Posted in Tools & Techniques

Making On-The-Fly Decisions Matter

Embracing improv and making on-the-fly decisions matter can make your game stronger and can be far more interesting and relevant than anything you’ve come up with in advance. The basic idea is to take any new fact that arises and tie it into the game world by considering how it affects other established facts. Doing this will make the fact important, give more depth to the rest of your setting, and inspire you to think in interesting ways.

We’ll be discussing two types of on-the-fly decisions: replacing something you’ve prepped with a similar new idea you or the players had, and coming up with something brand new.

Replacing prep with player ideas

You can do this by listening to the players’ ideas and using them. If the idea doesn’t conflict with your prep or the established facts, just make it true. If they suspect the new baddie in town is secretly one of their old foes, think about it: if this wouldn’t contradict anything established or drastically mess with anything about to be revealed, just go with it.

Doing this has several benefits:

  • The players will be already invested
  • The players will feel smart for being right
  • You don’t need to come up with anything new
  • You can save what you prepped but didn’t use for later

If you’re really stumped and the players aren’t talking, have a trusted NPC ask them what they think is going on. It will often start an in-character conversation and bring ideas to light.

Coming up with brand new things

This way is trickier but very rewarding. It’s the sort of thing that happens when a player asks you something and you answer them offhand. You have to say something, but as soon as you say it, your answer becomes a fact (unless it’s a lie; but that’s the topic of an entirely different article). So, you’ve made this fact but it’s just hanging out there on its own, separated from the intricate web of the previously established setting.

Here’s how it that can sometimes play out:

  • The PCs ask you something you have no answer for.
  • You make something up and say it; now it’s a fact.
  • You downplay that fact because it isn’t in your prep; but it’s still a fact.
  • The fact ends up as true but unimportant dead weight to tediously work around.

When this happens, it can lead to the fact becoming like an unintentional red herring, or just a stumbling block you keep coming up against. “Oh right, we established that the king has no siblings. Why did I say that? Now I can’t do any political intrigue with the royal family. Man, this town is going to be really boring now. Curse you, improv!”

Here’s how it should go:

  • The PCs ask you something you have no answer for.
  • You make something up and say it; now it’s a fact.
  • You think about how that fact affects other established facts.
  • You tie that fact into the world and it becomes important and exciting.

In this method, you bring the fact into the web of the established setting and connect it to other strands of that web. You discover something new and interesting about your world and you didn’t need to prep a thing. It also informs your view on other elements in the game. The new fact and its place in the game’s web will often excite you and show you a new way of looking at your setting and current prep, giving you more fodder and motivation.

“Oh right, we established that the king has no siblings. I wonder why? In fact, I haven’t made any NPCs with siblings or children. What if the lonely witch who cursed the town’s crops also cursed their women to only ever bear a single child? Wow, cool. So, that’s a thing. And then so that means…”

Ask yourself what this fact can do for your game

You might be uneasy establishing facts on-the-fly and feel it best to downplay their impact on the game, especially if you’re running a module or written adventure. But sooner or later you’ll need to establish something that wasn’t in your notes. Ask yourself what this fact can do for your game. Trying this will also make it quicker and easier to do so next time.

It’s okay to wait until after the current session to think about the new fact, but do think about it. Make a note of the fact you established and go back to it a day or two after the session and see how you can connect it into the web of your game to make a deeper, richer world.

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I live in Canberra, Australia. I love games and stories.

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