I love improv when it comes to running table-top RPG’s. One of the things I enjoy most about being a player in a game is not knowing what’s around the next corner, or over the next hill. The more I improv my games, the more I get to experience that similar sense of wonder and discovery on the DM side of the screen!
Before I go any further, let me say that when I refer to improv in this article, I am speaking to the idea of running games with little to no preparation ahead of time. Instead, I’m playing off of what comes to my mind when reacting to the players actions. Whether it’s something they say, something they do or especially in this case, the answers to my questions (more on that to come). In my Dungeon World games, I have nothing but a blank sheet of paper for notes, and a pencil (nope, not even dice!) in front of me.
Practice, I feel, plays the largest role in how well you respond to the challenge of running a game with no preparation. Having run games since I was 13 (23 years now) I’ve run a good number of games, and that experience has helped prepared me to face the questions from my players that I will need to respond to without having an answer already waiting to be given.
After the last Dungeon World game I ran, I had a player ask me, “So, you had a few things in mind before we started right?”, to which I responded, “Nope, not a thing!”. When I explain this to those who ask me about running games without preparation, the response is usually something like…
“Man, that sounds hard. I couldn’t do that… I NEED to have something planned”.
My response to this, specifically regarding Dungeon World, has been…
“I pride myself on my improv skills, and yea, this game certainly pushes them…”.
The things is, I have been thinking about this more the last few days and I’ve come to realize that this answer is only partially true. I do find that Dungeon World COMBAT and some social situations certainly require a constant flow of creative and (importantly) immediate reactions if you want to really adhere to the principles of the game. These have certainly pushed the limits of my imrpov skills at times. However, when it comes to the question of running a compelling game in general, with zero preparation, Dungeon World is not only BUILT for that, but it can help you become BETTER at doing it!
Improv Can Be Scary
As I stated earlier, practice plays a large role in getting better at improv for your games. The problem for many is that this practice requires to you do the thing you feel you are no good at, and that can be scary. With a speech you can practice in a mirror alone, or read it to someone before actually giving it to a larger audience. When we tell someone, “gaming improv just takes practice”, it can be like telling someone who is afraid of heights that they just need to skydive over and over again (“just don’t plan for your next game!”). It may indeed be that the skydiving eventually rids them of their fear, but most aren’t even going to go up there to try it.
What we need is something in between, and I think Dungeon World can help with that.
Leveling Up Improv
So how can you practice your gaming improv without “diving from an airplane”? There are of course improv classes that could be taken, and other things that one could do, but for most people those are more than they are willing to put in for the sole purpose of better meeting the improv challenges gaming presents to them.
The reality is, even when you are fully prepared for a game you’re not, really. Players tend to throw wrenches into even the best of plans and can often take turns in the road that find you suddenly having to improv reactions, dialog or even entire games!
It would seem daunting (for those nervous about avoiding game prep) to run a game that tells them right up front not to…
The one thing you absolutely can’t bring to the table is a planned storyline or plot. You don’t know the heroes or the world before you sit down to play so planning anything concrete is just going to frustrate you. It also conflicts with your agenda: play to find out what happens.
…The thing is, this agenda of “play to find out what happens” is exactly where we find the middle ground between going all in with zero prep, and not doing it at all when you take into account the Dungeon World principle of “Ask questions and use the answers”.
Sharing the Improv Load
In games like D&D, when the player asks the DM something about their world, the DM is the authority. That answer will come from him/her alone or not at all. So, when you (the DM) are asked for background on a group of Elves known to be in the North and you were unprepared to answer, you must improv the answer… like, now.
In Dungeon World however, the players play a much larger role in the crafting of the world around them. Using that same example, as the DM you may turn to the Elf in the group and ask him a question. It could be simple… “Have you met the Elves to the North before?” (keep in mind, the campaign may have just begun!) or it could be a more leading question (the best kind)… “You were there once, and were even offered a place among them. Why did you turn it down?”.
In this way, Dungeon World allows you to put the focus back on the player not only empowering them to further craft their world (which is awesome, but kind of a side point here), but it allows you to interact with varying degrees of improvisation each time. If you are absolutely stumped, even very simple questions you ask a player could turn into something amazing that you can then play off of.
Elf: “Yea, I have been up there. They did offer me a place among them but I wanted to travel. They were pretty helpful in fact… maybe we could go there and I can ask them to look at this gem we can’t seem to figure out?”.
Your one question has turned into a journey, with a goal on the other end and NPC’s essentially waiting for you there that you can think about as the game moves towards them. This addresses one of the most common things I hear from DM’s I know when they say, “I’m just not creative enough to do that”. What is happening here is that the improv load is being shared. Instead of having to carry 100% of it (and right now!), you share the load with the players. It’s more of a back and forth flow, more cooperative. This can allow DM’s that are otherwise intimidated by improv to get small tastes of it one moment as needed, or larger bites when they are ready for it the next.
See This Headline? You’re almost Done!
Dungeon World is at it’s best when you set aside rigid planning and let things play as they do. It seems intimidating to those timid about improv, but with the ability (in fact, principle) of “Ask questions and use the answers” you have a really powerful means of taking a measured approach to improv that you don’t generally have, or consider with other games. Share the burden of improv with your players in Dungeon World an I bet you not only enjoy it, but will find your successes boosting your confidence, emboldening your desire to take imrpov to the next level.
Please note, I have run Dungeon World 5 different times now for a variety of different people. I’m no expert, I still have a lot to learn in order to run it perfectly, and this article simply speaks to the experiences I am currently having, and the insight I have gained thus far. Having said that, I do participate in the community regularly and have read the rules 3 times through at this point, so take that for what it’s worth as well.
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 Obviously D&D does not have to always operate this way, but it does in most games.