You Want to Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 3)

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A roleplaying game is not all dice rolls and combat. Well, theoretically. They’re not supposed to be, anyway. After the players murder all the monsters in your dungeons and solve all the puzzles in your castles, they may eventually want to find a quiet little town, or perhaps a large, bustling city, and take a rest.

There are times when a game runs long, or when the players manage to cleverly avoid a dangerous area or simply make a tactical decision to return to civilization to restock their supplies. In times like these, as the DM, you will have to provide a face and a voice for the world in which your players’ characters live. Not every player interaction can be a violent confrontation resolved at the business end of a longsword. No, seriously. That gets boring.

As they move from town to town, or explore one particular town a little deeper (*coughHOMMLETcough*), they will almost certainly want to interact with the natives, talking to the shop owners, farmers, and other townspeople that populate this carefully crafted world of yours. If all of these individuals have the same voice, the same speech pattern, and the same neutrality towards the players, then things can get very boring very quickly, causing both the DM and the players to long for the excitement of combat. Throughout these interactions, inevitably, there is a conversation we’ve all had that can basically be summarized as the “Blacksmith Negotiation” scene. The player wants a new set of armor or a new weapon. While important to a player’s equipment list, the haggling part of this interaction is boring. There is also the overdone and cliché “Innkeeper Room Price” scene and the many related variations that follow.

There is a well-known maxim in improvisation that you shouldn’t talk about what you are doing. Don’t talk about the activity! Just act it out. We avoid this type of narration in improv, because in real life, we don’t give a running play-by-play while we chop onions or take a book down from a shelf or shovel snow. We don’t need to… the person you’re talking with is in the room with you, usually right next to you, and can see that you’re doing those things. A good improviser uses a mundane activity like those mentioned above as a way to set the scene and contrasts it with something outrageous. Most improv shows don’t use props. Improvisers pantomime everything. A typical scene where one actor is pantomiming a breakfast scene (pouring the cereal, putting the box away, opening the fridge, getting the milk, pouring just enough, then putting the milk away) does not need narration – these actions happen naturally and don’t need to be described to the other person (or to the audience). The point of all this pantomime is to use it as a background. This is something familiar while we talk about each other, make discoveries, and react. Besides, talking about the activity is boring and it takes us out of the reality of the scene.

While this can be very important in an improv scene, this may be the toughest one of all the rules and the least applicable to gaming. However, when you can, and if your group is a social bunch, there’s nothing wrong with standing up and making arm movements to show “how” the giant is swinging his axe at the character’s head. Just don’t hurt each other. And don’t use a real axe. Seriously. But growl if you can! Use slow-mo a lot. And sound effects. While the players may be the “stars” of the game, as the DM, you are the director, co-writer, and producer of this fantasy story – with an unlimited budget for sound, lighting, stunts, and special effects.

This rule does not deal with who runs the game. To be sure, you have the final word as the DM. What I’m referring to is the abovementioned Blacksmith scene. In improv, negotiation scenes are boring for the audience, and they’re likely to be boring for the players in a roleplaying game as well. In the audience, you can almost hear a show coming to a screeching halt as two improvisers argue about how much it’s going to cost to buy an item at a garage sale. Neither wants to “lose” or be seen as weak, so neither wants to back down and the scene goes on for way too long – and there is absolutely no relationship built between two people arguing over the price of an antique.

Negotiation scenes in improv are almost as boring as teaching scenes. When one improviser uses deeds, not words, and tells his partner all about how to do some activity, the audience also goes to sleep. “No, you’re not doing it right. Here, let me show you.” It sounds like a good idea, in theory. At least you’re doing something, right? Wrong. Not only are you denying their reality (remember YES, AND…?), you’re arguing, and you’re still talking about the activity, except now you’ve made it apparent that your partner has nothing to add and no way to help you. No relationship is built in a scene like this and no real discoveries are made if your partner merely instructs you on how to swing a tennis racket.

