Monday, November 5, 2018

Five or So Questions on Improv for Gamers

Hey all, I have an interview today with Karen Twelves about Improv for Gamers, a new book being released through Evil Hat that includes workshops and exercises to help any roleplayer or GM become better at improv! These workshops, like the one offered at Big Bad Con this October, promote fun, low-pressure environments to try out new skills for GMs, larpers, roleplayers, and more! Check out Karen's answers to my questions below!


Tell me a little about Improv for Gamers. What excites you about it?

I've always been excited about giving people a practice space to try out this improv stuff they've been hearing so much about. I've been playing tabletop rpgs since high school, and when I took my first improv class back in 2008, I was stunned by the obvious skill overlap. And also surprised that there weren't more improv classes for roleplayers, especially being taught outside of conventions. It's been super fun and rewarding to teach the Improv for Gamers workshops and give people some ideas and tools they can take back to their games. But what I'm most excited about right now is coming out with this book, because it gives people a bunch of exercises they can just pick up and play with friends in their living room.

What are a few of the skills you've picked up in improv and cover in the book that serve you the most often in gaming?

In both improv and gaming, you need to pay attention to what your fellow players are contributing to the story. If you're not listening to how the story is shaping around you, you're going to have a hard time navigating through it--to mix metaphors, all your subsequent ideas will be off-key. Active listening is required in order to say "Yes, and" to your partner, which is the act of honoring someone's ideas and building on them. (There's more to unpack with "Yes, and" about it not being a blank check, and nobody is actually beholden to accept every offer, so I prefer phrasing it as "Consider yes, and.") But to build off an idea, you need to have actually heard it first. This is just as important in a game that weaves a narrative between characters as it is in a fight sequence where you'd want to keep tabs on what everyone is doing on their turn. So the book has a lot of great exercises that specifically practice paying attention to and acknowledging your partner. You might copy someone's movements, repeat what they said, add a line to a shared story, create a cast of characters, or communicate through eye contact. But at the heart of all collaborative storytelling, you need to be listening.

A skill that I really love is handling invisible objects. You may have imaginary items in a larp, and you can also embody your character a bit at the table. Maybe you just mime your character polishing their glasses, or drinking a coffee. It's a lot of fun. The book contains exercises that practice holding and using invisible objects, and it's something that I still practice a lot in my improv troupes. It definitely came in handy during a larp where my healer character was asked to remove an invisible spear from someone's leg and patch up the wound, and we had zero props.

How do you make this content approachable for new people and people not into the gaming scenes that favor improv?

When I teach the workshops I always stress that I'm not expecting anybody to be actors. It's a practice space, so things might feel weird or be a little rough and that's okay. Nobody's going to walk out thinking "Cool, I'm perfect at this now!" And I repeat that a lot in the book--that the focus isn't to be perfect, or funny, or entertaining, but to just try stretching this one specific muscle that the exercise is highlighting. There's only a few exercises that are actually "scenes," the majority are group games, so there's less pressure to perform. There's also some things that speak to GMs, like identifying when to switch from one scene to another, or how to quickly come up with some specific voices so your NPCs sound different. And that thread of "listen to each other and make people feel included" runs throughout all of it, which is a life skill, not an improv skill. But you can practice it through some fun improv exercises!

The improv for gamers cover with a traditional actor's mask and dice on the cover.

What are some practices and behaviors in games that you think could be improved using improv, and how do you address them in your workshops and book?

There are games where it makes sense to be protective of your character, and there are games when you could be more reckless with them. I definitely wanted my Pathfinder fighter to make it into double-digit levels! But my Blades in the Dark whisper? That game grinds characters down by design. They're supposed to get hurt, physically and emotionally. Character death is definitely on the table. And if I'm in a one-shot game, I've only got this one story with this character, so I'm definitely going to take more narrative risks because I've got nothing to lose. There are so many improv exercises where you're encouraged to get your character into trouble, or play someone without a lot of power or status. I'm not saying that the best way to play is to play to lose, but it's a style that works well with a lot of games. And if it's a style that's kind of new to someone, I want to give them the opportunity to get into that mindset, take some risks, and have a lot of fun doing it.

What are some ways improv skills help with different roles in game, like GMs and players, and different types of play, like larping and tabletop?

Like I mentioned earlier, GMs have the daunting task of making sure everyone has an equitable amount of time in the spotlight, so you want to have a good sense of when you can put a pin in one scene and switch over to another. Improvisors develop a similar sense of knowing when to cut a scene so it ends on the right note. And during a show, that's a shared responsibility--much like in a GM-less game, everyone should be conscious of when it's time to see what a different character is up to.

I would say that any skills regarding character development are useful both at the table and in larping. There are so many tabletop games that have a line right on the character sheet for a defining belief or worldview, and you may even get a mechanical reward for expressing that belief in play. Similarly, regardless of what style of improv you're doing (fast-paced comedy, thoughtful drama, or something in-between), it's important to identify what matters to your character. That's going to color their decisions in a scene. It doesn't have to be something grand like "Blame the carpenter, not the tools," your defining value could be "I love trains!" and that's still going to lead to some really cool interactions. And whenever you're feeling lost and not sure what your character would do, be it improv or gaming, you can fall back on that touchstone for guidance.


Awesome, thanks so much, Karen, for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Improv for Gamers today!

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