Winging it as a DM is an important skill for any Dungeon Master who wants to run a successful and entertaining D&D campaign. Improv helps us keep the game relevant and interesting to our players as the session unfolds.
We can’t plan for everything that our players will do. We need to be able to make things up as we go along. This can be nerve-racking though, especially if you’re new to running the game.
Where do you start? What do you do if you don’t know what to say?
Don’t worry, I’m here to help, and I know you can do it! In this post, I’ll share some tips and tools to use for improv during a session as a DM in D&D.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
Let me just start with this disclaimer: Under no circumstances am I suggesting you stop preparing content for your games. There are loads of issues that come up without some kind of a story arc driving the DM’s primary story decisions. You do need some kind of a plan. Assuming you’ve got that, let’s move on.
Winging it as DM: You’re Using Improv
We’ve all been there. It’s go time for the session, but life got in the way. We’re under prepared, or we prepared for the wrong content, or our players take some kind of wild left turn in the middle of the game that throws us off. Enter improv.
Improvisation is the act of creating something without prior preparation. In the context of D&D, it means creating a story and its events on the spot, in response to the players’ actions. This usually includes lightning fast content creation of two things: NPCs or Locations. Or both, at the same time. Lucky you!
General Tips for Improv
- Be prepared. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to improvise. This means having a good understanding of the rules, the setting, and the characters. It also means having a few ideas in mind for what might happen in the session.
- Listen to your players. One of the most important things to do when improvising is to listen to your players. What are they doing? What are they saying? What do they seem to be interested in? To me, the last one is paramount. I really laser focus on what they want to look at or who they want to talk to in each scene. It brings the world to life for them.
- Be flexible. Things don’t always go according to plan, especially when you’re improvising. That’s why it’s important to be flexible. If your players do something that you weren’t expecting, don’t be afraid to change your plans. This is inherent in the definition of improv. You are an intelligent, creative person, and I’m SURE you can find a way to tie this crazy mess back into the overarching plot that’s guiding all of you.
- Have fun. Improvisation can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to remember that it’s just a game. If you beat yourself up for being less than perfect, please take a moment here: You do not need to be perfect. This is a GAME and it is supposed to be FUN. Just relax and laugh it off. Takes some practice, but you can do it.
- Practice makes BETTER. The more you improvise, the better you’ll get at it. Don’t be afraid to experiment and to try new things. And DON’T expect perfection.
Improv for NPCs
Creating NPCs as they are needed, voice acting for them, saying the things they would say, knowing and understanding their beliefs, values, and motivations (or bluffing these) in a moment’s notice is no easy task. If you find yourself in this situation often, you may want to check out these two articles while you’re here as well:
- GM Help: Create Awesome NPCs Your Players Will Love
- NPC Magic: Transform Your Campaign with Dynamic, Lovable Characters
Here’s How I Handle This:
In the articles I linked above I outline my entire method for this, but here’s the short version: I lean into it.
I know the execution will be imperfect. I know I will make mistakes. I let go of all that and pick something random from one of the tools below (if I have a moment to do that) and I just give it 100% effort. WHEN I mess up, and I will, I do NOT stop. I just keep going, and laugh it off. Sometimes my NPCs will make little jokes about having trouble with adapting to the language of the area, like if I drop an accent or something like that. My players will chuckle and we all move on.
If I were to stop, not only does it break immersion, but it has a way of making everyone at the table feel a little uncomfortable. Let’s just skip that part. You’ll mess up. It’s okay. Just keep going.
NPC Improv Tools
I have a few tools to help guide me through this process. These are listed from the most time-consuming to the least.
- NPC Generator: You can set parameters and just click that “Generate” button to your heart’s content. I use this one a lot. I won’t always use every section it comes up with, but it’s such a great tool!
- My limited internal library of fictional characters: Sorry, but they haven’t found a way for us to link our mind palaces just yet. The good news is you have one of these libraries, too! Honestly, your list of available fictional characters is probably more robust than mine. I love nerd culture etc., but I don’t watch nearly as much stuff as most people do. (I prefer to burn my eyes out on screens playing video games.) The point is, you should draw on characters you know and try to mimic them. Unless you’re an unbelievable actor with an insane repertoire of accents, your impression will be less-than-perfect, and possibly not even recognizable. No offense. But that is also a good thing. Your players won’t necessarily know you’re “copying” a character profile, and you have an easy way to recreate this NPC at a moment’s notice, without having to reference any notes. It’s a trick a lot of DMs use.
- Rory’s Story Cubes (Amazon link): These are meant to be used in a storytelling game. Guess what? We are playing a storytelling game! These are really nice to have on hand to come up with creative descriptions for people or locations on-the-fly. I use mine pretty much every session. There are random images on each of the D6’s that come in the package, and you roll them to get a weird combination like: smiley face, insect, airplane, sheep. You then have these images in mind to inspire a quick description of a person. “His hair is fluffy and white, wool-like, almost. There are bits of hay stuck in it. It reminds you of a sheep!” I highly recommend these.
Improv for Locations
Your players take a turn into an area that you genuinely didn’t expect them to go. That’s okay! You’ve got some great tools at your disposal.
