Improvisation - Does a DM Have to Make Everything Up

Does a dungeon master make everything up? Where does improvisation skills come into play?

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A dungeon master can choose to create their own campaign and adventures from using the tips in the Dungeon Masters Handbook and the Monster Manual. Likewise, there are plenty of official and unofficial Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and one off adventures out there for you to purchase and use with your players. So in some sense a dungeon master doesn’t have to make up everything but they could. Regardless of the situation improvisation skills are a must.

Improvisation - Does a DM Have to Make Everything Up

Introduction

One of the first misunderstandings that new dungeon masters have is that they have to create everything from scratch. First, there are the Dungeon and Dragons core books that give any aspiring dungeon master the rules of the game, magic items, ideas, maps, monsters and generally everything you need.

D&D Core Books

Here is a link to the D&D 5e core books. These are what you will need to play D&D 5e.

This set has:

  • Dungeon Master Screen with quick tips for the rules.
  • Player’s Handbook
  • Dungeon Master’s Handbook
  • Monster Manual
DnD Core Books

That said, if you haven’t been a dungeon master before then I would suggest getting a premade adventure to begin with. The reason for this is they have everything you need planned out for you. You will have a hook and story to draw in your players. You will have maps with traps and monsters for your players to encounter. It will have magical items and artifacts and when to give these to your players. Warning: Many premade adventures lack balance and full play testing.

The problem with premade adventures

There isn’t a premade adventure out there that can possibly account for all the ideas your players may have. So you will need to have the ability to think on your feet when your players do something unexpected. And they will do something unexpected.

Now to be fair this will happen to you when you plan your campaign as well. So having the ability to improvise will be critical.

If you would like to know what it takes to become a dungeon master see our article here.

What is improvisation for dungeon masters?

When most people think of improvisation they may think of a popular TV show called “Whose Line Is It Anyway” where four comedians are given props or queues with no warning or ability to prepare ahead of time.

This is sort of what I mean when I speak with improvisation but not truly. That sort of skill is hard to master and learn without formal training.

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Instead you will have a plan for how things could go. Don’t hold onto this plan at all costs. As your players try to move forward in the story and with the options you presented they will occasionally pick an option that you didn’t think about. Don’t shut this down unless their ideas will break the direction of your campaign and you don’t see a way forward.

The concept here is to present information to the players and then see how they react. You react as much as you can with the words, “Yes, and ….” Or if their request is a little out of the box ask how they see that working to allow you to think through the request.

For example I had a door that was locked that they were unable to unlock after rolling 5 times. Instead of telling me they are taking 20 on it and in 20 rounds they would have unlocked the door, they cast stone shape. The door falls down and they are in.

It is minor things like the above that will happen most of the time. Allow these things to happen. Lets delve into other ways your improvisational skills will be helped.

Red Line

The three types of improvisation challenges

The players will be the ones to test your improvisation skills. These challenges come in three categories: Minor, Medium, High. A challenge is when an obstacle is presented and instead of just doing a roll or easier spell the players decide to do something different.

Minor challenge to your campaign

Instead of making a dice roll they choose to cast a spell to unlock a door or disable a trap. This is just something that a good dungeon master will allow without any questions.

Medium challenge to your campaign

In my experience this typically happens because I have accidentally backed my players into a corner without giving them a clear way out of it. So when I hear them wanting to do something I see as absurd I will typically stop the players and ask for an intelligence or wisdom roll or save. I make the challenge rating really low. Then I give a hint to those that succeeded to give them a clue as to what I designed to be the easiest path forward.

In some cases the players want to use a spell in a unique way. I once had a player ask if he could create a wall of iron 40 feet above the demon lord he was fighting. We read the spell text carefully. Then I thought about how that would work if that could be cast in our world and made a call. The demon lord wasn’t happy.

High challenge to your campaign

I have seen this happen very rarely. But a high level challenge would be something that if you agreed to would break your game. This also happens when you have gotten better and saying “Yes, and this then happens…” because your players have been helping you add things to your campaign.

I assume you may need an example. Many times I let my players help me flesh out NPC’s when we meet them. I have a general description and they can add to it. Well in one case I needed to call out a very specific characteristic as it foreshadowed that he was really the villain of the game. Well when one of the players tried to give a back story to a scar I had to say, “That is a rumor but no one knows how he got that scar.” The way the scar was obtained was very important.

Honestly, these are very rare and you should be able to do a “yes, and then this is also true” most of the time. In the case above I agreed that that is a rumor but the truth is unknown. This allowed me to “yes, and” in a very important detail.

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Conclusion

The dungeon master can be responsible for making up everything if they want. Instead, run a premade adventure for several months to get started and see what the professionals do. No matter which you choose you will still have players do the unexpected much of the time. That is absolutely fine in 98% of the situations. For these think through how it could work and make a call.

If there isn’t anything campaign breaking make sure it makes sense and move on with the game. If it could break your game, pivot the response in such a way to let the players know that we can’t have that in this game in a nice way. With practice you will get better and better at this.

If you want to learn how to create a dungeon master adventure click here.

Happy Gaming

Dwight Scull

About the Author:

Dwight Scull has been playing tabletop role playing games (starting with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) back in 2001. He started being a dungeon master around 2005.

He loves to play many different types of TTRPG’s, including GURPS, Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension (and other White Wolf Games), Nights Black Agents, and others.

Fan of mysteries, light horror, co-op board games, true crime, sci-fi and fantasy.

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