The Architect DM: Winging It

Let me know if this situation sounds familiar to you: You’re the DM/GM for your gaming group and you’ve just wrapped up an adventure, and you have at least a whole week until the next one. You’re committed to planning well in advance and making sure you’ve worked everything out well in advance of the next adventure. You sit down the next day, or even that very night, and start the adventure planning process. Maybe you start with a recap of the last adventure, or by listing the continuing plot seeds from the previous sessions and loose ends. Over the next few days you stay on track but before you know it the next adventure is looming and you feel like despite your best efforts the game is still not as ready as you feel it should be. Stress builds, you think about postponing the game or suggesting you all play board games instead, but you hunker down and keep planning. The day of the game comes and you’re still not “ready”, you should have started even earlier and planned more in advance!

This situation has happened to me plenty of times, and I’m willing to bet it’s happened to many of you as well. I stopped the anecdote there intentionally because that is where it can branch in several different directions. If you’re particularly stressed (most likely by things other than the game you’re running, even if you don’t realize it) then you’ve already postponed the game or suggested something else to do instead. Maybe you sat down to watch some TV in the morning and held out to the very last moment, then just as your friends arrive and everything is being set up for the game you pull the plug and suggest something else. Maybe your players are fantastic (like many of mine have been in the past) and offer you so much encouragement and potential disappointment that you get a second wind (pardon the unintentional 4e pun) and run the game you’d been planning. Or perhaps you decide you’ve planned about as much as you ever manage to plan and go ahead with the adventure, improvising and winging it to the best of your potential.

The Genesis of Adventure

If you’re anything like me than all of the above situations are fairly familiar to you. No matter how much I prepare, plan, or plot there is a decent part of me that feels unprepared for running any given RPG session. I’ve had to cope with and adjust to this fact and in the end it has led to me becoming more comfortable at winging adventures and doing my own share of improvisational DMing. However, as I’ve gotten more experience at this process I’ve noticed some striking similarities to other processes that I’ve learned and read about. Specifically, my advice today relates the process of planning and running an RPG adventure to the process for generating ideas. Even more specifically, in the process of generating ideas one of the most important steps is taking time to relax, distract yourself, and partake in other activities and let your unconscious mind take over the process.

You might have noticed in the stories above I included one of my personal favorite activities before running an adventure, which is watching TV or a movie the morning of the game. Often I spend the night before I run a game getting my preparations sorted out (most of the time this is even the first I’ve planned for the game anyway). Once I’ve processed the relevant materials for the game and brainstormed some for how I think the adventure will progress, I then have the entire night of sleep and the morning after to let my unconscious mind take over the process. The result is that by the time the adventure is set to begin I feel wholly unprepared and am ready to ‘wing it’ but if I really sat down and reflected I’m much more prepared than I realize. My mind has been working on the various elements of the adventure while I’ve been distracting myself and it generally makes for a better adventure as I can come up with things on the fly that are new to me at the same time as they are new to my players.

The Importance of Relaxation

The most important part I’m trying to stress is not to spend every last minute up until your adventure begins trying to cram and get those last minute preparations together. Give yourself at least a half an hour, though preferably more like 4-6 hours, to give up the reigns of planning to your unconscious mind and I am willing to bet you’ll come up with ideas a lot more easily than if you spend all of that time actively hitting your head against the wall trying to get things together at the last minute. This can be as simple as making a list of the major NPCs, locations, or quests and reviewing it before you go to sleep or watch a movie. You might find yourself making connections or coming up with new possibilities out of the blue that you never would have thought of if you’d be actively “planning” during that time.

If you’re not that into procrastination like I am, but you still have trouble preparing for your adventures, then go through this kind of process every evening, sleep on the ideas, and do some quick planning in the morning when you wake up. Then go about your day normally, and come back to your notes in the evening again. If you go through this process over the course of a few days in the week or more between your game sessions, you should be able to generate some interesting ideas and even develop them more fully than you would if you just sit down for the same amount of time at once.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM series.


  1. while I agree with your statements here with RPG’s in general, D&D 4e does not really allow the DM to “wing it” very much. the reliance on maps, miniatures, and leveled stats for monsters and such makes it very difficult to wing it. yes I could bring a white board, or a battle mat and just wing that part…but the miniatures part is difficult to come up with on the fly. my games aren’t held at my house unfortunately, so unless I bring all of my miniatures to the game…I won’t be able to wing it even I did possess loads of creative juices and experience.

    The other problem for me is that I like to have the crazy maps and 3D elements that require extra planning. Maybe that is the root of my problem though 🙂

  2. Chow'd Mouse says:

    This is true of a lot of situations as well and is good general advice. If you’ve ever studied (crammed!) for a test, prepared a work presentation, taught a class, etc. this technique of letting your mind relax before the “big event” is always a good plan.

