Clear Boundaries for Improvisation

I recently had the good fortune to play a session of Game of Thrones using Dungeon World rules. The experience was quite differently from playing or running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons because the Game of Thrones’ setting brings a different atmosphere to the game. In addition to traditional fantasy elements, the Game of Thrones’ world features a high level of political intrigue, tangled relationships, and short lifespans. It is entirely possible to run a Game of Thrones-style campaign in the Forgotten Realms. However, sitting down and inhabiting characters in Westeros a few years before the events of Game of Thrones take place forces the players into a different mindset than the average D&D session. Our game featured numerous social interactions, a brief flirtation with a combat moment, and a bevy of characters being introduced into the story.

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“I’m not sure of my next move.”

Cooperative storytelling is a part of every roleplaying game session, and it requires those around the table to be willing to jump in with ideas to shape the events. Many articles have been written about improvisation in roleplaying games, and Mike Shea’s interview with designer Steve Townshend really speaks to some of the points I discuss below. There are two approaches to shaping events in any given session. The first is to plan ahead of time what a character will do in a certain set of circumstance. The person running the session could prepare a specific quest to move the players in that direction while players can build characters that always respond to situations in a prescribed manner. For example, a Cleric in D&D may always take action to help those in need; it’s not so much a choice at the table as it is a personality trait that is created before the session begins.

 

The second approach is to improvise as a session goes along to take the story in an infinite number of directions. The person running the game gives an outline of the setting and situation, and the players can respond how they like. It requires all players (including the GM) to be creative, spontaneous, and accepting of the contributions and ideas of each player. Every session I’ve experienced of a tabletop roleplaying game has featured elements of preparation and improvisation. I learned through my Game of Thrones experience that I need to bolster my improvisation skills, and I imagine others out their struggle with this aspect of RPGs as well. The following article offers some ideas to increase the entire group’s willingness to accept and engage in improvisation, and how to improve individual improv skills.

Promote an Atmosphere of Acceptance

A key component to collaborative storytelling is for everyone participating in the game to understand and accept that they are in an environment where every player at the table can significantly influence the direction of the session. I do not believe this is a norm in all gaming groups; it certainly has not been in the games I have participated in as a player or DM. Most of my gaming groups have relied on the person running the game to dictate the pace and overall direction of the session including the NPCs that are available to meet, the objectives, and the obstacles in the way of those objectives. I take great efforts to create choices – or at the very least, the illusion of choice – for players, but much of the session is planned out in advance. It is rare that I scrap what is prepared to allow the players to go in an unexpected direction.

This was most recently noticeable in our Curse of Strahd adventure when the first session was all about getting the players to Barovia; it felt clunky, as the players were not too keen on going there. Instead of allowing something else to happen during the session, I made sure to get them to Barovia so they could interact with what I had planned. I think this is the standard operating procedure when the DM is running a published adventure or something they have cooked up for the players, and it results in the players being a bit passive in terms of how many chances they are willing to take to venture off the path of the campaign.

The pressure to “stay in the lane” during sessions can range from subtle to extremely overt, and this pressure is applied to players by the DM and even other players around the table. The DM may shut off alternatives as unlikely (if not impossible) by introducing barriers in the way of ideas that would take the group away from prepared content. Other players may get frustrated with distractions “when clearly we need to do this next.” For the gaming group to truly collaborate on the story, these group norms need to be addressed openly before the game begins. The person running the game can do this in a number of ways; the most transparent is to communicate openly with the group to let them know you want to run a game that is high on player involvement, creativity, and improvisation.

What is fair game?

Let’s look at an example of a typical situation for any gaming group.

DM: You reach the small town of Lakeside without complications. The setting sun throws a dazzling array of colors off of Lake Omauga. As you pass through the outskirts of town, locals are seen completing their final hours of labor in the fertile fields surrounding the town’s central hub.

At this point, the players might ask some questions about the town and the DM might highlight a few options for the players, such as the name of a prominent inn or the known leader of the town. But what if the group understood – and accepted – that any player at the table could add to this picture?

If every player felt free to contribute and take chances, then something like below could happen.

(Player 1, Rogue) Sasha: I never thought I’d be stepping foot again in this backwater town. Not since that drunken bum at The Bouncing Bottle tried to cheat me. He had people thinking I was cheating him. The nerve! As if these lowlifes could beat me at cards. Let’s steer clear of that place just in case they remember my face.

