Being in Two Cults: What Can Improv Learn from Larp?

Games, art and attitudes to creative play

Open Roads ImproFest UK 2016 Cast. Photo thanks to Vicki Pipe

It’s an interesting experience being in two cults with different viewpoints. I’m talking here about the (nordic) larp and (theatrical) improv scenes. They are both groups who are very welcoming, inclusive, creative and open to new ideas. But they are also in some ways socially inward looking with their own mantras, traditions and rituals. I’m fairly rare in being both scenes and seeing these different perspectives. So in this piece I want to do some comparative analysis on improv and larp. In particular I want to share some ideas from nordic larp and roleplaying games generally which I think are useful for improv. I aim to convince you that treating games as art is a useful attitude for creating improv shows.

Before I leap into things I will warn you that I’m not the most experienced larper or improviser. So there is definitely theory or things going on which I am ignorant of. Please do angrily tell me in the comments. Also because this piece is targeted at two scenes with two different languages I’m going to have to first spend a bunch of words on definitions.

What is a roleplaying game?

There is no definition I can give which something won’t break. But basically make believe for grown-ups. Games which you play with a group of people to generate fiction and create a story. There are very broadly two types, tabletop and larp. Tabletop roleplaying games are where you sitting down and narrating the story. Dungeons and Dragons is the archetypal tabletop roleplaying game. But saying to a roleplaying gamer “Oh, you play roleplaying games, like Dungeons and Dragons” is the equivalent to “Oh, you do improv, like Whose Line is it Anyway?”

What is larp?

Larp stands for live action roleplaying. It is a roleplaying game where act out the story inhabiting the characters rather than simply narrating it. Basically like playing cowboys and indians when you were a kid. Except this time you get into a drunken argument with a close friend, shoot them with your revolver and then spend two days crying about it.

What is Nordic larp?

Nordic larp is a style which arose in the Nordic countries. Sometimes the term is used to actually encompass traditions from other countries and maybe progressive, modern or art larp is a better wording. Essentially this style of larp has a greater focus on “immersion, collaboration and artistic vision.” It’s less about running the woods with foam weapons and more about building a story together which changes how you think about the world. A lot of things I say actually apply to all kinds of larp but this is the style I am most familiar with and which forms my language. I would also say it is the style most similar to improv being collaborative and less rules heavy. I will also say although I can try to describe larp with words it is definitely an activity you only experience by doing.

What is Improv?

Improvised theatre or improv is theatre made up on the spot. The most well known improv TV show is “Whose Line is it Anyway?” This or Chicago comedy improv in general is the equivalent of boffer larp. The scene is much larger and diverse than this. People produce fully improvised theatrical plays and improvised musicals with improvised music. It is something that anyone can learn to some level and is definitely worth trying.

Improv Shows Inspired by Roleplaying Games

Definitions done I’m going to move into comparisons. First I’m just going to run down a few improv shows I know about which take ideas directly from roleplaying games.

Roleplay Cabaret

By the Jollyboat duo. This is essential a “traditional” tabletop roleplaying game played on stage. With the performers acting as the GM and the audience collectively representing the player/protagonist. They get to have input by giving suggestions before the show, shouting out things and voting for what the protagonist does. This is based on an roleplaying game app called StoryJam by Ed Croft.


Famous indie tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco by Jason Morningstar has also been used as the basis for improv shows. At Rowan university and the Brainspunk theatre in Philadelphia directed by Christina Higgins. There is also a show this summer at The Hideout in Austin directed by Peter Rodgers.

Dreaming on a Midsummer’s Night

This a modern, improvised twist on Shakespeare’s play. It recently played at the Rosemary Branch theatre directed by Richard Williams. It’s a stage adaption of a tabletop roleplaying game by Allan Carino and others. This game was created at a London Indie RPG Meetup playstorm.

Open Roads

It’s an improvised indie road trip movie driven by audience song suggestions. It had three half hour shows at The Nursery under the Nursery Originals program plus one hour long show at Impro Fest UK. Open Roads is a stage adaption of the tabletop roleplaying game Ribbon Drive by Avery McDaldno.

This is something I was involved in so I’m going to briefly explain how Ribbon Drive works and how we adapted it for stage. Firstly it’s about a group of people going on a road trip somewhere. Each character has two “futures” which are things which might or might not happen in their future. An example would be “I’m going to quit my job and go to art school” or “I’m going to fall in love.” The film Little Miss Sunshine is a great demonstration of futures. The tagline of Ribbon Drive is “letting go on the open road.” The game is then about whether these futures occur or the character gives up on them. This happens through the experiences and discussions they have on the road trip.

