Improv GM’ing Dos and Don’ts: Connect the Dots

If you missed the previous entry in this series, Improv GM’ing Dos and Don’ts: Improv is not Unprepared, I’d suggest going there now and checking it out.

This is part 2 in an ongoing series about improvisational Game Mastering for tabletop roleplaying games. As such I’m assuming you know more or less where I’m coming from with regards to the preparation you need to do before starting the game.

The notion of connecting the dots should be a familiar one to most people: a common child’s game involves drawing lines between points to create a finished image.

Once you have the basic prep for your improvisational style done, you simply connect the dots.

This is where the joy of working with players comes in; when a player has an idea or wants their character to attempt something that has consequences down the road, you can integrate that as a dot in the storyline.

As a GM, your job is then not to draw a picture from scratch, but to assemble the framework around the existing points that you created during your preparation and that your players will create in an emergent fashion during play.

The important consideration here is to make sure that you are actually moving forward in the plot. Using something like the Hero’s Journey or another storytelling method is helpful here, so that you do not wind up exhausting players with continuous visits to slow and meaningless encounters.

Move toward key points as you progress; if there was a murder, for instance, the players will eventually uncover the murder weapon (or find evidence of its destruction, or so forth). Your goal is to find the points that look like they are drawing toward the story that you want to tell and your players want to hear, then start plucking those points out of the void and connecting them to the tapestry that is your story.

For instance, let’s say that my players are in a village that is attacked by goblins. I have three main points, and a finale:

• The goblins came from nearby caves, attacking the town from the east.
• A large caravan from a major city was expected recently, but did not arrive.
• The town has a legendary curse of old placed on it by a evil sorcerer that an old man revealed to the players in a fit of revelation.

All this leads to a finale: the goblins were sent by a vengeful lich who wants to get revenge on a particularly bothersome adventurer’s descendants.

My players may add a few more points in the course of their play. These things were unknown to me, but I was able to draw them out by having my finale prepared:

• There was a magical phenomenon that the wizard was able to detect by observing the astral plane.
• Some of the goblins they killed looked like they had rotted too much to have died in the fighting the night before.
• The adventurers found the remains of a control stone with an ancient name-sigil on it, of a style that went out of fashion centuries ago.

Now I have some immediate points that my players can draw on, simply based on the fact that they wanted to look around the battlefield before they moved on. They may choose to pursue any of these leads; but all of them lead toward prepared content.

Now, one important thing to note is that your players need to want the story that you are telling. This is where a Session Zero is important, where everyone agrees on their expectations and desires for the game. However, even without this it is not that uncommon for players to be willing to go along with a game, so long as they feel that the GM is acting in good faith by offering them a world to explore. This unspoken social contract is a common standard I’ve found in most of my groups.

Another thing to note about these points is that you’ve created several different paths to interest your players. If they decide to leave town and look for higher stakes, rather than fight mere goblins, they can come upon the destroyed caravan and find themselves drawn back into the adventure, since they know that whatever destroyed a well-guarded caravan sent from a major city is serious business.

You want to consider the personalities of the players at your table. Craft little points that each of them will want to grasp on to (or try your best to; these things come with practice). Even a group with very different motives can still work toward the same goal if you dangle enough carrots on enough sticks; one character may want to solve a murder, another might want revenge, another might be seeking love, but all can be moving in the same direction.

Lastly, improv involves being fast on your feet. If your players add something really neat to the story, use it. I’ve never regretted running with a player’s idea (with the caveat, of course, that I determine what they find at the end of the path).

So, in short, connect the dots between a framework you and your players have created to tell the story you want to tell. Use key details to lead to a central story.

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