Improvisation vs. Preparation: Finding the Balance

There are few phrases I hate more than the words, “I’ll just wing it.” 

This can be in any situation–I do have situations outside of DnD–and every time, it makes my blood pressure skyrocket. But what will you do if ____ happens? I’ll ask. Do you have a backup? What’s your Plan B? You might call it “being over prepared” or “having anxiety” (both are true), but my uncle always says A.B.C., Always BCareful, and I take that into every aspect of my life. I’d rather be too careful, even when it comes to fun hobbies like roleplaying and DnD.

In last month’s post, we talked about how important it was to take notes, be prepared, and have a plan. I can hear the chorus now, But that will take all the fun out of it! and It’s supposed to be a game! However, you have to remember that all games need work in order for them to run smoothly and be fun. Do you think game developers have fun 100% of the time when they’re working on a project, during crunch time before the big holiday rush? Of course not! But their hard work allows other people to enjoy the fruits of their labor. If they had more fun when they were programming the game, it might cause the consumers to have less of it. Beta-testing and finding game-breaking bugs might not be the most fun job, but it’s really important in making sure it’s playable (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2077). 

If you’re still trying to figure out what’s better to plan in advance vs. what’s best left for the heat of the moment, look no further! I’ve jotted down a few points for each, just so you can get an idea.

DO: Make a Plan B

One of the most exciting parts of DnD is the realm of possibilities; anything can happen! Depending on who your players are (and who their characters are), the exact same campaign between two separate groups can go completely different. If you have a plot in mind, but you know a certain someone’s bard will try to seduce the goblin kingyou can make a plan for that. Nothing intense, just a light “what if” statement–a “diet” version, if you will. That way, when your players make it to the goblin’s den, in the back of your mind you’ll know that if Horny Bard strikes again, the goblin king will do x, y, or z. A slight contingency plan in case your players completely derail the game (happens to the best of us, it’s okay).

DON’T: Make a Plan C

That being said, don’t make yourself nuts! If something happens that you weren’t expecting, don’t panic. Just roll with it! Maybe it’ll be a cool plot point that you never even considered before, but absolutely makes sense, or works really well with a character’s backstory. Besides, it’s a fun novelty as the DM to not know what’s going to happen. Finally, you’ll get to be on the edge of your seat for once, watching the story unfold.
person writing on white paper

DO: Keep a rulebook handy

Whether you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons or another roleplaying game, make sure to have the manual on hand! You can’t be expected to have every rule memorized–no one can–and having a reference to look things up is essential. You don’t have to follow every rule (there really are too many to keep track of every single one), but once you have an idea of how things generally work, you can bend them to your campaign as you see fit. Think of the handbook as guidelines or suggestions rather than hard-and-fast rules.
Bonus: If you’re playing over Discord in these Quarantine-ly Times, you can also view the 5E DnD Players Handbook online!

DON’T: Plan out all of your dialogue

You poor soul. You’ve created a ton of NPCs (non-player characters) and they all speak to the player in one session. Please do not worry yourself by writing a precise script, I beg of you. Love yourself. This is one part where you can take a step back and take the game as it comes. Besides, what if a character says or does something you haven’t prepared for? You might freeze up if it’s your first time going off-script. Instead….

DO: Have a general idea of what NPCs need to say

If know what information an NPC has to deliver to the characters (ex. “A sketchy looking guy just walked into the Cave of Wonders!”), you should be able to wing their exact phrasing. As long as you’ve created the character in advance and have a general idea of who they are–even if you just boil them down to a few key tropes–it should be easier to fall into the character than you might think. I find it helpful to jot a few lines down, just for getting a sense of their voice and how they speak, but it’s certainly not a must. The thought of writing them a whole script just makes me shudder. Although, a character who reads from a specific script in a breaking-the-fourth-wall kind of sense could be funny if done right, hmm….

These are just a few suggestions of many! Try them out and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Maybe you’ll disagree, and that’s fine too! We all have different playing styles. That’s what makes having different groups so exciting!

Until next time, players. Let the good dice roll! ⚀⚁⚂