Incorporating the Fundamentals of Improvisation into Your Role-Play
Starting to get more comfortable speaking up at the table during sessions? Maybe you’re coming at this as a role-playing veteran, that’s okay too! This series will have something to offer for beginner and advanced player alike!
The topic for this series: improvisation, and how it can help your role-play.
If you’re a veteran role-player, some of these fundamentals may simply be putting names to concepts you already understand. Understanding why something works or the concepts behind something can never hurt, though, right?
Dungeons and Dragons already is improvisational theatre, in a sense, at most tables. Not always good improv – but then again, when isn’t that the case? This has only become more true in recent years. More and more tables are engaging with longer-form story driven campaigns, with stronger focuses on character and plot than mechanical challenge.
What is Improvisational Theatre?
A complicated enough question that could warrant it’s own entry, I won’t get into too much detail on this here. Just the basics.
In it’s most basic form, you can define improvisational theatre (or improv) as a story told or acted out extemporaneously, without a script. You could throw in that there should be an audience, but the audience could just be the performers themselves in some cases. You see this, for instance, when improv techniques are employed in therapy settings.
In many cases there are rules the performers have learned and practiced to hone their craft. There is also usually some kind of format to an improv show, defining how it will proceed. To keep everything running smooth, with an outside perspective, you’ll often see a performer acting as a host.
Sounding enough like Dungeons and Dragons yet?
As a Dungeon Master and a player, I have shamelessly stolen from my experience with improv for my Dungeons and Dragons play. I had to do something with my theatre degree, after all. Now, all of you can benefit from my years using these concepts in my own games!
The Basics: Offers
Offers are the fuel that scenes need to stay alive. When you define a new feature of scene (a relationship, details of the setting or circumstances, etc.) you are making an offer. Offers flesh out your given circumstances for a scene, creating a more vibrant world for your audience to become immersed in.
As an example using a situation you’d see in a Dungeons and Dragons game:
The party enters a tavern. There is a humble hearth lit in one corner of the room, which many of the occupants are huddled near.
In this short description, the Dungeon Master has made a number of Offers. This must not be a very big tavern, not in a very big or wealthy town. It also must be pretty cold outside. Now, maybe you’re more used to using pre-written material for moments like this. You’re almost certain to find yourself in unplanned situations in a typical game of Dungeons and Dragons, though, so you would do well to learn to manufacture your own on the spot!
A key feature of good offers is specificity. The first example could be made much more specific! The tavern isn’t named, for instance. How many people are huddled around the fire? More specific details make your scenes more vibrant.
Immersing your audience using this specificity is key, because once they’re on the hook you can take them to some pretty insane places and they’ll follow.
Accepting the Offer and Blocking
Now, given how important offers are to keeping a scene moving and creating a world, it stands to reason that it’s important to let them land. accepting an offer means you take on whatever new reality your scene partner is creating.
In the simplest form, this is usually demonstrated to new improv students by doing an exercise where they respond “yes” to every offer given to them by a scene partner. Though the scene doesn’t go too far with such a simple format, it never lacks energy. The reason for this is also the reason this is such an important idea; accepting an offer allows the scene to move forward. It builds momentum.
Let’s get an example:
Suppose you are playing a Half-Elf fighter. You have discussed previously with the Dungeon Master that your character is estranged from her father. In an Elven city, the Dungeon Master describes you recognizing your father in the street. Your father calls out to you.
What do you do? Well, obviously, you react in some way. Perhaps you glare angrily at him as he approaches, or demand to know what he wants. This is also a good time to clarify that accepting doesn’t mean always saying “Yes”, even though that it is how it is most easily understood. In this case, accepting the offer could mean your character tries to avoid being reunited with his father by disappearing into the crowd. You are still accepting the reality that you have encountered your father in the city.
What would be wrong, though, would be to say “That’s not my father” (unless it was meant as a sick burn, in character) and refuse to interact with the situation. That would be blocking, or denying the reality being offered to you. The scene has nowhere to go, and to make matters worse the Dungeon Master is annoyed and less likely to throw more offers.
Don’t be That Guy!
A scene would still fall pretty flat if both scene partners weren’t working together to build something. In improv, the pressure is shared by every player in the scene to make offers as well as accept them.
This is the almighty “Yes and…” you may be passingly familiar with if you know improv. What does it mean?
When you accept an offer, that’s great and all. The scene needs to keep building if it’s going to get anywhere, though! You need to follow up that acceptance with an offer of your own that further builds the scene.
So when you walk into that tavern described in the example earlier in the post, as a player, it’s nice and all to comment on how cold it is (accepting the reality offered) or “pull your coat closer to yourself” as you step inside. That’s accepting. That’s okay.
The scene hasn’t moved forward as a result of that action, though. Now you have a pile of adventurer’s shuffling awkwardly in the doorway while the Dungeon Master stares at the players. Make no mistake, it is absolutely also the job of the player to follow up with an offer of their own by taking action. Go to the bar. Seek out somebody to talk to. Take a seat. Pick a fight. Do something!
In Dungeons and Dragons, the pressure for a good game is on everyone involved. A Dungeon Master can throw a table offers all night, but if the players spend the whole time blocking, nothing will get done and nobody will have a good time.
Next time you’re out there role-playing in your Dungeons and Dragons game, remember: “Yes and…”!