How to improvise while playing D&D

When you’re running a game of D&D, sometimes you have an adventure and players that stick to the script.

As anyone who’s been a Dungeon Master knows, sometimes you have players that break down the walls and go charging off in a new direction for which you are utterly unprepared. 

How do you handle it?

You certainly don’t have to be an expert in improv to do things on the fly at the table. 

We have some tips.

You’ve heard the first rule of improv is “yes, and…” First off, it’s not your job to allow whatever the players feel like doing. Sometimes they fail. That’s where the phrase, “Yes, but…”, comes in. You can allow their actions and implement consequences. Let’s say the king is about to give a quest to the party and then the party’s precocious rogue decides to steal the king’s signet ring. He rolls a natural 20 to steal the ring, ensuring he slips it right off the king’s hand. You say, “Yes, but…” The king might not notice his ring is gone after the rogue’s excellent sleight of hand check, but maybe the king’s adviser sees the theft or perhaps the ring is cursed.

If you’re running the game, feel free to say, “No, and…” or “No, but…” Going back to the previous encounter, let’s again say the rogue rolls an excellent sleight of hand check. You are the Dungeon Master. You say, “No. A guard sees the theft and tells the king.” Rather than sparking a fight and destroying all the prep that went into your session, come up with another solution. For example, the king thinks any rogue brave enough to steal the ring off his finger is a natural choice for his quest and he offers a bonus.

If a player has a better idea than what you had in mind, roll with it. If you are working on a plot point that is yet to be revealed, and a player comes up with a new, wildly interesting theory. Just, uh, steal that idea. Make it your own. Tell them they were incredibly perceptive to have guessed your machinations. Award them with inspiration in the game.

Take notes. It’s always a good idea to keep a notebook nearby during games for tracking hit points and initiative and whatever else. But dedicate a page (or maybe an entire notebook) to off-the-cuff ideas, whether they’re yours or your players’. Whenever you’re riffing over what could happen next in the game, write those things down and keep them in mind for later. 

Keep a few ideas in the background. Think of some side quests, new NPCs, random dungeons, or other things that your players could encounter if they abandon your original campaign idea for something else. You don’t have to flesh out some crazy world, but you could keep some pre-made adventures or modules or maps or monster stats just in case. 

Create consequences in the game. Let’s say the king hired the players to track down and deal with a clan of goblins. When they get sidetracked on some other quest or dungeon, make a note of what the goblins do in the meantime. Maybe they attack the king. Maybe they track down the adventurers. Maybe they grow ever-larger, unite with other goblin tribes, and create their own goblin empire. 

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