We made some changes to make Ribbon Drive work as a game played by improvisers on stage. One big element of Ribbon Drive is using music in the form of playlists you create before the game to inspire the story. For Open Roads we simply got song suggestions from the audience before the show. These songs inspire scenes but also give you the nature of the trip and futures. Normally this is done via brainstorming but this isn’t attractive on stage so we created a more theatrical setup process. We introduced a number of performers playing “walk-on” parts for people outside the car. I realised during the Impro Fest UK show having fewer performers in the car also works better. We had to cut down to one future per character because of the difficulty remembering things on stage. Lastly the whole thing is much shorter as Ribbon Drive takes three to five hours to play. For me the question of this project was “do roleplaying games work as a structure for an improv show?” I think the answer is “yes, but.”

What makes Theatre Theatre?

Now I’m going to talk more generally about the differences between larp and improv. I’ve said improv is a kind of theatre but what is theatre? I remember Eirik Fatland once said in a facebook discussion that theatre is actually a kind of larp. I think this is true.

But theatre is a larp with a specific set of roles. These are split into those defined as “the performers” and “the audience.” The audience is a role because there are certain things they should not do such as walk on stage or talk. Having an audience role means two big things — that the experience is for the audience and the audience watches the performers.

Theatre is judged by the experience of the audience. This has several implications. Theatre has to be presented to the audience. You stand in diagonals rather directly facing each other. You talk louder than normal. If there is a narrative (and a lot of improv isn’t narrative) it has to be conveyed to audience. You want one clear, understandable narrative and not three plot lines per character you might have in a larp.

More basically the audience has to understand what they are watching so you can’t use crazy meta-techniques if you don’t explain them beforehand. Although there is a lot of “I’m pretending to be a lamp” I want to say improv is more directly representational than scripted experimental theatre. There is also less blackbox than scripted theatre at least in the London scene as improv mostly happens at small rooms above pubs. This is however gradually changing with the Nursery hiring out a proper theatre and the launch of the WIRED project.

Having the audience watching the performers is a simple change which has a massive effect. Simply put the experience of being on stage in character feels different from playing a character in a larp. In the same way that giving a presentation feels different to conveying the same content in a casual group conversation. On stage your head goes a bit funny. You lose track of time and forget things.

Most importantly you easily get nervous and freeze up when on stage. This is what makes improv challenging compared to larp. Although there are other aspects of larp which are more challenging than improv. When you are nervous you try to be funny because laughter is instant positive feedback. This is a terrible idea even if you are doing improv comedy. But it’s part of the reason that improv tends to be comedy. Nervous performers try to plan out what should happen in a scene. This is also a terrible idea. Learning improv is often about teaching yourself not to avoid improvising. I find that because of this improvisers are much warier of pre-deciding elements than larpers. They prefer to work things out during a scene. Most larps have pre-written characters to some extent but this is much much rarer in improv.

These differences also have an impact on the artistic tradition of improv compared to larp. Because improv is challenging and performed for the public improvisers view it as a skilled art. It’s something that you rehearse and train for. Your knowledge is handed down from a master like a martial art. Improvisers judge each other on the quality of their improv. In contrast there is a weaker sense of who is a “good” or “bad” larper. No-one really takes classes on how to larp. They just larp. However designing or running larps is viewed as a skill. This is something I’ll come back to.

Games in the Improv Tradition

Roleplaying and improv are obviously both traditions heavily involved in the idea of games. I want to talk about the different ways improvisers use games and how they are treated. During classes and rehearsals Improvisers use games to warm-up, connect with each other and build skills. It’s a method of training yourself to think and act in a useful way on stage. For example trying to pull lots of imaginary objects out of bag as fast as possible. This is to train you to say the first thing on the top of your head when a choice arises in a scene to keep things moving forward. These games are the equivalent of workshops in the larp tradition.

You can also play games on stage as part of a show. An example would be making a big “machine” out of motions and sounds from individual performers. There is a style of improv called “short form” which is a show made up of different types of these games. A game is always explained to the audience before it is played.

Games can be used during a scene as a way of improvising. You might tell yourself to move first then speak. Or to make eye contact with another performer and say how they make you feel. These kind of games are focused on combating nervousness, stopping you planning and producing good scenes. Generally these games are played within an improvisers head or without explicit agreement between two improvisers. Actually they are normally called techniques or simply “how to improvise.” It is these kind of things you get taught during improv classes.

