Improvement of one’s game s is often accomplished through some up front mental and social interaction, in advance of the game play. It bears repeating, however, that the purpose of it all is to have fun. It’s great to work out the best systems for managing your characters, and the initiative order, and it’s wonderful to have a dynamic character that feels and acts real, but if all that doesn’t add up to a great gaming experience, something is fundamentally wrong.
A good Dungeon Master will typically plan out the evening’s combat and non-combat encounters; some have the entire campaign charted out in advance. There are times, however, when good planning isn’t enough to keep the game fun. To compensate, it’s important to be purposely flexible. The key is to be clear about what each portion of the experience should accomplish. If the group is exploring a goblin infested dungeon, the purpose is probably simple: each encounter will illustrate how dangerous the hold is by sapping PC resource and elevating the sense of risk while they proceed toward the boss. With that focus in mind, the DM can adapt the encounters at the table to maximize the fun. As always, keep an eye on your players’ affects. If they start to disengage, reflect on your purpose. Are they getting bored with exploring the goblins’ cavern? If the feeling of risk and anticipation wanes, it’s probably best to simplify the wandering and push the next fight to them.
On the other side of the spectrum, if the players (and you) are having fun, stick to it. When the group responds positively to a location, NPC or encounter, look for ways to keep it around. In my monthly game, my players found themselves in a small pocket plane far from home, and became very concerned about exchanging their money for currency of their current realm. They went so far as to negotiate with the banker for a better rate. While this was not part of my plan, and it had no bearing on the plot, they were enjoying themselves, it helped give the group a shared identity, and it added to the depth of the setting (who knew that there even were money exchangers?).
These principles apply to players as well. When part of your character’s history grows tiresome, let it drop away. If something more interesting emerges, keep it going. If your group is obviously entertained when your rogue picks the pocket of every wealthy merchant, keep doing it (in moderation). When your fellow players get annoyed or bored, it’s time to let that habit drop away.