Jun 04

Improv Gaming, Part 1: My Core Tools


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmI have written about improv gaming several times on Tales of a GM. However, I only addressed various aspects of the concept, without presenting a unified guide for my approach to the liberating practice of improvised gaming.


See my Improv GM page for more articles on this topic.


This article begins a short series exploring my approach to improvising an RPG session. Each GM is sure to have their own methods, but these are the ones which work for me. I hope you can take something useful from my approach, and ease your progress towards a easier GM burden.


In my approach to improv gaming, I have six supports:

  1. Background Reading
  2. My Players
  3. Instigating Incident
  4. Collection of Story Elements
  5. Narrative Outcomes Table
  6. Skuld Cards


Part 1 explores the first two supports.




Background Reading

Even though improv gaming relies upon inspiration and quick-thinking, I find it useful to have some background knowledge in the field. Maybe this is just me, but I believe an basic understanding of the topic is a solid bedrock. You do not need to be an expert. Simply a general understanding of two relevant topics will set you up to improvise a session of gaming. Even if your reading just gives you the confidence to “wing-it”, then your investment of time will be worth the effort.


I recommend reading books in two broad fields to give you this crucial foundation for being an improv GM:

  • Basic Improv Books
  • Basic Story Structure Books


ImproBasic Improv Books – The core text for improvisation is the book Impro, by Keith Johnstone. This book describes techniques to teach actors improvisation. This is directly relevant to RPGs, depending upon your interpretation of how closely roleplaying corresponds to theatre.


I posted a brief review of Impro here.


A more RPG-fcused version of this text is the superb Play Unsafe, by Graham Walmsley. This book takes the lessons of Impro, and applies them directly to gaming. If you read only one book about improv at the gaming table, then this is the best one to choose. I prepared a set of guidelines for my Players based on the principles of improv described by Graham.


Find a copy of Play Unsafe on DriveThru RPG [affiliate link]


Basic Story Structure Books – The second category of foundation reading covers the fundamentals of story structure. By understanding the basic principles of how story works, the improv GM is better able to guide the direction of the story. My approach is to nudge the story along, allowing the Players plenty of freedom. Yet this still requires the GM to have some idea about where a story should go next.


I am very lucky to run an RPG where the principles of story structure, the ebb and flow of contests, is acknowledged as important. As a narrative game, HeroQuest 2 easily accommodates the demands of story. The difficulty of a contest can be adjusted up or down, depending upon the rhythm of the story. Thus, if the Players enjoyed a run of victories, then the next contest is much harder. Conversely, if the dice are against the Players, then the difficulty of challenges lowers. This principle easily reproduces the ebb and flow of a story.


Read here why I love HeroQuest 2 so much.


A more general book on this topic is Hamlet’s Hit Points, also by Robin D Laws. This is a slightly more academic look at story structure, and the way a plot can be broken down into scenes, or beats. Essentially, these beats can be positive for the protagonist, negative or convey information for the audience. Sometimes a scene achieves more than one effect.


Through the book, for illustration, Robin dissects Hamlet, Dr No and Casablanca. The focus, however, is on teaching GMs how to adopt these principles into their game. This is not just for improv GMs, but for all GMs. I find it very helpful to keep these principles in mind when nudging forward a scene.


Find Hamlet’s Hit Points on DriveThruRPG [affiliate link]


My Players

The second major tool for an improv GM is the Players. I am blessed with Players who embrace the narrative focus of our game. They accept the ebb and flow of the story, and accommodate my improv style of play. Indeed, the major lesson here is the need for Players to embrace the play-style of the GM, whatever that may be.


A lack of such agreement contributed to some poor campaign endings.


Focusing more on the improvisational gaming, my Players are adept at adding new elements into the plot. Sometimes they need story prompts, such as the Skuld cards I discuss in a later part of this series. At other times, my Players take an active role in driving the plot, often by messing with another Player’s Hero. Such twists and turns in fortune suit our style of gaming, and are accepted with good grace by the Players.


Finally, I have a couple of methods to guide my Players towards the style of gaming I seek. Leading by example is one option, and I have already mentioned the summary sheets from the excellent Play Unsafe. One final technique is the use of improvisational Interludes. Games such as DramaSystem and Fiasco rely heavily upon the improvisation of the Players. By playing one such Interlude every few months, I slowly acclimatize the Players to improvising character, plot and events. This process gradually acclimatizes the Players to improvising within the main game.




Improv 1 QuoteConclusion

This completes the exploration of the first two pillars to my improv gaming. The focus here has been on training the participants. As the GM I learn improv theory, and find ways for the Players to practice their improvisation skills. The next part of the series, coming later this month, looks at how I prepare to improvise at the table.


What improv books would you suggest? How have you trained your Players to work with your chosen style of gaming? What games would you recommend to teach Players some basic improv skills? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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