There is also a school of thought in improv focused around the “game of the scene.” This is particularly espoused by the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and is focused on fast, funny scenes. It is probably the mainstream approach to improvising. The game of the scene has it’s rules improvised during the scene. It’s found in the first unusual thing which occurs in a scene usually by accident. The performers pick up on this and “play the game of the scene” by making this unusual thing bigger and bigger to escalate the situation. The scene ends when the game cannot be escalated any further and there is some kind of resolution. Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch is a loose example. A man goes into a shop to complain their new pet parrot is dead. The first unusual thing is that shopkeeper denies the parrot is dead. This is the game of the scene. Then the pet owner becomes increasingly angry and outrageous in his arguing that the parrot is dead. Whilst the shopkeeper creates increasingly inventive reasons why the parrot is not dead.

Games can be used to structure an entire improv show. This is called the format. The most famous of these is probably the Harold invented by Del Close. Generally the format delineates how you take the audience suggestions and how different scenes relate to each other. There are lots of different formats designed to do different moods, genres and bring out different aspects of improv. This is sort of the equivalent of a larp game and the closest improv comes to larp writing. However they are different in a number of ways.

In general improv formats are less structured and have fewer rules than larps. There is no improv version of Dungeons & Dragons. Improv formats are also less focused. In larp “we’re just going to larp something” would be unusual, but “we’re just going to improvise some scenes” is normal. There are very rarely pre-written characters, relationships or even themes in improv. There are improvised genre shows but these tend to span whole genres. For instance Austentatious is an improvised Jane Austen novel. But if you were trying to write a larp it would be like an improvised Pride & Prejudice. In the sense that the designer might pre-decide which year it is set in, what characters are involved and so on even though everything is improvised.

Another way of looking at this is the concept of the “mixing desk of larp” invented at the Larpwriter Summer School. This is a mixing desk of various faders which can be tuned up and down for different elements of larp design. One of these is whether the responsibility for world and character creation lies with the designer or the players (performers). In improv this slider tends towards players more than being pre-decided. There is less emphasis on the role of the format in creating the experience. As I said previously improvisers like improvising. A broader cultural difference is what happens when things go badly. Larpers tend to blame the game whereas improvisers blame themselves. The reality is both these elements are important but it’s an interesting cultural difference.

Treating Games as Art

So now I want to turn back to the idea of treating games as art. First off I’ll simply say that games are art. I don’t think this is a controversial viewpoint. Designing games is an artistic activity where the designer makes an artistic contribution above and beyond a purely functional one. What is art? Well this is difficult to answer. Broadly I would say art is communication or argument through emotions. In this case I mean the game communicates ideas on what it means to be human. Rather than having a simple “functional” effect such as making you less bored.

The mass media discussion on video games is an example of games not being treated as art. Video games are understood to be things which are there to entertain you in a simple way. They are understood to have a functional effect on you. When video games are bad it is because they make you kill people. But when they are good it’s because they make you a better surgeon or more intelligent. These are all things I would call functional. There is not really a discussion in the mainstream media on the deeper meaning or artistic intent of video games. No-one slates Call of Duty because of it’s regressive understanding of global politics. There’s a great video from Rock Paper Shotgun discussing this.

Another example would be Monopoly. We would generally think of playing Monopoly as something you do for simple entertainment. Perhaps to prevent your family killing each other from boredom during the Christmas holidays. Monopoly was originally based on a game by Elizabeth Magie the purpose of which was to highlight the destructive impact of rentier capitalism and advocate for a land tax. I would class this as an artistic intent.

How does this relate to what I have been discussing? I would like to go back to talking about the format of an improv show. I will equate the format with “the game” rather than the “game of the scene” or other uses of the word game in improv. I have said improv is challenging and often the struggle is just in making something watchable. So the game is often seen as functional in that it doesn’t really mean anything but makes the show work. For improvisers the art and meaning is generally put into the improv and not in the format.

I’ve mentioned there are improv shows based around a particular genre. From what I can know these shows are often done with generic formats which could fit any genre. The purpose of the format is just to make some kind of story and have the scenes fit together. Then the performers themselves learn a lot about the genre and throw in the right kind of characters and tropes. Improvisers do the work to make the show fit the genre. An example would be the movie format created by Del Close.

