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Mastering Improvisation

Our games are live, interactive stories - and many people compare it to acting, whether in films or on stage. And like the actors on stage, players and (especially) GMs must learn to improvise. And what is improvisation? It is the art of thinking on your feet and adapting to the situation at hand.



This blog is a guide to both players and GMs alike, on how to hone your improv skills, drawing inspiration from the world of acting and theatre. (As some of you may know, I've written about the "Prep GM" and the "Improv GM" in the past, and this is building on that).


The Essence of Theatre - in a Role Playing Game?

Much like actors have to respond when something unexpected happens (and how we get many of the best scenes, like Indiana Jones shooting his Swordfighting opponent - because he was ill on set, but it fits the character perfectly), we must be able to adapt our performances on the fly. Since RPGs are so spontaneous and unpredictable, improvisation is a truly valuable tool for GMs and players.


Tips for Players:

Immerse Yourself

In many ways you become your character. You are their emotions. So take some time to consider their quirks, motivations, and how they'd react in any given situation. This approach aligns with method acting, enhancing your immersion in the story. It'll also enable you to almost "predict" how your character will react in a given situation.


Listen and React

Just as an actor has to listen to the others on stage, so too must you listen to your GM's descriptions, and what the other players are doing. Reacting authentically (but not "because it's what my character would do" as an excuse to be an asshole) adds depth to your character, and it also helps advance the plot.


Embrace Creative (Weird) Solutions

There is a principle when it comes to games called "Yes, and...". The reason for this is that it encourages you to build on your ideas and those of others. Don't dismiss someone's suggestions just because it's a bit odd, but instead see if you can build on it. Of course, you don't have to embrace "stupid", but sometimes, thinking out of the box is far more fun. If you want a recent example of this, take a look at some of the interactions you can have with the environment in Baldur's Gate 3.


Collaborate with Everyone Else

RPGs are a collaborative storytelling format. You need to leverage the strength and experience (and even expertise) of the other players and the GM. By working together to create your story, and using each other as leaping-off points for the improvisation, you get a better and more fulfilling story.


Tips for the GM:

Story-Flexibility

I almost called this the script, but when you make your stories and adventures you have an idea of how you think it's going to play out. The same goes when someone writes an adventure for your favorite RPG. But it is impossible to predict the behavior of everyone, and unlike a computer game, your tabletop game CAN and SHOULD accommodate someone going off the rails. So be flexible, and allow players to modify your story with their actions.


Know your Setting

Many would interpret this as knowing every nook and cranny of your setting, and spending hours reading. And you CAN do that if you want. But what is more important is that you know the tone and the theme of the setting. By knowing those you avoid situations like having your Vampire Lord being a Dracula Knockoff when you were trying for Leslie Nielsen. (Am I the only one who wants to see a Leslie Nielsen version of Strahd?)


Multi-Dimensional NPCs

NPCs are important to any game as you know. But because there are so many of them, it's sometimes hard to keep track and ensure that they're all unique. The key is that they don't have to be. But they need a single unique trait, which'll keep them memorable. So you could have 2 town guards, both are stoic and quiet and gruff. One however is a dedicated family man and the other swears constantly. Already there they'll seem unique to the players, and you don't have to do more.


The old saying goes "The World is a Stage" but for RPGs, there are multiple worlds and stages, and using improvisation techniques helps keep each unique, fun, and interesting. Embrace the unexpected and enjoy.


See you back next week. :)


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