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.

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