Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Not-so-Gentle Art of Improvisation

I used to belong to an Improvisational group called "Get A Life". It was a real learning experience for me. Like most GM's I went through a stage where I was extremely anal retentive in the way that I planned and organized my games. I structured things almost to death. I wasn't happy unless I had everything in front of me and was able to find every statistic within seconds. It was far too much work. GMing got to the point where I felt like I was taking a math test.

And I hate math. Hate it to pieces.

These days my style is a bit more relaxed. I think that the measure of a good game system is how easily it can be jettisoned in order enhance play. I've had whole game sessions where there wasn't a single die roll. I still like to have sheets for NPC's but I don't have a fetish about it anymore. I no longer have a nervous breakdown every time a player decides to do something that I haven't planned for.

Improv taught me many things and gave me much greater flexibility in terms of my game play. Hopefully these lesson can help you too.

Warming up

One of the things that you learn in Improv is to ramp up your energy. By ramping up your energy you ramp up the speed at which your brain functions. A typical warm up for me consisted of some physical warm-ups, some stretching and then pound 3-4 caffeinated sodas. Others in my group liked to toss puns back and forth or have a couple of drinks. Whatever works best for you.

As a GM. You are definitely in the position of a performer. Your energy is going to set the tone for the entire game. The game cannot go any faster than you. Plan to be in peak energy by game time. Going to the game in a severe state of sleep deprivation is like playing Russian roulette with your campaign.

Fun is contagious

Plan to have fun. Expect to have fun. Look like you're having fun. Fun, like yawning, is contagious. Get off your duff and walk around the room while soliloquizing.Get active. Do occasionally crazy things. Get into the habit of saying "Show me exactly what you are doing." Smile. Have a good time. If you do, odds are fairly good that your players will too.

This is not to say that players can't have fun even if their GM isn't having any. But they aren't going to have it consistently if their GM is a gloomy gus. Be contagiously fun and your players are going to be hungry for more.


As you get into improv you learn how to communicate with other people almost telepathically. In the improv group, we practiced a lot. Whenever I would tell somebody that I was off to improv practice, invariably some yotz would ask me why I needed to practice. First, It's important to know the games and understand their structure. Secondly, it's important to get to know the other players, so as to be able to gauge strengths, weaknesses,sense and style of humor, Third, it's enables you to get to know how to read somebody's face or body language in order to know whether they can go on or whether they need bailing out. You learn how to figure out ways to kick a game down a path that another player is comfortable with. You also learn what you can use as a default setting in a game.

Such communication is invaluable in a tabletop game where you are working with a Co-GM or in a Larp with multiple Storytellers. There were times when Jenna and I would get together and discuss our metaplots for our respective games and we had played together so long that our nonverbal communication became razor sharp. At times we would pick one another's mental pockets without really trying. Sometimes. I would get this look on my face like; "I know what you're doing." and she would just look at me and say, "It's not what you think it is." This occasionally baffled others.

This sort of communication does not happen overnight...If it even happens at all. But it is worthy goal to strive for. It requires a certain amount of trust and chemistry but can be great in action. Suppose you run the game but you have a player who is great at running combat. Better than you, in fact. Maybe you can hand off to him. Maybe you have a player who is a net runner in a Cyberpunk game and perhaps you have a person who is really good at dealing with that side of the game. Why not send the two of them off to deal with that while you deal with the rest of the party. Heck, you can even get them to do it online so you can monitor them out of game. Less work and more flexibility for you.

Yes and....

One of the first things they teach you in improv is that you should never say "No" or "Yes, But..." The Goal is to always try to say "Yes, and..." In effect always building on what the last person said.

Now, this doesn't always work for GM's because at times it is imperative for the sake of game balance to say "No." occasionally. But the underlying concept can yield interesting results in a good game. There are times when a player will do something that you consider to be stupid or damaging to the plot. The reflex of course is to jump their shit, but stop for a second and think whether you can't have more fun capitalizing on it. It doesn't always work but as time goes on your intuition as to whether or not it will work, will get sharper.

Structure is a balancing act

Improv games have a certain amount of structure to them. There are a certain amount of fixed things and a certain amount of variables. It is very rare for an improv game to have no structure at all. What you get from the audience is always variable. Often times an improv game will have a certain situation or set of rules and then the variable is chosen from what the audience gives the players. (and even that can be regulated with "selective hearing.") Structure is a necessity to improv but it is a careful balancing act. Too little structure and the players can feel like they are at sea and have too many options to choose from. Too much structure and it stops being improv.

This relates directly to GMing. Script too much of the game and the players are going to feel like they are being led around by the nose. They'll look for any way they can to fuck you up out of sheer perversity. Script too little and they'll run in all directions like a pack of toddlers at a 4th of July weenie roast.

My way of scripting has gotten to the point of preparing a single sheet of paper in my day runner with all of the events that I would like to see happen in a given game, I usually keep my computer on during the game so if need to consult my character sheets I can. But I try not to. If I know a certain person will definitely show up, I'll go ahead and print him out. It's O.K. if I don't get to every event on the list. It means that I'll be able to save it for the next game.

If I get stuck during the game I consult my list of events and get back on track. I try to make sure that the events are nonlinear as possible. I also try not to plan how people are going to react to events. It's frankly impossible.

Know when to stop

One of my gifts in improv is the ability to regulate. I have this ability to kick a scene when it's moving slow and end it when it's got a good ending. This is an ability to cultivate. It's better to leave an audience hungry for more than to sate them and then overstuff them. I plan my game, I play out as much of it as I have time and energy for, and then when I feel that the time is right I'll end it. It's better to stop when you have a good ending than to go on and not end as strongly. In Improv the idea is get on, play the game, find a good joke to end on, and get off the stage.

Sono Finito


At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Acid Reign said...

.....We saw an improv show in Chicago last summer, at Comedy Sports, near the Belmont El station. I was resistant, of course, instead wanting to gobble some more of the Windy City's wonderful food, but I was outvoted, in favor of Subway and the show. Bleah...

.....The show was AMAZING! They acted out ideas from the audience, for God's sake, with no rehearsal! I have no earthly idea how an actor gets to that level of proficiency!

.....I can't sit down at a game, whether I'm running or playing. Cup after cup of French Roast doesn't help! Sometimes my pacing drives other players nuts. And it's tough on me while running a game, because I rely heavily on the computer. I did give up dice in Vampire, in favor of VB macro-ed spreadsheets, but only because the White Wolf dice system is so unwieldy! (How many dice have you seen roll up under furniture, delaying a scene?)

.....The new Werewolf game I'm playing recently revealed some novel twists. The storyteller made everyone roll dice for a 4 game year maturation period to determine background changes, marriage, children, etc. He then made everyone make relationship rolls to other pack members and spat out off-the-cuff reasons for the results. He then demanded that we role-play the results. I politely nodded, and thought "what a crock of shit this is, I'm WAYYY past needing dice to determine what my characters do!"

.....And then, it hit me. Am I capable of doing this well? I suppose it's sort like being an actor handed a script. And I was totally lost for a while! This storyteller had come up with interesting twists, of course. Some stoic, uptight characters had affairs. (A couple of metis babies came out of it). One player was told that she'd slept with half the garou in the sept. People developed addictions, lost allies, had influence dry up, etc. And it all suddenly became very interesting, playing my character's reaction to all of this, because I would have never done, as a player, some of the things that had now become a part of my stoic sausage-making/slaughterhouse family blond skinny Get of Fenris mechanic/theurge's history... Like me, only cooler, right? Not now! I'm interested to see where all of this will lead!



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