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Author Topic: When improvization fails. What do you do when you 'got nuthin'?  (Read 2975 times)
stefoid
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« on: March 11, 2011, 04:12:08 AM »

So last nights game I GMed petered out a bit early when I basically admitted 'I got nuthin'.  GMing by improvisation is a skill I am still learning, and whilst the session before was good, this session was not.  There were factors - circumstances conspired to rob me of any time to prep the session, even by refreshing myself about my notes, so I went in cold.  Plus I was kinda tapped out from being in meetings all day at work. 

Now I know about the concept of bangs.  I was sitting there thinking, hmm, what I need to do right now is drop a bang on these guys.  But what?  I couldnt think of anything that wouldnt seem lame and contrived.  I tried writing down a list of the unanswered questions that had been raised by play so far, and stared  at it for a while, whilst the players talked about non-game stuff.  I couldnt think of anything coherent to answer those questions right then on the spot.

Still, I feel that there must be some kind of best practices that a an improvising GM can fall back on in these situations.   What are your thoughts?  What do you successful improvising GMs do when you you come to the realization that you have absolutely no idea what happens next?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: March 11, 2011, 06:19:31 AM »

Hi Steve,

What game are we talking about? What sort of improvisation: about little things, big things, everything, or what?

Best, Ron
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Frank Tarcikowski
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« Reply #2 on: March 11, 2011, 08:05:06 AM »

Uh, not to shortcut Ron's questions, which I'd like to know the answers to as well, but here is a one-liner I just needed to get out:

I feel that there must be some kind of best practices that a an improvising GM can fall back on in these situations.   

There is. It is called "toilet break".

One more remark. I've tried to run games after a long day at work and it's really hard. I work in a job where I mostly get paid for using my brain, and after some 10 hours at the office I tend to feel too drained to do anything that requires creativity. Sad but true!

- Frank
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Judd
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« Reply #3 on: March 11, 2011, 09:37:24 AM »

Still, I feel that there must be some kind of best practices that a an improvising GM can fall back on in these situations.   What are your thoughts?  What do you successful improvising GMs do when you you come to the realization that you have absolutely no idea what happens next?

In ye olden days I would either fall back in character histories or consequences to character actions.

Nowdays, with Burning Wheel I think about consequences to their actions and look at their Beliefs and Instincts, relationships and such.  Hopefully, that will be enough to inspire me.  If not, we need to stop the game and re-write some Beliefs.

With Apocalypse World, I look at the moves, at the Fronts and Threats and go from there.  I think about NPC's who might feel threatened, might feel that their resources or livelihoods are being stepped out by the PC's and what they might do about it.
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Chris_Chinn
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« Reply #4 on: March 11, 2011, 10:48:27 AM »

Quote
Still, I feel that there must be some kind of best practices that a an improvising GM can fall back on in these situations.   What are your thoughts?

So, there's a simple trick I do if a game doesn't support me already: I write down the major NPCs and write a motivation or two for them.

During play, I simply go down the list and ask myself, "Who would do something interesting?  What would their response be to (previous action)?" Then I start a scene either with it about to happen, in the middle of happening, or the after effects.

In this way, you simply end up playing your NPCs the same way a player plays their PC- you don't have to pre-plan a lot- you just play the characters, picking the ones who you think would have the most relevant actions to hit the situation.

The one trick to this is that you have to have decent motivations and realize that an NPC could go about things in a LOT of ways. 

An enemy need not always ambush the party- maybe they decide to see if they could bribe the PCs or cut a deal.  An ally might withhold aid, or demand conditions, "You just let that village burn after you were done fighting.  We're going back and helping those people.  Yes, it'll take a days.  But then, and only then, will I show you the path to the Lost Citadel" etc.

Also be willing to change a motivation based on things that happen.  And in this way the NPCs become more fleshed out and interesting.

Chris
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stefoid
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« Reply #5 on: March 11, 2011, 01:13:57 PM »

Quote
Still, I feel that there must be some kind of best practices that a an improvising GM can fall back on in these situations.   What are your thoughts?

So, there's a simple trick I do if a game doesn't support me already: I write down the major NPCs and write a motivation or two for them.

During play, I simply go down the list and ask myself, "Who would do something interesting?  What would their response be to (previous action)?" Then I start a scene either with it about to happen, in the middle of happening, or the after effects.

In this way, you simply end up playing your NPCs the same way a player plays their PC- you don't have to pre-plan a lot- you just play the characters, picking the ones who you think would have the most relevant actions to hit the situation.

