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I am a new DM. Is there something I can do, or practice, that would enhance my ability to make up reactions to requests or actions from the players?

For example I was reading through the most recent hardcover for D&D (Waterdeep, Dragon Heist) and I was trying to imagine several different ways that I as a character would want to take the adventure off the rails and then I'd try to think of ways that as a DM I would facilitate their excursion for a little while but then bring them back on track organically.

The only problem I have with this is I was still the only one coming up with the ideas as to what the player would to "pull things off the rails". Do you know any way that I could generate random situations that could arise in play that would allow me to think of how I would respond to players? Are there any random situation generators as an online DM tool that would let me randomly test my ad lib skills?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the Stack! Have you taken the tour? If you are running a pre-made adventure, do you expect your players to want to "pull things off the rails?" \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Sep 21 '18 at 5:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe this question will be better suited to a forum, as there are potentially many tools that may or may not help you. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Sep 30 '18 at 5:23
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Do proper campaign preparation and brush up on your improv skills

Being able to react to players off the cuff is a learned skill as much as it is a talent. With a little work and practice you can quickly get into a groove and keep things flowing.

1) Know what direction you want to take your campaign in before sitting down at the table

2) Do your research and / or study prep on your setting and specific module / region your session is going in. Having a general idea of what is going on outside of the party really helps with improv, and gives inspiration for side quests.

3) Be flexible in working with players and letting things play out as they would, rather than strong arming or giving in to the players at your table.

4) Brush up on your improv skills. YouTube and google can help with this -

https://www.wikihow.com/Do-Improv-Comedy

or

http://www.dangoldstein.com/howtoimprovise.html

But prep and knowledge will help you run with things off the cuff. Takes notes about what you did to review before your next session to stay consistent.

The DM manual itself should have random encounter tables. If not, your looking for "Random Encounter Tables". Run a google and find the ones that fit your region / campaign.

Pre-prepping your own monster packs (like a hoard of orcs, or a trio of evil bards) on index cards with stat blocks and loot drops can help take a lot of the leg work of rolling out random encounters and keep play moving. Plus it will have the added benefit of being tailored to your party. You don't have to use them, but having them in your back pocket can take a lot of the nervousness out of the ad-lib or pressure to throw a random encounter in there.

^.^

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    \$\begingroup\$ While your answer includes a lot that I agree with (studying others' improv, planning well in advance), I would just like to point-out that the word "ad-lib" means essentially the same thing as "improv," so it was rather weird to see an answer to a question titled, "How can I practice my ad-lib skills" with a question title that included, "brush-up on your improv skills." It is still a great answer, though. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Sep 21 '18 at 21:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Using "improv" was a deliberate choice over "ad-lib". Improv is an entire discipline that includes ad-libbing. Whereas ad-libbing is adding dialogue to scripts, improv is more of making up the story on the fly including the performance. It's a "bracketing" shift to help the reader change perspectives. I could have said "Do proper campaign preparation and to improve your Ad-Lib Skills, work on your improvisational skills." That's kind of wordy and redundant, so for brevity I cut out the preface ad-lib remark. =) \$\endgroup\$ – Play Patrice Sep 21 '18 at 22:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Alright, that makes sense, and was enlightening. Again, I didn't mean to challenge your answer, I was just commenting on something that seemed a little redundant. In the end, it brought me more knowledge. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Sep 21 '18 at 23:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeraphsWrath also, there's a difference between practice and study and point 4 encourages specific resources to study. \$\endgroup\$ – StuperUser Jul 1 at 11:00
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I second the answer by Play Patrice, but think two things are missing:

Know your players and use this to buy time

In one group, my players love trying to plan ahead and deciphering clues. When they do something unexpected, I can buy as much time to collect my thoughts and prepare next steps as I want by throwing in a cryptic message from one of the NPCs. Another one of my groups prefers an "eldritch blast first, asks questions later" style of play, so buying time is just taking whatever encounter they got themselves into this time and draw it out. My third group demands a logically sound story above all, so they'll inform me of what they want to do beforehand, so I can prepare, they'll also tell me what they think their actions should do. Which brings me to point two:

Don't be afraid to ask your players what they think should happen

You're not playing against each other, you are telling a story together. Your players should be aware of this too. (if they aren't: complain more about the amount of preparation time they circumvented... again) The story progresses by having a cause and effect, many times, the players are the cause because they want a certain effect. Sometimes this effect is better (as in more fun) than what you would have had happen and inspires you for the next few ideas. If it does: just say either "yes, and..." or "yes, but..." and take it from there.

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Patrice's answer is spot-on, I'll add a couple of things:

Know your tropes

When leading improvised scenes, I think tropes are a great fuel. In a specific setting, some things are just expected: if a PC bursts out of the saloon's window, there's gonna be a cart of hay or a horse under it, if the adventurers explore an old temple, there's gonna be some kind of creepy idol (and don't forget the precious stones for eyes!). There's a fine line to navigate to avoid using clichés while sticking to a genre's conventions, absorbing lots of fiction of any form (books, plays, movies, comics...) and reflect on it with a RPG mindset is probably the way to get better.

