Improv 101

I recently took an improv class from Comedy Sportz Seattle. If you have never seen an improv show before, go do that. The basic premise is one or more people make up a scene on the spot with little to no scripting, possibly fueled by audience suggestions. Given the clear similarity to role playing, I figured the lessons learned from the class would help my demo presentations of Catalyst. It was an amazing experience and I encourage everyone to break out of their comfort zone and try it (both improv and role playing). These classes also reinforced many elements of fun, successful RPG sessions in such a concise way, I’d be foolish not to talk about them.

There’s a basic improv principle known as “yes and”. It’s the idea of agreeing and expanding. Let’s take an example scene from a Catalyst game: a character bursts into a bar begging people to help save the farms from a demon raid. The players could say no. That would effectively end the story. Or they could say yes, continuing the plot line. Even better, the players could agree to help and rally the other survivors, or demand payment, or bring supplies to construct traps, or anything else that embellishes the scene. Adding details makes play more interesting. The more “yes ands” a group does while proceeding, the more unique an experience they have.

This concept can be taken a step further with player/game-master relations. Too often, a game master has a specific scene or solution in mind. When players deviate from this, the game master’s instinct is to deny any alternatives. An as example, say the players need to assassinate a cult leader in their headquarters. The game master may have only planned for a frontal assault, but there are clearly other options. A clever player may want to disguise themselves, so they wait out front to see what the dress code appears to be. Rather than saying no one ever exits the church, a game master should send someone out. When that player looks for clothes to disguise themselves, rather than saying no clothing remains in the city, the game master should give them something. When that player enters the building, they should roll persuasion or charisma checks and try to blend in, rather than immediately being discovered. Let the world “yes and” your players.

Another improv concept is quick development of character relations. The best first lines establish a who, what, and where, like “Captain, get down!” The audience wants to care about the relationships between people. Two strangers interacting is an uninteresting scene. Nothing compels them to remain together, so whenever there is conflict, there is no incentive for the characters to remain on stage. Players in an RPG also need real relationships to justify the insane situations in which they fight side-by-side. “Yes and” the backstory too. Johnny Danger saved Laura from a rabid hellhound. Yes, and he knew she was there because she called out his pre-apocalypse name. Yes, and he was so touched someone remembered him from his awkward high school days he lessens his selfish, egotistical attitude around her. A few sentences of agreeing make way better characters than essays scrawled on the back of character sheets.

Our improv teacher liked to use the term “wackedy-schmackedy” for the non-sequiturs or goofy behavior people try to inject in scenes. It may get a laugh at the moment, but halts or cheapens the scene. Worse, it shuts down whatever a scene partner may have planned. Consider an RPG character with an annoying gimmick, like an invisible friend.  There is a way a player could pull that off, but that’s probably not going to happen. Instead, every scene will be slowed down by a nonsensical, one-sided conversation. It is not interesting character development; you will likely never stop or change things because of commitment to the gag. Instead, let the humor and levity come from honest reactions.

I will use my typical example of Bonesaw, partially because he is a sample character in Catalyst. Bonesaw is a pro-wrestler with enough head trauma to blur reality. It was never clear whether he believed the demons were part of a kayfabe show gimmick or that he thought the wrestling world was real. Now, this character could clearly go off the rails and just be silly, but he did not. He did not fight exclusively using wrestling moves or try to pin demons for a three-count. He did not waste time finding a working stereo to play his entrance theme or try to wrap ropes around the battlefield. Instead, he reacted how that character would in reality, though perhaps slightly exaggerated.  Bonesaw justified killing a surrendering man by saying he “disrespected the honor of the ring”. He sang showtunes in the car because “that’s what you do while on tour”. He suggested a cage match to solve a dispute. And there were moments where this character reacted appropriately but not strictly within the gimmick. After his ally found a demon radio, Bonesaw ripped it from their hands and smashed it because he didn’t trust the demon technology. Gut reactions always trump wacky or random humor.

Often in improv scenes, you have to justify actions done by you or others. There’s a Comedy Sportz game called “Foreign Movie” in which players are on stage pantomiming and speaking in gibberish while other players provide the “translations”. The game works by justifying the actions, vocal intonations, repeated sounds, and spoken lines. In role playing games, players and game masters need to justify dice rolls. In Catalyst, dice are rolled when there needs to be random chance. Always succeeding is uninteresting; failure often leads to greater storytelling. However, a bad trait of game masters is to justify a failed player check with lack of skill. That quickly gets disheartening and frequently goes against the established nature of a character. Which is better: “you failed the perception check because you’re hard of hearing” or “you failed the perception check because there is a fierce wind.” Twists add to the narrative while avoiding shaming a player. “You failed the hacking check because you’ve never encountered such elaborate security.” “You dive over the fence but lose your balance on some gravel.” “While sneaking past the guards, some dust tickles your nose and you feel a sneeze approaching.” All these add to the world and even present more opportunities for players to creatively fix their mistakes.

There are clear parallels between these different types of made up stories. The major difference is improv scenes are short, while campaigns and the characters within are long. There will inevitably be conflict in a role playing game. Do not force it by shutting down ideas and being contradictory. Be amendable and agreeable about the small stuff, so the intrigue and focus lands on the important scenes.