Jul 29

Improv Gaming, Part 5: Using Story Elements


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmThis essay is the latest in the series exploring my approach to the liberating practice of improvised gaming. I hope you can take something useful from my techniques, 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 seven supports:

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


This is my fifth essay on the topic:


Part 5 completes the exploration of story elements by expanding the final category, and offering guidelines on using all the story elements at the table.



Collection of Story Elements

As noted previously, the story elements are another aspect of improvisation I prepare in advance. These story elements are scenes, or the seeds for scenes, written on mini-index cards. My five colour-coded categories are:

  • Challenges
  • Characters
  • Items
  • Locations
  • Themes



This essay concludes this section of improv gaming by looking at the final category and provides guidelines on using these story elements at the table.



My last category of story element is the themes, recorded on green cards. Overall, these are the least common type of story element, as each campaign usually has only a single theme. I also use the green cards to record the broad campaign goals, and perhaps a reminder of some character story arcs.


Thus, this is the most meta category of the story elements. These cards rarely make a direct appearance in a scene. However, they are useful for keeping the story on track, and reminding me of campaign goals. Many character arcs are good inspiration for preparing an instigating incident, which then spotlights one Hero for a session.


Likewise, I want to reference the theme during many scenes. Firstly, this ensures a tighter structure to the campaign. I can remind the Players of the theme during the scene, which keeps it fresh in their minds. Also, the theme can influence the actions or motivations of GMCs, as I further seek to reinforce the conflict of the scene with the overall theme.



As these cards have such a broad concept, I include two examples here to illustrate their function within the game. The theme story elements help maintain a consistent tone through the yearlong campaign, and remind me of the central struggles of the Heroes. These conflicts are then teased out in different ways through the many sessions of the campaign.


Campaign Theme

  • Redemption vs Rebellion


Campaign Arc

  • Return Fortress of Crows to Ysgath, realm of Orlanth
  • Thematic Quest: Journey



Story Elements at the Table

Over the last three parts of this series, I explored the concept of my story element cards, and outlined each category in depth. These cards are part of my prep routine, where I ready myself to run a primarily improvised session of HeroQuest.


The creation of these story elements is only part of the process. Where they really shine is at the table, and here I explain how I make use of these many cards. Remember, most sessions are designed to begin with an instigating incident to kickstart the story.


Part 2 of this series focused on the instigating incident.


Many times, a session will focus entirely on how the Heroes deal with this initial event. Sometimes, the Narrative Options Table will spin off events from this initial set-up, and the session builds organically. A later essay in this series will explore these Narrative Options.


However, the most challenging outcome for the me is when the Players deal with the instigating incident relatively quickly. Then I need to improvise a new scene quickly. This is where the story elements help me.


Using the Story Elements

As an improv GM, I am well aware of the feeling of dread when the momentum of the session fails. The Players want to be entertained, and now the GM needs a fresh scene to throw into the mix. At times like this, my first option is the story element cards. Remember, I use halved index cards which sit better in my hand, and are easy to shuffle through.


I search quickly for one or two suitable scripted elements to weave into the story. Ideally, I want to build on actions of the Heroes from the instigating event, or perhaps from a previous session. As I shuffle through the cards, I ask myself some quick questions:

  • Is there a recurring GMC who has a link to the current situation?
  • Where in the Fortress of Crows could we go next?
  • How can I weave in the themes of the campaign?
  • What previous actions of the Heroes can we revisit here?
  • Can I build on a previous result from the Narrative Outcomes Table?


Just browsing these cards will spark an answer to at least one of these questions. Very often, I combine two or more of the cards:

  • A GMC is driven by desire for an item
  • A challenge in a location
  • A GMC embodies a theme


Once I have picked the relevant scene elements, I present the new situation to the Players, and the story continues. Sometimes I tweak a story element to better fit the flow of the session, or reflect previous events. This is easy to do as the cards are deliberately left vague. The story elements are prompts for the GM at the table, not fixed scenes.



Improv 5 QConclusion

The dream outcome is a session which flows smoothly, with a strong narrative thread. The best sessions feel like they were designed to achieve special moments for the Heroes. The story elements do not always achieve these goals, but they definitely ease my journey at the table. Try them in your game.


How do you improvise at the table? What tools or prompts do you like? Is there another category of story elements I have missed? Have you tried to use something similar? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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