The one trick to this is that you have to have decent motivations and realize that an NPC could go about things in a LOT of ways. 

An enemy need not always ambush the party- maybe they decide to see if they could bribe the PCs or cut a deal.  An ally might withhold aid, or demand conditions, "You just let that village burn after you were done fighting.  We're going back and helping those people.  Yes, it'll take a days.  But then, and only then, will I show you the path to the Lost Citadel" etc.

Also be willing to change a motivation based on things that happen.  And in this way the NPCs become more fleshed out and interesting.

Chris

Youre right -- nothing happens unless someone wants it to happen, right?  unless its a natural disaster or something. 

Its what I should have prepped, but didnt have time for, and in this instance I had a blank.  I knew the antagonist wanted a certain PC and that PC managed to be drugged and captured and taken away.  At the point where the captor was to confront the captive, I had to admit that it would be best to close the session prematurely, because I had absolutely no reason worked out behind the antagonists actions. 
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stefoid
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« Reply #6 on: March 11, 2011, 01:17:34 PM »

Hi Steve,

What game are we talking about? What sort of improvisation: about little things, big things, everything, or what?

Best, Ron

Hi.

My own game in progress.  https://docs.google.com/leaf?id=0B5W32IfgIIkrYWI5OGNkYzQtMzQwNS00ZWFhLWE4MmYtMDM0NmMwM2Q0N2Vi&sort=name&layout=list&num=50

Big things.  I was entirely at sea.  I expected that even coming to the session cold, that Id be able to come up with what I needed to on the fly, and fill in the backstory retrospectively on the fly.  <sound of failure buzzer>
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stefoid
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« Reply #7 on: March 11, 2011, 01:23:31 PM »

Gah, and probably mucked up the little things as well.    Actually I broke my own rule from my doco and indulged in some pointless railroading to compound the problem.

See, in the previous session the badguys (for whatever reason I havent worked out yet) attempted to capture the man with mark of Hermes (PC) and there was  a fight and they were unsuccessful.   The PCs then went to a 'friend' in authority's place for help, and he betrayed them.  Rather than have a struggle here, I decided on the spur of the moment that two similar situations, 'thugs attempt capture and there is a fight', would be boring, so their gracious host drugged their wine and they awoke to find the kidnapping was a done deal.    Highly undramatic. 
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: March 11, 2011, 02:28:00 PM »

Guys, stop! None of us has any idea what is even meant by improvisation in the opening post. Let's settle this down into very practical, local terms for that exact game and group, and not some vague associations among a variety of games.

Best, Ron
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: March 11, 2011, 02:28:37 PM »

Fuck! Ignore that post. I missed the link. Carry on.

Best, Ron
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stefoid
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« Reply #10 on: March 12, 2011, 01:55:17 AM »

Well, maybe turn it around.  If your plan is to improvise, what prep do you do to avoid shooting blanks?

I think Chris's suggestion is probably the most important that I can think of - identify the major NPCs and what they want.

Anything else?
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Chris_Chinn
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« Reply #11 on: March 12, 2011, 08:57:56 AM »

Hi Steve,

I've gotten a chance to look at the rules you've linked, and luckily, you have some really strong tools in there that make it easier to improvise. 

First, you've got the rules for players to freely suggest ideas, and use "Tell me more...".   (Now, if the players -aren't- using these, you need to talk as a group, and maybe consider if a reward system around those rules would help. etc.)  So players -should- be telling you what they're interested in and directing the story with those rules.

Second, you've got a broad range of PC motivations from the jump (I call these things "Flags").  Design your NPC motivations to clash or play on those in interesting ways.  For example, an NPC might have a motivation which aligns with one player's belief, and challenges another.   Or one that forces one or more players to have to choose sides about it, etc.

Third, and this is actually key: pay attention to what players spend Body & Soul on, especially if it's not about survival.  That will tell you what the players' are interested in, the conflicts they absolutely don't want to lose.

I've been running and playing a lot of Primetime Adventures, in which characters have an Issue- a single phrase describing what their story is going to revolve around.  But there's a trick I've seen during play- that one Issue is actually a broad direction- and play only gets real good when you narrow down the specific ways in which this player wants to explore this story about this thing.   

For example, in one game a player had the Issue of "Where is the line of right and wrong in war? Can war ever be used to save lives?" - It was ok putting him into situations that were hard, but it became a great Issue when I started framing conflicts where he had people he cared about, including family, encouraging him to cross that line, over and over. 

