Ask The GM: Fully Improvised Adventure

By John Serpico on


Mike C. asks – How tough would it be to run a campaign (or even just a session) with no notes at all?

Mike, I love this question because it comes from a place of absolute fearlessness. GMs spend a lot of time locked in a personal battle over how much to plan versus how much to leave to chance and natural gaming instinct. This question leads me to believe you’re willing to let the pendulum swing all the way over to one side, which I applaud you for.

Planning and GMing go hand in hand, of course. I’ve written about the balancing act before, and the various ways to plan. Some folks work out the plot in great detail, others prepare in more of a general way, and others still just have a pile of plug-and-play NPCs and a loose idea of where the party may end up. What you’re proposing to do, playing sans notes, still represents planning, just in a very different way. You’re going to think about what you want to happen and what bad guys the party may come across, but you’re going to trust that you’ll be able to improvise those things into existence in the moment.

So notes-free GMing is certainly possible. But you need to consider two things before you start committing to doing it:

Improv is Easy. Good improv is Hard. – I’ve been performing, directing and teaching improvisational comedy for nearly fifteen years. Everyone can improvise. You’re improvising when you have a conversation with someone or driving through traffic or cooking in your kitchen without a recipe. I call those things “practical improvisation.” The world was built on it and it’s as easy as breathing.  Theatrical improvisation, by contrast, is really hard. Theatrical improvisation involves crafting a story that could ideally pass as something scripted. If you ever saw someone get on stage and play compelling jazz, engage in a bracing freestyle rap battle, or do a really funny improvised comedy show in front of an audience, you’re watching good theatrical improvisation. And that takes a long time to get right. Running a game without notes is as much theatrical improvisation as what the folks on Whose Line Is It Anyway do. So you need to treat it as a performance. And that means you need to rehearse. Take an improv class or fifty. Work on character voices in your car. Make up some flashcards with words on it and flash them at yourself while you monologue to see how you can quickly incorporate them. You can’t just run into a game cold and expect to be a quick-talking Tolkien from the first minute. Practice first. Get good at theatrical improvisation.

You Need To Preserve The Stakes. – Notes and character sheets and source books serve two purposes. The first is the most obvious – it gives the game structure. You know what your characters can do and how many hit points the enemy has and what happens when you pass a strength check against lifting a boulder. The second is a little less clear, but just as important. Notes give stakes. If you have a piece of paper with the stats for four big, scary bad guys that are attacking the party, that paper defines the story. It means that the party can see the goalposts and can work towards them. Without notes, it is very easy for end goals or stakes to seem ambiguous and moving. As a thought experiment, imagine two scenarios. In one scenario, the party tells the GM that they enter the inner sanctum of the lich king’s lair and the GM flips to a page in his notes and says “Ok, you see the lich king himself and six undead, armor-clad bodyguards.” The party asks questions about it and the GM consults his notes and answers. In another scenario, that same party enters that same inner sanctum and the GM responds with “You find the lich king, and he’s got bodyguards around him. Let’s say, ummm, six of them.” And when the party asks questions, the GM responds by pulling numbers and details out of the air. Which of those two scenarios seems more real and less arbitrary? Yes, it’s just a piece of paper, but it means that there are agreed-upon rules and victory conditions. People want to know that the person ostensibly in charge is really in charge. Without those stakes, the reality of the situation comes crashing down.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t run a game paper-free. Not at all, in fact. But I want you to realize that doing theatrical improvisation that preserves the integrity of the narrative and makes the players feel like the stakes are real is difficult. It will take time for you to work on the needed muscles and planning for you to have an idea of the story. You can’t just sit down and make something beautiful happen, no matter how well you know the rules. So give it a try – just give it a purposeful and rehearsed one.

Happy GMing!

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