Welcome to Charisma Saves, a column devoted to the “RP” in RPG. While there is a plethora of gaming advice on every single mechanical process and how to improve them, this section examines the less structured aspects of many role-playing games. This will be a focused look at improving improv and how it can facilitate a more imaginative space for players and GMs.
Improv is such a large part of the RPG space. It fills in the narrative gaps and helps interpret what is happening when the dice roll. When using this powerful tool, the world becomes far more tangible. Better yet, improv can bridge those gaps in the game when the dice stop rolling and there is only the imagined space to interact with.
Anyone with the shallowest familiarity with the improv scene, or comedy in general, has probably heard the phrase “yes, and…”. It’s meant as a tool to continually build a scene while respecting the previous performers’ additions. This works wonders in a performance setting, where all the performers share equal authorship of the scene.
In the roleplaying world, however, this can become a source of consternation and contention. The Game Master has explicit authority over what is and isn’t in the world. A player cannot make a declaration about the world without the GM’s consent. Even then, details about that declaration are still well within the GM’s purview. While this power imbalance is necessary to allow for the actual game to occur, there is still room to allow players authorship of the worlds they find themselves in.
This is where the power of “yes, and…” comes in; making the world more fun and interesting for everyone at the table. Give the players the initial set-up of the scene. Exploring the cliche example of the tavern. As soon as the players enter, avoid going into elaborate detail. Instead, choose a player and have them describe the tavern with as much detail as they dare! This gives the player agency over the scene beyond just the character and allows them to envision the space like never before.
As GMs collectively shudder at this idea, remember that little tool, “yes, and…”. As soon as the description is done, take a beat to consider everything that has been added and avoid being contrarian to the fiction that’s just established. This is where the scene can be built on, establishing what absolutely needs to be there.
In doing so, it highlights the bits that should be examined and considered carefully. As painful as it might have been to let go at that moment, it becomes a gift. Clarity. The player’s attention was pulled by the sudden change in narrator, and the scene received the opportunity to explicitly say what story elements are absolutely necessary without having to beat the players over the head with it.
At this point many GMs may still be on the fence, understandably so. Allowing this level of narrative democracy can add a measure of uncertainty to the game. Remember to only use this technique when it won’t interfere with the narrative or direction needed for the party to move forwards.
If an NPC’s appearance is meaningful to their purpose (say, an aging noble concerned with his heir) keep that bit of information reserved for the GM to describe. On the other hand, allow one of the players to describe the throne room the NPC can be found in. Be decisive in choosing when and where the player’s authorship stops. The important piece is to give authorship of things that may otherwise be passive parts of the world.
This next suggestion takes advantage of those times in the game where the characters are languishing at rest, or find peace from the life of an adventurer. It is always tempting to simply handwave these moments and slam the “rest” button, but this can be an opportunity for the players to flesh out their characters. Whenever the characters have earned a reprieve or dodged the randomly encountered horrors of the night, take the opportunity to have everyone make a completely random roll.
Whoever rolls the lowest picks another player to be their audience. Choose a topic for the character to reflect on around the campfire, try to make it topical to the context the characters may find themselves in. Potential examples may include::
- What was a moment of triumph or victory for you?
- What was a moment of loss or failure for you?
- What moment made you concerned about another character?
- What moment made you admire another character?
- Why did you choose such a dangerous life?
- What is your greatest challenge currently?
Make sure to reward anyone who “leans into” the challenge as some players may feel the spotlight being placed on them is difficult. This could be a small bonus when helping the listening character or maybe a bonus to rolls the following day.
Ideally, it will reach a point where players will want to volunteer for moments at the campfire. Remember that such moments can happen anywhere! On horseback; corrousing the marketplace; or awaiting trial in the dungeon. Make it known that the next scene won’t take place until the roleplay has occurred.
Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night!
As with any performance, pacing is imperative. If a scene goes on too long, or perhaps there’s nothing left to say, feel free to simply fade to black or interject with the next scene. Never shy away from giving players space in these moments, but keep a pulse on the room for when to step in and assume the steering once again. Always try to measure the weight of the situational context the characters find themselves in.
Nice, appropriate breaks in moments of tension can give players an opportunity to dig deeper and assess the layers of their developing characters. Dire situations are plentiful in the lives of adventurers. Yet, without considerate reflection these moments can lose much of the dramatic tension that is so hard to construct.
Remember, first and foremost, everyone is at the table to have fun. The advice found here should always be in service to those ends. Some players will be rallying for these moments more than others. With a rich fiction that considers the player’s own ideas and imaginations, the world can be effortlessly built in the spirit of collaboration and improvisation.
About the author