Posts Tagged ‘Improvisation’

It will likely be no surprise for any of you to learn I was in an improv troupe in college.

Me being hilarious (clearly) with my pal Vegas Lancaster back in 2008.

I know many of us Game Masters heard or read the old piece of advice to say, “Yes, and…” when a player throws out an idea as a way to build story cooperatively. That advice is often immediately followed up or preceded by the person telling you that this idea is a basic rule of improv comedy.

Why not apply improv comedy advice to RPGs? It makes sense. D&D is basically improv fantasy. Dread is basically improv horror. Night’s Black Agents is basically improv super spies vs vampires. And so on. It’s all collaborative storytelling.

The “Yes and…” technique is a handy piece of advice that I employ in my games (to a point, but that’s another post). It got me thinking, “Are there other improv comedy techniques or tips we can steal for our games?” Yes. A lot.

Today I want to share one mnemonic I learned in improv that helps establish scenes and brings NPCs to life. It helps when I need to create an NPC on the spot and breathes pizzaz into any generic shopkeeper or street urchin. It helps give named NPC 41 in a published adventure a personality and backstory without panic. It keeps you calm when the players zig and you expected them to zag. All you need to do is think, “LARCH.” That’s Location, Action, Relationship, Characterization, and History.


When it comes to meeting an NPC, the first thing you should establish is their location. Where an NPC meet the player characters says a lot about that NPC. For instance, if the characters get an invitation to meet the NPC for a meal, do they dine in the common room of a run down tavern, the private club room of an upscale establishment, or the NPC’s home (which could be a home-cooked meal in a shack or a feast prepared by servants in a mansion)? Do they meet for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or afternoon tea? If the characters meet the NPC on the street, is a shadowy alley, paved main street, or trail in the wilderness? All of these details say quite a bit about the NPC by showing the characters where they feel most comfortable. Before you get into describing the NPC, describe their location.


NPCs do not stand around and wait for the characters to approach them. They’re busy people! The evil cult leader is in performing a sacrificial ritual or reading an ancient tome or taking a nap when the characters roll up to her hidden swamp cave. A busy noble asks the characters to join him in his carriage as he rides from one appointment to the next. An urchin begs passersby for copper pieces as she shares rumors with the characters. A scientist browses through some album covers in a record shop as she casually passes the player characters her secret formula. Actions speak louder than words and clue the players into each NPC’s personality. By deciding what actions your NPCs are taking when they meet with PCs, it helps you as the GM settle into that particular character as well.


NPCs should know other people and places in the world beyond the player characters. During conversations with the PCs they should mention friends, acquaintances, enemies, rivals, family, celebrities, favorite dining establishments, inns to avoid, and more.It is most fun to connect new NPCs to people and places already known by the characters. If the adventurers are referred to the NPC A by NPC B, NPC A should mention NPC B’s name and how they feel about that person.

You start to fill out your world with new connections and interesting relationships and plots when you do this. If NPC C hates NPC B who is friends with NPC A, then odds are NPC C also hates NPC A… but maybe not! (Wouldn’t that be interesting?) Forming these relationships helps establish an NPCs character by connecting them to the world and simultaneously builds out your world. It also helps the characters get an idea of who your NPCs are beyond their presented self. If the kindly grandma hates the noble paladin, someone is probably not what they seem.


Personality and mannerisms are two important components to your NPC. When you’re making a new NPC write down an adjective and an character archetype and play to those ideas (e.g. Upstanding Criminal, Cowardly Clerk, Noble Henchmen, Loyal Politician, Mad Scientist). These words should have no strict interpretation. You are the only one who will ever see them. You decide what they mean. For instance “Mad Scientist” could mean an inventor who is angry, or a crazy supervillain with no post-graduate degree of any kind. By writing two words down next to the NPC’s name, you’ll remember more details about the character the next time they cross paths with the PCs.

If you need to create an NPC on the fly, choose or roll on the table below. If you want to take things a step further, use the tables in my NPC mannerisms post.

d20 Adjective d20 Noun
1 Noble 1 Sodlier
2 Sleazy 2 Criminal
3 Reluctant 3 Henchman
4 Pious 4 Scientist
5 Cowardly 5 Politician
6 Stoic 6 Youth
7 Mad 7 Hermit
8 Exhausted 8 Spy
9 Worldly 9 Artist
10 Powerful 10 Scholar
11 Polite 11 Clerk
12 Rude 12 Urchin
13 Excitable 13 Devotee
14 Competitive 14 Outsider
15 Broken 15 Merchant
16 Optimistic 16 Parent
17 Bored 17 Laborer
18 Curious 18 Hunter
19 Cursed 19 Liar
20 Lonely 20 Leader


Your NPCs didn’t just suddenly appear in the world. They have been living in it their entire life (probably). What accomplishments do they still talk about that exist in the world at present? How do they feel about big world-shaking events of the past, or even smaller events, like what the PCs did on their last quest? NPCs should have feelings about events that transpired before they met the characters and should have an impact of their own (no matter how small) on the world. If the merchant up and leaves town because the PCs threatened him, how does the rest of the community react to see their favorite bait and tackle shop close its doors after 20 years because some hooligans scared Mr. Potter? Just like relationships, when you create history, you’re defining your NPC and worldbuilding at the same time.

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A new behind-the-scenes episode of the podcast Rudy Basso and I make, Have Spellbook, Will Travel, is up on the show’s site!


Rudy and James have a chat with Liz So, the voice behind Veena the Water Nymph and various other roles.  They discuss forensics, the allure and fun in getting to play lots of different parts, and improv in D&D (again!).

