Planning for Shenanigans: Improvised Sessions & Narrative Weaving

Hi, there, Marsie here, ready with another piping hot article right out of the bad idea oven.

There are a great many types of preparation for your games, and we could talk about the concept of what is good prep vs bad prep for days.

And the true answer is:

It depends on your group. Players have varying needs to accommodate, and so do their characters. So does your game. So does your style. So do the individual themes you want to hit. It's all different. We all do different things to run the best game we can at the time. We mess up, we learn. We take the good things with us, and (hopefully) chuck the bad ideas out the window.

The most preparation I've ever done for games revolved around centerpieces for large scale fights. Whether that be preparing ice cube miniatures for an adventure regarding the Lich Queen of Snow, or preparing a Jenga pyre to contain a volatile artifact that needed to be extracted before the whole thing burned to the ground, or Kingsmanning my party in a duel to their own deaths in a trapped tomb of demons while my BBEG slipped around. My party eventually started spotting my multiple hidden prepared boards around the room, or underneath the boards they were currently playing on, screaming delightfully (or maybe in terror?) as I unveiled them. Perhaps you've also seen my War Cookies? It certainly wasn't my most elaborate centerpiece, but I had an elaborate board hidden beneath this one that made my players shriek when I turned it over.

Those things were all fun, enigmatic, and engaging centerpieces for my game.

So how do you make this happen without preparation? How do you recreate the fun, enigmatic, engaging stuff without any actual plans?

The kids are just in town, now.

This week it's time for:

Planning for Shenanigans.

There's no such thing as a "prep-less" session. We just call it something else. We don't call it preparation because it isn't traditional prep as we pour over and add onto existing lore in documents players will only see 10% of, and script out our solo fights to have them oneshotted by the rogue in the first round, and meticulously create backstories for our villains and allies.

But why not just call it preparation? As an improv actor, I see no difference between preparing for a performance, and prepping for a prepless session.

These steps help me, and maybe they will help you too:


Know your headspace where you feel most comfortable to perform off the cuff, and recognize how to find it. I call it my weird time. It's the time I need to pace, and dance, and speak in weird voices, recite the last bit of Shakespeare left in my brain, and completely ignore the outside world. It reinvigorates me after a day of the immobile 9-5, and allows me to be social again. This is my ritual for day-to-day life and I found that this weird time was necessary to perform on the stage and behind the screen with no preparation. This kind of routine is useful even if you are doing a session on the books. Weird time is always valuable.

Know the Landscape:

Recognize where you are setting the game today, and let your mindset flow there. Are you preparing for a forest village, a nomadic pilgrimage, or a major city center? The environment is a character itself. It has a face and a story to tell beneath these scars and soils.

Read a Good Book or Excerpt, Evocative of the Desired Tone:

Before the game even starts, based on the landscape, or the previous session, you should know the tone you want to go for. Read as much as you can of a book or other material that captures that tone, a historical analogue that mirrors the day-to-day life. Vocabulary can make all the difference tonally speaking to players, and finding those right words can help you nail it the way 10 pages of preparation without those words cannot. A few words speak billions.

Generators Are Your Friends:

You are friends with your generators, use them, love them, and give the creators feedback that you used them. Someone put hours of work into a program to make your gaming as effortless as possible. Whether it's NPC, Guild, Town, or World Generators that you use, make the results what you need them to be. Lists of Traits are also very useful to have on hand.

Create Naming Conventions:

While we're on the subject for the power of words, naming conventions seem small, but they're quite powerful. Create 2-3 rules for the surrounding NPC's names, and the names of places. Example rules might be: The emphasis falls on the last syllable. The first syllable of the name is actually the family name. Their nicknames are the middle syllable. The first born always holds their full name and goes by no nicknames. Sen is an add-on to a name of a family that has been scorned. Names that start with apostrophes are now without families. Apply these to your lists of generated names and give an arbitrary list some sudden and unique flavor.

Know your Player Character's Arcs:

Seed them, small bits. These calmer moments are the times you can use to help rekindle the engine, and send your players planning for the next move in the adventure.

