winging it

8 Tips To Help You Wing-It

This Week’s Guest Tips Brought To You By Patrice L.

1. Consider Two Approaches: Direct Or Indirect
What is "winging-it", and how do you approach it?
Winging-it is also known as improvising, and if you're a GM chances are that you have already improvised something. Battles are an excellent example of winging-it. Except for a few notes in the module or your own pre-planned adventure, you don't know how things will turn out. It's left to the dice and the players' ingenuity. Every move can have an unexpected consequence, and the GM has to deal with it and weave it into a encounter.
This is what winging-it is, but at different levels:
    * Perhaps it's a single encounter that is suddenly needed to relieve the tension or to build some suspense.
  • It might be a whole section of the session that you hadn’t had time to plan.
  • Or, it might be the whole adventure itself.
People have a great ability to improvise. In fact, living in this world should be practice enough, since you never know what's going to happen from day to day. To apply it to roleplaying however might be a little more difficult. I wrote these tips based on my own experience, hoping it will help others.
Now, how do you approach winging-it? It might seem scary or a big task. I've had experience with two approaches: the direct and indirect approach (sometimes known as the hard and soft approach).
The Direct Approach
The direct approach is the first one I tried many, many years ago. It probably worked because I had only one player at the time. It was easy to react to the player and adapt to him.
This approach consists of bluntly saying "The next adventure will not be planned. It will be completely improvised." It will probably work best for you if you choose one of your players and ask him if he wants to try an improvised adventure that is not connected to your current campaign.
The Indirect Approach
The indirect approach is generally more effective for groups and involves a gradual move towards improvisation. It's the second method that I tried after a few years of gaming and after many planned sessions that weren't always as good as "the good old days".
I didn't know back then about "winging-it" or "improvising". But I started thinking about it and what I could do to regain the glory of the past. So, I started planning less and less. Instead of a whole page for each section, encounter, etc, I began writing only paragraphs. Only the important points. I would use this info to build the adventure during the game. Then I wrote less and less, until I wrote only just a sentence or two for each section, plus some detailed info for places, characters, etc. This worked well and my players enjoyed themselves - so much, in fact, that they started demanding improvised adventures rather than planned ones.
Once you're comfortable with the indirect method of secretly planning less for each adventure, you can warn your players that you'll use the direct method. As long as they agree you can go ahead.
The important thing, regardless of which method you start with, is to not be afraid. As I said, improvising is something we do every day. Unless your players are really insensitive, they'll understand if you make mistakes. They'll even help you, tell you what they would have liked, why it went wrong, etc. They're your best allies.
These tips are based solely on my experiences. I've rarely been a player and I haven't met a lot of GMs, but they'll hopefully be of use to you and your campaign.
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2. Be Prepared
This sounds like a contradiction to winging-it, but you should be prepared in a couple of ways.
First, it helps to have a clear campaign goal in mind. How you get to it during play is irrelevant as long as it's fun. And if you don't get to it, well, at least you're not railroading your players and they'll feel more free.
Be prepared for that situation too - if the PCs don't kill the super-villain before he invokes the demon that destroys half the world, well, let half of the world be destroyed then. But also let the player characters live (or some of them, mwahahha) and in the next session they can try to find a way to fight that demon and stop him from destroying the other half.
And, most importantly, be prepared for your players. Make sure that you'll be accommodating their different needs during a game. They're your audience and your main characters.
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3. Planning Is Sometimes Irrelevant
One law of the universe I have observed over my last 10 years of gaming states the following:
"The GM thinks of everything, plans for every contingency, except for what the players think about."
No matter what you prepare, your players will find a way around it, or just completely ignore it. Don't worry, simply go along with them and see where this new route will take the game. There's no real need to bring them back into the main plot hook. Read tip #4 for more.
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4. Listen To Your Players
"2 heads are better than 1" says the old proverb. Now imagine four players trying to find clues about something you thought of on-the-fly. They're bound to come up with multiple solutions, and they might not even come up with the one(s) you thought of.
So, listen to them. If they're really involved in the game, they might think up better ideas than you had, and if you incorporate these ideas into your game, they'll enjoy it even more. If you changed the clue based on what a player said, he'll be overjoyed because he "figured out the GM's plan!"
I used to have a player who understood that, and he also understood that I improvised a lot. He said everything that crossed his mind during a session to give me ideas. In a sense, he was co-GM, but also a player. :)
But, you're not forced to use your players' ideas exactly as they thought of them... Adding some twists helps.
Players are also good at coming up with little details. In our last adventure (sci-fi), one of the PCs was a bomb expert. At a research base on the moon IO, he had a vault full of explosives. Near the end of the session, when that vault was becoming important, he added the detail that there was an auto-destruct sequence that activated if someone tried to open the vault - someone other than him. This hadn't been discussed before, but that was OK. I instantly seized the opportunity to make a much cooler ending for the adventure than the one I thought of.
