Improve Your Game: Freestyling
Have you ever given a party two options, like turn right or left, run or fight, or something similar only for the party to pick a third option you weren’t expecting? Of course you have. Players rarely, if ever, play everything exactly the way you want them to. Maybe they have an ability or a magic item you forgot about or maybe one of your players simply sees an option that you missed. How do handle that? Easy. You freestyle.
“Now hold on there, Mr. Fancy Pants!” I hear you saying. “What’s this ‘freestyling’ you’re talking about? Isn’t that where they do them tricks on them BMX bicycles?”
Well, it would be if you were still living in the mid- to late-80’s. No, I’m talking about the ability to improvise when your party makes a decision you didn’t think of.
Some people are natural improvisers. Some people aren’t. I’m here to help you get better at freestyling or to help you learn how to freestyle in the first place. Or at least make it sound like you know what you’re doing.
1. Know what you’re running
Are you playing a module? Something you or one of your players wrote? Read it ahead of time. Try to learn where the tricky spots are and where you might need to adjust some things based on your players. Does the party's Ranger have a particularly good Perception modifier? Then think about taking away the enemy Orc’s Barbarian levels and add in a few Rogue levels for improved Stealth. Is the trap too easy to disarm for the Rogue? Add snipers to keep the party’s attention away from traps. That will at least create unfavorable conditions for the Rogue, which mean -2 to Disable Device.
When running a published module, look over the final encounter. Whether it’s combat or diplomacy, know what the Big Guy at the End can do. Know his skills, special abilities and defenses. If it lists tactics, make sure to note those and be ready to alter them as he meets the party.
2. Know the rules. Or at least know them well enough
This seems fairly obvious, but it’s harder than it sounds. For Pathfinder, the Core Rulebook, including Table of Contents, Appendices, and Index is 575 pages. That’s a lot of stuff to memorize. And that doesn’t count the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat.
Things like character creation are fairly easy to remember, so that’s not really something you should worry about once characters have been created. The main things you need to remember are Skills, Feats, and Combat rules. But here’s the thing: you don’t need to know every single piece of minutiae of every rule. In most cases, you need to know the basics.
One of the reasons I like Pathfinder over 3.5 is the change made to what are now called Combat Maneuvers. One mechanic for Bull Rushing, Tripping, Sundering and the like. Simple. You just have to remember one rule.
Why is this important for freestyling? Because knowing the rules means you get to keep things moving and not bogged down in looking up the exact wording for what happens when you Bull Rush someone (Answer: A successful Bull Rush pushes the target back 5 feet. For every 5 you beat the defender’s CMD, they move back another 5 feet. Yes, I looked that up).
If you don’t want to buy the Core Rulebook, then the Pathfinder Reference Document (http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/) or the Pathfinder System Reference Document (http://www.d20pfsrd.com/) can make things easy. Hyperlinks and bookmarks are your friends.
If a rule really needs to be defined during play, see if you can get a player that is not the player asking about the rule to look it up for you. That will keep your attention focused on what’s going on and will give that second player something to do when it’s not their turn.
That being said, do NOT be afraid to make an arbitrary decision during the scenario with the caveat “This is what I’m deciding now. When we have a break/are between sessions, I’ll look up the actual answer.” Again, this keeps the game moving.
3. If you don’t know the rules, know where to find them
For Pathfinder, I picked up the physical copy of the Core Rulebook. After reading through it, I put sticky tabs on the sections that I thought were important. One for each chapter. One for Cleric Domains. One for Sorcerer Bloodlines. One for CMB and CMD inside the Combat chapter. One tab for each variety of magic items. You can pick up a pack of tabs for about $4. I did the same thing for the D&D 3/3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook.
If you have to flip through thirty pages to find what you’re looking for, that slows things down. If you have a tab for the Spell Description section, you can flip straight to that and then into the alphabetical order of spells.
4. Know when to ignore the rules
Great! Now that you’ve learned the rules, you can now promptly ignore them. There comes a point where the rules may actually inhibit the fun. Does your bad guy have 1 hit point left and seems to be fairly ineffective against the party? Just kill him. Is a character up against a “do or die” situation, such as trying to jump a chasm? Give them a favorable condition bonus of +2. Or more. Make sure the party has a way to succeed at their goal.
This is known as Rule 0: Have fun. Players don’t want to play to fail. They want to win and have fun. Does that mean something bad can’t happen to the party? Of course not. Bad things give the party something to overcome and be heroic. But there’s a limit. You don’t put a party of Level 1 characters up against a Pit Fiend. Make it challenging, but not impossible.
5. Take notes
When a game session is over or you’re taking a dinner/bathroom break, make some notes. Where players made weird decisions and easily beat a check of some kind. These are the places where you may need to freestyle and adjust in the future if something similar comes up. If early on in the adventure, the Rogue easily beats the DC 20 check to pick a lock, you can decide that further into the castle/underground lair that the doors are Good quality, giving them a DC of 30. If Big Argin the Smacker is taking down enemies in one blow, bring out the elite troops to provide an additional challenge. Give them a higher Armor Class and more hit points than the standard enemy. Still too easy for Big Argin? Toss in a Sorcerer or two to back up the troops!
6. Know your options
The better you know your players, the more likely you’ll be able to anticipate where and when they’ll make those off-the-wall decisions. Once you’ve figured those out, know what options you have. Make note cards. Don’t be afraid to hide them behind the DM screen (if you use one) or make text documents on your laptop/tablet/mobile device. When you see that that section is coming next, get your notes in order. That way, when Klontark the Hugely Large decides to cut the guards down instead of bribing them, you'll know what to do. Here are some examples.
- Sometimes a diplomatic encounter turns violent. Make sure to know the combat stats for everyone involved. If they aren't given, figure them out. That will keep you from having to guess if combat ensues..
- Sometimes a combat encounter turns diplomatic. Make sure to know the Diplomatic skills for everyone involved. This includes Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidation, Perception and Sense Motive. Linguistics and Knowledge skills are also good to know.
- If something seems to be off between you and the players, make sure to revisit details. It could be that only one player heard a particular detail and is playing with that while the rest of the group aren't. Missed details can cause strange decisions.
Once you’ve made your notes (Tip #5) and you know your options (Tip #6), practice them. Say them out loud a few times. This does two things.
- It helps you remember your options. This could be helpful so you aren’t searching for the correct note.
- It makes it sounds more natural. If you are confident about what you are saying, the players will never know you’re making something up.
8. Remember: the players have no idea what you’re up to
The reason I bring this up is because this makes freestyling easier. For example, the party comes to a T in a hallway. Right leads to a confrontion with Baron Vladimir Taconin. Left takes them into the dungeon’s laundry room. You want the party to go right.
DM: Which way do you go?
Party discusses options.
Party Leader: The Dwarf has a big hammer, so we’re going to knock down the wall in front of us.
This is the perfect time and place for freestyling to happen. Because the players have no idea what is behind either door, you can move the hallway to the Baron wherever you like. If it was in the right hallway, but the party chooses left (or forward) move the hallway. IT WAS THERE THE WHOLE TIME! The players won’t know any better.
Okay, those are my eight tips on improving your improvisation. If you have comments or suggestions, please leave them in the box below. If you wish to get a hold of me personally, you can email me at SkredlitheOgre@gmail.com
Thanks and good gaming.