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Techniques For Improvisation

by Steve Dempsey

In which the author provides a few tips for flying without a net


In the last issue we discussed approaches that GMs can take to player creativity. This article looks at techniques for incorporating and encouraging players to be more creative in games. I'll start by examining the roles of GM and player to see how this need for sharing the creative burden arises before going on to some techniques for creative gaming.

What is the GM for?
Much has been written about the role of the GM in roleplaying and it still remains a controversial subject. Without wanting to open a whole new kettle of fish, I'll just mention three of the main possible functions of a GM.

The GM creates a background for the game that covers things such as location of the action, the general peoples and cultures one might encounter. Against this generally static backdrop, the GM devises some dynamic effects such as the main NPCs, their character and goals, some incidents and PC hooks to get the game going. He or she would probably have an idea of the general direction of the game and the way in which events will unfold.

What do the players want?
The players want to have fun. Not only do they want parts in a rich story with breadth of possibility and scope for action but they also want to be pro-active in creating that story. They do not share the predestination of characters in a play, forced to act out somebody else's narrative. They are dynamic and creative in their own right.

What's the problem?
There is an obvious conflict here. The GM creates a world with rich and vibrant characters and a story direction and then the players come along with their own ideas and mess the whole thing up.

One way of avoiding this conflict is not to view the player's actions as breaking out of the script, or breaking the game, but to attempt to incorporate their ideas into the direction of events. As discussed in Ray's article, by harnessing their imaginations, the GM can spread the creative burden. On top of this, by making it a shared world, the players will feel more at home, it becomes their world too. They feel some responsibility for the creation, which in turn encourages them to explore and create in whole new ways.

That is the theory at least. You are the despairing GM who has seen the group of Chaotic Evil PCs ride in and trash yet another town, a whole month's worth of writing, just for kicks. What can you do? Here are some rules to help you on your way.

Rule #1: Write it down.
'Remember that really cool bit in last week's game when thingy's sister or cousin or whatever, used that McGuffin she got some place to defeat Dr Evil?'
Duh! Of course you don't, you can barely remember your locker combination. One of the biggest virtues of improvisation is that it creates a shared history. Some of this will seep into the collective unconscious but if you really want to a) impress your players and b) get some continuity then write down those good ideas. Especially important is to write down the names of any characters that crop up, such as PC's families and friends and the guy who runs the local Kwik-E-Mart.

Just scrawling things on the back on an envelope is fine but a more helpful way of recording this sort of information is a spider diagram. This where you draw lines between words to indicate relationships. For example, you can indicate all the main characters, artefacts and locations with lines joining them to show who did what, with what, where and to whom. With just a few links, you can quickly show what happened in last week's game. This avoids writing down too much, as quite often the lines are enough on their own.

Rule #2: Never say 'No', say 'Yes but ...'
GM: You are pinned down in the control tower by some marauding Vargs.
Player: My uncle traded with the Vargs and taught me their language and customs so I'll easily get us out of this.
GM: Grrrrr!

When you are encouraging players to help with creating both sides of the game, one of the worst things you can do is say 'No' to something they introduce into the game. This tends to turn off the player's interest and sends the signal that you are not really interested in what they are trying to do.

It is far better to say 'Yes but ...', incorporating the player's idea but making it your own with a few deft touches. One of the best examples of this I have seen was in a game where one character was a diabolicist. He summoned up creatures of the underworld and demanded that he be given fantastic psionic powers. He was. From then on, whenever he thought anything about someone, that person could hear what he was thinking.

Obviously, if it is something very silly then you should say 'No'. A player who tries to introduce magic into a strictly vanilla hard SF game, for example, deserves some reining in. However, it is much better to try an think of a way to introduce what the player has said, but in such a way as to maintain game balance and not spoil any surprises that you may have prepared for them.

They are many ways to extricate oneself from possible problems in the above example. Such as:
- the PC knows the Varg trade-tongue, but being able to order three tons of Moomin droppings is not much use in a touchy negotiation.
- the Varg have various in-fighting factions, winning over these few may have no effect on the others in the area.
- Varg protocol requires very strict language usage: the slightest faux pas and it's plasma rifles at 100 paces.

