We had the wonderful opportunity to host an instructional improv workshop at this year’s Big Bad Con. It was a pleasing experience to go full-circle after spending time with Conspire, a game heavily-based on improv comedy philosophy. The group was invested in the class and laughed a ton. They also validated some assumptions I had about teaching such a class to a group of experienced role-players. I want to break down the workshop and highlight skillsets gamers could use to take their experience to the next level.
We started the workshop by (correctly) assuming people who would go to a story gaming convention would be comfortable creating characters and acting in new worlds. Everyone did a good job of articulating their ideas, staying in character, agreeing with each other, and building upon the scenes. The core “yes, and” spirit was alive and well.
We spent a lot of time on the concepts of living in the moment and quickly having honest reactions. Possibly due to the long duration of story games, our group had a tendency to pause and think about the next line. This had the effect of not fully listening to a scene partner’s suggestions or not truly reacting as their own character should. We extrapolated this was because everyone wanted to “do what was best for the story”. New improvisers have a tendency to try to be the witty one and drive the action. In practice, planned wit is not that funny and one person controlling the narrative is not as interesting or compelling as letting the story build on its own.
Every exercise or game in which forced people to say something off the cuff generated huge laughs. One of the best moments came from a game of “New Choice” (at any point during the scene, the host can yell “new choice”, forcing the person who just did a thing to come up with a new line, reaction, etc). The scene was about a hacky sack player trying to convince an old friend to switch over from ping pong. The ping pong player was justifying their rationale for not giving up the sport. We “new choiced” that until the person said “If I stop, children will die.” His scene partner had the most honest reaction I have ever seen, looking visibly shocked and loudly exclaiming “Whoa, what!?” It was a great moment followed by interesting conversation justifying something super weird. Perfect improv.
The other skill we stressed was finding the interesting moments. We played “Ten Minutes Later”, a game/exercise in which the host can jump the scene forward in time, often by ten minutes. The point was to teach people how to find the fun moments within scenes. Typically, something funny would happen, followed by some dialogue, and then there would be a need to skip ahead. There was a great scene about kids playing tag. Because of the “ten minutes later”, we saw how horrendously bad one kid was at not only tag, but every game. We also saw a beautiful relationship develop between the pitiable younger kid and the tough-but-nurturing older sibling. It was funny, but real, which was fantastic to watch.
All of this was couched in role-playing examples. We wanted to illustrate how bringing these skills to the table makes everyone’s game better. We spent time learning about rapid scene initiations: establishing the who, what, and where of a scene so everyone involved can proceed in the same direction. While it may seem artificial, having a direct declaration of a relationship, a problem, and a location lets people tell the same story. Characters can only act correctly if they know exactly who other characters are and what they must accomplish. This prevents retcons or breaking away from the game for clarification further along in the campaign. Players, or improvisers, who are in sync are leagues better to watch.
The whole workshop took the joy found in role-playing or story gaming and condensed it into a super fun core. Everyone had a blast. We hope they take the lessons learned and make their next game even better. Those of you in the Bay Area should check out Improv for Gamers. They also taught a well-received workshop at Big Bad Con and are run by wonderful people.
Oh, and for the improv-minded, here’s the lesson plan we used for the two-hour workshop.
· Introduction and Warmups
· Word-at-a-time Story
· “What are you doing?”
· Who/What, Who/Where scene initiations
· Three Line Scenes
· Emotional Walk
· 10 Minutes Later
· New Choice
(Header and social media photo credit to Cory Guebles and CSz Seattle. We didn't want to post unsolicited photos from the actual workshop).