You Want to Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 1)

Table of Contents

As anyone who has ever sat on the business end of a GM screen can tell you, running an adventure for a roleplaying game (even adapting a pre-made adventure to your own group) takes a lot of work. I firmly believe that with enough time and preparation, just about anyone can run a D&D game. But how do you create new stuff “on the spot”, under pressure, and when your players demand it? Sure, you can have a list of names, and a list of attributes for random NPCs, but what do you do when the players decide to negotiate instead of fight? When they surrender and try to trick the guards into capturing them? When they take your carefully planned series of adventures and throw it right out the window? You have to make stuff up. But when you ask someone “how” they make stuff up, you’ll usually get a response like, “I dunno… I guess I just do it.” This does not help.

(verb) \(ˌ)im-ˌprä-və-ˈzā-shən, ˌim-prə-və- also ˌim-prə-(ˌ)vī-\
1. to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously
2. to make, invent, or arrange offhand
3. to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand
From Latin improvisus, literally, unforeseen, from in– + provisus, past participle ofprovidēre to see ahead

Hmm, not a whole lot in the dictionary, either… Guess we’ll have to dig a little deeper.

I was introduced to roleplaying games (Dungeons & Dragons if you must know) at the tender age of just 10 years old. When I first started gaming, I was fascinated by my best friend Jeff’s ability to weave stories and run this magical game – of course it was just for me, so they were all solo adventures – but knowing what I know now, that must have been harder, not easier. As I got older, I became obsessed with acting and performing, and studied it in college, eventually moving out to Los Angeles to pursue it as a full-time career. I knew that to get better at my craft (acting), I needed to learn comedic timing… It was one of my weak points – and I despise weak points. I could memorize lines and recite them, but making up a scene off the top of your head? How was that even possible? So I started taking comedy classes. Through my studies, I became interested in improv comedy, and how to be “funny on demand”. Improv comedy scared the hell out of me, and, admittedly, it was a little ugly at first. But the more I did it, the less fear held me back and the more excitement propelled me forward until I found myself auditioning for an improv troupe – and got in!

While pursuing acting and comedy, I never let my love of gaming completely fade away. As I learned the “rules” for improv (more on that later), I was amazed to find how much they directly corresponded to roleplaying games. I’ve performed on stage for live audiences for over 4 years with several different groups, and with a little technical know-how, I am confident I could run any game with exactly zero preparation and still make it fun – and have had to do so on more than one occasion.

There are 10 Rules of Improv.  I think… or is it 20? Some lists have 8. Others insist on 11. Actually, every school has their own list, and there are a lot of schools of improv. Suffice it to say that there are lots of “rules” for improv, but mostly they’re supposed to help guide an actor towards making a positive contribution and telling a story. That’s all. The rules are there to help you tell a better story, but mostly you need to learn them so you can forget about them (not “break” them, necessarily) and have a good time. This is about having as much fun as possible, after all. I’m not going to cover every rule, as some of them simply don’t apply to roleplaying games, but I will cover the big ones. By the end of this article, I’ll give you three things you can do immediately in your games to start having more fun and spend less time preparing.

This might be the most frequently mentioned and most well-known “rule” of improvisation in the world. You might already have heard of it. The Dungeon Master’s Guide mentions this rule by name. The most important part of this rule, however, is the ellipsis. (That’s the three little dots after the word “and”.) In improv, this means that someone, usually your scene partner, will start a scene with a statement of fact, like “They closed the mall today.” Now, the most important thing an improviser can do at this point is to say “Yes, and now I’m out of a job.” (What you actually say isn’t that important, but that you agree is vital.) This pattern of yes, and… exists to help the improvisers build a story by adding information. So add something. Anything. A detail, another statement. Whatever.

Applying this to gaming (to use the example from the DM’s Guide), when players ask if there is a wizards’ guild in town, your job is to say “Yes.” There are a lot of reasons to do this, not the least of which is that it makes your world seem bigger, it puts you back in control, and it makes the players feel as if you have prepared for every eventuality. Now if, for whatever reason, you don’t want your players meddling with the wizards just yet, there are ways to go about diverting them while still agreeing. This rule is not to be confused with letting the players do whatever they like. Down that road lies chaos and madness. If you don’t want them mucking about with the wizards guild, just say something like “Yes, and they all seem to be diseased old lepers, drooling and muttering to themselves.”

This is an extension of “yes, and…”, but it bears repeating as it is one of the most important rules of improv. In an improv scene, the players are making up the world together, in the moment, right in front of the audience. They don’t have time to wonder “is that right?” or “what does that mean?” They accept it as fact, and then move on to build their story around it. Which is why, with talented improvisers, what is actually spontaneously created in that scene appears to be seamless and pre-planned.

