When a veteran Game Master is asked by an up and coming GM what is the one tip they would give the conversation goes something like this: the seasoned GM will say something to the effect of, “be prepared to change your plans,” or “don’t get too attached to your story, because players will wreck it.”, then they will get a far off look as they are transported back to that one time that their carefully crafted narrative, which they had spent hours carefully constructing, was dashed to pieces by the players doing something unexpected or weird. Theatrics aside, being flexible enough with your narrative to allow players to feel as though they have agency is such an incredibly essential skill to have. A GM can get good at weaving an adaptive narrative if given enough time practicing improvised storytelling, but until then there tools that can be used.
The first tool is change your approach to preparing for a session. In most forms of media the narrative is ultimately controlled by a single person. In a tabletop role playing game the narrative is controlled by the players as well as the GM. This means the first key to being an adaptive GM is to understand that the story isn’t linear in the same way as most media. In the blog titled “The Dungeon Master Paradox” I do a deep dive into this dynamics between the player and the GM. The main idea is that as a Game Master, you are less a master and more a facilitator. Preparing with this in mind will make it much easier to prepare for the group to be unpredictable.
While player agency, and the spontaneity it comes with, is very important, it doesn’t mean you need to prepare for every possibility. It is important to prepare challenges rather than endpoints. As a GM you should be striving to create scenarios for the players to be creative and also be the heroes of the story. An endpoint requires that the players follow a specific sequence of events, while a challenge can be picked up and put in front of the players no matter where they end up going. An example of an endpoint would be a boss fight with an alchemist in his lab. You might prepare the different potions they have access to and the traps they might activate and the escape route they will take. But what if the players find out the alchemist gets supplies at a shop and confront them there. You now aren’t prepared for the fight to unfold there. If you were preparing that alchemist as a challenge, you might have thought about their motivations and assets, and thus would know how they would react to being attacked at the store or anywhere else the players come up with.
Another tool that is invaluable for being able to adapt to the chaos that is player choice is Bard’s Tongue. This is a perk from the White Wolf games that I use in almost every game I play. The idea is to use the player’s speculation and musings in the game. An example would be if the players hear voices on the other side of a door and they say something like, “Oh man I bet there are like 30 orcs on the other side of the door.” There are now 30 orcs on the other side of the door. This makes your job as a GM easier and it makes the players feel clever because they were able to see through your plan. If acting on their speculation is too difficult then you can ignore it, but if it would be interesting or fun there is nothing that says you can’t make what they say true. Ultimately the thing to remember is that they have no idea what you have prepared.
Not all spontaneity tools need to be conceptual, some can be physical. A list of challenges and scenarios are useful as a direct reference or simply as a safety blanket. Knowing that no matter what the players do you have something to challenge them can be very reassuring. These lists could be random encounter tables, rumor tables, townspeople tables or anything else that has many different options the players might encounter. Many of these tables are available in books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything or Table Fables. But making the to enhance the atmosphere of your game can be a great exercise to help you flesh out the world the players are in. You could also use them to subvert your players’ expectations. Not every encounter is with an enemy.
The Game Master Screen is also an invaluable tool. It is your safe haven. You can retreat there when you have no idea what happens next. It is your shield from the chaos of the game. For the players it is a magical portal into your imagination, from within which sprouts their story. A map that his hidden from the players can be manipulated and changed to fit the scenario. If the session is getting close to the end and they haven’t gotten to the final room of the dungeon, that final room can be just on the other side of then next door they open. That is to say that only once something has come out from behind the screen is it immutable. Until then your plans can be changed to fit the scenario.
While practice is ultimately the thing that will make you
a good at being spontaneous. In the meantime, remember these tools to help you: prepare with challenges in mind rather than endpoints, using the players speculation as inspiration, having tables of possible challenges and that you can always retreat behind your GM Screen for safety. If all else fails, remember the principle of improvisation, “Yes, and…”. The players are going to mess with your plans, so be prepared to be spontaneous.