Experiment with games that rely on improvisation

Some game have excellent tools to try to make sure there are stakes in every improvised situation. For your setting, Dungeon World would probably do the trick (based on the "Apocalypse Engine"). The way the game describes the GM's task is very clear and gives you the tools to do the job. The GM has "moves", which are generically-worded things you can throw at your players while making sure something is at stake. All you have to do is to add fluff to translate this move into the fiction (for example, if you chose the move "separate them", you'll say "The troll's blow took Gnarkognark the barbarian under the chin and sent him tumbling down the slope. He's now on the ledge...what do you do?")

There is a finite number of dramatic situations so it's possible to build tools to translate these into games. Some games just do that, have a look at how they work :)

Prepare situations, not plots

I stole that from Justin Alexander, he has a fantastic blog that you should check out The Alexandrian

Trust your players, if you can't come up with anything, ask them

And for the improv skills, I'll recommend Unframed, it's specifically written for GMs and includes lots of different approaches and tools.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I especially like the last two points. But I have problem with the fiest part that seem to me as saying "play to the fan service". I suspect you mean using them to get the rhythm of the game and gming and addding a spark of life to the scenes, but as it's written I don't think it is a good long-term advice. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Sep 21 '18 at 22:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I understand you might think that, the way I expressed it is problematic. This piece of advice specifically addresses improvized scenes, I think tropes are a great tool to fuel them. Obviously, if you're in a position to plan and think a little more, they're not great guidelines. \$\endgroup\$ – Boulash Sep 21 '18 at 22:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ I get it now. Maybe it was the way a approached the answer. I think mentioning it the way you just did would make this part a lot better as an advice. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Sep 21 '18 at 22:26
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Some good answers here, but a few other tricks I used.

TLDR By widening your network, this will make you think of other ways to approach a situation.

Watch TV

Seriously this is one way I improved my craft. Watch a movie with a plot that is not particularly deep. I am still a fan of action, horror, and spy movies. The idea is to watch a lot of different movies to get different ideas.

Yes, this means that sometimes daytime soap operas may provide you with ideas...

Read (non-RPG) books

Read stuff that is not "just" fantasy (or whatever style you are interested). I mean historical fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and even ancient stories/novels (like Dickens, Stocker, Shelley, or Dumas).

I particularly enjoy reading history book, like the History of the Romans, Greeks, Aztecs, Chinese, etc. History will give you a number of ideas and ways things interact together. The farther back you go, the more you can see the ramifications and the fallout of the events!

Read (RPG) books

I love going through my collection of old Dungeon magazines and old (B-series, I-series and X-series AD&D) and just peruse old adventures. They spark new ideas or spin-offs of old ideas.

One such adventure is I12 Egg of the Phoenix, which I have been using and re-using throughout my GMing career. So many great ideas in there (and a few weaker ones too).

Online Plot Generator

This is a fun one I use sometimes... I go to them and generate one idea and try to come up with a short plot using one of my settings. Not long typically 1 paragraph. Great way to pass a Friday afternoon when your workload is light... (not that I know anything about it)

...And then...

Now that you see how different characters behave and react, try to think of your NPCs of acting and doing something rather than trying to imagine what your players will do. By having the NPCs evolving with their plans and then having to change them because of those pesky adventurers keeps your adventure more responsive.

By having a wider net of experience from people, you can create NPCs that are more diverse, more "human", and less egotistical maniacs. Thus, while the PCs may oppose the goals or the means, they may empathize with his reason.

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You don't have to envision each and every possible way that a PC could derail something. Just get in the heads of your NPCs

I know, it seems like it's really weird, but knowing how your NPCs think instead of trying to plan for every eventuality can help you roleplay them when things come out of nowhere or when your players do something completely off-the-cuff, and it can also show the characters that you really care about the world they are in. Consider that your players are doing this all the time and don't even realize it. For them, it's easy: they only have to do it for one character, though they do have to do it for the whole campaign and often change to reflect changes in character.

You as the GM, on the other hand, have to roleplay most or all of the NPCs in your world (thankfully not all at the same time), so you can afford to not roleplay as-deep as a Player Character would.


With Minor NPCs, like thugs, mobs, and shopkeepers, you can often get-by just describing their alignment, goals, and personality, even using a group mentality.

The Angry Mob (CN) is upset with the Party because the PCs are preventing them from attacking the Tiefling community they believe is behind a series of disappearances and murders tied to dark-magic. Tertius the Mayor (LG) acts pretentious, but is insecure and will cow before a suitably-forceful challenge.

This example shows motivations, makes it easy for you to set-up responses in your head, and allows you to know how to easily convey this information to your party (likewise, if the character is secretive, it helps you know what to avoid). So, if your PCs confront the mob as cooler heads, you can just think of how any mob in a movie reacts. If the PCs do something unexpected, like clobbering a bunch of them, the mob will disperse, but the people will transfer their fears onto the PCs, calling them "servants of Devils" and possibly refusing to help them find the real killers. It also shows that they aren't truly evil, and reminds you that powerful-enough good-based arguments will work better than platitudes. ("You'll get to the bottom of this? That's what the Mayor's been saying for months, and has he? No!")

