Adding Improvisation to your RPG table

Part 1: Listening and Offers

With The End of Time and Other Bothers, we set out to leverage the improvisation techniques you might find at Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade.

When done well, everyone will think the game play and story was planned out from the beginning, and yet there will be an energy to what you are doing that only comes when everyone is experiencing the thrill of discovery together.

This series of articles will lay out how to go about adding this type of improvisation to your games. We will explore how to use offers, deep character work and listening to discover a story at your table with your players.

This can be a hard concept to fully grasp if you haven’t experienced it. One option is to look for a local improv group or a theatre in your local area that offers drop-in improv nights for beginners or all-levels.

It also might help to read a deconstruction of a recent episode of our live-play which you can find here on Medium titled: Putting Improv Into Overdrive.

But enough on what it is. Let’s get to the how.

Listen Up and Big Offers

We’re going to start with listening. It’s such an easy thing to write and such a hard thing to do well. And it only works if everyone at the table participates equally and is fully present for what is being created together. And nine times out of ten, it’s us Game Masters who are the culprit.

As a GM, it‘s hard to to stay fully present as we feel like we have to dig up our notes, prepare for the next encounter, look up a rule, and more. But this is a disservice to your table. If someone is talking, turn and do your best to give them your full attention.

Only then can you start to give them a real voice in the shared story you want to tell together. And only then can you start to really pick up on offers that are being made.

Sometimes offers are big things being introduced by your players. These are the types of offers all of us are likely more familiar with. They are sometimes described as what “novice players do.” They are also a secret weapon that professional improvisers can use to bring real drama and comedy to your scenes.

They often feel jarring for us as a GM when they happen. Did we approve of this? Who’s in control here? They need to roll for that!

The pouch at my waist stirs suddenly and a head pops out, chitters angrily at the vendor, grabs the item she is dangling and then darts back under the flap.

Let’s say that the above happens in one of your games. The player in question, let’s call them Darcy, has mentioned months ago in passing that she might have grown up with a pet squirrel but you never really flushed it all out.

So here she is, taking control of the scene, and putting a whole bunch of things you don’t expect into a single statement. Not to mention, introducing a squirrel out of nowhere.

A common feeling we may experience as a GM in this moment would be of control and refusal. We may want to explain to her that we need to discuss this squirrel, where it lives, how it eats and whether it needs to be listed on her character sheet. And even if we do allow for this mysterious squirrel to exist in our story, we are going to need to roll some dice and lookup some rules to see if all this goes down as stated.

All of these impulses are entirely normal for an RPG game, but be aware that they also thwart your player’s desire to participate and co-create a world that is fun for them. It slows down the game, halts the moment and sends a signal to everyone that they need to run everything past you as the GM first. You are in control.

Let’s look at what might happen if you just accept this event and build off it.

GM as Vendor: I do indeed have the item you are looking for. Uh uh uh! I’m afraid I had to pay quite a bit for this! The price has tripled.

Darcy: The pouch at my waist stirs suddenly and a head pops out, chitters angrily at the vendor, grabs the item she is dangling and then darts back under the flap.

GM as Vendor: (screams) VERMIN! GET IT AWAY! OH NO! MY MEDALLION! HELP! GUARDS! GUARDS!

Darcy: Opens her pouch and scolds the squirrel. Socrates, what have I told you about snatching things from mean old gas bags!

GM as Vendor: Gas bag! Why… I’ve never!

Darcy: Socrates gives me the amulet but chatters angrily at the vendor lady.

GM as Vendor: I’ve never been so insulted!

Blat: I take it back. I like Socrates more and more.

The world you are building can become so much richer if you lean into offers from your players, even these big offers. Now, that’s not to say that you won’t sometimes need to ask for a roll. But you can choose to do so in a way that accepts their offers and just modify the outcome based on what the dice say.

Using Smaller Offers to Heighten a Scene

Offers are also small things that you and your players can introduce into a scene to escalate or heighten the drama in the moment.

Let’s say that the party comes across a dead body in an alley. Only, contrary to your expectations, they aren’t all that intrigued. They just write it up to how rough the town is.

A subtle offer can be a great way to tease the party about the body without corralling or forcing them to pay attention to it.

GM: “As you go to turn away, a flash of pink paper catches your eye near the dead gentleman’s breast pocket.”

Odds are that they will now investigate. Only, you just made up that offer of the pink paper on the fly. Are you a bad GM if you don’t know what’s written on said piece of paper? Of course not! Quite the opposite.

As your players get better with this style of play, they are going to respond with some subtle offers of their own as they snatch the piece of paper off the body. Do they do it surreptitiously? Do they try to hide it from the rest of the party? Do they laugh and point to the dead poet? All of this feeds into what you will say next, because you are listening and responding with whatever pops into your head.

Derek: “I freeze. I’ve seen that shade of pink before.”

Sarah: I step past Derek and bend down. “Hey! What’s this in his breast pocket?”

GM: Sarah unfolds the piece of paper to see a single word written in what appears to be someone’s blood. It is a name she knows. It reads, “Derek.”

Sarah: I glance at Derek and then just shrug, “It’s nothing,” crumpling up the piece of paper and tossing it to the ground.

In the above scene, Derek is sending me an offer with his first reaction. My mind fills with possibilities in this second. Does the dead man share a connection to him? Is it just a coincidence? It’s up to me to take this offer and give something back to the other players. In the case above, I went with a direct connection between the dead man and Derek.

