When in Doubt, Improvise

Since my first days as a roleplayer, improvisation has always been what it’s all about. There was never a plan to make it that way, however. I just couldn’t afford the expensive campaigns and adventures that other groups played. So I took my core book or box and I used it in every way I could think of.

As an adult arguing about role-playing with other roleplayers, many have found this strange. It seems that the hobby is often deeply synonymous with big popular campaign releases. Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play isn’t a game standing on its own two feet but gets defined by The Enemy Within. What did you do in “Mistaken Identity?” Ah, cool! We did that too.

But that’s not my fun. I wanted to write about my fun!

Just imagine all the things MacGyver could do with a lit match!

Improvisation?

There are many ways you can talk about improvisation in role-playing. It’s not uncommon to describe it in negative terms, such as a Game Master (GM) “pulling things out their ass.” Or to equate improvisation with the fudging of dice rolls. Improvisation of this kind is simply the same as the much-lamented “rail-roading” of a despotic GM.

But many roleplayers use improvisation techniques from improv comedy. Classic concepts like yes, and or yes, but, that facilitate a more constructive and collaborative conversation.

The rest of this rant will explore how to structure your gaming not just to facilitate some improvisation, but to turn player and GM improvisation into the main attraction.

Truth and Storytelling

There are two types of roleplayers who are most adamant against improvisation. I’ll call them truthers and storytellers. Ultimately, these two types of roleplayers are completely incompatible with the type of improvisation I like, and they will often figure that role-playing requires things that are not all that important to an improviser.

Truthers consider objective truth a central external value that must be established for the game to be playable. This makes any presence of improvisation outside safe bubbles—like what is said in a conversation with a non-player character—dangerous. A truther can’t improvise the existence of a village, for example, or who the murderer is in a murder mystery. Truthers often play adventures where investigation or puzzle-solving plays a central role, or explore lore-heavy worlds from favorite fiction or of their own making.

Storytellers, on the other hand, have specific stories in mind and want to tell them through role-playing. Improvisation may become harmful against the intended story, since it may derail everything or shift focus away from what the author intended. This style of play will often require fudging of dice rolls and other ways of minimizing the impact of failed rolls.

If you recognize the truther or storyteller approach as your preferred play style, it’s highly likely that the rest of this article will seem alien to you. But please read it anyway!

Bounce and Social Contract

The first thing to do is distribute ownership. When a player asks, “Is there a jukebox at the diner?”, it shouldn’t be met with a flat yes or no, but become a case of bouncing the question back to the player. “Do you think there should be a jukebox?” for example, or “There can be if you want—what would it be playing?”

The only rule around bounce is that it shouldn’t take up too much time. But anyone should be allowed to add something. The question is being bounced back, not just to the player who asked it, but to the whole group.

Some player types will abuse this, of course. “Yeah, there’s a jukebox, and it plays a magic tune that auto-persuades everyone to give me their money.” This type of player illustrates the most important part of distributed ownership: the social contract.

To make improvisation part of your play, you must be gathered to share a cool experience. Not just to win, defeat, or prevail. Players who misuse the bounce or try to optimize their gains, no matter what, are a poor match with this style of play. They may still learn, but chances are they prefer the truther or storyteller approach.

Say Yes, or Roll the Dice

I returned to role-playing much too late to know where this expression came from originally, but I ran into it in the excellent science fiction game Diaspora. There, it’s said that it originates from Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. For me, it was more validation than revelation. I had often done things this way, and no one had told me to.

It works like this. When a player wants to do something you (as the GM) either say yes, or you make them roll dice to achieve what they wanted. You never go for a flatout “no.” If you consider the jukebox example, you could simply say “yes,” or you could have someone roll an appropriate skill, or some other rollable thing. Even just a d6 where 1-3 means no and 4-6 means yes (a mechanic the venerable TOON has).

An extension of the same thinking is the use of random tables, even if that adds a layer of abstraction. In that case, you wouldn’t answer “Is there a jukebox?” directly, but you’d roll on the “Things you can find in a diner” table. The objective is still the same—to inject creativity and some measure of neutrality into the decision-making.

Following the Rules

When you fail a roll, or you don’t have the skills needed to do a thing, this gives you important rules output. Alright, lock is too modern to be picked with a lousy pick. Maybe there is a jukebox, but it’s broken and you can’t fix it.

Suddenly, you’re not improvising in a vacuum—you’re taking logical in-game events and you’re extrapolating from them. Bounce or no bounce.

Failure should mean that the specific way of doing a thing, or the whole thing, is now moot. Even that a situation escalates. Maybe as you stand there kicking the jukebox, the diner’s owner gets angry and demands an explanation. Failure should never be an invitation for players to do the exact same thing again using a different modifier to the dice roll.

Similarly, rolling D&D-style Reactions, or social skills in general, will constantly move the situation and game forwards without relying on arbitrary GM fiat. Successes can introduce new interesting situations and change situations in ways players had never thought of on their own or even intended.

Basically: embrace the rules! Look at failures not as showstoppers but as opportunities to take your experience in new directions.

Immersion

You’re following the rules for their output and you’re bouncing things back and forth. Improvisation is already made easier. But one thing that may also aid improvisation is immersion.

