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The Improv List

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Hey it’s been a wild 2020, eh? I almost forgot about this blog. It just hasn’t felt like the time to write about roleplaying games. But maybe writing about bullshit is what we all need right now?

Anyway, I’m here to talk about a preparation method I use when running games that seems to be different than stuff I’ve seen in many places. I call it…

The Improv List

The improv list is a bulleted list, kept digitally or on paper, that contains a number of thoughts, ideas, or questions about an ongoing game. You should begin writing things on it during character creation, and continue adding things to it during each session, between sessions, or whenever the mood strikes you.

What belongs on the list? Literally anything game related at all. If it’s in your head, put it down. When you wonder if the alien murder machine can experience true love, write that down. When you decide that the immortal queen’s chambers are in a time bubble moving at 300 times the speed as the outside, write that down. When you want to know a character’s favorite food, or what color eyes their father had, or what their first kill felt like, or how many goblins it would take to carry them overhead in a chair…. write it all down.

But don’t worry, there’s more to this. It’d be pretty dumb if my method was just “write everything down”. No, there are two additional phases to this…

Post-Session Scanning

Whenever a session comes to an end, it’s time to scan the list. Look at what you have on the list and recklessly cross off things that don’t matter or are completely irrelevant. Of course the space marine won’t find his mother, that character died. It doesn’t matter what it would take to convince Zerlgur to help them, she’s been captured by the queensguard. Remove these things.

But, if removing them inspires you to add all new things, that’s great. Add more to the list too. Or even just edit things in place instead of removing them. Maybe it’s not the Minister who drank the shrinking potion, but the Archduke, and his husband is pissed! Edit!

Your list should react to the session. It should change and vary in response to play. And then you can use…

The List as Prep

Before each session, read through the list. You can add and edit if you feel so inspired, but that’s not the core activity here. Instead what we’re doing is pulling out the things we think might be interesting in the upcoming session. Try to get 2-4 things which really sing to you. Oh hell yeah she’s going to reveal she’s really three dogs in an oversized ball gown. And I wonder how they’ll deal with the attack on the dirigibles while they’re protecting the orphanage.

Prep whatever is necessary for your system, but lean towards the minimum necessary. Over preparing is, in my experience, a surefire way to ensure your prep doesn’t get used.

Now, you’re in a state where you have whatever mechanisms your system wants you to have, you’ve read your list, you’ve thought about things you want to present to the characters…. and they juke left and do something unexpected. That’s great! That’s why we play these games, right?

How do you react to it? Look through the list and find something relevant. Use the statistics and numbers you prepared for something else. Instead of fighting the knight errant they challenged the councilor to a game of shinga? Cool, use the knight’s weapon skills and abilities as the councilor’s skills and strategy at they game they’re playing.

When they take an unexpected turn, turn into it and drift with ’em. At least, that’s what I do…


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