Jul 01

Improv Gaming, Part 2: Instigating Incident


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmThis essay continues the exploration of my approach to the liberating practice of improvised gaming. I hope you can take something useful from my approach, and ease your progress towards faster prep.


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


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

  • Background Reading
  • My Players
  • Instigating Incident
  • Collection of Story Elements
  • Narrative Outcomes Table
  • Skuld Cards


Part 1 outlined my core tools, the first two supports.


Part 2 expands on the third support.


Improv Prep

The concept of improv prep seems a contradiction in terms. My approach to being an improv GM is definitely prep-lite, but has yet to achieve the holy grail of being completely prep-free. I like to provide myself with a foundation of notes for the game session.


This is not to limit the freedom of the story at the table. I am not scripting out the session in the way I used to do. Instead, I aim to provide myself with tools to use during the session. Most weeks the session does not need all of my notes. However, I prefer having some fallback options should the story falter.


Instigating Incident

The first scene I prepare is not a fallback option. Instead, this is the opening scene, which I call the instigating incident. It is intended to kickstart the session, re-engage the Players and give the Heroes an immediate issue to address.


All my sessions start in the same way:

  • a welcome to the Players
  • the award of experience bonuses from the previous session
  • summary of any rules issues I want to discuss with the Players
  • chapter title and current date
  • brief summary of previous events
  • instigating incident


I believe the GM bears the burden of kickstarting each session. Players will reconnect with the story so much better if the GM opens with a new problem facing the Heroes, and then invite responses. Sometimes the summary of previous events is enough to set the Heroes in motion, especially if the last session ended in the middle of a story. For example, if the Heroes are halfway through a dungeon, then their next step is likely clear to them, without the GM needing to prompt the Players.


However, if the previous session completed a story-arc, then the Players may be at a loss about what to do next. It is a common story trope to begin in media res. The instigating incident is the vehicle for this media res.


For an instigating incident, I want a situation which presents the Heroes with a challenge and gives Players a range of options moving forwards. I want to say “. . . and what do you do next?” as quickly as possible. How the Players deal with this initial challenge, and where the story goes next, are all for them to decide.


Yet, it remains my responsibility to present an opening scene for the game. Even an improv game needs to start somewhere. I believe one role of the GM is to entertain the Players by challenging their Heroes. Authorial input at the start of a session is a fair compromise if it creates an entertaining session.


In contrast, I could read the summary to the Players, and then ask what happens next. I am certain this would be met with some blank stares, and a slow start to the session. Doubtless the Players would eventually find something to do, but the story momentum would build slowly. I believe I serve my Players better by opening the session in media res, and then stepping aside to give them control of the story.


Example Incident

To help make the concept of the instigating incident clear, here are the notes I wrote last week for our Fortress of Crows session:


Uroxi Celebration

  • Location, requires brainstorming
  • Sacrifice
  • Content
  • Outcome


As you can see, these notes are little more than bullet points. The first three ask questions of the Player of the Uroxi Hero about the celebration. The opening question initiated another round of group brainstorming as we created a mead hall for the fortress. Players and GM alike enjoy adding to the setting in this way, and it serves as a smooth introduction to the session as a whole.


Read more about brainstorming locations with the Players


The second and third questions asked for input from the Uroxi Player. He has an information sheet about the Cult of Urox, so he knew some background to the celebration. My hope with these questions is that they lead to some interesting ideas, or creative results from the narrative outcomes table. Ideally, these generate additional complications, and thereby the story gains momentum.


The final point relates to the outcome of the celebration. Essentially, this event was a ritual of Uroxi worship. This ritual may bestow a lingering benefit, or penalty on the Uroxi Hero. A notably good, or bad, result can spread this effect to other Players, or even the entire Fortress. In this way, one event leads into another and the larger story hangs together. Likewise, Players are shown directly how one action has an impact on later events.


Huginn’s Fables Chapter 5 recounts how this instigating incident played out



Improv Prep 2 QConclusion

I hope you can see how this instigating event serves to kickstart the session, without restricting the Players’ options. I invest more prep time on this event, but it pays dividends by ensuring every session starts with interesting choices for the Players. Next week I look at the second of the improvisational prep concepts, the collection of story elements.


Do you agree with the concept of an instigating incident? Or is this too much GM input and risks railroading? Do you prepare the opening scene more than the others you plan for the session? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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