Know your Player's Engagement Preference:

All of our players are different, and have different modes of engagement they prefer to have. Some would prefer to be told a story, and need you to give a direct hint or clue to regarding whatever steps are happening next. Our favorite instigators, however, are always poking at the bear. Instigators will tell you what they want, and it's in these points your judgment and pacing practice will be tested to figure out the correct amount of information to give them, if any, and the quality of that information, so they can follow hooks. If you aren't gifted with mind-reading skills, just ask them.

Keep Your Promises:

It's as simple as this. You make a promise, so keep it. If you promised them something last session into this one, keep it. Keep your promises concerning the consequences of rolling. Don't pull punches on the good, or the bad. A prepless session doesn't mean a less meaningful, or less linear one. Consistency earns player trust, and keeping promises you make to players is part of that consistency.

Own Your Actions:

Just the same as if you were running something planned, every decision you make (yes, even the choice to roll the dice to let fate decide an option) is yours. Take responsibility for your actions, and be mindful of your decisions, especially when you did not prepare. The off-the-cuff moments will test you.

Work from the Outside-in:

This is where we start getting weird with it. When you have an improvised game, the rules become the same as improv. For most planning, you may be able to start with a central idea, and start leading things there. The drive to do the same without planning is there, and you may feel compelled to run a prepless session the way you would a prepped one. It isn't impossible, but the experience can feel shrunken when you start realizing the framework just isn't there. Barriers begin feeling impassable, or too easily sidestepped.

In improv, we embrace shared storytelling, and work from the very outside of the box with the group with different ideas and begin working our way in, threading the ideas into one solid concept.

This process is something I like to call

Narrative Weaving

 You are playing a cooperative game to find out where the story goes even if, and especially if, the players don't realize it. You are essentially quietly polling your players for their ideas and narrowing down the things that make the most logical sense.

You might be thinking that this really just takes off for the more relaxing, town-centric, leisurely sessions, but it's for any broad range of adventure. I speak of my Owl of Lysia a lot on this blog, and will likely continue to do so. As I mentioned above, the amount you can prepare really depends on your group. Frankly, with players like I had for Owl, I knew I would never be able to prepare for the shenanigans they would ensure. So, my preparation for this game was 2 sentences. One to start us off, and one to negotiate them toward for the end of the sessions. This was successful. Sessions 1-4 of Owl of Lysia were almost entirely improvised (save for the pre-written facts about Cadaroga beasts). To be honest, the next 5 sessions were almost completely improvised as well. Old habits die hard. I've run many systems by the seat of my pants, and I like to think I make the Lorax look like an amateur.

Essentially, Narrative Weaving looks like this:

You've already established your Headspace. You're at the table, and you're ready to play.

The most important thing is to present them with the initial prompt--the thing that exists by way of your word choice and tone setting. The picture you paint for them with words. With this, you present to them your own question. The question could be what is this? Where does this lead? Who built it? There are many questions the initial prompt can represent. But it doesn't look like a question. What it looks like is their next target for the narrative. You're going to want to frame your scene, and give the players a reason to pursue into your framework.

In a renaissance town setting, this might be a barbershop.

In a far future setting this might look like a massive obelisk they've stumbled across in the jungle.

In a modern setting, this might look like an unmarked package they've found outside of their front door.

One of the important aspects of framing is understanding that unless you've given them a reason to go to the barbershop, the obelisk, or inspect the package, the good and logical thing to do is pass it by.

The barbershop appears because the player character is looking for an informant.

The obelisk is in the exact spot on the map the player characters were pursuing. Something they want is here, but it couldn't be this skyscraper-sized obelisk.

The package may be unmarked by sender, but it's very clearly addressed to the character.

What do you do now? You don't know what's in the obelisk. You don't even know how many barbers are in the shop. What's in the package, anyway?

Listen to your players' questions. They're not only telling you what they're interested in pursuing, but they're giving you possible answers to your question as well. Let's move forward with the Obelisk example.