Players, of course, view the game-world from the perspective of their characters. They'll always see some little details about their PC's life that you don't notice or think about. Implement these details. The world will become more real for your players, and more enjoyable for everyone.
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5. Don't Worry If You Run Out Of Ideas
Take a break, talk to your players. This goes hand in hand with tip #3. At least one player will always have an opinion of how things will go from here. They'll appreciate that you asked for their opinions, and that you actually incorporated their ideas into your game.
Remember, this is their game too. It's not like a movie where the audience pays to see it and only plays a passive role. Your players are a well of ideas that's waiting to be tapped. Never underestimate their creativity or their opinions. In fact, encourage them to have ideas about how things will evolve. Talk to them between sessions about how their character feels, what they feel is to come. This is a gold mine of information that will keep you winging-it for a long time.
For example, in one of my games (that I wasn't completely improvising), a centaur army was about to crush all six characters because they had given them a false statue of great importance to them. One of the mages in the group decided to teleport himself and the other mage to a great city, leaving the other four behind without any magic. This wasn't what I had planned. Since it was almost supper time, I called for a break, which was ok because this was a really tense moment.
As the break began I talked to the players and asked them "so, how could this go on from here? You all know I hadn't planned for this..." We discussed this for a few minutes and some very good ideas came up. When we returned after supper things went well and I incorporated many of their ideas successfully.
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6. React To Your Players
One great thing about winging-it is that if you notice your players are bored with what's happening, you can just throw your current idea out the window and start anew. No long hours of planning gone to waste. You can even prepare, in your head, a few alternate plot lines in case this happens.
During the middle of one session, where I had a whole plot line that I had planned for almost a year and that night was to be the climax of the story, I decided to throw the whole plot out. I knew my players were tired of this kind of plot and it showed. They knew they were going to meet the bad guy, have a fight, and prevent him from doing whatever he was doing (they didn't know yet what it was).
That's when I threw out my plot and used an alternate one I thought of the night before. The bad guy cast a powerful spell and they all went back in time to relive the last moments of the city that now lay in ruins. But there was a reason for this, one that explained many events of the last three thousand years, and once they came back the players/characters had a different view of the world. Suddenly the bad guy wasn't so bad after all. They even helped him, and only at the end did they realize they had destroyed magic (even though they were told it could return, one day). They thoroughly enjoyed it and they even called this game a "legend" (we call games that we still remember after 5 or 10 years "legends" because we had so much fun).
Reacting to your players also ties in with the above tips. You have to know what they like and try to incorporate that into your sessions. They will generally react favourably and will like it. They'll also notice that if they're more involved, if they give ideas, things will be more fun.
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7. Be The World
This might be the hardest tip of all, but I think it's what kept me afloat in the winging-it game over the last many years. I "was" the world. Let your game universe be alive inside of you. You are the creator and the people living in the world are your creations. Live in that world. Meet the people, visit the places. Put yourself in the shoes of these people.
I found I've had much more success as a GM, winging-it or not, when I was in that mind frame - and not only during gaming sessions. The world is constantly alive. Feed it with your imagination, let your subconscious be the canvas where the world comes alive. Think about what could happen next when you're on the bus coming from work, before you sleep (this is actually one of the reasons it usually takes me quite a while to start sleeping ;), etc.
No need to write down every idea. As long as the world is alive within you, you'll have an almost infinite resource to draw on new ideas while you improvise. I can't really explain it in more concrete terms; it's just something that I've done for as long as I can remember GMing. And I've always had this notion that the world I created was alive inside me, and that we ourselves are NPCs in a super-GM's world.
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8. Winging-It Is Like Being A Player
Whenever I read a definition of roleplaying games, there's often mention of "interactive fiction" or similar terms. Along similar lines, I think that being a GM should be like being a player.
Think about how your players play for a moment. They certainly don't plan ahead what they'll do, who they'll encounter, what monster they'll kill, etc. When I GM, it's similar. I don't know who the players will meet, where they'll go, etc. I react to them just like they react to my descriptions of events, battles, places, etc. Now it really becomes interactive fiction.
Of course, nothing precludes that the GM might have a plan, an objective. But don't force players into it. As I said, it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you do. Regardless of whether you throw a ball or if you throw a brick at the window, it still gets broken.

winging it

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