I often get credit for being a good improvisational GM. The players can take the story in whichever weird, unpredictable direction appeals to them and I can quickly adapt to that situation with NPCs and encounters that seem like they were always supposed to be there. There is a seamlessness to it; a sense that I have considered every possibility beforehand. Of course, that’s not the case at all; I have simply had a lot of practice rolling with the punches. That, and I use a GM technique called 7-3-1.
7-3-1 is… an exercise. I’m hesitant to call it “session prep,” because the point isn’t necessarily to end up with a bunch of notes I can use during the game. Rather, the point of 7-3-1 is to help interrogate my setting so I understand it at an intuitive level. I developed the technique around four years ago using bits of advice from the Vincent Baker game Dogs in the Vineyard, Jared Sorensen’s “Rule of Three,” and an episode of the Jank Cast.
Here’s how it works:
Before a session, I come up with 7 total NPCs, locations, and encounters. I give each of these a motivation. I then come up with 3 sensory details for each that I can describe at the table (sights, smells, sounds, and so forth). Finally, I think of 1 way I can physically embody each at the table (a distinct noise, voice, verbal tic, body posture, mannerism, etc.). I write all these things down.
Here are a couple of examples for a zombie apocalypse setting (2 of my 7 items that I’m going to write):
Charlie Steele, leader of the Decatur survivors
- Motivation: to convince the player characters to join him in his campaign against the Mohawks
- Sensory details: the smell of old cologne; an ill-fitting, frayed suit; the sound of his boot heels clacking on the concrete
- At the table: a soft, lispy tongue
Willowbrook Mall, a makeshift refugee camp
- Motivation: to remind the player characters of what used to be
- Sensory details: towering, plastic palm trees; children playing and crying; refugees dressed in fine clothes scavenged from the department stores
- At the table: loud, boisterous “Ho, ho, ho!” of the man wearing a Santa suit trying to cheer up the children.
Importantly, these 7-3-1 notes don’t necessarily have to “fit” anywhere in the ongoing story, nor do they have to be connected to one another. Remember: the purpose of the 7-3-1 exercise is to interrogate your setting. What do the people look like? What do they sound like? What sorts of places are there? What sorts of dangers can arise? What sorts of things do people want? We’re not creating a campaign world in the traditional sense, with each location and NPC mapped out. We’re answering the question “How does this world respond when the player characters take action?”
Sometimes I have my 7-3-1 notes at-hand when I run the session, sometimes I don’t. If it’s early in the campaign, I might have them available for inspiration, but it’s just as likely I won’t because simply performing the exercise causes a swarm of characters and details to buzz around in my head. When we start playing, I just pluck from my brain whatever feels right in the moment. Perhaps I created a terrific uncle character during my 7-3-1, but the players choose to interact with the grandmother. Well, I’ll just take those cool details from the uncle and slap them on the grandmother. In the Charlie Steele example above, perhaps the players don’t wander over to the Decatur camp like I hoped they would, but instead choose to talk to the man trading guns off the back of his truck. If I am particularly enamored with Charlie’s lispy voice (that I have been practicing all week) maybe I take that element and give it to the gun trader. I can figure out the new way I’m going to embody Charlie later (or never, if it turns out the players don’t give a damn about the Decatur camp, in which case I’ll just keep picking Charlie’s bones for cool details to give to other characters).
At some point after the session, perhaps when I am preparing the next session, I’ll pull out my 7-3-1 notes and revise them. I’ll make adjustments to the items that didn’t turn out exactly as I planned, cross out the items that are no longer relevant or useful, and write new ones so I am back up to 7. If the player characters are moving to a drastically different setting or environment, I’ll do an entirely new 7-3-1.
Being a good improvisational GM takes practice. Sometimes, no matter how much you have thought about your setting, the players are going to stump you. And that’s ok. But if you develop good habits and use techniques like 7-3-1, you’ll get better and better at avoiding those situations. Eventually, you won’t even need 7-3-1; you’ll develop your own toolbox for interrogating the setting, your own methods for creating a seamless world on the fly. And that’s when you’ll know you’re getting to be a really good GM.