Plan? What plan? I’m making this up as I go along!
For me, improvisation is one of the things that makes role-playing games so fun. It is precisely because we and the other players improvise, (and of course that the fickle hand of fate speaks to us through the dice or other means), That we don’t know what is going to happen during a session. We literally play to find out. We may have the intention to play to create intentionally, and that still relies upon improvisation to a large degree.
My friends and I talk about this subject quite a bit. Anthony frequently talks about “preparing to improvise“. That is to say, by preparing facts about the game world, the game master can set themselves up to be able to improvise in the moment because they have a firm foundation upon which to stand. They are able to improvise in other ways rather than making something up out of thin air. It certainly gives the game master of the opportunity to role-play characters even though it’s not quite the same as being a player. When you know who the nonplayer characters are, it can be very easy to improvise their actions in a manner that makes sense. It’s a lot tougher when you have to make them up on the spot. Likewise when scenarios and situations already exist and are in motion the game master has put themselves in a position to improvise what happens next based upon the actions of the players and upon how all these moving parts are interacting.
Just today Eloy talked about the rut that we can sometimes fall into when we find ourselves improvising the same old similar things over and over. As a game master we have our own favorite tropes and sensibilities and if we are not careful it’s easy to find ourselves improvising in familiar patterns. Likewise, if we tend to play the same characters, we can become just as predictable. He mentioned that he particularly likes to use an oracle of some sort. Random tables, dice, something which prompt him to improvise in a different manner by giving him information and constraints. It’s very easy to see how something like fantasy flight games Star Wars gives all of the players prompts for creativity, but quite often some of these prompts exist in other systems. I agree that it can be a lot of fun to use outside help. He also mentioned the benefits of watching each other improvise and picking up ideas from each other.
Depending upon your preferences and sensibilities there are games which allow a lot more free-form improvisation. Reality can be less stable, so there exists the need to take notes if you want to know what’s going on and not contradict each other! This sort of play can be quite entertaining as well. In a way, it’s not terribly different than the game master who improvises everything on the spot with no preparation. It just involves collaboration from a lot more people. One certainly has to be careful to not fall into the same old predictable ideas in both cases.
All caveats aside, it’s terribly rewarding to be in a group of people where we never really know what the others are going to say or do next. very often we don’t know either because we are responding to the constantly evolving situation and dynamics of the game in the moment. All of us are improvising, all the time. We have guides such as the established game world reality, the genre, who the characters are, the results of the dice, culture of play for that group, what just happened, and so forth. It’s been my experience that rather than hinder us those constraints and those guidelines allow us to improvise more effectively and with less effort.
Structure can set us free.