Usually, negotiating scenes occur when players engage with non-combatants for a bit of information or to buy new equipment at various shops. Do you want them to get the information/equipment or not? You’re the DM. Make an executive decision. If you want them to get it, have them talk a bit with the NPC, maybe have the player make a skill roll (Diplomacy or Bluff, depending on their personal style), and then give them the info/treasure. Or don’t. If you’ve determined that the players won’t get it, or this NPC doesn’t have what they’re looking for, then allowing the negotiations to go on simply frustrates the players and makes them feel as if there’s something they’re not doing correctly.

Actually, the traditional rule is “Take Care of Your Partner”.  Support your partner.  As improvisers, we’ve had it drilled into us: You must take care of your scene partner first! What instructors typically mean is to focus on your partner, give them lots of choices, and be careful to endow them with positive traits. I am of the opinion that there is no better way to take care of your partner than to take care of yourself first. What I mean by this in improv is to come in with a specific agenda, make strong choices, and build the relationship with your scene partner. Do everything you can to ease your partner’s mind. If you’re in a scene with another improviser and she is hesitant, shy, and slow to respond (and this is not a character choice!), then you are twice as worried because the weight of the scene has been placed right on you. But if you’re in a scene with a partner who is confident, makes eye contact, and embraces your suggestions, that part of your brain can relax and have some fun. Of course, there’s an ulterior motive, too – it just so happens that you make yourself look good when you make your partner look good.

In a roleplaying game, the Dungeon Master has all the power. The players are the heroes, to be sure. They slay the dragons, they have stories told about them, and they get all the glory… But the Dungeon Master controls the rest of the world. That’s a big responsibility, and way more than any improviser deals with in any scene. So take care of yourself first! The players have got their own characters taken care of. They know how Grognak the Barbarian will react to just about everything. The DM needs to know how the rest of the population reacts to Grognak. So, have some lists – lists of names, lists of character traits, lists of physical descriptions. It doesn’t matter if they’re in note form or full sentences, bullet points or index cards… Whatever will help you remember the bazillion characters that inhabit your world. But relax. You don’t need all of them at once. Just the one that’s talking to the players right now.

The whole point of playing these games is that they are supposed to be fun.  Your definition of “fun” may vary, and is a subject for another, much longer article.

That being said, people play games for a wide range of reasons. Some want to escape their ordinary lives, some want the power to do as they will, and some want to imagine swinging a mace into an ogre’s skull. Usually that’s what combat is for. But the reason that scenes like those described above are included in roleplaying games is because some players simply want to be social.  While their primary purpose is to provide information to the players (and to provide a much needed break from the otherwise constant axe-swinging and dice rolling), these social scenes can define the story, motives, and challenges of a campaign far more clearly than any combat. This is where the DM gets to exercise his roleplaying skills, let loose, and have some fun.  As the Dungeon Master, we often focus so much on the players and the story and the other details that we forget that we’re allowed to have fun, too.

Remember, there is no wrong way to make stuff up. Even if a glorious attempt fails, at least it won’t be boring.

What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “You Want to Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 3)”

  1. That’s a good point, Kath! Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice when I DM’ed for the first time. We were doing a rotating turns thing, and when my turn came up I had no option other than to be as awesome as the other guys. So, I studied about it, and the first time was not so awesome… But it got better over time, and now I enjoy it. (Not as much as I like playing the game…) So who knows? You might be great at it BECAUSE you don’t want to decide for the PCs.

  2. it takes a lot of guts to be a DM. Doing the different voices & pantomiming can make a lesser man (or woman) just look silly. This is one of the reasons, I don’t DM. I just don’t have the confidence to do those things in front of other people!!! I also don’t like being so in control of the PC’s fate. I get nervous when, as a PC, I have to make a life or death decision for the party – that’s why I never, ever play a paladin (aside from that whole lawful good requirement).

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