Improv in Role Playing Games

Most people probably don’t listen to as many podcasts about RPG’s as I do. But if you’ve even watched Critical Role or found a podcast you like, they might talk about how they are using improv techniques or how improv has made them a better role player. I wanted to write a little bit about how it can make you better and about how it is different as well.

Image Source: Wizards

Let’s start out with a bit of the negative. This can be delving too far into the concept that they like to pull into RPG’s from Improv of “Yes – And”. Quickly, “Yes – And” is the concept in improv that you let things roll. When someone throws out an idea, you roll with it and there is no such thing as a bad idea. Now, this is a bit oversimplification of the concept, but it often gets pulled into RPG’s. In theory, this seems like a good idea, it allows for creativity in your game, but there’s an issue with it. And it’s an issue with balance in the game. I’ve seen the concept of “Yes – And” exploited for some people who are too afraid to run their own game for fear of stepping on someones fun, and eventually you are no longer playing an RPG, or if it’s a podcast, it’s really hard to listen to.

So, how do you balance that out so that your game doesn’t go off the rails?

Firstly, I think that ‘Yes – And” is something that you can use in bits and pieces, it just won’t work every time. Or if you want to go to a point where you are really playing a game that is focused on that, pick a rules light game and is meant to be silly or absurd. A game like Fiasco is a good example of a game where it can be as absurd as possible as things fall apart and while there are dice, they are used exceedingly sparingly, to vaguely shape the story.

Next is a reframing of how we talk about improv in RPG’s. There isn’t a one to one correlation in my mind between the two. In stand-up improv (which is what I’m referring to when I say improv here), it’s about content generation and you start with the vaguest of concepts, often a place and a situation, that come up on the fly. That isn’t how most RPG’s work. Again, there are rules light ones like Fiasco or Dreamchaser that are much more about on the fly content generation, but when you have someone running a game who has put time into it, a lot of the improv has to change into something that is a bit more focused. One of the best examples I can give of this is a spoiler for a recent film, so let’s go back a little bit further. In Princess Bride, Billy Crystal, playing Miracle Max, improvises most of his lines. And they are hilarious as you can see below.

However, one thing to note about how Billy Crystal does with his improvised lines is that he is always moving the scene forward. I get wanting to be the funny person in the game you are playing, but ask yourself, is it moving the scene forward, does it make sense in the scene? While Crystal is doing improv, he’s also acting, and that balance is important often for a fun game for everyone. So before you start generating content with your improv, ask yourself if this is the right game and table for that.

Finally, for DM’s, “Yes – And” can work sometimes, but there are other phrases that work as well. These are “Yes – But” and “No – But”. I’ll try and explain these decently well so that you get the concepts that I have in my head.

Yes – And – An anything goes policy and a free flowing policy for playing RPG’s. Works in systems that are very light on rules and rolls but instead focus on collaborative storytelling. You also see that in board games like Winter Tale, Gloom, and Once Upon a Time.

Image Source: Order of the Gamers

Yes – But – This is probably the most common one that I do. The example that I’d give for this is someone wanting to jump down on top of a monster with their sword. Can they do that, absolutely. Will they take damage from the fall, absolutely. This is something that the character would know in the game, so I’ll tell them the consequences of their action before they do it. Even if it isn’t directly damage based, there are other things that can come from it. You kill all the goblins in the middle of town because that was the best plan you could come up with, or the safest one, that’s cool, you’ve thought it through, but don’t expect the towns folk to love you. They’ll respect you and keep and wary on you, but love you, probably not.

No – But – Out of all of these, I would use this one the most sparingly, at least until you are familiar with your group. The reason being, you want people to have fun, so you don’t accidentally want to shut them down by shooting down their ideas. The concept behind, “No – But” for me is that the player wants to do something that isn’t feasible in the game. For example, knock over a castle onto the evil king that is inside. Something like that, sorry, you cannot do that. Sure, you could eventually, but you don’t have the time or resources to do so, and if I let you do it now, it might break something later in the game, or become your go-to move. But, once you tell me you want to do that, I now can tell you about the loose tiles that make the roof and how you can use a grappling hook or something and pull down a punch of tiles on top of the guards on the top of the wall. The reason that I’m saying this one is trickier is that you need to understand what your players want to do and what they like. So you want to avoid shutting them down, but when you know your players better, you can get an idea of what they want to do, and bring in similar things for them.

So with that, you can create a game that doesn’t go off the rails but also still gives the players agency to add to the story and do cool things.

What I hope I did was show a little bit of difference between a pure improv sort of game and how you can pull some of the improv techniques into your game in places. The reason that I wrote this isn’t to say that games that are in systems with more mechanics, such as D&D and Star Wars RPG shouldn’t use improv, but as players and as the GM/DM, know how to balance it out in the game. Especially if you are making it into a podcast or adding in new players and don’t fully  know the group. And I will say that players who do have an improv background, you often can generate better dialog and crazier ideas on the fly. Just make sure that you are progressing the story while you do so, and everyone at the table, listening online, or watching will love you for it.

What are your thoughts on improv and RPG’s? How well do they mesh together?

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