I have the feeling that when most people hear the word "improvise," they think of something that is the opposite of planning, as in "I didn't plan for it, I just improvised." In other words, improvising is the same as winging it. Following this logic, improvisation doesn't require work or planning; in many ways it is the opposite.

I think of improvising differently, perhaps because I have been playing music since I was a young child. As a musician, improvisation is an activity that takes skill and practice. To be good at improvisation requires an understanding of music theory (intuitive and cognitive), a good ear, and enough chops (skill on the instrument) to create the appropriate musical sounds on the fly. Each musician develops improvisation skills a bit differently. For me, it comes from time spent mastering various kinds of scales, rhythms and chord progressions (building on the blocks of melody, harmony and rhythm)--that it what I call "practice." It is very similar to drills performed by athletes. And it is different than learning and playing songs--I consider that "rehearsal." Important and necessary, but it doesn't develop me as a musician in the same way that practice does.
Disciplined Practice & Preparation: A Key to Improvisation
I am able to improvise as a musician because I prepare and practice. The musicality of my improvisation is a result of my understanding of music, a trained ear, and enough skill/muscle memory with my chosen instruments to create something interesting in the moment. When I do not put time and effort into practice, I quickly lose my creative edge and I have a harder time playing something interesting when I improvise.

I find the same thing is true when I am running a gaming session. I am able to improvise best when I am well-prepared and I have put in the necessary time to plan. I am able to draw upon the complexities of the world I am creating and the vast resources of gaming community to respond creatively to player activities during a session. That to me is improvising. I am not smart enough to run a good session by winging it any more than I can create an interesting guitar solo without practice.

I relearn this every time I run a session without preparation, as I have done the last few weeks in our Montporte Campaign. I have been run ragged by work and have nothing left in the tank to devote to preparation and planning. The less I prepare and plan and am forced to improvise, the less I am able to improvise effectively. I just end up drawing blank after blank. I notice myself struggling; it is probably not apparent to the players in any given session. However, there is a cumulative impact on not preparing that makes the sessions less interesting and challenging for players.

Like any analogy, there is a point where the analogy between playing an RPG and playing music breaks down. However, because both music and RPGs have elements of performance art to them and they are also typically group activities, there are a number of analogies that can be drawn. Improvisation is one such analogy.


  1. I haven't noticed the struggle, so you must be doing alright. :)

    I agree with what you say about improvisation though. I think another analogy that works well is teaching, which is also performance-based.

    There's a long-term build-up of skills, compilation of activity types, knowledge of the subject matter, etc. that take place over years of practicing the profession. A new teacher who tries to "improvise" without drawing up a lesson plan in advance will always fall on his face. He may think he didn't fall on his face (since he doesn't know enough to even realize it), but any veteran teacher observing him objectively will tell you otherwise. A veteran teacher who tries to do the same may be able to get away with it if he has a substantial enough battery of presentation and activity types in his mental baggage along with a deep knowledge of the subject matter (so he's not truly winging it, since he's working from a solid foundation). However even that tends to be very "iffy." Most solid teaching improvisation comes when you actually have a well thought out lesson plan, and the class decides to take things in an unanticipated direction. But you have your original ideas to serve as a foundation and framework to give shape and support as you head off in that new direction, and that makes all the difference.

    In my experience the worst teachers come into class with their plan on a post-it note (or with no written plan at all). The best teachers have extensive notes (often several pages), that they only occasionally consult. I've never personally seen an exception to this rule.

  2. How much prep do you need. You know we always turn left. Plan accordingly man.

  3. I find the same thing when I do my interviews, actually. If I have a discussion guide, I can improvise and depart from it easily. If I do not, the conversation is rambling and tangential. There's no touchstone to keep the thing circling the right drain, so to speak.

  4. It's also important to remember that what you practice is what you'll play. Curiously, with a few rules, you are more free to improvise. For example it's easy to create a memorable melody on the 1st (high e) and 2nd (b) strings of Position 4. You can do plenty with 6 notes and it's good practice to try as many different phrases as possible before moving elsewhere. By limiting yourself to those 6 notes you are forcing yourself to focus. That focus promotes creativity. You can take what you learn from that exercise all over the fretboard. Have fun!