Photo by Leo Wieling

Putting Improv Into Overdrive

Our Approach to Audio Storytelling and Improvisation

SPOILER ALERT: This article assumes that you have listened to Episode 9 of The End of Time and Other Bothers. We will be unpacking what happened and showing how just about everything was created at the table and in the moment.

Fans in our Patreon Discord chat server are constantly interested in how much was planned out and what was improvised. And answering some questions about Episode 9 really showcases just how much is being done through improv at the table.

In short, almost everything in this episode came from using comedy improvisation techniques.

Here are the three pieces of information I had going into the game:

  • A card for the Final Inn with the name of the owner Joe on it
  • A card with the name of the Goddess of the Moon on it
  • A general idea that I would bring back Ananka’s Baba Yaga-style hut on chicken legs from Episode 8 and try and get the players closer to their intended destination

The chicken hut scene at the beginning was a joy to play. I was using the increasing speed of the hut to escalate the situation inside. A giant shout of admiration to the players, who all screamed instinctively the moment I said the hut came to a sudden stop. This made this scene and gave it a perfect comedic conclusion.

I need to explain a small back and forth, or what we would call a “game” in improv, that Ananka and I start playing. This fun little game made for some serious changes to the story later in the episode.

After being let out of the chicken hut, Ananka begins leading the party down the road towards their goal, the Oracle. And she says to them with confidence, “This way, everyone! We are moments away from meeting my old friend.”

To which I reply, “Three hours later…” I am really pushing on the fact that Ananka’s visions are failing her. She does a beautiful job in this episode of really exploring the growing doubts she has and her crumbling faith in her own abilities.

And so Ananka, sensing the game, doubles down on her previous offer and states with even more confidence, “So, like I said, sometimes in my head time is a little jumbled, so three minutes becomes three hours — is no big deal. We made it!”

To which I again reply, “Three hours later…” to the groans of the party.

Ananka and the party finally do reach a road-weary inn. Time for me to come clean. I fully expected the inn to be a busy and thriving establishment, if a bit of a dive.

But the party begins to escalate the situation by saying how hungry they are. And this is when Ananka triples down on our earlier game and says with utter certainty that there is food to be had. “This is something I can clearly see!”

At this moment, Ananka is making an offer to me. She is returning to our earlier game. And the best things come in threes. So I knew in that second that this inn had to be empty, derelict and without a scrap of food to be found.

So the entire ghost story that follows is born from this one offer from Ananka.

When I say we use improvisation in The End of Time and Other Bothers, this is what I am speaking of. I’m not making up one or two things. I’m an active participant, discovering the story along with the players. We are doing our best to stay in our characters and to listen and respond to the offers that everyone is making at the table.

It’s how we are able to build a story that flows and surprises us just as much as it does the audience.

So, now they are in a completely derelict inn. There was no reason it would be so derelict so quickly based on what is happening in the world around the inn, so I knew something was up with Joe. What I love about improvisation is this simple innkeeper’s story suddenly took on a multitude of sad possibilities. How had he come to be alone here? For how long had he been without his wife or partner?

The mystery had now been set for everyone at the table — including myself.

The rest of the scene is just the crew interacting at the inn. They explore and play back and forth before going to sleep.

The morning scene that followed was pure fun. I love playing gods and goddesses almost as much as I enjoy playing low-status characters. But back to the topic of improvisation and story.

When the Goddess of the Moon departs, someone notices that Joe is no longer present. At this point, I don’t really know where he is either. It is Blat who gives me the offer of where Joe might be and ends up putting a lovely final piece into the mystery.

Blat runs up the stairs to Joe’s room, knocks on the door and calls out hopefully, “Joe?” This is Carter, who plays Blat, setting me up with an offer — is Joe be in his room? Or rather, what has happened to Joe?

I tell Blat that there is no answer to the knock. So Blat opens the door and says, “Oh, Joe…” in a downcast manner. This is a beautiful offer. All I have to do is respond now.

There’s a moment in improv when everything is escalating and suddenly, unexpectedly, through a series of offers from your partners on stage, it all fits together seamlessly. Joe was in the room. And had been, perhaps, for the entire time, as a perfectly decomposed skeleton.

Outside the inn, the chicken hut returns and so does Greg the minotaur from Episode 1. This was not planned either. Our storytelling coach, Laura Packer, and I had been discussing how to give the party a unifying moment. And I won’t say any more other than to say that I saw with sudden clarity how I could accomplish this: by leaving the party alone in a foreign place, with no clear idea of how to get back or what their mission really was. But I needed a BIG reason for Ananka to abandon them. I think I delivered just such a reason.

This was one of my favourite episodes to play. I was concerned before hearing the rough cut because not that much really happened from a major plot point of view in this episode. And yet, it is a great example of the give and take that happens at the table.

I’m going to be sharing more posts in the future about how to practice improvisation at your table and some of the techniques you can start using to make your games even more fun!

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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.