When players make suggestions (and if your players are anything like mine, they’ll do so constantly), resist the impulse to deny them outright. What if one of their suggestions is better than what you had planned? Don’t worry about who came up with the idea, just use it. They won’t remember who suggested what, they’ll just remember that they had a great roleplaying session. Then take credit for it. After all, it’s not your job to come up with the entire story. Your players are there not just to fight the monsters you throw at them, but to help evolve the story into something you can all be proud of. The real art of improv in gaming is using your players to fully develop your story.

Questions in an improv scene are taboo. (Well, depending on the school of comedy and where the improviser learned their craft.) As a general rule, questions are frowned upon in scenes because, believe it or not, they don’t actually help the actors tell a better story. In improv, the scene partners don’t need to ask. They know already if it’s hot outside or what the other person does for a living. They make assumptions, and in this case, the assumptions are always true, because, as we learned before, it’s the improviser’s job to agree.

In gaming, there’s a lot more give and take with the players, because they are both the performers and the audience. The important thing is to avoid “yes/no” questions. The reason behind this is simple — you don’t want to limit your players, you want to enable them. When you ask limited questions like “Do you follow the orc?” or “Do you want to negotiate?“, it’s subtle, but it limits the players’ options. Instead, ask questions like this: “The orc sneaks off through the alley. What do you want to do?” This kind of question allows them to decide their own course of action, even when you’re pretty sure what that course of action is going to be. Open-ended questions give the players some control (or is it the illusion of control?) when determining their character’s actions. Players that feel that they’re making positive contributions to the story are players that can’t wait for the next game session.

Some of my best gaming sessions have occurred when I had nothing planned and had no idea what to do. If a player makes a suggestion, 99% of the time there is something in there that can be useful to the story. I always want to use it, or to use part of it, but I always agree because it involves the player in a way that can’t be measured. The players are now part of the storytelling process, easing your workload and allowing you to enjoy the sessions more. Watch what happens when you start letting the players make stuff up.

16 thoughts on “You Want to Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 1)”

  1. I love this series. I’ve suspected for a long time that improv acting and DMing are closely related, so this is just what I was looking for. I’ve actually considered taking improv acting classes to be a better DM and player.

    For those looking for Part 2: I had to skip to Part 3 to finding a working link for Part 2.

  2. but going off the map is the fun part of your games.

    anyway I can remember DM’ing a group in college that was being attacked by a blue dragon as they crawled their way across a mountain pass.

    As the dragon swooped in to breath lightning death from above, one of the characters cast a ‘Suggestion Spell’ and suggested that the dragon didn’t know how to fly. I thought hey why not roll the saving throw and wouldn’t you know it, I rolled a ‘1’ and the dragon crashed to his doom in the ravine far below, momentarily forgetting that it could fly.

    That one earned them some points

  3. One of the best memories I have of pissing my DM off to no end was when we faced off with a dragon. It was a pretty old and very powerful creature and one of the guys ended up in it’s mouth. He asked if he could try to attack from inside the dragon’s mouth & the DM told him it had to be a small weapon and he need to role percentiles. The guy managed to role the needed percentage and just happend to have an arrow of dragon slaying that he had picked up in a previous session. The dragon failed it’s save and a combat that should’ve kicked our asses was over in 1 round. My DM was so pissed because he had spent a month perfecting that dragon. It was great.

    Now my DM no longer spends that much time on anything because he knows we will always go off on a tangent that he didn’t prepare for. He’s very good at improving so it’s really not an issue. It did take us a while to catch on that when he asked us what we thought was going on at the end of a session, it was to get ideas for the story. He got some of his best and nastiest ideas from our speculations.

  4. I have to say that yesterday my players made me put my money where my mouth was — by TOTALLY going off the map… With some quick thinking and LOTS of roleplaying, we came to a mutual agreement, but it was pretty interesting there for a bit. The real key is to never let ’em see you sweat!

  5. This is sooo true, not just for D&D but for all creative storytelling and even everyday conversations. Keep spittin the truth bro!

  6. Concise, well written and most of all useful. Thanks for attacking DMing from the performance, rather than the planning angle, which I find to be the angle most people get bogged down in. Are you planning on writing something similar for players at any point? It’d be nice to see something that helps players make their characters “pop.”

  7. Thanks for all the great feedback, folks! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated by trying to find the one single solution that a GM has predetermined is the “right” way to solve his puzzles.

    Next week: talking about more ways to “fake” it until you make it.

  8. I have to say, I’m in COMPLETE agreement with you. There’s nothing worse than a “GM-Nazi” who insists that everything be done his or her way, without allowing any input from the players into how the story (and the experience) unfolds. It’s intrinsically a social experience, and just like in any relationship, there should be push and pull.

    I would never have thought to associate improv skills with RPG skills, but it’s an excellent point. I know a couple of people I’d like to send off to school for that kind of education! ;-)

  9. One of my favourite games in recent memory was running out of prep half way through a trap filled dungeon and making the rest up as i went along.

    It was great to see how my players reacted to some of the traps and puzzles i threw at them from the top of my head. Plus, without have a pre determined solution the players actually helped me solve my own puzzles.

    Good information, Steven


Leave a Comment