I’ve long considered the core way that I engage with Tabletop RPGs as a form of shared storytelling, and as a part of that my regular group (over many years and some member changes) has established a pattern of play that resembles something akin to something an improv group might do established within the fiction of the game. We’ve been doing it so long, I’ve really internalized the practice and the sort of play which I’d engaged with at my entry to the hobby is now pretty foreign to me - as distant from mind as it is in time (I’ve been playing for around 25 years at this point).
This has been more top-of-mind for a couple of reasons. I recently picked up a copy of Improv for Gamers by Karen Twelves. The first edition was originally released in 2018, but the updated second edition was released in late 2022. I happened upon it on a recent Powell’s trip, and I’d already been thinking a lot about how different players engage with both core tabletop games and published adventures for those games. Given the context, it seemed like an easy purchase and a good excuse to get this post written.
So, here we are. Let's go on a bit of a trip through how I approach improv during gaming sessions and some ideas on how to use improv in various games.
Yes, and... (and other improv principles)
One of the core principles in improv is "yes, and". To pull a line from Improv for Gamers: "Yes and means taking what the other player is offering and accepting it". This means taking what they've said, and incorporating it, not merely saying "yes, and".
The book gives some great examples, but let me offer one of my own. If one player says (as their character): "I've been a mess ever since your brother died", they are establishing:
- Your character had a brother, who is now dead.
- Their character had some sort of relationship with them.
A good example of how to respond to it could be: "Yes, me too. He meant the world to me and I don't know how to live up to his legacy." Another possibility: "I know, you gave too much of yourself to him. He didn't deserve you."
What you don't want to do is ignore the bouncy ball outright. A suboptimal way to do it would be: "Good thing that wasn't my brother, it was his evil clone, Steve."
This technique was foundational for me in learning how to build story details through emergent play - and for establishing character relationships at the beginning of the game. It takes group support to make this work. If your other players aren't following good "yes, and" principles, you'll wind up with awkward suggestions more often than not.
Likewise, it may take some encouragement or practice to have shyer players to take part in the joint activity. They may be uncomfortable joining in at first, but there are also some icebreaker activities that may make them feel more participatory. It's important that you don't push someone into doing something that they don't want to do though, this style of emergent gameplay isn't for everyone.
Game Mechanics Supporting Improv Play
Mechanical Relationship building
So there are a couple of good game mechanics that I've encountered across several genres which I think support improv-style emergent play well. I know I talk about Powered by the Apocalypse variants.... frequently... but there's a particular element in them I want to call out. In many variants, each playbook will have prompts on them that establish a factual relationship between your character and another player's character.
An example: "I sang stories of _______________ long before I ever met them in person." - The Bard, Dungeon World, p. 84
This level of engagement is passive, but you can enhance it with improv principles by taking that statement, and giving the other player something to do with it. For the Bard example, this could be: "What is that famous song I sing about you, and why is it important?"
Another good example of this style of relationship building includes the Pathways map from Cortex Prime. Originally appearing in the Smallville RPG, this style has you create a map connecting your characters to many other elements on the map: other characters, locations, places, NPCs, and so on. With each one of these connections, you have a small descriptor like "Resents their success" or "Siblings" which establish a base relationship that can be expanded upon by asking more questions.
Declaration of Story Details
A semi-common mechanism in more story oriented games is the ability to spend some sort of resource, or to make a roll, to declare some detail about the story. FATE is one of those systems.
In FATE Core (and Accelerated) the players may spend a Fate chip to declare a story detail related to one of their aspects, or an aspect in the scene. That exchange is especially good for improv to expand upon the world detail that the player is introducing.
I love this mechanic so much, my group has adopted a version of it that requires no resource to activate. Now, any time during play, even if the GM doesn't prompt for it (see more on that later) anyone can just say "I've got a suggestion" and then pitch a story detail - more often than not someone will "yes, and" that suggestion and run with it. Of course, sometimes it winds up being incongruent with the rest of the story and we need to adjust, but it's become a staple of my gaming experience.
There's a related concept from the same game. The Compel. At any time, the GM may offer the player a Fate chip to have one of the character's aspects cause them trouble. The player can either accept or reject the compel, but mechanically they're incentivized to accept it.
Interestingly, this concept also made it into Blades in the Dark as the Devil's Bargain, offering the player a small bonus to their roll - in exchange for trouble. Plus, any player may offer a Devil's Bargain to the rolling player, not just the GM. It's a great way to encourage improv style play.
GM Tactics: Encouraging Improv During Play
You might have gathered that I think the entire table engaging in improv play is the best way to enhance the overall game. I do! I also believe that the GM is in a unique position to help facilitate improv play, and bears the responsibility of properly reading the table while doing so.
Since the GM already has the general responsibility for setting the stage for the scenario (in most TTRPGs, anyhow) you can take any elements you don't know about, or think would be interesting and delegate the description and details to the players. Asking something like "You see a man before you, Kira! Who is he and how do you know him?". You've delegated the creation of the NPC to a player, and given them agency over the world. Letting them make an important declaration about the story.
Now, that question is good, but a better phrasing could be: "Who is he, and why does he want you dead?" That gives the player even more meat to chew on - this person wants them dead and now they need to figure out how to effectively "yes, and" the question.
In my previous post about Storytelling in Games, I touch upon this subject briefly, but this style of world generation can also be found in random tables. Instead of delegating the answer to the player, you're delegating it to an impartial Oracle. I personally don't like the tables, because they slow down our play more than the call outs. If they work better for you, use them. Or, better, use them both!
It all boils down to a GM Principle from Dungeon World (and other variants): "Ask Questions, Use the Answers".
One major thing I want to call out here: if you're not very familiar with your players or are playing at a rotating table, it's very important that you be on the lookout for discomfort with this style of play. Sometimes you might call on someone and get a blank stare. That's okay! Frequently, it just takes a little nudge that "there is no wrong answer". If all else fails, no harm done, just decide something and proceed with play.
How Playstyle Impacts Improv Effectiveness
It would be remiss of me to neglect that there are different ways to engage with a TTRPG, and this kind of style is only one of them.
In a narrative heavy collaborative storytelling game (or group), you're going to find that improv tactics will enhance the story you're telling. In more casual games, especially ones that are akin to war-games, improv tactics will probably be less effective. OSR games run the gamut - you may find that improving details works really well, or you may find that your players prefer tables, or you may find that they'd just like to work on bypassing that devious trap you just gave them, thank you very much.
As I mentioned above - there's always room for some improv in the standard "character does action loop" as well. You can always fall back to a "yes, and" mentality when helping the players and their characters be awesome.
Well, I’ve done it again, but this might be the shortest article in the series yet. I hope you got something out of this, and it was helpful to you. See ya next time!