I likely don’t know what this connection is yet. But as the pieces build, I am able to sculpt a story with the players that fits into the larger pieces of the campaign we are working towards. And we can create something richer than I could ever come up with on my own.

I want to point out that the above choice is just one choice. I can introduce anything that comes to mind and flows well with the story so far. The paper could be blank, but the party notices Derek acting strange. Either way, now there is a mystery and everyone is more invested. Who is this man? Do they believe Sarah’s feigned disinterest? Why does the man have a name of a party member in his breast pocket? Coincidence?

So much fun can be found in the small offers. But they are easy to miss if we stop listening.

The Great Equalizer

The idea of using improvisation removes the GM from feeling like they have to maintain an authority over the game play. It raises everyone to the same level — we are building something more immersive together.

And not everything is going to be made up on the spot. It is entirely possible, and recommended, to go into some scenes with a premise — an idea for what needs to happen to move the story forward, with one caveat. It shouldn’t just be the GM who brings a premise into a scene.

Lucy: “I open the door most of the way but pause, my hand shaking slightly.”

I love offers like these. This is great for a recorded live play because it gives us an insight into the character. Why is Lucy hesitating? Is it the room on the other side of the door? Or is her hesitancy entirely unrelated to the room they are about to enter? This is an offer that begs to be followed up on.

What’s happening right now for Lucy? A flashback? A premonition? Or has something been bugging her for days and she is done waiting and about to have it out with someone?

As your players get more comfortable, they will leave space for Lucy by just responding as their characters would in this situation. And playing into the moment that Lucy is signalling with her offer of hesitation.

Lucy: “I open the door most of the way but pause, my hand shaking slightly.”

Eggerton: I bump into Lucy, not realizing she isn’t proceeding into the next room. “Ow. Sorry!”

Lucy: “That’s it! That’s the final straw!”

GM as the Monster in the next room: “GRAHHH!!!!”

Lucy: Slamming the door in the Monster’s face, “We are having this out right here and now, Eggerton!”

GM as the Monster in the next room (muffled): Um… hello?

We all get in on this offer. I sense that something is brewing between the characters so I offer up a monster I hadn’t planned on. That room was totally empty a minute ago. I throw the monster in as a way of heightening the situation, expecting the Monster will likely be ignored by the players while they play out their conflict. Lucy goes for the comedy by slamming the door in the monsters face and turning to confront Eggerton.

There are so many possibilities when you start exploring improvisation tools with your players. All of these are just examples to help show the possibilities and to illustrate how some of these mechanics work.

If this intrigues you , I recommend a listen to The End of Time and Other Bothers to hear how things actually go down at our table. I also recommend Spout Lore as another great improv-based live play.

Getting Started with Offers at Your Table

First, go easy on yourself. This is not an easy transition to make. So much of roleplaying mythology and culture is built on the idea that the GM is all-knowing, all-powerful and the only decision maker at the table. After all, “I will allow it” is a well-known catch phrase in the industry.

Start small and look at just having a few areas in your game where things are not as fully planned out in advance. See what happens when you introduce some things into a game that you didn’t plan for. How does it feel to base what comes next on the actions and statements of your players?

As you start to explore this more, talk with your players and start to find ways to give them more agency. Some players may struggle with these new-found powers and say things like, “So I take out my bow, notch the perfect arrow and send it sailing over the wall to strike the enemy commander, as if by random luck.”

You can easily just say, “Okay… first things first. Let’s roll for that shot.” This is a totally acceptable response.

But what if you just let them do it?

I like to take a moment like this to show that agency comes with great responsibility. Perhaps the enemy commander orders the opening of the gates and suddenly two hundred heavily armed militia come charging out in front of a very angry looking man with an arrow stuck in his helmet. And it ends with the party bound and shoved in a cell in the deepest and most forgotten part of the keep’s dungeons.

Don’t be afraid to have fun and give yourself some time. You have to find your own style of play and it will take exploration and support from everyone at your table to find what works for your game.

But remember that listening is crucial. We like to start with a warmup or two to help get everyone into the mindset of listening to the others around the table and to remember that we are working to try and build a story together.

An easy warmup game is Word-At-A-Time-Story. Someone starts by saying a single word. Then you go around the table with each person adding a word. You string together sentences until at some point someone will call it with a, “The…” and someone else will say, “End.”

There’s another variation where you tell a story one sentence at a time.

Some pointers to remember when playing these exercises:

  • Try to name your characters in the story
  • Make it about relationships, not things

These warmup exercises don’t create good stories. That’s not the point. They are designed to help us listen and to understand how much attention and focus is required by everyone at the table to tell a story together.

In Summary

Offers are a way to give depth to a story that resonates with the characters in the scene. And as your group gets better at working with them, you will find that you can really escalate the drama or comedy of an encounter while creating greater immersion for everyone. You are exploring a story in small bits and leading each other towards an unknown moment when someone comes up with the final piece that buttons it all up and resolves the situation.

Many times, this is done entirely without dice. Dice are great for introducing the unexpected, but they are not the best tools for storytelling as they can interrupt the flow — causing people at the table to stop listening. And frankly, my players will often choose far more disastrous and hysterical paths than the dice would ever randomly bring into being.

I will be continuing this series to look at other aspects of using improvisation at the RPG table, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences as you try these tools out!

Part Two is now available here:

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Sean Howard is the co-creator with Eli McIlveen of Alba Salix, Royal Physician and the GM behind The End of Time and Other Bothers. He can be reached via Twitter or email.