For this prompt, I would say something akin to,

"You come across it, finally, the spot on the map you've been searching for. In it's place, an overwhelming sheer wall grows from the fertile soil to a summit far above the tropic canopy, standing at roughly 30m tall, with faces roughly 8m in width. In the setting sunlight, the obsidian obelisk shines a glossy off-caramel color. You note that upon closer inspection, it is covered with scars in a deliberate looking, equal fashion. Each of these is about the height of your forearm, and the width of your hand. This is not what you were represented would be here."

Your players will ask you questions. About the soil, the types of trees growing, about possible entrances. It will be up to you to decide which of these leads you will pull from.

You might decide that the wildlife here exists because the obelisk is here--that the flora and fauna here are only possible because of radioactive properties.

You might decide that the striations in the facets are caused by some damage from a ship leaving long ago, or that they are trace remnants of extra dimensional windows.

You might decide that there is a clear entrance into the obelisk at the very top and the player characters must find a way to the top, whether it be by hand holds or other uses.

Players with involved characters may find similarities in their backstories to this structure, and may ask about parallels to their past. Who built this? Is this related to me?

The thing is no matter what, you've still created a question without an answer. The players provide, with their questions, the answers, and you pull which of those they seem to be most into.

The thing you need to decide is how many more questions you want to separate this into. If there is a way into the obelisk, how long do you want them to be there? Deciding how many divisions or scenes you want them to be there before they find what they are after, or figure out that their proverbial princess is in another castle, is key for pacing. This will also require practice.

From beginning to end you want to see:

The Prompt-- Discovery -- Conflict -- Resolution -- Reward

This process repeats for as many layers as your adventure contains, in which Discovery and Conflict are both a piece of every layer and the whole of the cake itself.

Throughout this process, you will never stop preserving Tone. In improv, a common rule we hear is "Always say yes." While this practice is true for learning improv, it's untrue for our practices on the whole. We say no to preserve tone, keep the game on the rails, and acknowledge the rules. It will be up to you to figure out when to say yes, and when to say no. You do it already with preparations, even if you don't realize it.

Whether you say YES or NO, each of these answers solidifies a part of the Narrative Weave.

That's right, every time you make a decision, or answer a question, you, and your players helping you craft this adventure, have set another nail into the coffin of this adventure. Take note of what you are playing with.

Don't forget to supply your own answers once in a while ... That generators, and the books you pull from are your friends. They're right there with you, whether you wrote them down, printed them out, or have them behind your screen on a convenient laptop.

The pros and cons of Narrative Weaving are one in the same for the most part. The story you tell must be more flexible. Any additional information you input in the vein of attempting to apply things regarding Player Character Arcs could send it off the rails, and quickly, sending false flags unless you planned to include it(or are planning to now). Your players will feel rewarded for correctly guessing the next steps of the adventure, but guessing too much correctly can feel tedious or easy.

So how do we do this?

Be patient with it. Practice. Play with when to make it interesting. If you aren't sure what's interesting, let your players lead you there.

Be OK with the quiet. Sometimes blank space is more powerful and quick than you know.

Run the game you want to play.

Take many notes on what happens, and/or ask your players to do so.

All of the facets that work for a prepared game still work here. These small sentences above are no less true for other games. Narrative weaving exists in both modes of play, whether you write them down ahead of time, or make the moves up as you go.

It's in these moments that you can make important, heavy decisions, like incorporating an arc, introducing an NPC meaningful to a virtue for one of the characters, or having the players befriend an eccentric noble who demands they use their expertise to tell her how to dress for a party.

 Marsie Vellan is an Operator for the Phantom Rollbooth and the GM for The Owl of Lysia Cypher System Liveplay on Monte Cook Games' Twitch Channel. You can follow her on Twitter @MarsieVellan for news about all of her creative endeavors, including art, homebrew, and livestreaming updates. Her partner, the other Operator on The Phantom Rollbooth is here @ColinItLikeISee. You can also join the community on the Phantom Rollbooth's Discord for topical discussions on Roleplaying Games and Culture, and Creation. For Other Contact, you can e-mail us @

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