Dr. Meredith: “A bit of advice…”
Mitch: “Oh, uh, thank you…” [gets out notepad]
Dr. Meredith: “Always… no, no… Never… forget to check your references.”
Mitch: [writes nothing down] “Uh… ok… thank you. I’d better be going.” [leaves]
Dr. Meredith: [to his wife] “I think the young people enjoy it when I ‘get down’ verbally, don’t you?”
– Real Genius (1985)
Lists of rules tend to be phrased in the negative. From the Ten Commandments to the Bill of Rights, most rules are, in fact, the list of things you shouldn’t do. This goes double for books on improv. Some of the rules I’ve listed in earlier articles do the very same thing. However, the problem with listing rules in terms of the negative – as in “don’t do this” and “don’t do that” – is that the negativity actually reinforces the very habit you’re trying to break. It’s an important distinction to make, since as performers (and human beings), the harder you try not to do something, the more you think about it and the more it’s at the forefront of your mind and the easier it slips out. Have you ever tried to forget something? It’s pretty much all you can think about, right? Same thing with all these rules. If you talk about all the things you can’t do and shouldn’t say, then that’s what your mind will focus on.
If you’re in an improv scene and you’re thinking to yourself, “I should definitely not ask a question,” then you’re a) obviously not focused on the moment, and b) probably about to ask a question. How can you focus on what your partner is saying if you’re thinking about what not to do and making lists of things not to say? It’s just the way human brains work. So, if you need rules, try to phrase them in the positive. Instead of saying “Don’t Ask Negative Questions”, try thinking of it as “Ask Positive Questions”, or better yet, “Make Statements.” That way, not only do you avoid a major pitfall, you give yourself an instant game plan, too. Positivity breeds positivity. If you’re standing on stage and thinking, “Please don’t fail, please don’t fail,” then all your brain really hears is “FAIL. FAIL.” That kind of negativity kills confidence and lack of confidence disconnects an audience almost immediately. Instead, stand tall and say to yourself, “Let’s have fun. Make some bold choices,” and surprise, surprise, that’s what your brain hears and that’s what you focus on.
Your players are telling you what they want – have you listened? It seems like a simple thing, but it’s often overlooked. Focusing on your players is one of the most important things you can do as a DM besides actually showing up to the game. As an improviser, focus is vital. If you’re not actively listening to your scene partner, you are not only missing the scene, you’re missing the point! Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: no improviser has all the answers (and neither do Dungeon Masters, despite what they might say). I know, it’s shocking. However, the difference between a good improviser and a mediocre improviser is what they do when confronted with the unexpected. Same with Dungeon Masters. Some improvisers will look away, out in to the audience. Some DMs will stare down at their dice, or at some chart on their DM screen as if the answer will magically appear… The truth is that the answer is almost never on any chart. For improvisers, the answer is always in your scene partner. What I mean by that is to focus on the other person. When confronted with an unexpected situation, a good improviser will make their response about the other person. The relationship between the scene partners is what we, as an audience, have come to see.
As the DM, you should focus on your players. They are the most important part of the game. Not the monsters. Not the really cool traps. Not their characters. The players. If the players aren’t the focus of the game, no amount of cool McGuffins or awesome loot is going to save it. I’m not talking about knowing their names or what character they play, I’m talking about their style of play. Some players can have fun even when their characters lose. Heck, I’ve seen some players have a good time while their characters died. Some players can’t have fun unless their characters win. Some are just there to hang out with friends. As long as they are the focus, your game stays on track. However, you also need to be able focus on the scene you are setting. Fortunately, the two go hand in hand. What elements are you creating that will attract your players’ focus? What is the point of this scene? Is it to introduce the main villain? To expose a betrayal? Reveal a hidden ally? If you know the main focus of the scene, you know everything – and how everything relates to the focus. But be careful with how you structure a scene. Is the scene “winnable” by the player standards? Have you set it up as a challenge or as an intentional set-back?
Always remember that as intensely as you focus on your players, they are watching you for cues on how to react. You are setting the standard – if you’re unfocused and talking about the latest YouTube video instead of the scene at hand, chances are they won’t be too focused on the game, either.
KNOW WHEN TO GIVE AND WHEN TO TAKE
One of the hardest skills to master in improvisation, even more than knowing when to talk or even what to say, is knowing when to stop talking. Know when to shut up and let your partner add to the scene. You’ve added something; now let them agree and add something else. If you’re not sure, talk less – not more. Silence can be a powerful tool in an improviser’s arsenal if used with confidence and not out of fear. As an improviser, too much exposition will absolutely kill a scene. If you come out on stage and tell your scene partner what’s just happened, what’s happening now, and what’s going to happen, then what’s the point of the scene? You’ve just performed a monologue and made your scene partner completely unnecessary.
As a Dungeon Master, you run the game. It’s your job to settle rule disputes and set obstacles in front of your players as they pursue their goals. I’ve said this before, but it’s important enough to repeat: your job isn’t necessarily to tell the whole story. Let the players talk to each other – who knows what awesome stuff they’ll come up with? Instead of constantly asking them, “What do you want to do?”, you can just look at each of them in turn. The power of silence is amazing. Instead of demanding they come up with a plan, explore what happens when you simply look at each of them expectantly. Wait for them to come up with a plan. Pretty soon they’ll get the idea that you’re not going to hold their hands the entire time. The DM does not have to talk all the time to reinforce their status.
FORGET ALL THE RULES AND JUST HAVE FUN
The most important rule in improv is not on any list. The imperative I live by as an improviser is to have as much fun as possible. The lists of rules are just that – a list of guidelines, created by another person. If they don’t make sense in your game, feel free to ignore them. I’m not even of the opinion that you have to “learn the rules before you can break them.” Go ahead, break ‘em! The way these rules came about is through trial and error. Some improvisers were watching other improvisers and noticed that the lackluster scene had a bunch of denials and arguments and negotiations, so they said, “We’ll eliminate all those things and have only great improv scenes!”
That would be fantastic if it were that easy, but remember, correlation is not necessarily causal… Just because people saw bad improv scenes that had lots of denials and questions and talking about the action, that doesn’t automatically mean that all scenes that have those elements will be bad. (There is definitely a link, but they don’t cause bad scenes.) I’ve seen plenty of fun improv scenes where the players asked a series of interview-type questions, scenes where they told each other “No”, and even scenes where they argued and talked about past events. But neither the questions nor the arguments were ever the focus of those scenes – the relationship between the players was always the focus in every great improv scene.
As a Dungeon Master, sitting in front of a handful of players expecting you to entertain them can obviously be a little daunting. Even more so if you’re unprepared. How can you possibly know everything your players are going to do and have a response ready for everything your players might try – while simultaneously corralling them back on the track of your well-written plot? Simple: You can’t. Really. So relax (and learn to improvise). The real trick is to be flexible enough to use their suggestions and incorporate their choices along with your own outlines.
Have you ever used a player’s creativity against them? It doesn’t make you evil, just a good Dungeon Master.