D&D is back in session
and a day late! This week was quite different however. With life being what it is, I decided not to spend hours preparing material and instead, did my best to improvise.
Rapha burst through the captain’s cabin window. Sharp pieces of glass flew inwards. Shar raised her hand and the glass shards disintegrated before they could reach her. The ship’s captain lay at her feet, his neck severed.
“Why did you kill him?” Rapha asked.
Shar sighed. “He just didn’t . . . satisfy me,” she said.
A circle on the cabin’s ceiling glowed red-hot and then burst inward as a vortex of flames dropped through into the cabin. The flames dissipated to reveal Alycstair.
“Did that satisfy you?” said Alycstair. He began focusing energy into his hands. Shar rushed Alycstair and kissed him before he could react.
“Very,” she answered. Alycstair looked dazed. Rapha took the opportunity to charge her with his saber. She put her hand out and he froze.
“What’s going on?” Rapha said. He could no longer move.
“What’s the rush? You’ll disappoint a lot of lovers like that.” Shar said. Rapha slowly sheathed his saber. He grunted with effort trying to resist, but to no avail.
The cabin door flew off its hinges as Lo-Kag barreled into the room. He didn’t hesitate. He drew his sword and raised it above his head. Alycstair stepped in front of him.
“Wait, don’t kill her. She’s really a nice person underneath it all,” said Alycstair. His eyes glowed with a soft purple light. Lo-Kag backed away. He saw that Rapha was still struggling to move, but his body wouldn’t obey him.
“What have you done, demon?” Lo-Kag said.
Shar smiled. “They’re mine now,” she said. Three portals appeared in the cabin floor and an armored demon arose out of each. They snarled and drew their swords.
Right out of the gate, my improv skills were put to the test. I had anticipated that the players would follow up on the “Tink” lead first (the name inscribed on the safe that they found in the manor). Instead, they decided to chase the apprentice (who was actually Shar). I had written up a timeline awhile back that described events in chronological order. After Shar ran from the manor, she would kill the players’ crew to further delay them.
Rapha scouted ahead and saw Shar finishing off the last of the crew through the cabin window. From there, the players wanted to do their own dynamic entries.
When players start getting really specific about their characters’ actions, don’t shut them down. Unless the action is completely impossible, work with them. This way, a DM doesn’t have to come up with every single idea in a campaign.
As the fight began in earnest, I realized that Shar would almost certainly lose in this situation. I had her summon the demons so she wouldn’t be hopelessly outnumbered. Despite the reinforcements, the fight was not too terribly difficult. Her demon minions proved to be only small challenges, and the team had enough multi-target attacks to deal with them. Without her minions, she could only do so much by herself; consequently, she was defeated.
Which was fine. One of the keys to good improv is the oft-repeated “Yes and . . . ” advice. What that means is to accept information given to you and then add to it. Shar lost the battle. I accepted that, and threw in a twist.
“Why did you kill Bertran Frey?” Rapha demanded. The group surrounded her. She was cut and bleeding in several places and an arrow stuck out of her back.
“Why do you think?” she answered.
Azai slapped her with telekinetic force. “We’re asking the questions here.” He said. She rubbed her flushed skin.
“Oh . . . more . . . ” she pleaded. Azai raised his hand again, but thought better of it.
“Answer the question!” Rapha asked once more.
“I couldn’t have him helping you, could I?” She answered. “I wanted him all to myself…” A wry smile crept across her face.
“Why are you helping Asmodeus?” Rapha continued.
“He offered me power…and playthings.” She winked at Alycstair. He recoiled slightly and shuddered.
“We shouldn’t even be talking to her,” said Azai. “She’s too dangerous.”
“I agree,” Rapha said. He drew his saber.
At that moment, her skin changed to a pale blue color. Her hair grew longer and white. Her legs fused together to form a serpent’s body, and her face changed to one that Alycstair knew.
“Please,” she pleaded, “don’t let them kill me!”
“NO!” Alycstair shouted. He tried to stop Rapha, but large, burly arms held him back.
“What’s wrong with you?” Lo-Kag said. Alycstair squirmed in his grasp, trying to escape. But it was too late, Rapha hesitated only a moment before slitting her throat. She collapsed onto the floor and blood pooled around her. Her form slowly changed back to her true appearance. Alycstair stopped struggling and stared with a blank expression.
Once it was clear that Shar would not win the fight, I had her surrender. The interesting (arguably) part of Shar was her
bewbs banter. I didn’t want her to just die, and it seemed in her character to play with the players’ heads one last time. That’s when I had the idea for her to shapeshift into a form familiar to Alycstair.
One of the best ways to make a roleplaying game fun is to simply pay attention. Alycstair’s player
is obsessive loves writing character backgrounds. Out of all the player characters, Alycstair’s story is the longest and most convoluted intricate. Alycstair is also the least optimized character for combat in the group. It therefore follows that he is more interested in story/interesting scenes than combat. So that’s what I set up.
HARD OF HEARING
The gnome’s fist shook. Gripped tightly inside it was a small device with a large red button. A wire extended from the other end and connected to a larger device.
“ANY CLOSER AND I’LL BLOW US ALL TO THE NINE HELLS!” She shouted.
