I’ve often heard people discuss being a GM like it was akin to being a writer. In some ways, I can understand this viewpoint, such as when devising one’s own setting or coming up with overarching plot for a game. A common thread in many of these discussions is either the players doing something unexpected that “derails” the game, or the dice rolls being poor and thus “ruining” the story.
Stories like that, including such that I could tell about my own experiences, have lead me to believe that there must be a better way to think about GMing. Writing may serve a purpose in this hobby, but it’s by no means the only skill one should rely on.
Enter improvisation, an artform most commonly employed in theatre, and an integral part of shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? This isn’t a mode a theatre that can be easily understood or performed just by reading a book, (or article on your favorite tabletop gaming website) but there are a few shortcuts that can help get you into the right mindset.
1) “Yes, and…” “No, but…”
This isn’t quite a shortcut so much as it’s a cardinal rule of improv theatre: always say “Yes,” and follow up with something to add onto the other actors ideas. I bring this up because it’s a recurring theme for many of the following points. They will all involve accepting what has been established, and working within that framework by adding more details.
Improv theatre has a corollary rule: don’t say “no.” Saying no to an idea kills any momentum the scene generated, slows things down, and makes for a much less entertaining spectacle as the troupe attempts to get things moving forward again. Improv is a collaborative storytelling activity, after all.
Despite this similarity, there are times in tabletop gaming where “no” can or even must be said. With this in mind, I’d like to redefine this rule: if you must say “no,” it’s best to provide an alternative idea for the player to work with.
Consider these examples for opening a locked chest:
“No, you’re unable to pick the lock on the door with that roll, but those hinges do look a little rusty.”
“Yes, your acid vial is strong enough to corrode some of the mechanisms in the lock, making it easier to break open.”
2) Baiting the Players
This particular tool doesn’t necessarily refer to “baiting plot hooks,” so go ahead and banish that thought from your mind. This was an idea I first encountered in the game Mountain Witch by Tim Kleinert. It’s a tool that gives the players more purchase in the setting and story. The way it works is like so: you set a scene for players, but finish the scene by proposing an open ended question.
Here’s an example of how to set it up in a modern setting:
“After a long day of work, you’re sitting listlessly in bed trying to go to sleep when your phone rings. You look at the caller ID. Who’s calling this late at night?”
With this technique, NPCs who might otherwise never show up or be considered can be brought in as either the bearer of bad news or some other plot hook. However, in order for it to work, players it is used upon have to be cooperative. Often times, when employing this or other techniques that hand narrative control over to players, I’ll follow up by informing them the only wrong answers are “I don’t know” and “This wouldn’t happen.” (Read: The “Don’t Say No” rule of Improv Theatre.)
3) Schroedinger’s Gun
Schrodinger's Gun is a mix of the concepts of Schrodinger's Cat and Chekhov’s Gun. Schrodinger's Cat is a very nuanced thought experiment about quantum physics, meaning I can’t concisely explain all the fine points of it within the scope of this article. For this purpose, though, just know that it involves a cat that is both alive and dead until somebody checks on the cat.
Chekhov’s Gun, on the other hand, is a literary device that states that if a gun appears in a work of literature, it MUST be fired at some point. Otherwise, there wasn’t any point to mentioning it. When we take this gun and give it to Schrodinger, it becomes a gun that is both loaded and unloaded until somebody tries to fire it. Basically, the rule here is that nothing is true until it is established as true. (GM notes be damned!)
Let’s go to an example that doesn’t involve guns:
In a game of Dungeons and Dragons, let’s say there’s an important letter the players need to find on the corpse of somebody. Though before anybody can check said corpse, one of the player’s, in a fit of being Chaotic Stupid, burns the body to ash.
One way to salvage the situation is to say that the letter somehow survives, or the body doesn’t catch fire, or some other implausible statement asserting that the GM notes should trump what might reasonably happen. This is where this tool comes in: if you never stated there’s a letter on the corpse, that letter can just appear elsewhere, such as in a desk or in a steel lockbox nearby.
4) How Do You Know Sarah Palmer?
Starting a game can be tricky; even if you know what you want to happen, how things start, and what the details of the setting are. You present all this that you’ve poured your heart and soul into to the players and...they don’t share that same passion you did. This can be a soul-crushing moment, and rightfully so.
However, consider this: it’s easier to take a vested interest in a work of fiction when you’re the one creating it. Not quite so when you’re just consuming it. Enter our tool: at the start of the game, during character creation, go around and ask the players “How Do You Know Sarah Palmer?” No answer is off the table, and each answer gives opportunity for more details into this one mutually known NPC, as well as how some of the world works.
If one player states they were once a business partner of Mrs. Palmer, then what of that business? Is it still going on? Are they still partners? If they’re no longer partners, how has this affected their relationship?
The best part of this tool is that it can easily be retooled for other purposes. If the party is already together, and you need to give them a new destination to keep plot going, ask the players about the next city they’ll be travelling to. What’s along the way? What’s the city known for? Who’s in charge of the city? Do you know anybody there?
5) The Iron GM Challenge
This is a technique we’ve mentioned before at High Level Games in another article we ran about how to master improvisation. The article itself is worth reading, but there’s one particular passage I want to reiterate here:
There’s a competition called Iron GM that holds their World Championships at GenCon every year. No, I haven’t won yet, but they haven’t seen the last of me. The competition provides contestants with a Creature, an Object, and a Place, and gives them one hour to create an adventure that prominently features those three elements. Just pick one of each and let your imagination go from there.
This works for any game. Toreador, Book of Nod fragment, Nosferatu warrens. (Vampire the Masquerade) Nexus Crawler, Klaive, high rise apartment. (Werewolf the Apocalypse) Great Race of Yith, manhole cover, police department. (Call of Cthulhu) If necessary, ask your players to provide the elements.
-Chaz Lebel, 6 Steps To Mastering Improvisation As A Game Master
This particular technique was introduced in a section using random elements to spin together a plot, and it illustrates another key element of improvisation: the ideas presented won’t always be your own, but you still have to be willing and able to work with them. Thus, it’s important to learn how to compromise.
Improvisation is a skill like any other, the only way to improve at it, is to get out there and practice. The above tools, however, will give you a good framework to begin your practice. Just remember these principles of improvisation: let others present their ideas, build off of the ideas that are present, and be willing to compromise.
Don’t worry if you mess up, and keep moving forward. There’ll always be more for you to work with down the line.
Aaron der Schaedel isn’t actually trained in improv theatre, or any form of art, fine or otherwise. He’s just a doofus that realized saying “I can’t do that” is a fast way to stop yourself from learning new things. One day, he’ll get around to making something with all these watercolor paints he has lying around. Until that day comes, you can mock him for being lazy via Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: http://handpickedatlanta.com/atlanta/hand-picked/atlanta-improv
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.