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  • [Ask-a-GM] Avoiding Ralroads: Part III - Winging It

    At some point, despite your best laid plans, your players are going to come up with an idea that you completely didn't anticipate or prepare for. At that moment, you are going to be confronted with a choice. Do you stifle the players' ingenuity, arbitrarily shutting down what are legitimately good ideas? Or, do you roll with it, toss your plans to the wind and dive headfirst into full improv mode? Running a game on the fly isn't something that comes easily to every GM, and some systems can make off-the-cuff gaming particularly difficult. The temptation might be to throw down roadblocks and stay firmly on the tracks, but this is generally far from satisfying from a player point of view.

    If improvisation doesn't come easily to you, here are a few things you can try which have worked well for me.

    Gloss Over the Minutiae
    Years ago, when I first started DM'ing, I would craft immense dungeons for my players to explore. These massive affairs were inspired by legendary dungeons of old such as Undermountain and the Towers of Zagyg. I recall spending countless hours graphing these monstrosities and capping off each dungeon with a full 80-page spiral notebooks worth of notes on each room and corridor. It was a labor borne of obsession (and lots of time not paying attention in math class), but ultimately it was largely fruitless.

    When put to the test at the gaming table, my sprawling dungeons weren't what sparked with players. The party would usually end up taking the quickest path to their destination and when they ended up exploring, it usually was little more than a third to half of the dungeon I so laboriously prepared. I'm sure every group is different, but over the years, I have run games for several groups and although they enjoyed the occasional romp through yon dungeon they didn't particularly care for the time investment of exploring every nook and cranny of a large map. What they really craved was getting to the exciting bits and glossing over the "filler."

    Once I realized this, it changed my storytelling style quite a bit. When I am winging a scene, I take this approach up another notch. Instead of focusing on all of the smaller and relatively insignificant choices, I concentrate on coming up with a couple of memorable scenes, and I gloss past less meaningful decisions points like which corridor should the party travel down next or the exact layout of a place.

    To give an example, let's say that the game calls for a complicated tunnel structure that the party must navigate. I narrate the story describing to the group how the tunnels wind and twist often forcing them to turn back and retrace their steps. I describe the look and the feel only enough to engage the players' imaginations, and I may even narrate past less interesting conflicts and simply say that they wade through some of the lesser nasties that inhabit the place. I then give the players a few critical decision points where they must decide between different paths they can travel or scenes where they must overcome some sort of adversity -- but I always strive to provide enough context to make those decisions meaningful and not simply a coin toss, i.e. "Do we go left or right? Hell if I know -- one is the same as the other."

    Have a Grab Bag of Names, Places, and Things
    This has always been a stumbling block for me. I'm absolutely HORRIBLE at coming up with names for people, places and things on the fly. I've had completely improvised scenes that were clipping along going nothing but awesome until they come to an utter and complete halt when one of the player characters asks the dreaded question, "What's his name?" I end up stumbling and the illusion is spoiled. A quick and easy solution is to simply have a list of names written down ahead of time that are ready to go at a moment's notice. As I use up one of my pregenerated names, I write some notes next to it in my notepad describing the NPC, place or thing I used it for, so that if the players ever need to interact with this NPC (or whatever it might be) again, I can easily find the name I used before.

    Stimulate Your Imagination
    This is really the coup de grace for GMs, authors and anyone who needs to keep their creative juices charged up. For me, I find reading to be the best source of inspiration. Unlike watching television or movies, reading is far less passive. When I crack open a good novel, my mind is constantly at work filling in the gaps between the lines and wandering ahead of the narrative, trying to anticipate where the story is taking me. Whether my guesses are right or not, it is a fantastic exercise, and the more I read, the more material I have to unabashedly steal from when I need to improvise something on the spot.

    I was at an author signing with R.A. Salvatore once when someone in the crowd asked him what his best advice was to for an aspiring writer who wanted to learn the craft. Salvatore's response was to read... a lot, and not just books in the genre you want to write in. In fact, he said it was better if you read outside of your genre of choice so that you could be exposed to a wider variety of story archetypes and ideas Ė not to mention that it makes it easier to draw on what you read without completely ripping off someone else's work. This is equally good advice for GMs. Not only are you going to have a wider variety of material to use for your game, but your players are less likely to actually recognize the material you are borrowing from.

    So, my advice is to turn off the tube and pickup a book.

    In Conclusion
    Some of my best and most memorable games have been run almost completely off the cuff. I can even recall one game that was inspired by a 30 second Lexus commercial, twenty minutes before the game started. Donít be afraid to go off the rails every once in a while. Get your imagination lathered up, have some materials handy to support your adlib fancies -- pregenerated names, sections of maps, whatever might help you most -- and finally, let go of the little details and concentrate on creating a few memorable scenes. Once you try it, you might suddenly find yourself having the best gaming experience of your life.

    Do you have a tough gaming situation or question you'd like to have answered by our panel? Send your questions by email to

    About the Author: Robert A. Howard has been a roleplayer from the tender age of twelve when he cracked open that first red boxed Dungeons & Dragons set and all the way to today. The vast majority of his gaming experience has been with D&D, but he's also been able to convince his gaming group to try something new on occasion... Oh, and he runs this obscure website you might have heard about, Pen & Paper Games. *grin*
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Richard Littles's Avatar
      Richard Littles -
      Another awesome article and it's basically how I run games. It avoids the entire problem of railroads while giving players the power to control where they go. Bravo for the article Farcaster.
    1. Razmus's Avatar
      Razmus -
      As a GM that has been mired in the minutia for a very long time, I think you are spot on. Also... stumbled on a neat looking shareware program the other night that JUST generates names in a variety of styles, a hundred at a time, if you like.