The trick to finding that out, though, was paying close attention to both his responses and body language at the table ("Oh, he's really liking/hating this!") and also when and where he'd spend the extra resources in game to make sure he'd win.

This sort of narrowing in on the bullseye, during play, is a crucial step that really makes games sing.  When you can get that, the improv becomes a lot easier because each scene and conflict builds momentum - you find the conflicts and events become more and more important and loaded and the players become invested deeper - the group takes on direction and you follow their leads, only needing to nudge here and there.

Chris
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stefoid
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« Reply #12 on: March 12, 2011, 11:57:18 AM »

Hi Steve,

I've gotten a chance to look at the rules you've linked, and luckily, you have some really strong tools in there that make it easier to improvise. 

First, you've got the rules for players to freely suggest ideas, and use "Tell me more...".   (Now, if the players -aren't- using these, you need to talk as a group, and maybe consider if a reward system around those rules would help. etc.)  So players -should- be telling you what they're interested in and directing the story with those rules.

Second, you've got a broad range of PC motivations from the jump (I call these things "Flags").  Design your NPC motivations to clash or play on those in interesting ways.  For example, an NPC might have a motivation which aligns with one player's belief, and challenges another.   Or one that forces one or more players to have to choose sides about it, etc.

Third, and this is actually key: pay attention to what players spend Body & Soul on, especially if it's not about survival.  That will tell you what the players' are interested in, the conflicts they absolutely don't want to lose.

I've been running and playing a lot of Primetime Adventures, in which characters have an Issue- a single phrase describing what their story is going to revolve around.  But there's a trick I've seen during play- that one Issue is actually a broad direction- and play only gets real good when you narrow down the specific ways in which this player wants to explore this story about this thing.   

For example, in one game a player had the Issue of "Where is the line of right and wrong in war? Can war ever be used to save lives?" - It was ok putting him into situations that were hard, but it became a great Issue when I started framing conflicts where he had people he cared about, including family, encouraging him to cross that line, over and over. 

The trick to finding that out, though, was paying close attention to both his responses and body language at the table ("Oh, he's really liking/hating this!") and also when and where he'd spend the extra resources in game to make sure he'd win.

This sort of narrowing in on the bullseye, during play, is a crucial step that really makes games sing.  When you can get that, the improv becomes a lot easier because each scene and conflict builds momentum - you find the conflicts and events become more and more important and loaded and the players become invested deeper - the group takes on direction and you follow their leads, only needing to nudge here and there.

Chris

Its very easy to come up with motivations (flags) that arent helpful.  These were the first characters that were put together according to my rules and as a result, Ive added a lot more guidance type stuff about character flags.   But yeah, these ones are a real mixed bag.  Im gaining an appreciation for long lists of examples, which I havent added to my doco yet.

But yeah, concerning improvisation in general, your advice above is sound, and it comes back to prep I think.  When you have 4 PCs with a collection of these flags and goals that you have to pay attention to, it becomes easy to loose track.  My short term memory is not the best.  As part of prep Im going to have to make a short list of character flags that I can leverage. 
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Natespank
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« Reply #13 on: March 12, 2011, 12:25:55 PM »

When I run out of material while DMing:

1. I poll the players for what they want their characters to do. It's a sandbox campaign, so it's really up to them. If they pursue something that I think I can run with, I keep going.
2. If I'm really running out of ideas, I call a 15 minute break. Usually I just close my eyes and nap. In the last 5 minutes I see if any ideas came to me. I'll extend the break 5-10 minutes if I think I can prep something worth running.
3. If I'm out of material and inspiration, I call an end to the game. It affects quality- gotta preserve quality. I'll prep more for next game.

Luckily in a sandbox game it seems like I don't waste much prep. If it doesn't get used in game X, luckily they seem to go to the area game Y, so occasionally when I run out of stuff they solve the problem for me accidentally.

That's just me. I find random encounters with improv is pretty cool sometimes.
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stefoid
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« Reply #14 on: March 12, 2011, 01:29:20 PM »

When I run out of material while DMing:

1. I poll the players for what they want their characters to do. It's a sandbox campaign, so it's really up to them. If they pursue something that I think I can run with, I keep going.


Thats a good idea.  In my game, the players can explicitly set short and long term goals.   in practice, they can set these goals and follow them with varying degrees of intensity.  The other night there wasnt a lot of energy devoted to doing either and I could have taken a poll as you suggest - what are your current goals, what are you doing about them, can you think of any new ones? 

cheers
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