Monday 16 July 2012
The Mediocrity of Improvisation
Consider the extreme case - a campaign where the DM makes up everything on the spot, under the eyes of the players. Assuming the DM is in possession of a full complement of social skills and mirror neurons, he or she will constantly, unconsciously be self-interrogating about the experience the players are having. Are they having fun? Do they see this as fair? Does the world make sense?
As sole authority, there is a strong pull toward the middle ground - to mitigate challenges, to clip rewards. The lurking spectre in the background is that of the juvenile, "mad god" style of DMing, where party-killing traps and mind-numbing treasures are handed out, "just because." Avoiding this spectre, you veer towards the safe and average. Giving out nasty surprises or extraordinary treasure would just feel wrong.
Another factor: the limitations of your mental co-processor when coming up with stuff in real time. Several times I have looked back on a combat that was improvised and seen how the party's enemies could have made a better go of it. The worms could have started tunneling when coming under arrowshot; the tribesmen could have been smarter about their ambush, doing hit-and-run rather than hit-and-fight. I don't discount the possibility of an unconscious sympathy for the players that makes it hard for monsters to do their worst, unless countered with a devious playbook, either written down or mulled over aforethought.
Committing plans to writing is one way to overcome the mediocrity of improvisation. Extensive thought, too, on the structure of a lair, the plans of villains and monsters, the likely action behind the scenes, often pays off with great results. With time alone, thinking, it's easier to convince yourself that the best-laid plans of that goblin horde necessarily involves putting the players in a near-deathtrap situation. Which in turn led to one of the best, tensest sessions of the campaign, where only ingenuity and tactical sense spelled the difference between a narrow victory and a TPK.
Another way to cope is to submit responsibility to the rule of the dice - also requiring written material, but this time a comprehensive table of encounters, traps, or treasures. It was with such a great sense of relief, several weeks ago, that I finally came up with my own treasure table, a task I'd been resisting partly just out of incredulity that there wasn't one out there I could use. So much more satisfying to leave treasure up to the whims of the dice than to create this little gold-star token world where "oh yes, you're 4th level now, you should be getting a nice little +1 sword..."
In a way, these admissions are uncomfortable. One main justification for using a simple and level-based rule system is to make improvisation easier, right? But maybe the best thing is to see it the same way as improvisation in music - great material for a cadenza or a solo, but ultimately dry and flaky without support the rest of the concerto or the rhythm section's steady groove.
(This just out: Entirely by coincidence, noisms has posted some very nicely complementary thoughts on the inadequacy of a preparation-free environment.)