5 Tips for DM-ing a Totally Improvised TTRPG One-Shot

By Eric Weiss

Honestly? We can't believe it either. 

Our Free RPG Day livestream couldn't have gone better if we planned it. Which is ironic, because we didn't plan a thing. We came up with characters, a setting, and a story live on the air, and it all came together in a campaign filled with vampires ūüßõ, explosions ūü߮ԳŹ, and a hint of self-discovery.¬†

A Story Engine prompt introducing a vampire child prodigy that wants a grand stage for their evil scheme.

We're not going to tell you what happened on the stream, which featured Story Engine founder Peter Chiykowski serving as GM for a party that included Brandon Crilly, Raven John, and myself (your Story Engine Community Manager). Janet Forbes and Dimitris Havlidis of World Anvil also joined us for a pre-game worldbuilding session. You can watch the replay to see how everything turned out, or check out some of the prompts we created scattered throughout this article. 

However, we do want to talk about some of the lessons we learned through this experiment. Because it definitely wasn't as easy as it looked. Good storytelling takes time, and Peter was a little panicked about running a campaign with no prep.

It's also not something we were sure we could do. We were confident, yes, but it's the sort of thing you can't really know for sure until you've done it.

Euphemia (played by Raven John), a cyborg test subject with a grudge against a monster hunter and a harpoon gun that opens talking wounds.

We've always said our decks are great for coming up with ideas on the fly. We stand by that, but there are limits. It's one thing to slot a surprise NPC into an existing campaign (and The Story Engine excels at that). It's quite another to come with a story that has real dramatic stakes. A prepared campaign will almost always have more structure (and more meaningful character beats) than an improvised one. That's the craft of storytelling. The hits hit harder when you set them up. 

The thing is, not every campaign needs to be an epic saga. Sometimes a game comes together unexpectedly so you don't have time to prep. Sometimes you want the chaos. Sometimes you just want to do something silly - and it's nice to have a tool that can meet you on that level. 

Thankfully, we can now confirm that it's A LOT of fun to mess around and play a campaign with random prompts. We wholeheartedly encourage you to do so if you're interested in trying something new. With that in mind, here are five tips to improve your play experience if you want to GM an RPG improv session!

Donathan Colvano (played by Brandon Crilly), who is trying to figure out the secret of the mysterious seed growing inside him.

1. Don't use a complicated system. We opted for Ben Wray's Roll for Shoes, but any rules-light system can work just as well. The broader goal is to minimize the number of hard rules that you have to follow. Story Engine improv is more fun if you can engage directly with the prompts. Mechanics can get in the way if you're too focused on doing things by the book, because you're trying to make something fit a rigid outline instead of adapting to what's presented. 

A rules-light system also makes the game move faster. It takes time to fill in all the numbers on a D&D character sheet, and you have more freedom to think on your feet if you can strip that math away.  

2. Limit the scope of your story. We only created one story prompt, and that was more than enough for a full one-shot. The more story threads you introduce, the harder it is to tie them all together in a way that pays off at the end of the campaign.

On a related note, make sure you connect each character to your central plot. It's a little contrived, but it ensures that each character is invested in the story, and gets a cool moment when their history finally gets revealed. 

Bruce (played by me) is an empty vessel who was brought to life five days ago to fulfill an as-yet-unknown purpose.

3. Let the players tell you who their characters are. This applies more to character creation, but it will make gameplay a lot more fun if you do it right. Simply put, you want your players to bring their own ideas to the table. That means you have to give them a chance to make the characters their own, with their own distinct personalities and goals. 

We accomplished that with our Backstories Expansion, which focuses on character history instead of current agenda. We recommend doing something similar even if you don't use that particular expansion. A good backstory gives the players a starting point without forcing them to play a specific type of character, and gives the GM a hook that can be integrated into the story at some point in the future.

For us, Donathan's seed, Euphemia's rival, and Bruce's path all had a direct impact on the climax of the story, and in each case the result felt like a collaboration between the GM and the player. That's the goal with this kind of group storytelling.

4. Choose a self-contained location. As with the story, it's tough to do anything coherent if you're jumping from place to place. Create one setting that you're excited about, and then try to explore everything it has too offer. 

A bleak island with a murmuring lake and a stadium that hosts a ritual whose true nature is unclear to outsiders.

For our campaign, special guests Janet Forbes and Dimitris Havlidis from World Anvil created a island that narrowed the focus to one location. You don't need to be quite that literal, but the less you rely on outside elements to set the scene, the more important your setting will feel to your players. 

5. Keep an open mind. "Yes, and" is one of the foundational principles of improv, and it still applies here. If someone pitches a new idea, don't try to shoot it down. Take a minute to see where it can take you, and then try to add to it to advance your story.

At the very least, don't let yourself get trapped in a notion of what the story should be. An RPG is a team project, and it's more fun for everyone if you can find a way to work together! 

 

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