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5 Ways to Improve Your Tabletop RPG Improvisational Skills

Gaming 101

RPG Improv Skillz

So, how can we teach folks to improvise as gamers?  Well, the problem becomes that improv skills are sort of fake if we’re told what to do and say.  Its a very “which came first the chicken or the egg” sort of conundrum isn’t it?  So here, we’ll try to break it down …

Improvisation: To compose, perform, or deliver without prior preparation.

There are 5 important improvisational skills that actors are taught for stage work. They apply to us gamers as well. We don’t have an audience reaction to gauge how well we did but that’s not really as important for us. What is important is for us to get the feedback from the others at our table and help create something they can play off of and enjoy. Try these at your next game and let me know how it goes.

The Five Steps

  1. Let go of inhibitions
  2. Value emotional integrity
  3. Use the DM tool of “Yes and…”
  4. Be specific
  5. Play from the action, not the introduction

 

Let Go of Inhibitions

So, let’s start at the top. Inhibitions can be a crutch. They are that little fear in the back of our minds telling us that others won’t understand or like what we are bringing to the table. We all have them. Some of the greatest actors and comedians known from stage and screen are actually very shy. They fear public reaction to their art. We have to let that go before we belly up to the RPG table.

We have a character for the RPG game that we are about to play. That is our mask for whatever time the game takes. Take whatever personality traits or quirks that mask provides, then add nitrous and jack that bad rat up a level or two!

Don’t worry about how ludicrous it may feel or look. The odder we are, the more freedom the others at the table will have to let their characters come alive, and the more memorable the character and game will be.

Audiences will respond to either something they connected to in the character, or a surprise sprung on them. Here’s what I mean;

Raxok the half-orc Ranger is a character I created for the Copper Jackals. When I played him the first time, I wanted to relay to my fellow party members that he was tough, honorable, and had a hard life before they met him.

Some of my prep for the game was a talk I had with my wife and son about who he was. We spit-balled a few accent ideas. Looking at the tumultuous life I was trying to say he had dealt with, my thoughts leaned towards a cowboy life. Worked hard, fought hard, partied harder… but I know when I turn on my heavy southern accent it can sometimes be a little much. Next I thought about an old school Russian accent. It fit the bill, but I haven’t really done a lot of talking in Russian accent, and I didn’t want it to become a distraction from the meat of the character or for that matter, to the other players.

Finally I decided to go with a gruff voice, and a straight to the point attitude. I also gave him a focus on the virtue of integrity. He was a hit with several in the party including the GM.

The ideas that fell into place didn’t happen until I was there and Raxok first had to speak. As soon as I brought out the gruff voice, I heard him coming alive. I knew who he was and how he would react to almost any stimulus they threw at him.

Value Emotional Integrity

Speaking of “integrity,” what does emotional integrity mean to an RPG character?

In simple terms, it means we have to know who our characters are before they get into situations and allow them to react accordingly. If one was to throw a wild pitched tennis ball and it bounced off of the local drama queen’s head, how would she react?

At her core, she’s a diva, she might scream and cry, she might glare at them, or she might run away embarrassed. All of these are within her character.

Image of Dwayne "The Rock" JohnsonNow, take this same scenario, but have that ball hit Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We know how he’d react. We know ‘the look’ and we know the intimidation just his size has.

What if he didn’t see that they had lost control of the ball; what if he thought they threw it on purpose? Now they have pain coming. But these are things that would show character integrity. We can see how they would react, and as the players of those characters, using our improvisational skills and reacting to the GM’s settings and stimuli, we do what has to be done.

Yes, and…

We’ve all heard the videos telling DM’s to use the “Yes and…” technique when dealing with characters in their games. I’m here to tell you that it works both ways, especially when dealing with ‘improv’ acting.

An explanation may be in order here. For this one, let’s say we are player 2 running a barbarian based on “The Rock.” Here’s an example of how players can use “Yes and…” for strong effect;

 

Player 1: “I saw you yesterday kissing that orc full on the mouth.”

The temptation is to laugh this off as a joke. To make it sound like Player 1 was trying to insult us and failed with an out and out lie. But what if we did something like this for an even better effect:

Cartoon explaining yes and as a player tool.

‘Yes and’ as a player tool.

Player 2 reply: “Yes and he was right when he said his breath was fresher than yours.”

Alternate Player 2 reply: “Yes and when we find the spell to transform her back into the goblin princess, we’ll both be much happier.”

Alternate Player 2 reply: “Yes and she came home with me last night.”

The idea is to take what’s given to us as a tool to expand the possibilities for the next player or the GM to get into the scene. Throw it back stronger than it was given, the table will have a great time and everyone will remember the game when you made out with an orc. No one remembers the insult that you brushed off. No matter what they give us, do your best to give it back with new possibilities and a stronger motivation for the scene and or story overall.

Be Specific

Being specific means not leaving too much unexplained. I happen to be a wordy, talkative son of a gun. I know that. I tend to ramble on, trying to be sure I get my points across without leaving you wondering what I meant. I wouldn’t have to do this, if I was better at being specific.

In our scene we can say things two ways:

“Meet me at the tavern.” or
“Let’s meet at dusk at ‘The Broken Owlbear’ tavern in Daggersville.”

The first comment let’s the audience’s mind create its own image. One could be seeing a small farming village tavern with food and supplies. or they could be seeing a Viking feast hall, or maybe they do see it as the dark seedy place we intended. The point is – with the more specific phrase, the audience all sees the darker tavern. Dusk means it’s getting dark out, the place is named ‘The Broken Owlbear’ meaning it’s probably a hang-out for local adventurers. The town is called Daggersville, which invokes imagery of a thieves’ guild-held town. Maybe assassins, or at least something with a lot of underhanded dealings going on.  Painting the detailed image in their minds gives them solid foundations to build on when it’s next sent back to us.

Play from the Action, not the Introduction

Action doesn’t mean: “Hey, how’re yah doing? My names Glaver.” and that’s not where one should start. Start with the action and then go into the boring stuff. So if Glaver is our barbarian based on “The Rock” that we talked about earlier, we might start with something like this;

Glaver draws the whetstone in smooth strokes along the edge of “Scarlett,” his great axe. The tribal markings on his shoulder, across his broad chest and down the left arm seem to dance in the torchlight under flexing muscles as he works. A wry grin crosses his face as he recalls the battle outside town when he dulled Scarlett striking bone while cleaving through that alpha wolf. He can still see in his minds eye the startled looks of the others in the pack as they bolted away from him into the shadowy woods. He says, “I’m Glaver. Spilling blood makes me thirsty, so before you start a fight, I need to know there’s enough coin in your purse to cover the bar tab after I kill yah.” His eyes never leave his finely honed edge as he speaks.

In closing:

So there you have it folks. Improv and story telling 101. Practice these techniques in games and maybe even in the mirror before you hit your next table. The other players and even the GM will thank you. The only bad tools are the ones you leave in your belt. Don’t let them get tarnished and dull, pull them out and let ’em rip.  Also if you have a few ideas, suggestions, or tools for good imrov that I might have missed here, let us know in the comments.  I know I am always looking to improve my skills and help spread the good word.

Adventure is only a dice roll away.