“We don’t want any trouble,” said Lo-Kag, “we were just hoping you could help us.” Slowly, Lo-Kag backpedalled out of the crater. The gnome followed, still clutching the little device in her hand.
“OKAY. STAY BACK.” She shouted, and then pressed the button. A tremendous, fiery explosion erupted from the crater. Nodding her head, she walked to a nearby table. “AS EXPECTED.” She said, her voice still raised. She scribbled down some notes and approached the group.
“SO WHAT CAN I HELP YOU WITH?” she said.
“Why are you shouting?” Lo-Kag asked.
“FIRST EXPERIMENT KILLED MY EARDRUMS.” She answered. “CAN’T HELP IT.”
“Are you Tink?” Lo-Kag asked.
“I KNOW IT STINKS,” she answered.
Lo-Kag shook his head and raised his voice. “ARE YOU TINK?” he asked once more.
“YEAH, THAT’S ME.” Tink nodded as she spoke.
“We’re friends of Mystra. Bertran’s been killed and we can’t open his safe. Can you help us retrieve the Tablet of Fate?” Lo-kag asked her.
“WHAT?” She cupped a hand to an ear. “YOU HAVE TO SPEAK UP.”
Alycstair covered his ears and Azai’s forehead had an odd, palm-shaped impression on it. Rapha produced a small, slate slab and a piece of chalk. He wrote Lo-Kag’s message onto the slate.
“HOW DO I KNOW YOU’RE TELLING THE TRUTH?” she asked. The group extended their arms to show her the tattoos that Mystra had given them.
“OH OKAY. LET ME GET MY STUFF.” She waddled back into her home to collect her tools.
I hadn’t really fleshed out Tink before the session. I had a vague idea of what she would be like but not much else. Yes, I could have made her a more normal person, but what’s the point? D&D is fantasy. We see normal every day. I made her loud. The players will now remember that Tink is the loud person. Weird traits or personality quirks like that make an NPC memorable
dattebayo degozaru kamo dear god, see what I mean?
NO WAY OUT
Alycstair stuffed several potato chunks into his mouth and stared out the doorway of Bertran’s manor. The midday sun was out in full force, and the humidity was stifling. But he wasn’t thinking about the weather. He thought about his past; about the pain he believed was buried.
Fortunately, his eyes still worked. A mob of thirty pirates marched up the road toward the manor. Bhadash Partinosus and his officers led the pack. Alycstair wasted no time. He rushed down the hidden stairwell and into the basement where Tink worked on the safe. The others were gathered around her.
“Da dragobo ih ack,” Alycstair’s words drowned in the potatoes. Azai raised his hands and the potatoes flopped out of Alycstair’s mouth. “The dragonborn is back!” Alycstair repeated, “And he’s got thirty men with him this time!”
“We have to leave,” said Rapha.
“We can’t. What if they get the tablet?” Lo-Kag replied.
“Okay, you guys stay in here and I’ll seal off the basement and lure them somewhere else.” Rapha proposed.
“And what if something happens? You’ll be alone and we’ll be stuck down here!” Alycstair said. He picked up one of the fallen potatoes as he spoke.
Azai sat down and meditated. Audible footsteps could be heard approaching the manor’s front door.
“There’s no time!” Rapha said. Before any further protests could be voiced, Rapha bolted up the stairs and grabbed the crystal from the table. The hidden door slid into place, sealing the others inside. Rapha rushed out the balcony and dropped onto the ground outside. As the pirates began filing into the manor,
Ezio Rapha pulled up his hood and joined the crowd.
Rapha attempted to direct the pirates to Tink’s home, but the cookie did not crumble in his favor. The pirates grew suspicious of him and made him leave. He doubled back, snuck in again, and knocked a bookshelf onto Bhadash and his officers once the pirates had thinned out.
Shar was originally going to come back for the tablet herself, but with her gone, the players would have nothing left to fear. Sometimes, you need to give players their victories, but this was not one of those times.
I’ve been playing a few adventure games recently, and I learned a simple truth from those games. The game will be boring if things don’t happen. Nothing really exciting had happened in the previous hour, so I needed to find a new threat. I picked the most reasonable one I could think of (the pirates coming back) and threw it into the game only a few minutes before it even happened. It worked well.
A decision needed to be made, and making decisions is the heart of any roleplaying game. I stretched time just a bit to allow everyone a chance to contribute, but mentioned the sound of footsteps after a few minutes to make sure they actually did something. The best thing about improvising is that it didn’t matter what they did. I could have come up with a new scenario based on their actions without much effort.
Why? Because I had a good source of conflict. The pirates will take anything valuable and will use force if necessary. The tablet is valuable; therefore, they will take it if they find it.
If the players want to stop them from taking the tablet, they can mess with any part of these statements. They could convince the pirates that the tablet is not valuable or that it doesn’t exist. They could do something to prevent the pirates from finding it. They could dissuade them from fighting, or the players could just fight them.
So in short,
“Yes and…” I find D&D improvising to be about presenting reasonable ideas, characters, and events. You don’t need to have some giant master plan. Just go with the flow, don’t be clingy, and pay attention. Above all, make shit happen.
What improv techniques do you use in RPG’s? What would you have done if you were stuck in a basement with pirates closing in? Let us know in the comments below!