The importance of taking breaks for improvisational GMing

This weekend I ran a session of Blades in the Dark for my group, and realized the importance of breaks when improvising.

In general, I feel like I’m not great at improvising. I have a tendency to spout things that don’t make a lot of sense when closely examined, or that push the fiction in weird directions that are hard to reel back in. This weekend, I hadn’t prepped as much for the score as I would have liked. The high concept was that the crew would try to take Nightmarket’s Jewelry District as turf from their main rival. I had outlined some hooks and some complications from rivals, but didn’t have the energy to go into detail.

During the session, the crew’s Spider rolled a critical on a gather info to schmooze info from a flunky. I looked down at my notes and froze. What I had written down was way too complicated and hard to make visible: the jeweler in question had allied with the rival crew because he had a secret past they helped bury. If they buried the evidence, how was my crew supposed to find it? At the last second, I improvised that the jeweler acted as a fence for the rivals. The players immediately jumped on that hook as the focus for their score. Which meant it was something I hadn’t prepared at all.

Once the players came up with their plan, I called a short break for “loading time” to go over it. My nerves were jangling and my mind was going in circles. It took a few minutes to calm down enough that I could think through the situation. I returned and we continued.

The plan was to find out when stolen goods were about to be delivered, and tip off the Bluecoats so they could catch them red-handed. The first part went smoothly due to several rolls of 6 on key actions. That put me in a pickle. If I let the plan play out as they had described, the score would be trivial. On the other hand, they had been taking defensive actions, so I didn’t want to invalidate all that effort. I called for another break.

During the break I went over the two options in my head. I decided that they had raised enough suspicion to put the rival crew on the defensive, and that since the rivals were also competent scoundrels, they would have contingencies for risky situations like handing over stolen goods. However, the rivals weren’t so suspicious that the whole thing was a trap: there would indeed be stolen goods for the Bluecoats to catch them with. I decided that was a good compromise that would provide plausible opposition without invalidating their preparation.

From there, the rest of the score played out wonderfully. I froze again when the Slide revealed his disguise, trying to think of a clever contingency. I couldn’t think of anything really clever, so I did the first thing I thought of, which was to have them drop a smoke bomb. There’s a suggestion for improvising, which is to say the first thing you think of because that’s usually something that follows naturally from what’s been established. In this case, “suddenly smoke bomb” made sense to everyone and gave me room to think of next moves as the crew reacted.

Overall, the session went well, and recognizing that I needed time to back off and think over things was key to that.

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