On improvisation in RPGs

Life is busy, we all know it and I’m not the best for reading pages and pages of world background when preparing a roleplaying game. Most of the time I don’t think the painstakingly detailed description of this god or that tribe which existed a couple of centuries ago comes up during my games or has any relevance for the adventure my players are going to undertake.

So the question became: what is the minimum amount of preparation I need to still have my players engaged while building a “coherent” adventure?


A couple of weeks ago I decided to organise an rpg campaign and improvise (almost) everything. I created a fantasy world with a large city as a core location for the adventures. As I like the flexibility of the Savage Worlds rule system and wanted to use that, I couldn’t (and didn’t want) to get away with no character creation. I therefore created a couple of characters and sent them to my players to let them choose their preferred ones.

I had obviously some ideas of situations I could put the players in but didn’t flesh them out or even write them down. I wrote down the layout of the city the adventure was going to take place in and quickly drew its map. I also had a list of Savage Worlds monsters with their attributes that I could put in my player’s way. After a while I also had the first encounter “planned”: this encounter was meant to pit the players against a couple of mysterious ennemis and let the learn about what their characters could do and what the world was like.

The day we played the first session, the encounter I thought would take 30 minutes took closer to 1 hour. After the encounter the characters ventured out into a city that was as much unknown to them as it was to me.

The hardest part for me was coming up with names of people and localities, for the rest either taking hints from the players when they discussed the situation among themselves or using that time to come up with an intriguing situation or passerby was enough to have fun for the 3 to 4 hours we had. I could certainly have been a better GM but I was good enough.

Since then 3 more adventures have taken place in the same setting and step by step the players and I discover the world the characters live in.
I now have a list of names of characters to choose from to make that aspect less awkward, but otherwise I don’t prepare anything before the session. We will see how this develops in the long run, if a completely improvised world is as rich and detailed as a prepared one or if it becomes generic without the feeling of a “real” world.

How do you feel about improvising in roleplaying games?
What’s your best experience with a GM, one who improvised the whole game or one who tried to drive his players through a well-honed adventure?

Image by Lukasz Gac gaciu000

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