Off The Cuff #3: Prep for Improv

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Off the Cuff

This week’s Off the Cuff was written by special guest Phil Vechione. Learn more about Phil in his bio at the end of this article.

Introduction

As the author of Never Unprepared, people often think that I support doing lots of prep for a game. That is only partly true. I am all for doing prep, but only as much as you need in order to feel comfortable enough at the table to run your game. For some people, that means having pages of notes, stat blocks, and maps. Those that like to game Off The Cuff, however, will have little to no physical materials prepared. Is the Off The Cuff GM unprepared? Not at all, it’s just that their prep is done differently. In fact, I dare say that the Off The Cuff GM might actually do more prep.

The Prep Cycle

Regardless of your style of GMing, there are several phases of prep: Brainstorming, the act of coming up with various ideas to use in a game; Selection, the whittling down of those ideas to find the usable elements; Conceptualization, where those ideas are fleshed out and given some more structure; Documentation, where you write out notes, stats, and maps; and Review, where you go over your documentation to make sure you have not missed anything or made any mistakes.

Long-Form Prep

For the sake of being able to draw some comparisons, let’s take a moment to consider what I will call long-form prep, or more traditional prep. We associate this form most with Documentation, the notes that these GM’s prepare. As with all things, the actual length of their documentation will vary depending on the GM’s style and the game they are playing. In this style the GM will hit upon all of the phases of prep.

These GM’s are preparing a game with a full story structure, a number of planned scenes/encounters, and are connecting those scenes with narration. Their sessions have a beginning, middle, and an end. The players have autonomy within the scenes, but the overall direction of the session has been thought through. With this structure the long-form GM has most of what they need from their prep, and will only have to ad lib a little should the players stray from the main story.

Off The Cuff Prep

In contrast, the Off The Cuff GM (OTC GM) is more about letting the story (and game) develop organically through play. These GM’s have an overall idea of what might happen during the session in the form of an opening scene, some possible opposition, or an overall goal for the session. The difference is that these elements are not tightly connected. The OTC GM prepares these islands and does not focus on connecting them in a continuous story; rather they let the players determine how they will get from one element to the next.

Even though there is not a tight story being created, these GM’s still go through the prep cycle, but in a different way than the long-form GM. Let’s look at the OTC GM’s prep cycle for getting a session put together.

For sure there is going to be Brainstorming, as the OTC GM needs to come up with potential ideas for the coming session. There will be a Selection process as well, as the GM picks out the viable ideas they are going to use in the session.

In the Conceptualization phase the GM will turn those selected ideas into scenes and elements that can be used during the session. Normally in Conceptualization there is an emphasis on fully fleshing out scenes, and creating the overall outline of the session. The improv GM does not need to apply that level of rigor. Their focus is on getting various scenes worked out, but less of an emphasis on connecting them, since the players will determine that by their actions at the table.

At the Documentation phase, the OTC GM can choose to utilize documentation, but it is often far less than a long-form GM, due largely in part to the fact that they are preparing less actual playable material. Some GM’s will have a few note cards, or a sheet or two of paper, while others will be comfortable enough skipping this step all together and arriving at the table with the concepts in their head.

For the OTC GM, there is little to no Review phase, as the review phase is meant to look for plot holes, inconsistencies, missing stats, etc. In a game where there is a high degree of player authority to drive the story, there are less tightly woven plots, and so there is less of a chance of a plot hole occurring.

Prep For Running A Game

Outside of preparing for a game, the most important skill an improv GM needs to have is Brainstorming. By removing more of the scripted elements of the game and giving the players more autonomy, the improv GM needs to be able to think on their feet. That requires a developed skill in Brainstorming; coming up with ideas under the pressure of a live game and playing off the players’ actions.

Brainstorming requires two things in order to function: raw materials and connections. Raw materials come in the form of ideas that are used during your prep or during the session. You also need to be able to make connections between ideas. You need to look at one idea and be able to go into that mental stockpile of other ideas, and find one that will connect perfectly with the first.

The way to obtain raw materials is by consuming other works, such as books, TV shows, movies, published RPG products, and – much like the Borg – assimilate them. While consuming these works you need to deconstruct the scenes you like, understand why each scene works, and then store that trope or literary structure in your mind. You need to train yourself to do this as you consume other media so that as you are entertaining yourself with a show or a book you are building a stockpile of ideas in your mind; building blocks for your next game.

Connecting ideas is critical to being able to play well off the players’ actions. This is the harder skill to learn, but since it is a skill you can practice it. My favorite method of practice is to use some tools like Story Forge cards or Rory’s Story cubes. Both of these tools create elements that require you to fill in the blanks, helping you to hone your ability to make connections.

Conclusion

The Off The Cuff GM still engages in prep, in both creating a session as well as having the skills to be able to run the game on the fly. The good part is that the skills overlap, so working at strong brainstorming skills makes you stronger prepping your game as well as running it.

As an OTC GM what do you do to prep your games? How do you work on your brainstorming skills? What are your favorite sources for stockpiling?


Phil Vechione

Phil Vecchione has dedicated over 30 years to sitting behind the screen and tossing dice with friends. He is known for his system promiscuity and looking for the “next great campaign.” To feed his gaming addiction away from the table he is one of the founding writers for Gnome Stew and an author for Engine Publishing. He recently released his newest book: Odyssey: The Complete Gamemaster’s Guide To Campaign Management, of which he was co-author along with Walt Ciechanowski. In those moments when he is not gaming and writing he is a husband, father, and project manager. You can find out what he is up to on dnaphil.com.

Series Navigation<< Off the Cuff #2: Lazy GMingOff the Cuff #4: Filling Plot Holes >>

About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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