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How To Improvise Details On The Fly

How to Improvise Details on the Fly

We’ve said it before, but it’s true: improvisation is one of the most important skills a GM can learn, and it’s one of the hardest to learn. That being said, we have a few good tips to keep in mind when improvising details for your game!

Whether it’s an NPC, a piece of loot, or a location like an inn, players rely on the GM to provide them with a vivid picture of what their characters see. Luckily, this can be accomplished with just a few well-placed details–here’s some advice on how to do it!

Create Character Details Using Funnels

When you’re improvising character details on the fly, think of it like a funnel: describe the big stuff first, then work your way down to the smaller details. It’s usually best to start with the obvious stuff (like race, age, and sex), then give some hints about the person’s occupation–are they an artisan, a merchant, a criminal, or a laborer?

Once you’ve figured out an NPC’s occupation, it’ll help narrow down what they’re wearing and how they act toward the party–a criminal might be charming, while a farmer might be laconic. Finally, giving a character one to two unique details, like a distinctive dagger in their belt or a jug of moonshine, can help flesh them out and spur roleplay.

Items Tell Tales

When it comes to items, you really only need to come up with one interesting or distinctive feature. If you can, try to make that detail give some hint about the item’s history: a scorch mark on the hem of a cloak and the faint smell of smoke might hint that the previous wearer escaped a fire, while a long scratch on a sword could be left over from a battle.

Another trick is to ask strategic questions. Let’s say a player has found a cloak and shortsword in a pile of loot and asks what they looks like. At this point, you can ask the player “What exactly do you want to know about X?” Depending on what a player is expecting to find, you can base your improv off their expectations.

Focus on a Location’s Atmosphere

Locations, whether they’re taverns or ancient ruins, should evoke a mood or feeling when you describe them. Before you go into describing potential points of interest (like an innkeeper leaning in the corner or a lever on the wall), give your players a sense of the atmosphere–is it lively and warm or solemn and quiet?

Try to focus on one or two senses, like sound and smell. Smell in particular is a powerful descriptive tool–if players smell something pleasant, it’s an easy indicator that they should be at ease in that place. Smells can also give hints about what to expect in a location–the smell of sulfur at the edge of a wizard’s workshop means there may be explosives or fire.

Need Help With Your Improv?


The LoreSmyth has a whole range of Dungeon Discovery decks that can help generate loot and random trinkets for your players to find! Each card has four items and four descriptors that can be combined in different ways, allowing you to create unique finds for your players!

Christopher Mahon

Chris Mahon is a fantasy writer, speaker, and essayist living in Brooklyn, New York. His non-fiction work has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, SyFy WIRE, Outer Places, The Portalist, and others. He's also spoken at New York Comic-Con, Columbia University, and the Glasgow International Fantasy Convention. In his free time he runs The Occult Triangle Lab, a blog on trigonometry, fantasy, and ungodly amounts of milk.

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