Rule #3: Listen to what the players say, especially asides and aspirations.
This is a very useful rule. The players often talk about what they would like their PCs to do. Listen out for 'Wouldn't it be cool if ...' or 'One day I'll ...' Remember what is said (better still, write it down) and then, a few sessions down the line, hit them with it! Not only are you incorporating their views in the game but you are also tapping into their almost unconscious musings about the direction it will take. This goes a long way towards reinforcing the sense of shared history.

For example, say your players are investigating a haunted house and they mention to each other that a scene is rather reminiscent of the computer game Resident Evil. Noting what they said, you start to introduce more similarities, perhaps hiding something in a lampshade, or having a record player whose music produces a strange effect. Then when they start to suspect, change tack and veer away from the known territory back into the unknown. They will be drawn in by what they remember and intrigued by the new direction.

Rule #4: Ask questions.
One way of finding out about what players want and expect is to ask them about their PC's motivations. This amounts to the same as the previous rule but is less subtle. The direct approach is sometimes more effective at getting the players into the right frame of mind for caring about the world. This is because it allows them to step back out of character and see things from a different perspective.

It can be done out of character such as asking 'Well, why didn't Grimbold the Bad just strike down that kid who insulted him?' You could also ask leading questions such as 'Was it because he saw something of himself as a youngster in the kid's manner?' However, it could break the flow if you asked this in the middle of a fight, and some players might object to being 'psychoanalysed'.

A more subtle way of introducing such appeals to the character of a PC is to get them to make a Perception check and then to say (depending on the level of success) something like 'The kid's aggressive stance seems to remind you of someone you once knew'. This works well for players who need to be handled carefully or who baulk at any direct questions.

This practice gets the players thinking about their PC's personalities and encourages them to develop the character of their PCs. This then invites them to develop a past for their character which ties them into the world in a better way. Thus the shared history can grow deeper.

Rule #5: Get the players to talk to each other.
The game is supposed to be like life. In roleplaying games, you find that players tend to focus on action to the detriment of everything else. In particular, they tend to take each other for granted much more than real groups do. Real groups of people talk to each other. In fact, they tend to do more of this than any other activity. It is very unusual for a group to be homogenous with no one questioning directions, motivations and actions. Actually, this sort of discussion does tend to occur in games. The PCs talk about their plans, where to find the Head of Vecna or which store is a front for the Yakuza.

However in a real group, communication goes beyond this. It is not just a matter of passing on information, it is about bonding. In a group of PCs, you usually have a group of people who have been together for some length of time. They should know about each other's backgrounds, what are the main precepts of any of the Gods they worship, why somebody became a paladin, or what being in Vietnam actually did to the soldier. They should know just what it takes to annoy each other, but also how to support each other and what is important to the other team members. For the roleplaying experience to be more 'real', the communication in the group needs to refer to this shared background and in turn, it helps establish that background.

It shouldn't just be 'OK, the wizard will fireball the orcs with the fighters acting as a screen and the cleric will back 'em up in case someone gets hurt.'

It should be more like 'OK Grimbold, we know you hate orcs. Yes, and we know why, you've reminded us enough times. Nobody is going to stand in your way. But don't you stand in the way of Pahrizar's fireball - his aim hasn't been superb ever since we had that run in with the Drow. And this time it's probably going to take more than a penny in the poor box to get Shalar the Wise to heal you.'

Rule #6: Break these rules.
This is a game, remember. If you are having a good time then you must be doing something right, so don't try and fix what ain't broken. If the game is flowing quickly, you cannot stop every few minutes to write down what is going on. Some players will be determined to abuse any creative influences that you allow them, so you have to be firm and say 'No'. Some players will stonily refuse to respond to questions. Other players will just go on destroying your hard work, playing out of character and generally abusing the system. There is not a lot you can do to stop this. However, if they notice other players getting some enjoyment from the game that is denied to them because of their attitude, they may change.

So there you go, six easy rules to increase the improvisation and creativity in your games, which, if used wisely, will provide the all-round benefits of increased player involvement and interest, a more shared burden of creativity and a more flexible and dynamic game for everyone.


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