One of the main selling points of Dungeons & Dragons is that almost anything can happen. You can go from dungeon crawling and fighting dragons to awkwardly hanging out with a sentient bird that can help you on your quest. That’s because of our beloved Dungeon Masters, who, unlike video game AI, can improvise consequences for whatever weird things players want to do during the campaign.
However, improvisation can be a challenging task. It takes time and practice to get used to it, but it can be learned. However, there are ways to optimize your skills to improve.
Like any other skill, you will get better as you use it. Set aside and try to use the things that come out of your head. Your players will ask if they don’t make sense, and you can adjust accordingly.
It’s okay to make mistakes while learning. While it’s enough to take a few seconds to absorb the situation, try to avoid stopping the game because you’ve started thinking in great detail about what’s going on. With time and similar problems, you will also have prior knowledge to help you think quickly.
9 Use humor
Your improvised reaction didn’t make sense, or you don’t know what to make the NPCs do. Well, remember that this is a game and the purpose is for you and your friends to have fun. So, you can just be silly about it and have a good laugh.
Did the players do anything funny before BBEG? The villain can literally stare and try to understand what they’re doing, just like you. NPCs can react to player outbursts in funny ways and make the whole situation funny. If everyone is having a good time, it will be hard to tell if inconsistencies are happening.
8 Use references
If you need to develop a quick story about an NPC, a side quest, or anything that relies on extensive lore details, you can steal that from somewhere else. For example, an elderly NPC the players just met seems miserable. They talk to him and you say that he has done terrible things in the past that he wants to atone for. The players keep pushing for it and you mention that he killed his own father who he already tried to kill and the NPC wants to be a better father to his child. All of this is a vague retelling of Kratos’ story from the God of War series.
Just think of a character that should behave similarly to an NPC and go for it. The same can be used for inspiration with tasks, places, objects or even organizations in your world. And don’t worry if your players noticed. They will enjoy references if they also like what you are referring to.
7 Have a data bank
This is where making lists comes in handy. As they enter the store, one of the players asks the owner, “What’s your name?” – and then you freeze. Luckily, you have an extensive list of names – and surnames, if you must – to answer about this guy you just made up because you didn’t even expect players to walk into a store like this.
If you have the time, you can create simple NPCs with names, descriptions, and behavior without attaching them to anything. So if the player goes somewhere you didn’t think they would go, you can randomly select and use one of these NPCs.
6 Online generators
In case you play online – or use a laptop as a DM screen – you can use the mighty powers of the machines at your service. It’s easy to find name generators online, and virtual desktop tools like Roll20 always give you a random name, maps, or even full characters every time you create a new character sheet.
Sure, the web makes for fun and you won’t have time to read NPC story suggestions along the way, but it’s useful for quick things like names.
5 Don’t worry about all the details
Just because you have to create NPCs on the fly doesn’t mean you have to come up with their entire life stories. Sometimes Bob the Innkeeper just has to be Bob the Innkeeper. You only need to think about hobbies, life problems, or personal motivations if those things actually become topics of conversation. And if your players ask personal questions out of nowhere, the NPC may feel uncomfortable and not answer.
If said character becomes more important to the story for whatever reason, you can use the time between sessions to work on the character a little more. But for now, you can just let them do their thing in the background.
4 Be honest with your players
It’s okay if your players are aware that you’re improvising. If they pull off something so absurd that it even interrupts the plot or part of the story that needed to happen, it’s okay to say, “Hang on guys, I might need some time here to think things through.”
The idea is not to pressure the DM; good players know this. Proper communication between you and them will save everyone a lot of trouble.
3 Allow player input
You’re not writing a book. You are not the only person responsible for the story. Players may not create the world around them, but they have complete control over the main cast, which is a lot. If you have no idea what should happen, they can suggest options and remind you of important details.
Let them help you in these moments, and since you know the details they don’t, you can analyze their ideas to see if they make sense and can be implemented.
2 Highlight important NPCs
At first this may seem to contradict the previous entry. But there’s a difference between creating NPCs on the fly and fiddling with your BBEG, for example. While you don’t need to get too involved with their story, having one along with a clear motivation for your villain and a good idea of their behavior and personality will do wonders.
All of this makes them not just a character to you, but a person. A well-rounded persona where you can easily improvise whenever the character is around because you’ll know exactly what a person like her would do in any given situation.
1 Don’t overdo it
We know that’s easier said than done. But no matter how serious you like your world and lore, remember that this is a game between you and your friends, and the goal is for everyone to have fun, including you. It’s okay to get distracted once in a while, and trying to avoid it at all costs will only increase your anxiety.
You don’t need to have all the answers ready. Call yourself when you get lost in your train of thought. And take a break if DM is hard for you. The experience should be fun, not a burden.
NEXT: Dungeons & Dragons: Relatable Things All DMs Do