  3. @Grumpy

    Or miniatures are your problem. I get by with a dozen or two generic bad-guys. Another DM gets by with a box of (blessedly flat) tokens from MV and MV:NV. Both methods use a lot less space than carrying an entire collection of miniatures, and still let you “wing it”.

    Picking out monsters and leveling them? Pick a stat block you like of the level you want; change the name and the fluff on the powers, maybe change one of them mechanically. (Fighting kobolds but like that dragonborn’s block? Swap out breathe attack for shifty. Done.)

    Maps? A good collection of tiles (Wizard’s branded or hand-drawn (3×5 index card = 3×5 terrain tile, 100 for $1)) can go a long way there (and they’re compact too, like the tokens.)

    “Winging it” may take some prep in 4e to get the tactical components, but you do it once, and you can use it as many times as you need to in the future.

  4. TheMainEvent says:

    Winging can be easier in a developed game with a bit of plot into it already. Characters have motivations and settings have already been developed. Sometimes, lack of planning leads to a very nice sandbox diversion where the Players can direct the action into some parts of the world that they find particularly interesting.

  5. @ Mudlock

    Heck, who needs tokens. I have so many dice sets lying around that I just use those. I grew up playing White Wolf and have numerous d10 sets of all the same style or color pattern, so I just use those to depict different groups of monsters. Red may be goblin archers, blue goblin warriors, etc. Then the players just tell me their attacking blue 4 and I know what stats to use.

    I’ve also been drawing my own battle maps for years now. Cheap graph paper + a box of crayons = almost as much fun as running the actual game. It actually surprised me to realize I had missed drawing and coloring like I had when younger. The players don’t care that it’s a cheap map. It’s in color and has squares to move around. And it’s fully customizable and reusable, especially if you make some mobile pieces, like tables and such from 3×5 cards and place them in different places around the room.

  6. Yeah, regarding winging it in 4e – I have a sheet that lists the defenses / HPs / damage for monsters 1-30, minion-solo. I usually use an at-will and a limited attack for most standard monsters. Elites add one recharge, and a “feature” based on their role. Solos get a bit more than that, especially immediate interrupts/reactions, and bloodied effects.Sprinkle status effects. Include racial effects you are aware of for verisimilitude.

    You should crib and reskin freely from the compendium, if you are a DDI subscriber, or any monster books if you aren’t.

    Almost all modifiers end up being +/- 2 or 5, if you need something on the fly.

    I recommend getting a few sets of colored tokens or dice as opposed to miniatures. GamingPaper allows you to sketch up and save maps, though a whiteboard, washable battlemat, map tiles or flip mats (or any combination) can help you whip up terrain quickly if you don’t care about keeping it around afterwards.

    Cheers and good luck.

  7. My winging it days are far and few between. Lately, we’ve even postponed sessions rather than attempt a half-arse game.

  8. Maybe “winging it” has a negative connotation. Meticulous planning didn’t make our game any more fun, and as a DM, I can’t predict all of my player’s actions, so anything that helps me roll with their punches helps out. I guess the obvious truth is that every DM, and by extension group, has a different playstyle.
    That having been said, @Ben, we’ve definitely had to shelve a few sessions when there wasn’t a good scenario/plot ready. I agree that there’s little point to playing a game when people aren’t enjoying it.

  9. I happily sub minis for one another. I usually try to pick things that are the same size and/or have the same number of feet on the ground, that sort of thing, but otherwise I wing it.

    I’ve found 4e to be pretty “wing it” friendly. As Mudlock and DBV suggest above, reskinning 4e monsters is quite doable. In addition, this practice can be useful to keep the metagamers at your table at bay.

    All that said, I’m not comfortable either as a player or GM winging it in-session. If my GM is winging the whole session, I’m usually not as into it. I’m less than immersed when my GM is thumbing through the monster manual saying, “Uh, it’s reptilian, uh. Er, it’s breathing flames. Uh, no, hang on. Frost! It has a frost aura.” As a GM, “winging it” for me is making do with an hour or so quick prep before a session, instead of my usual four hours for four hours model.

  10. I’ll second that ‘winging it’ is a bit of a misnomer, and I think that is precisely the point of Bartoneus’ article. Truly winging it, having no idea what you’re going to do, is a universally bad idea. However, letting your subconscious do the work for you in between games will prepare you more than you realize.
    I like to write out a list of NPCs’ names, and a sentence on what they look like (secondary characters the PCs might have to deal with) a few days prior to a game. I think about it off and on but don’t sit down and write detailed descriptions. When it comes to game day I usually find I know what the NPCS personalities are, how to characterize them and how they will react to the PCS.

  11. There’s definitely something to be said for two types of game prep as a DM/GM: micro and macroprep. Getting ready to run combats is micro, while macro is more about the story and campaign direction and developments.

    You want to explore and manage both, mentally and on paper/screen, in a balanced way – you know, so you don’t burn out or your head doesn’t explode 🙂