Have you ever seen Who’s Line Is It Anyway? The long running show on ABC with Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady brought improv theater to the main stream in the 90s and is continuing to do so with its reboot on the CW. While the short, quippy games they play aren’t representative of the entire art form, it’s a good point of reference to start from. If you go to an improv theater like the Upright Citizen’s Brigade ( UCB) in NYC and LA, or the Second City in Chicago, you’ll find them doing long-form improv. Long-form is an improvised set of scenes based off a one-word suggestion or short monologue. Scene partners work together to create a believable world with grounded characters, all while sticking to a narrative structure. Improvisers learn how to do this by following a universal set of rules. When you look at the rules of improv, it’s easy to see parallels with playing RPGs. After all, improv is just another form of roleplay. If you feel like you could use some help becoming a better, more connected roleplayer, take a look at the concepts below:
Every improv scene begins as a conversation. The “Yes, And…” rule can be broken down into two parts. “Yes” refers to agreement: you should agree with your scene partner at the top of the scene. If you start the conversation denying everything your scene partner says, then your conversation is over. When you begin an RPG, your group starts under the assumption that they are working as a team toward the same goal. If one player is against that or shuts down the conversation, it slows down the game. The “And” refers to adding new information to enrich the scene and give your partner something to respond to. This new information can be in the form of character backstory, details about your character’s philosophy, and any other information that helps other players understand your perspective. “Yes, And…” is an incredibly important rule because it is essentially a blueprint for how to have a productive conversation in game and in real life.
Another important tenet of improv is to listen to each other. Instead of thinking in your head about your next game move while your scene partner is talking, listen. What they say will inform you about what to do and how to feel about the situation. Your RPG will be better if you listen to your fellow players and your GM. That way, you have all the information and you’re truly responding to the situation as opposed to thinking of a “better”idea and ignoring your team. It’s important to remember that you may not have the best idea. Also, a fellow player may have the first part of a good idea and needs you to complete that idea. Listening fosters collaboration and roleplaying is a collaborative activity, just like improv.
Play to the Top of Your Intelligence
The title of this rule may seem misleading–it’s not saying you have to play like a genius, it’s just asking you to play to the best of your knowledge. If you were in the world of your RPG, what would you realistically do? As a new roleplayer, you may feel pressured to play an outlandish character far from your true personality. You also might feel pressured to know more about the game than you do. Don’t make roleplaying harder than it needs to be. You can still play a dwarf and use your own life experience to inform how you act. Instead of putting three degrees of separation between you and your character, start with one.
Support Your Team
Improv is a collaborative form of comedy. Instead of resting all the comedic weight on one person, the funny is created by the interaction between two or more people. A scene is funnier when everyone approaches it as a team, contributes details for each other and supports every players’ moves. Like Improv, RPGs are a collaborative effort. The game is better when everyone contributes information, backstory, and ideas for tackling obstacles. There is a level of risk-taking in both improv and roleplaying–you may not want to try something out of the ordinary if you are scared that other players will judge you. If your fellow players work to create a supportive environment, that won’t happen. You’ll also have a more fun and interesting game when people are willing to try new things and think outside the box.
So remember these rules as you approach your next RPG session. If you’d like to know more, look up local improv theaters in your area. There are improv classes cropping up all over the place that are affordable and fun. You can also read more about improv in the UCB manual and in Halpern & Close’s Truth in Comedy.
Any of you improvisers out there that play RPGs notice similarities? Tell us about your observations in the comments below.