There are definitely some forms which bring more genre in such as Nothing and Everything. This was an improvised Chekov play which ran at The Hideout in Austin. In addition some of “improvathons” which are 50 hour improv shows feature sets, costumes and pre-written characters. I started a discussion about genre formats in an Improv facebook group. Jill Bernard and Kristine Shadid both responded that they design formats specifically for genres. I would definitely like to learn more about other interesting improv formats so please let me know in the comments. But I do think it’s true that putting the art in the improv and not the format is the general culture.

Larp culture provides a contrast here. In larp the art is in the game and not in the playing of it. For most games it’s imagined that anyone who wants to play can do so and this will produce an interesting, thematic, experience. The art is put into the experience through the game design. Let’s take the amazing larp Just a Little Lovin’ which I never miss an opportunity to talk about. This game is primarily about the AIDs crisis amongst the gay community in the 80s. If we are going to talk about an STD then obviously sex is important. So the game features a meta-technique for simulating sex between characters. AIDs was incredibly lethal in the early days and death is an important part of this story. The game has a mechanic for deciding which characters die during the game and a ritual to enact this. Lastly the characters are pre-written to bring out the historical story with relationships to bring the drama. Essentially the idea is you turn the handle of the game and get out a certain kind of story. This game has run five times and everyone I have to spoken to said they had an amazing experience. But I want to emphasis this isn’t a scripted experience and every run was very different.

More so game design is discussed as an artform within roleplaying cultures. A couple of friends of mine have an excellent indie tabletop roleplaying game podcast called Across the Table. One episode reviews Avery McDaldno’s game Monsterhearts. It is a teenage supernatural game or Buffy the Vampire Slayer the roleplaying game. Overall the game is commended and it is definitely worth playing. But Monsterhearts is criticised because the genre tropes are largely brought in through player knowledge. The game mechanics themselves don’t naturally producing the right kind of story. In this sense the game is critiqued in an artistic manner. It is supposed to be about x but the game mechanics do not make this happen. Yet this attitude of players (performers) doing the work to bring the genre is common when designing improv formats.

This is why I say that treating games as art is a useful attitude to bring into improv. That is to think about the artistic intent when designing the format and not just during the coaching. I think there are two reasons why this is a helpful idea. Firstly to help reduce the workload of the improvisers whilst producing the show you want. To brag slightly the Open Roads format (or really the game Ribbon Drive which I didn’t create) delivered great stories in the right genre from the get go. This was without the improvisers having to learn a lot about road movies.

Secondly I think putting the art in the format can help make a more focused show with a strong emphasis on certain themes. Going back to the mixing desk of larp concept there is an opportunity to play with the faders and have shows where more is decided in the design. Things like pre-written characters, acts, settings or specific rituals to play out. Open Roads and Dreaming on a Midsummer’s Night are both pushes in this direction taking directly from roleplaying games.

That is not to say that the idea of more focused shows is original in the improv scene. Both The Hideout in Austin and The Nursery in London are doing short run theatrical shows in this vein. I do think the “game design as art” attitude is very useful for making these kind of shows. The nordic larp scene also shows off what can be accomplished artistically with play and improvisation. There are loads of amazing larps dealing with issues like gender, oppression, relationships and refugees. I would love to see more improv shows which tackle this kind of subject matter.

Really designing an improv show is like writing a play. The question should be “what does this say?” Above and beyond “does this work?” When you think about it we are OK with a game including lines of dialogue. For instance in this scene one of you must say “I love you.” In this way we can think of a scripted play as the limit of theatrical games where the designer has the most control. But even then this is not complete control. Otherwise there would not be thousands of versions of the same Shakespeare play.

I don’t mean to argue that we should not have freeform or no format improv. It is also a trap for improv to try and imitate scripted plays given they are different things. What I am arguing is that choosing not to choose is a choice. Decide what you feeling or ideas you want an improv show to convey. Then consciously work towards this when designing the format and rehearsing the show. Don’t just do a harold because somebody told you harolds were good.

Let’s Talk More

You’ve just read a whole bunch of words about nordic larp and improv. How these scenes interrelate and overlap and how they can learn from each other. I’ve talked about how improv as a tradition places more artistic emphasis on the performer in the moment and generally sees the format as functional. I’ve argued how treating games as art is a useful attitude for creating improv formats. I think it’s something with can make the performer’s life easier and push improv in new directions. More than this I love both of the cults I’m in. I am very enthusiastic about getting them to talk to each other more.

Based on a talk I gave at Solmukohta 2016 and expanding an earlier piece I wrote for The Nursery. Thanks to Karolina Soltys and Mark Durkan for their feedback on this article.