It’s no secret that TTRPGs can quickly go off the rails. While player synergy can be a valuable tool for any GM to breathe life and excitement in the campaign, it also has the potential to make all of your best plans for the campaign go completely awry. 

Something as simple as random exposition from an NPC or an interesting setting can lead players onto an entirely different path and for the GM to think on their feet to account for this shift in direction. In line with our own blog’s name, one of our old campaigns went entirely off the rails when our party decided to steal a ship, abandon the plot, and sail the high seas as pirates after we botched the GM’s planned heist and recreated our own fantasy Boston Massacre. 

While between sessions it’s not too hard to find a way to get things back on track, the initial adventure where a GM’s planned adventure goes awry can be quite intimidating for GM’s who aren’t used to improvising. When GMing on the fly, a lot of your time will be put into creating the narrative for the adventure to follow along with whatever crazy plans your players may have spontaneously created. A sudden change in the adventure can often result in a sudden change in NPCs and Setting. Here are some tools to help you develop these adventure aspects on the fly should you find your planned adventure unraveling. 

NPCs:
NPCs are a critical aspect of every campaign. Not only do add core substance to your world, but they act as a direct line for GMs to talk to players and help move the story along. Thinking of interesting NPCs can be tricky when your previously planned adventure doesn’t apply. Personality, quirks, and personal details are critical to any good NPC. If an NPC is boring or underdeveloped, players will have a hard time interacting with them, but creating interesting NPCs can take time and has the potential to grind your adventure to a halt as you flesh out your character. Having a prepared sheet of details for generating NPCs can help you not have to think of NPCs on the fly and let you focus on the adventure. Whether you want to roll on the table or pick from your table, this resource gives you a base outline for an NPC to work off and help you flesh out good NPCs. 

While your tables can be as detailed or simple as you want, this is an example of a table to provide the groundwork to build detailed NPCs on the fly.

Personality 

PositivePositiveNegativeNegative
ConfidentObservantDeceitfulGreedy
OptimisticEmpatheticShort TemperedVulgar
HumbleExtrovertedNervousSuperstitious
CasualFolksyDelusionalCallous
DiscreetAgreeableSuspiciousPompous

Details/Quirks

PhysicalSocialPersonalMiscellaneous
Tattooed/PiercingsWild GesturesDistinct SmellPet Companion
Maimed/DisabledThick AccentPhobiaAlways Working
ScarredGets off TopicReligiousUnique Clothing/Gear
DrunkGossips on the StreetDistinct HabitHoard of Junk
Sick Broken VocabularyForeignerPosse/Bodyguards

Settings:
Going back to the previously mentioned pirate adventure, our devolution into privateers of the high seas forced our GM to recreate entire islands and settings as we decided to hoard our cursed loot and just murder the NPC that was supposed to lead us to the black kingom. 

Depending on what happens to your adventure, the change in setting can range from small tweeks, such as creating a new fort or wilderness as the players go off on a spontaneous side quest, to large scale changes such as abandoning and entire town or dungeon. While most of the time you should luck out and only have to create a few minor tweaks to your setting as it is unlikely that your players will make a radical change in scenery, just as with the NPCs, you can use tables and tools to help you develop detailed settings instead of having to spend too much time making them from scratch. While you might have a general idea for the town in terms of narrative progression, actually filling out the town with details beyond the standard shops and inns can take quite a bit of time. Similar situations can also pop up in the creation of your dungeons. Developing dungeon themes, traps, and special rooms can quickly give you a long to-do list to tackle.

 Having pre-established tables for towns and dungeons can quickly breathe life into your setting and help you keep the game moving while shaping a new direction for your adventure.

Towns

FeaturesLocationThemeOrganizations
BazaarRiverside/LakesideShanty TownReligious Sect
Military FortMajor CrossroadMetropolitan CityMercenary Guild
Back AlleysBase of a MountainQuarantined/OutbreakCorrupt Officials
ChapelBuilt Among Ancient RuinsColonyCriminal Gangs
Mine/FarmWartorn/War ZoneResearch BaseSlavers

Dungeons

DangersRoomsFeaturesTheme
Punji PitChapel/AltarMaze/Natural CavesAbandoned Sewers
Acidic PoolsReliquarySecret RoomsAncient Ruins
Rickety BridgeWorkshopPlant OvergrowthSecret Hideout
Explosive MaterialsBarracksAncient MuralsDeserted Monastery
Arrow TrapsPrison/Torture ChamberAbandoned CampBandit Compound

Hopefully in your GM career you won’t encounter too many instances of improvised adventures and be able to keep things on track while still keeping your players happy and encouraging them to make their own choices. While there are websites that offer whole lists of descriptions and potential details, pouring over the thousands of results to find something you like can take just as long as creating the content from scratch. So I encourage you to create your own tables, that way you have a manageable list of results you know you’ll enjoy and can quickly find when you need. 

If you do find yourself in a situation where you have to improvise as a GM, having tables and a general scaffolding for NPCs and Settings can help you save time when GMing on the fly and still create enjoyable and detailed adventures. 

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2 Comments

  1. This is great! I totally agree that having material handy can help you improvise. However, I personally enjoy improvising so much (when I have a good base of material, such as custom-curated tables, behind me) that I think it’s not something to be avoided but actually embraced.

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    1. I definitely agree! Some of my favorite adventures both as a player and as a GM have been one’s that have been improvised. I think GMs should be encouraged to try improvising when they want to, but unexpected improvising and being on the back-foot can definitely be a bit daunting for less experienced GMs. I think ideally having these types of tables acts as a great training tool to help GMs get more comfortable with improvising until they feel confident enough to improvise their NPCs and world from scratch.

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