In this context, immersion isn’t about the experience around your table or the fiction you’re building through play. It’s about you as a player or GM being immersed in the fictional source material. Not in the way a truther searches for facts in the fiction, however. More as a way to find fitting expressions, good grounds for character behavior, goals, agendas, and styles of play.

For an example of what I mean, you may check out Bargains & Bloodshed (it’s free), which is my own thoroughly researched sword & sorcery game. With just a few one-page sheets of rules, and some random tables, this was designed to generate an experience as close to the literary sword & sorcery genre as possible. It clicks with the improvised style of play and does so by having few established truths beyond the rules and the assumptions made through those rules.

The game itself isn’t an example of immersion, by the way. Rather, I personally read lots and lots of sword & sorcery classics and tried to glean as much as I could from their style of writing, their pacing, conflicts, etc. I immersed myself in the genre to be able to represent it in a form I personally found close to the source material.

Whether it’s successful or not is of course entirely subjective, but the process of immersion is an extremely important aspect of improvised play. It’s intended to make you comfortable improvising, because you have already trained your brain. We can jokingly refer to it as method roleplaying.

Agendas

Improvisation can be more or less informed. If you’re not immersed, you have nothing planned, and you make things up as you go, we can refer to this as “full” improvisation. There’s hardly anything at all. Freeform role-playing.

More informed improvisation means that some aspects of the game’s play space are prepared in advance. A very good example of this is character agendas.

A good agenda lets you make decisions on what the character would prioritize and how a character would respond to certain events. It can be opaque, or completely obvious. But it’s very important that it doesn’t explicitly include other characters or imply an outcome. You’re not writing a plot—you’re motivating a character.

An agenda can be as simple or as complicated as you want, and may be prepared well in advance or can be written down as it clicks in place during play. Let’s say we have the diner owner who is a bit pissed at you for kicking the jukebox. This diner owner may have been completely improvised in the moment, because of the bad jukebox repair roll, or may have been a predefined named character. In both cases, it helps to give the character an agenda.

That diner owner may have an expensive mortgage to pay off, and the broken jukebox has been a constant reminder of the diner’s deteriorating financial situation. This could turn kicking it into a personal insult; almost like kicking the diner owner.

Use agendas, write them down if you want, and then refer to them whenever things happen in the game. Whether they’re questions being bounced, dice rolls, or something else. You’ll get to know these characters through play.

Representation and Relationships

There are two things you should do with characters that also helps improvisation.

First of all, you should use characters that represent important things in the game. Having someone that’s accused of being a double agent will show that infiltration and double agents are a thing. A diner owner with a heavy debt may be a way to establish a poor neighborhood, or a character with questionable economic judgment. Anything you want to represent in your game should have a character represent it. Factions, ideals, conflicts; if it’s important, it should be represented.

Secondly, you take all these representative characters and you spread them out. They can be player characters, non-player characters, friends, spouses, contacts, relatives, and so on. Somehow, they should be tied to the group in an as intuitive way as possible.

The reason for this is that the social network of the play space will become grounds for improvisation for everyone, and not just for the GM. It also makes it less of an “us against them.”

When the group understands that the diner owner may cause a scene over the jukebox beating, one character steps forward, and says it’s fine and that the violator didn’t mean anything, sorry about it cousin! “Ah, I didn’t see you there,” says the diner owner, “how’s the goldfish? And okay, just don’t let it happen again. Things are tough as they are.” (See there? Both agenda and relationship used to improvise what the diner owner would say.)

Established Facts

For improvisation to work, it has to be consistent over time. If we say the jukebox is broken and we also rolled dice and failed to fix it, it can’t suddenly work a minute later if there’s not a very good fictional reason for it.

We can improvise that our visit to the diner next day, there’s suddenly a jukebox repair team in place, and it’s playing some classic tune we’re all annoyed by. But that’s still building off the established fact of the jukebox being broken.

Buildup

As play continues, and the conversation around the table evolves, improvisation will be easier simply because of the accumulation of facts, characters, relationships, etc., that you are continuously doing through play. You may not even notice that it gets easier to improvise, because it won’t feel like improvising anymore. It’s just play informing continuous play.

Once you reach this point, you have mastered the art of TTRPG improvisation. Believe me–it’s way easier than you might think.

Group Conflict

No relationships around the game table will be as dynamic and unpredictable as those between the players themselves. So let’s push this improvisation one step further. Let’s add player vs player to the mix.

This is an extreme version of bouncing. You’re no longer bouncing questions to the GM back to the table, but moving the whole ownership of agendas and character relationships to the players. Each player will have their own answers and become responsible for what is true and what isn’t.

Depending on the dynamics of the rules you are using, this may be more or less disruptive. But most games will handle it much better than you think. But naturally, it doesn’t work at all with established truths or prewritten stories.

Improvisation!

There’s a consistent theme throughout the previous headlines that may or may not be apparent. The whole reason to rely so heavily on a combination of informed improvisation and game rules is that it generates a smooth table conversation. Without established truths to check, or a written story to second-guess, the most important things we can achieve are continuity and agency.

Continuity by informing our improvisation through play. Agency by bouncing questions, leveraging character relationships, and not saying no.

When you put these things together, you have the hobby I call role-playing. But as with everything based on decades of preferences, your mileage may vary.

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