The player here “takes charge” and adds elements to the story that the DM and other players have not had a chance to agree to yet. She establishes a tavern, The Bouncing Bottle, in Lakeside. She adds her thoughts that the residents of Lakeside are lowlifes and seems to indicate they are overall distrustful of outsiders. Now other players and the DM have a foundation to build from with this brief improvisation instead of being passive until the DM tells them the options in town.

When you are running games, do the players know they can add to the world in the this way? Do you even want them to add to the world in this way, or do you prefer to keep control of the overall narrative?

These are questions to consider if you want to increase your – and the players’ – comfort with improvisation. If players understand and accept that they can help to craft the gaming world, then they will be more likely to make up elements during the sessions, including rumors, NPCs, locations, and possible quests.

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“You mean this entire time I could have just made stuff up?”

 

Another level of improvisation is allowing players to create story elements for everyone else at the table. Typically, each player is in control of his or her own character, actions, and background with the DM running all the NPCs. How comfortable would the group be if each player was allowed to influence more than his or her own story? The example below illustrates how this might work:

(Player 2, Cleric) Cirion: Come now, Sasha. You sure you didn’t try to cheat these simple folk out of their hard-earned coin? After all the tales of thievery you’ve told us in the past? What about the time you stole that poor widow’s wedding ring to pay off gambling debts?

Player 2 adds to the background and personality of another player’s character. Everyone at the table knew that Sasha’s role is that of a Rogue, but Player 2 has added more life to this character without asking for permission from Player 1. If Player 1 accepts these background details about her character, Sasha, then the entire table has more vibrant information about her. Player 1 can improvise her response based on whether or not see accepts the implications that she (a) has a gambling problem, (b) is willing to steal anything from anyone, and (c) doesn’t care about people. Two possible responses from Player 1 are below.

Accept the background information from Player 2:

(Player 1, Rogue) Sasha: Listen, you pious dolt. The gods are not kind, and they are not just! I did what I had to do to survive. You didn’t question my motives when I got us out of that trap back in the caves last week, did you?

Rebuke the background information from Player 2:

(Player 1, Rogue) Sasha: Words are wind, do you believe everything you hear? That particular bit of burglary allowed me to close the door on a lifestyle that was leading me nowhere. I’ve changed since those days, and you of all people should know that I don’t like to speak of that period of my life.

The options above illustrate that Player 1 could run with the idea that she’s been hardened by life and overall quite cynical as suggested by Player 2, or she could rebuke them to demonstrate that while her character may have committed unsavory acts in the past, she no longer engages in those activities – and wishes to close the door on further mentions of that behavior.

Returning to the recent Game of Thrones session, I realize now that our GM attempted to increase our willingness to improvise before our session began, though I did not understand the purpose at the time. When establishing the characters, she asked us to form a Bond with at least one other player at the table. I did something similar in our Curse of Strahd campaign so I did not think too much of it. The exercise encouraged the players to conjure relationships and story elements out of thin air, and our GM later in the evening asked us to offer rumors about a city we were about to encounter. The players at the table offered different rumors they have heard, which the GM noted to possibly use in the future to further the campaign. This is one way to encourage players to add to the world rather than being reactive to whatever the person running the game introduces.

In summary, the entire group should be educated about the size of the canvas that is available for them to paint on during the game, and be in agreement with each other to accept those boundaries. Some players may not be willing to have other players at the table define their character through improvisation, and that is perfectly alright as long as the players respect each other’s boundaries. Speak with the group before the game begins to let them know your expectations for their involvement in collaborative storytelling and establish clear boundaries. Asking for rumors about an upcoming plot point (i.e., location, villain, NPC) is a safe way to elicit ideas from the players to move an otherwise passive group in this direction. Other exercises to increase acceptance of improvisation from the acting world can be applied to the gaming group to shake up the norms and increase improvisation.

Balance Preparation and Improvisation

During a discussion with my fellow players in the days following the game, I received different advice on how to increase my willingness and skill with improvising at the table in future sessions of our Game of Thrones campaign. In the past, my strategy for creating characters has been to craft a fairly detailed “origin story” and have a few key personality characteristics. Some of the basic questions I ask are:

  • Where did the character come from?
  • How did the character end up here now?
  • What is the character’s primary motivation?