If you want to flesh them out a bit more, individualize them a little bit.

The thugs who attack the PCs want their money, not their lives. Anton (LE), their Leader, has a cruel streak a mile wide while Michael (CN/LE around Anton) is loyal to and takes orders from Anton, but Johan and Andrea (CN/CG) are only doing this to survive, repressing their objections to Anton's excesses. They would help the Party, but they are terrified of Anton.

Consider that, in this example, you've anticipated that the PCs might feel empathetic towards some of the thieves they first encounter, and also have created the potential for them to feel that empathy. You don't have to necessarily write down what they are going to do in any possible circumstance, but just knowing that they're terrified of Anton means that you already know how to flavor anything they do. Also, if your PCs end-up attempting to influence them, you already know how they have to influence each member.


For Major NPCs, such as major antagonists, campaign bosses, or just NPCs who are really important I would go ahead and suggest making entire backstories for your major characters, because they definitely deserve it. Plus, you will probably only be playing a few of them at a time, so it won't be so difficult. Something else I'd highly recommend are "Character Questions," (also known as OC Questions) designed by authors to help other authors with making characters, and playing in an RPG is very, very similar to writing a story when it comes to character design.

This PDF is really good if you want to go extremely deep into your character. It's really (REALLY) long, however, so if you're looking for something shorter I'd recommend either of these two D&D-specific character question sets.

For example, the Arch-Magos Eluthrina (CE) was a good mage who travelled far down the path of things Man was Not Meant to Know. Where she once called rains and sun to ensure a perpetual bounty, she now sends storms and fire to destroy without pattern, leaving some patches of crops standing in otherwise barren fields or blowing-out specific windows, seemingly without any rhyme or reason but her own agenda... or that of a being much worse.

One thing I'd immediately suggest doing in this case would be to tie her to an "Greater Old One" (3rd Ed has a lot of these, or you can design your own), as if she was a Warlock of that Pact, to represent its corruption (and possible extra powers). Whether that being directly controls her or if she is just heavily-corrupted by the influence of that being is up-to you, as is whether she can be restored to sanity, or if she'll ever be the same again. This can be used to help guide her actions from being completely unpredictable (which often comes-across as arbitrary) to having some sinister pattern (which fits the theme of the overall campaign).

Then, I'd think about what caused her to fall? Did she actually make a pact with a lost deity (and why)? Did a path of study reveal to her some horrific truth that shattered her mind and sanity and opened her consciousness to the influence of some ancient power (and is it reversible)? Does she carry some artifact from where a long-dead god was felt so close that the very ground warped from its presence, which flows through her and twists her into something very different? Is she trapped in an endless illusion (a la Mad Hatter) where she thinks she is doing one thing while she is actually doing something else?

The point of all these steps is to make two things easier:

  • Roleplaying the character
  • Designing encounters

If you know the ins and outs of your major characters, you can think of how they plan to influence the world, and how they will react to the unpredictable influences of the Party. You can also begin planning a boss encounter from the very beginning, which is very important to the story as a whole. It wouldn't do, after all, to have planned your NPCs for a fight at the end only to have to change to a puzzle which would make all the magic weapons and combat-oriented information basically worthless.


One last thing I'd have you consider is that this works for entire towns and countries, or even unpopulated areas, as well. If you run a campaign for Hillsfar, for example, you can expect the people to be distrustful of or even outright hostile towards non-Humans. That is going to be a major plot-point for anyone who exists in Hillsfar or its surrounding area.

Meanwhile, even a wasteland can have personality. If your wasteland was the site where an ancient and powerful demon fell, your PCs might see demonic specters at night, or find that the place has an unnatural connection to evil and whispers into their heads, or they might look up at the sky at night to see, instead of their night sky, the fire and smoke of the Abyss.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep, this gets to the heart of things. You don't need to write a script for every single thing that could ever happen - you just need to get in the NPC's head, and figure out their general personality, beliefs, goals, what they care about, etc. That helps inform your decisions on how they might react to any given situation. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 22 '18 at 3:33
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Instant DMing

First of all Benjamin I'll say this: Regardless of how much you practice, how much you know your players, or how much you develop your craft (and there were some great suggestions presented earlier) your players will always surprise you...well, at least one will in my 25+ experience. She always foiled my nefarious plans! :) It is a talent, but it's also a skill that can be honed. The longer you play/DM, the easier it becomes. Your players keeping you on your toes forces you to think quickly and hopefully creatively. Don't be too hard on yourself if your "off-the-cuff" reactions aren't award winning.

When you know there's a hardcore encounter coming up (you could plan ahead for this) think of ways to seamlessly nudge your players in the direction they need to go in order to preserve the narrative. Having an NPC played by you in the group can make that possible but don't over-use that NPC.

It's difficult to give you a definitive answer due to the fact that each DM is different as is each player. Practice, practice, practice. Keep a note pad and pen close at hand ALWAYS. Write everything related to your campaign or D&D ideas in general on that notepad...regardless of whether you ever use it or not. It will stimulate your creativity and give you a reservoir of ideas from which to draw.

Best of luck my fellow DM!

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