Gygax on Improv
Here’s a little bit from Cheers Gary that struck a chord:
The main difference between formal creation of material and doing it as one serves in the role of GM is spontaneity, that allowing the material created on the spot to better suit the player group and the situation at hand. Otherwise, one must set forth the material to be played and recite it more or less verbatim, forcing the group to its mold. The creative demand is much the same, but the free-style method usually allows for more enjoyment for all participants.
I recommend it to all GMs able to manage such playing style.
The basic idea here in Gygax’s post is something I’ve talked about before, and a lesson I originally learned from James M. However, I think the concept is still foreign enough to modern GMs that they assume it’s crazy or only for the truly masterful GMs. Gygax’s own words seem to argue for the latter, encouraging the style for those “able to manage such playing style.” However, I like to focus on an earlier point in his statement, that “the creative demand is much the same.”
I might even argue that it’s less. I spend so little time preparing for game day these days that some times I don’t even realize it’s Wednesday and a game is happening until the middle of the afternoon. Occasionally I have felt like I need to prep some material, but it’s almost always been a bad idea. It’s so much better to not decide on anything, and make it up as we go. And it really isn’t that hard!
I’m not saying you don’t need any material. A couple loosely stocked dungeons that can be easily placed anywhere in your world are good to have on hand. Personally I really like writing these in the one-page style, as it forces me to devote only a line or two to each room. I give no thought to what the players might do, or even how I might use the material I create or read. Yeah, I said read, there’s a lot of good printed material out there that’s easy to adapt into your world. Or if stocking your own dungeons, remember that odd items and bits of furniture are always good to include. Just chuck stuff in there and when the players show interest in something, then worry about what it really is and why it’s important. While playing just remember what Jeff Rients said: always keep the main thing the main thing.
Even now a year and a half later it feels counter-intuitive to me, so I’m sure if you haven’t tried it you’re thinking the same thing. All I can say is that you have to trust me on this. Let go and set yourself free.