because when something falls flat from your prepared notes… well, you had all the time in the world to figure it out, and this is the best you could manage. If a name isn’t good, you fucked up beforehand, rather than just freezing on the spot. Nerves you can handle; bad prep is unforgivable.

Thanks to my insistence on squeezing my plotlines into the characters’ actions, we’re starting the next game on unsteady ground. I’ve already worked plotholes into what I wrote out before the session when I was improvising; I’m viewing the next game with trepidation, because I’m going to have to perform some narrative gymnastics to pull this shit back on track.

Fuck that.


You know what the track of the game is? Not my poxy plot, contrived as it is.

The track of the game is the way that my players got in touch with me after the game and said that they really wanted to disguise the dwarf as a schoolgirl to track down the mysterious cultist spied at the top of the church spire. My job isn’t to bring them back online to my daft metaplot with dragons, and demons, and dimensional breaches, and body-swapping, and motivations so thin you could read a newspaper through them.

My job is to make sure that dwarf dresses up as a schoolgirl. My job is to imagine what the fuck the stable of characters I have at my command – and an infinite stable of characters I’ve yet to invent – would do if this happened, and react. My job is to make it up as I go along.



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9 responses to “How I learned to stop worrying and hate the plot: Improv is kinder than planning”

  1. pdunwin Avatar

    Excellent. This is my preferred mode of play, as a GM and a player. Pre-prep never worked for me, basically for the reasons you site. It also meant a lot of saying “No” to ideas that sounded cool but might just wreck my ideas.

    What I’ve found, though, is that there are people who take the idea of improvised games very personally and negatively. This tends to correspond to people who get their enjoyment from the uncovering or discovery of the GM’s planning. The uncharitable interpretation is that they are seeking to fool themselves into believing that what they are experiencing is not fiction but is scripture that the GM has somehow tapped into through he walls between worlds. Best case, they’ve had some bad experiences with off-the-cuff stuff and just prefer a plan to improv. Some people really do like to be on a track.

  2. Sean Smith Avatar

    I even wrote notes on this so I wouldn’t forget what I was going to say whilst waiting for a bus.

    Okay, so part of this will determine how far along the role-playing to game spectrum you wish to sit – I enjoy role-playing in my games, but it’s somewhat the game element that seems to be forefront with my planning. Looking back at a lot of my prep, I realise I go quite Legend of Zelda in my planning. The players seem to enjoy it, so there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Nevertheless, I see three routes forwards from here as a thought-point.

    Don’t have a planeurysm, man! This work you’ve already done will sit there until it is ready to use. A bit like an awesome encounter in an unexplored tract of the dungeon could happily blink from one part of the map to another.

    In my current campaign (DON’T READ THIS WILL), my players failed to follow through with their detective work and didn’t really ask some of the right questions in the right places, so the plot (read: massive set piece) overtook them. There’s now a one-eyed dwarf they don’t know about, who still doesn’t have his own answers, and will continue to dog them as they continue.


    Seed hooking NPCs in some of your locations. They don’t even have to be quest-bots with rich backstories until they took an arrow to the knee. I recently put an interesting NPC in a location I thought my players would turn up in. Poncy elf dude, surrounded by elfin whores and sipping poncily on summerwine. One of my characters doesn’t really like the summerwine crowd, and might have gotten a little more drunk than he was used to (being a hardy dwarven brewer and all that) so started a fight. It was only afterwards that they realised it was the famed pit-fighter Marus who they’d started on. Someone who they needed to contact for the next point of plot…

    It might not trigger a plot immediately, but if you can embroil the players in a web of intrigue without them tugging the strings, there will be a great outcome later.

    Get personal. So your players spent all their time in the Slap and Tackle. Your plot and network can move in on that territory. The first they might notice is the beer prices going up to cover the ale tax in that sector. Or it might be that it becomes the site for a big gangland shootout.

    It’s not quite railroady, since they’ve had freedom to do what they want before. But again, it isn’t the most heroic story to focus on Tom Bombadil whilst all this stuff goes on in the background.

    Bring the plot to them. Ensnare them in its weaves.

    1. pdunwin Avatar

      Planning is fine if you are prepared to drop it when something better comes along. How long are you going to be interested in tracking missed threads, though, if the players keep missing them? At some point, it’s easier to just decide that the stuff they have no clue about just doesn’t exist.

      1. Sean Smith Avatar

        The scale of bookkeeping hasn’t really hit me, since we tend to play every three weeks to a month. But I could see it becoming a pain.

        That said, I’m torn both ways from an element of verisimilitude: part chaos-theory, part Schroedinger’s cat. I’m not sure if I think that all these hidden machinations are key or instead that only what’s visible at the table is canonical. It’s one thing to plan a secret for a known antagonist than to seed too many other things that may never surface.

        1. grant Avatar

          At present, the planning I’m happy with is:

          2 fights, usually re-skinning the monsters to be more interesting/scarier, with notes on terrain

          A clear idea of what the players are doing that session (“We need to get to the lighthouse” or “We’re trying to cross the Starless Sea”)

          A half-page of scribbled ideas for the world (“Columns” “Buildings are empty, too big” “Mysterious fungus grows everywhere”)

          From that, I can spin out a game pretty well. The issue comes when I lose point 2; I resort to Questbot instincts, and it grates. Which is the wrong way to go about it, really, I should be thinking that WHATEVER the players do it’s an Adventure, and it’s my job to throw difficulties and interesting characters in their path.

  3. glenn griswold Avatar
    glenn griswold

    My prep method goes something like this:

    Step One: Here is the world (more or less – I like to leave LOTS of details open, because as you say, improve is spelled with improv).
    Step Two: Here is some stuff going on (which may or may not have anything to do with anyone).
    Step Three: Run Amok, trampling merrily over everything I have planned, and running with whatever plot hooks the PLAYERS give to ME. I find that every time the players say something like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” I take that and squirrel it away for future use, and more times than not I use it later, when they’ve forgotten that they gave it to me, so I look like a totally amazing GM.

  4. Immis Naur Avatar
    Immis Naur

    Huh. My current campaigns most important (and only) preparation is cleaning the table with a cloth, setting up the materials for the player (that is, five dice and whatever they leave in their part of my rpg folder) and get enough chairs, so everyone can sit.

    I have pretended to prep. I spread papers and charts behind my GM Screen (made of cardboard by my players, I died, it was so awfully great) and move them around mysteriously in order to seem, you know, legit.

    I have about two pages of notes no one but me could ever read. That is the campaign, somehow, therein lies all the data. The rest ist just false advertising.

    Its scary. And somehow it works. We had exploding flying islands, lightsabor-wielding manticore-shapeshifters, giant transplanar insects, treacherous mages and undead T-Rexes battling alive T-rexes and asexual ape-sorceror-mentorpeople. And what not.

    We had fun, somehow. Scary, that.

    1. grant Avatar

      “Cleaning the table with a cloth,” eh? Well lah-di-dah

      1. immis.naur Avatar

        That phrase strange to you? Table gets dirty. I clean it. With a cloth.

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