Here’s How I Handle This:
Here are a few tips on how to improvise a new location as a DM. Describing locations is one of my weakest points as a Dungeon Master, in my opinion. I love hearing rich, interesting descriptions that build suspense or bring an area to life. If I’m not prepared ahead of time with some kind of write-up, I really feel my descriptions are lacking. In order to help compensate for this, if I have a few seconds before I need to describe a room, I’ll use the tools I have listed below. If not, I try to draw on a scene I’ve seen in a movie or show. Rory’s dice work well for an immediate, interesting description, too.
NPC Location Tools
I have organized these from most time-consuming to least again for you.
- Deck of Stories: Genesis Deck (Amazon link): I recommend these cards often, because I really like them. They have premade NPC cards with names, traits, and quest hooks, quest building/side quest cards, and they also have what they call “sensory” cards. These are little snippets of lovely descriptions that can be used in lots of different scenarios. You’ll need a bit more foresight to have them ready, but I do use these cards often.
- Have ChatGPT describe the room for you: If you tell ChatGPT that you are running a D&D session and you need a description of a spooky cave, this AI will DELIVER. I swear ChatGPT loves D&D. I get such enthusiastic responses. It’s wild. I have a whole article on using ChatGPT as your DM assistant, if you’re interested in checking it out!
- Rory’s Story Cubes (Amazon link): See above! I highly recommend these. They are such a great, simple, and low-cost tool to have as a DM for all kinds of scenarios.
Improv Comedy Rules
I thought it might be appropriate to include the actual “rules” of improv here for you. If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or “Arrested Development” (personal favorite) you are likely familiar with some of these tenets.
One of the most important rules is the “yes, and” rule. This means accepting what your scene partner says (the “yes” part), and building upon it with your own contribution (the “and” part). This helps keep the scene moving forward and avoids blocking or negating your partner’s ideas.
For example, if your player says, “I open the door,” you could say, “yes, and you find yourself in a dark room. It smells like mildew and you can hear something clicking sporadically in the corner.” This accepts their statement and builds upon it, creating a new scene.
Consider the opposite: Your player says “I open the door,” and you say, “no, you don’t.” The end. Everyone is shut down from this scene. Now the onus is on YOU to come up with something else entirely. It’s just not as fun.
Aside: It’s also crucial to note that if a player is being inappropriate, ridiculous, or hurting the story in some way, you do not need to (and should not) agree.
Improv Rules List
- Yes, and – This is the most important rule in improv. It means accepting what your scene partner says (the “yes” part), and building upon it with your own contribution (the “and” part). This helps keep the scene moving forward and avoids blocking or negating your partner’s ideas.
- Listen – Pay close attention to what your scene partner is saying and doing. This will help you respond in a way that makes sense and keeps the scene coherent.
- Agreement – Agreeing with your scene partner doesn’t always mean saying “yes.” It means finding common ground and building on that to create a successful scene. In D&D, this might mean the player says “I open the door,” and you say “yes, you try, but it’s stuck. Roll a strength check.” You don’t have to blindly agree to everything your players say just because you’re using improvisation.
- Be present – Stay in the moment and react to what’s happening in the scene. Don’t worry about what might happen next or what you’ll say later. I can’t stress this enough. Doing this will way stress out a lot of people. Forget about what insane ridiculousness is coming next with your completely unpredictable party. Utilize all those brain cells in the now.
- Establish the Who, What, and Where – At the beginning of a scene, establish the characters, their relationship, and the setting. This helps create a strong foundation for the rest of the scene. In D&D, you won’t have to do this as obviously, most of the time. It depends on what’s going on with your players. Make sure they’re clear about their surroundings, though.
- Embrace mistakes – Mistakes are inevitable in improv. Instead of dwelling on them, embrace them and use them to move the scene forward in a new and unexpected direction. I share an example of how this went for me recently below. Mistakes are not inherently bad. They are usually just funny.
- Support your scene partner – Work as a team and support each other’s ideas. Don’t try to steal the spotlight or make your scene partner look bad.
Additional Considerations for D&D Improv
I wanted to elaborate a bit on some of the official improv “rules” specifically for Dungeons and Dragons (or other TTRPGs):
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable in improv. Instead of dwelling on them, embrace them and use them to move the scene forward in a new and unexpected direction. Some of the most hilarious moments at my table have happened from me just NOT performing top-notch. Most recently, this took the shape of one of my characters, Barnoth, asking an NPC what his name was. My Achilles heel, you will know if you’ve read other content around here on NPCs. My brain just… froze. The NPC very seriously and snobbishly replied: “My name… is… Nothbarn.” My players were in hysterics and they immediately wanted this guy to become a regular NPC. They even asked about him the next session. Mistakes are not necessarily a bad thing.
- Support your “scene partner.” In this case, it’s your players! Work as a team and support each other’s ideas. This means you respond in ways that encourages them. Unless it’s fitting for the NPC, don’t try to steal the spotlight or make your “scene partner” look bad. It will be more fun for everyone at the table this way.
- Have fun! Look… if you’re not having fun, your players probably aren’t either.
The road to the players’ end goals can be bumpy, long and winding. There will undoubtedly be times when you have to make things up along the way.
There’s no magic pill or secret sauce to know how to do this overnight, but if you use these tips and tools based on my tried-and-true methods, they should help you. As always, practice makes better. Don’t ever expect “perfect” with with winging it as a DM.
Are you the king or queen of improv at your table? We’d love to hear your stories and tips in the comments below!
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