From there, I add additional details as ideas come to mind. And my initial thought is the more I create ahead of time, the better served I’ll be to know what my character would do in any number of situations. This approach has merit, and one of my fellow players detailed his routine for character preparation, which is somewhat similar to mine:

I start with a rough outline starting with the high concept, such as outlaw smuggler. Then make two lists: Public and Private.

Public is how he’s seen from the outside and quirks. For example:

Hard as nails
Dust covered
Blunt
Dislikes finery
Always seen with leather coat
Deadpan
Few friends
Bravery in dangerous situations
Always playing with knife in left hand

Private is how he sees himself and secrets.

Lost family
Travels to escape
Spends money in poor areas
Guilt
Loyal
Constantly afraid of losing more people

Next I look major concepts past present future.

Past: Lost family while serving in war. Never got to say goodbye. Government who employed him responsible

Present: Makes smuggling runs to help punish government that allowed family to die. Very close to friends. Dislikes strangers.

Future: Secretly wishes a job will go bad and he will be injured just enough to force retirement. Afraid he won’t stop until he’s killed otherwise.

As the game goes on I keep notes on major events and adjust the personality to show change and growth. This is usually enough for me to respond and react to situations.

This nestles nicely into my “prepare more” approach to gaming, but it is not the only option. Another player in our game encouraged me to think differently about improvisation in gaming:

My most basic advice: when developing a character, don’t list all the things the character might do. Instead, list the things your character would never do. I call this “negative character creation” — forming a character out of what the character is not. That allows you to play the character impulsively — just like most of us live in real life! Everything that fits inside of your pre-defined boundaries is then acceptable for role-play.

Lex [his character in our Game of Thrones’ campaign] will never display any kind of gratitude, compassion, foresight, clarity, leadership, or self-control. In that way, he’s entirely predictable. But it opens up a universe of cruelty allowing spontaneous free-play of his delusions of grandeur. (Sort of like an adolescent Donald Trump in a medieval fantasy setting.) Because I know what Lex is not, I can improvise freely.

Improvisation is stymied by over-analysis. By clearly defining what a character is not, a player can confidently ignore the troublesome second-guessing voice in his/her head that stifles spontaneity.

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Be sure to check in with other players to ensure this level of improvisation is welcomed at the table.

 

His idea of “negative character creation” is a really intriguing concept, and something that could even apply to preparing while in the DM chair, “What is NOT going to be in our next session?” It is liberating to look at things from that viewpoint. I plan to test this out in the future and I’m curious to see how it plays out. [pun]

Summary

  • Communicate with all players to agree on the level of improvisation they are all comfortable with before the start of a campaign and/or session
  • Break the ice with one of the improvisation exercises mentioned above, such as forming bonds between players or asking the players to create rumors on the fly for an upcoming plot point
  • Consider two approaches to prepare for impromptu moments: 1) create numerous details about your character or 2) base your character on a list of things they would never do.

 

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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7 Responses to Clear Boundaries for Improvisation

  1. Jason says:

    This definitely demands that everyone know where the other players stand and have agreement before the game begins. Huge levels of trust are required to allow someone else to improvise something about my character, but similarly high levels are needed to allow them to improvise even setting details. I could never play in a game where the players have too much control over the world because I’d be constantly on edge, waiting for one of them to insert something completely awful and the table just running with it either out of passivity or because they think it’s funny.

  2. The Id DM says:

    Yes, absolutely. There needs to be a high level of trust amongst all the players in the game. These are the group norms I was discussing; they should be addressed prior to the start of the game. There can still be a healthy amount of improve without players having permission to create new things in the world or for other characters. Certainly define those boundaries ahead of time if they are there. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. G3PO says:

    I like the idea of letting players make things up. Any reasonable player would try to add to the story and make things more interesting. There is the chance you might get that one oaf that says “oh.. Blerkville! The town where they give a +5 holy avenger to everyone that enters!” Or someone could try to hijack the plot: ” The rich and powerful wizard in that tower owes my dad a favor!”
    That would just make you have to be quick with the comeback idea. ie holy avenger heats up to 5000 degrees when you try to LEAVE town with it -or- “you mean THAT wizard tower? The one that is on fire right now? ”
    Overall, I see that idea having a lot of potential.

    • The Id DM says:

      Hah, I suppose you could have players try to conjure something up that is *too* favorable. That goes back to trust and everyone cooperating to make the game enjoyable. I love the name, Blerkville, by the way! Being able to deftly redirect players if they are going “off course” in some way is a good skill to have.

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