Tweet your Levels Question of the Week at us or #levelsq on Twitter!  (Note: there wasn’t one this week because we haven’t done any recording recently.)

Send your mailbag questions via the Contact page.  We want to hear from you!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

We’ve all be there. The PCs kill your villain in Act II instead of Act V. The players ignore all your tasty plot hooks and instead head into the forest you haven’t detailed to see if they can catch a pseudodragon to keep as a pet. You planned for them go left and they go right. When surprises come up in your game how can you save the session?

Surprises like these might seem like headaches which destroy your prep time, but I’m here to tell you they’re actually gifts that make your sessions and campaigns memorable. In this post I’ll show you how to take advantage of the opportunities these unexpected turns have to offer. Read on!

First Things First: Throw Nothing Away and Expect the Unexpected

If you do a lot of prep work for a session and then end up not using any of it, don’t tear out those notes and burn them in frustration! Save those notes because you might be able to use them in a future session, even if it’s for another campaign.

It also helps to have some improvisation resources ready to go just in case something pops up. This way you’ll have monsters, NPCs, encounters, and maybe even whole dungeons ready to drop-in at a moment’s notice. I did a whole post on these a while back so check it out.

Speaking of posts I’ve written on this subject it’s ok to take some time to prep when the players throw you for a loop. Check out my blog post that gives you a neat technique of asking players questions to keep them in the game while you prep.

Change in Mindset

Now that you’ve saved your prep work for future sessions and created a safety net of improvisation resources, it’s time to tackle the problem at hand – how can you turn this upset into an event that makes your campaign more layered? The first thing you have to do is not get frustrated. Great improvisers like Stephen Colbert never get frustrated during a scene or an interview, even if the person they’re interacting with is throwing up walls and blocking their every question and suggestion. In fact some of Colbert’s greatest interviews are with his most difficult guests. He can definitely turn surprises into opportunities and that’s because he’s not letting himself get frustrated.

For many people this is easier said than done. In the moment the upset happens, forget about what you planned and focus on moving the story forward. Many of us have heard of the, “Yes and…” technique and that comes out of this mindset. Accept the action of the players. That’s your “Yes.” Then it’s time to build on those actions. That’s your “and…”

Seizing Opportunities

When players go off the rails I can usually figure out where to take the story next by asking myself one of the following questions.

Who Cares? This is a big one that can solve a lot of your problems without asking anything else. Which NPCs and villains will care about the actions of the PCs. For instance if the PCs are asked by a noble to rescue her son from the orcs who kidnapped him and the PCs instead decide to perform a caper to steal potions from the apothecary, who cares? Well probably the apothecary and anybody who works for him, the city guards, and the mother of the child who was snubbed by the PCs in her time of need. Now that you have those three elements you can think up a quick adventure from there.

The apothecary (an NPC mage with stats quickly pulled from your improvisation resources) has a few devious traps ready for any intruders and he also can teleport back to the place in a moment’s notice if an alarm is tripped thanks to a scroll he carries with him at all times. After being robbed the town guard comes looking for the PCs or they might come to the place in the middle of the night if the PCs set off a noisy trap or battle the apothecary. If the PCs pull the caper off without a hitch, there’s still one surprise for them – the mother of the child followed them in the night to beg for help one last time. She instead saw them break into the apothecary and reports them to the town guard who come and confront the PCs the next morning. Blam – a whole session planned just like that by asking a single question, staying cool, and having my improvisation resources at the ready.

What Are the NPCs Doing? While the PCs go off on their own or take an unexpected action, what are the other NPCs up to? If they decide to ignore the quest for a red dragon’s hoard offered by a patron and instead go off in search of magical components for a new spell the wizard is researching, what does the patron do in that time? And the dragon? Maybe they easily find the wizard’s components only to return to town to find the patron hired less-skilled adventurers to go after the hoard only to awaken and anger the dragon who is now burning everything in sight.

This question works for NPCs that the players might have forgotten about or haven’t met. So the PCs want to run off in a random direction to delve into a big complex and you need time to prepare? No problem. Maybe that kobold who got away 10 sessions ago returns with some bigger, badder troll friends which begins a thrilling chase sequence. Maybe the a bunch of bandits stop the PCs on the road and using a handy pre-made map you have a wilderness dungeon brawl. Maybe the PCs kill your villain earlier than you think and the fiend’s mother, brother, friend, or lover attacks during the celebratory feast.

What Else Have I Got? If the PCs throw a wrench in your plans, turn to your published modules or previously unplayed-but-prepared scenarios. Can they be easily adjusted on the fly to fit in your current session? Do they work with the new direction the players have taken the story? If you can pull an adventure right out of a book, PDF, or some old notes then steer the story that way.

You might even consider blowing things up to buy yourself some time. Maybe the ground splits open and they find themselves in one of Princes of the Apocalypse‘s many dungeons or the inn where they decide to stay on the road is actually The Wererat Den and they get wrapped up in an adventure no one realized was happening tonight.

What’s The Most Interesting Event That Could Happen Next? When all else fails this is an excellent question to ask yourself. The players have left you totally stumped with their zig so it’s time for you to really turn this campaign on its head and zag. Did they kill your big bad way too early? Guess who immediately rises as a lich, death knight, vampire, or something else undead and teleports away ominously. Or maybe this big bad’s death serves as a sacrifice to call forth an even bigger bad that begins chasing the characters. PCs galavanting away from a quest you prepared? Throw something entirely new and unexpected in their path like a white dragon wearing a ring of fire elemental command living in a volcano who scoops one of them up as a meal. Feel free to take the story in off on a short side quest for the session while you figure things out. You’ll probably even find a way to tie the side quest into your main campaign story after the session when you’ve had some time to think on it.

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