This is a slightly revised (on Dec. 14, 2009) but long, rambling and dissociative essay, please bear with me.
When I was growing up I frequently defended Dungeons & Dragons by saying that it was an "improvisational acting game with math." For the most part this is true, it revolves around adopting the role of a character and creating numerical stats that describe and frame the character within the confines of the fictional universe you happen to be using. When confronted with a new system I always create a character to test the limits of that system. As play would continue I would become bored with what I was doing and begin to question myself and my philosophy of playing, commonly feeling trapped in a mindless and uninteresting creation. I would rediscover my improvisational philosophy and then attack the concept of playing a new role with vigor. Its an endless cycle of amnesia and remembrance for me.
As a player I often feel frustrated by the rules and, as you will see noted below, obstinent or stubborn GMs when I create a character that I think is interesting and unique but am forced to rewrite or cannibalize the concept because it doesn't fit into a "starting character" concept. Often the rules simply don't stretch far enough to encompass what I envision. I could give a couple of examples of times when I've been shut down, either by rules or GMs in particular, but going into that this early might detract from my point.
I have seen groups of players discuss and argue the aesthetics of characters and their roles often. When I first began playing these arguments almost always hinged upon the word "alignment" which was a waterproof match for lighting argumentative bonfires around the table. In more recent times I have seen players grumble about characters who seem "too silly" or other players who indulge in slapstick role-playing. As if the player is building up his character toward a joke of some sort which never pays off. When these sorts of discussions occur I am prompted to start thinking about my personal philosophy of role-playing, which essentially allows players to create an interesting character within the game world and simply going with the flow of the character rather than being hindered by the rules of the game.
There are a few rules for improvisational comedy that I think can also apply to a role-playing game and in the past I have tried to incorporate these rules into my playing style, always finding myself dumbfounded when a GM isn't familiar with them or won't allow the kind of freeform role-playing that they can allow. These rules are not absolutes. In fact, when learning them, they are often abutted with the advice that a very good improviser knows when to break the rules for comedic effect, or (in the case of a role-playing game) for entertaining or narrative effect.
Do not deny anything
In comedy this means: never destroy the narrative that another performer is building by saying "No" or "that's not right." The words "Yes, and..." are often cited for this rule. So if one performer says "I am driving my car" you should respond with "Yes, and you're going the wrong way on the street" instead of "No, you're flying an airplane"
In a role-playing game I have tried to create off-screen scenarios or background information that often gets met with a puzzled look or a query of "What are you talking about? That never happened." This especially annoying if a GM is the one to correct me.
For instance, in one game I played another player and I established that our characters knew each other before the game started. During the first session of play our characters were meeting again, for the first time for myself and the other player, but for the sixth or seventh time for our characters. The other player ad-libbed and asked me, in character, what had happened to my dog and for a moment I had to make something up. I was not going to say "Oh, I didn't write a dog into my character's background." Instead, I rolled with the punch he just threw me and responded with a sorrowful look "Bandits came onto my folks' land. They shot Rusty before I could take 'em all down." I did not deny the existence of that dog, even though I never initially envisioned a dog in my background, and in that instant created both a bond for our characters (shared time playing with a dog as children) and established a remorseful motivation for my own character (the willingness to enact revenge).
This rule can generally only be used to add little touches to the characters' shared history, or to create off-screen scenes that further or enhance the story, but its still effective and useful.
As a GM I try to challenge my players to tell me what they find when they send their characters out looking for new jobs or trying to coerce locals into giving them information. Similarly I never say "No" as a GM, instead I try to say "Yes" or roll the dice. If a course of action seems innocuous or interesting, then it should always be allowed. If you don't see any way that the player can successfully perform the action, then ask "How?" and get the player to explain the task in detail. If the action seems possible but unlikely, you can always fall back on a dice roll again.
Each of these adds enjoyment and possibilities to your game, not only for yourself but for all the players at the table. Saying "No" rarely does because it is simply a dead end and it forces the player to go back and reexamine the scene.
Don't ask open-ended questions, provide details
In comedy this is meant to refer to questions where you place the performer on the spot so that the burden of the scene falls on their shoulders. Asking "Who are you?" or "What are you doing?" is wrong, but asking "Are you the Captain?" or "Are you riding a unicycle?" is right.
In role-playing this can be used to help the GM, instead of placing an onus upon the GM by asking general open-ended questions, you allow the GM to direct information at you by asking specific questions. "Does the wall under the stairwell look breakable?" is better than asking "What looks breakable around here?", similarly asking "Does the Mayor flinch when I ask him about the rumors of his extramarital affair?" is better than asking "Do I think he's lying about anything?"
As a GM, it's important to effectively establish a scene by providing a common framework that the players can understand. Describing an building simply as an apartment building is boring and bland, but describing a five-storey brownstone building with two double-door entrances and a plaque that reads "Featherstone, est. 1923" creates a stronger visual and gives players an idea of how to approach the scene. Players are rarely allowed to narrate scenes or create the background, but allowing them a little control over what they can interact with also establishes a stronger connection to the game world.
Providing details is especially important for GMs when informing the players about what will be happening in the campaign before they even make their characters, this allows players to build characters that fit the game. Take note that there is a distinction here between providing details and hamstringing the players' choices. No player wants their GM to tell them what kind of character to make and what sort of background to apply, this is like giving the player a box of crayons with which to draw their character only for them to find they have 11 sticks of differing varieties of blue and 1 stick of orange-red.
Don't try to be funny, or rather, Don't try to be the hero
For comedy this same rule is sometimes called "Allow your partner to be funny" - every performer gets a great idea and wants to use it. Usually they are trying to get a laugh or make themselves look good, but it often has the opposite result. The idea behind this rule is to give your other performers something that is going to make them look good, by doing this you've taken the burden off of them for the scene and instead of struggling themselves they can focus at making you look good. If you want to have conflict in a scene, make your partner the "good guy" and let them "win". (As an additional sidenote: The original cast of Saturday Night Live wrote with the rule that if you thought of it, you couldn't act in it. That might be the secret why those first few seasons were so spectacular!)
In a role-playing game this rule can sometimes be used by players through allowing another character to be the "hero" of a scene, whether its dealing with an NPC or fighting a battle. There are plenty of opportunities for personal glory within a tabletop RPG, and many stories around the gaming table involve acts of heroism. Getting another player to a position to easily be a hero not only makes them feel good, it makes you look good. After all, Frodo never would have gotten to Mount Doom with Sam.
As a player this rule is easier to apply to the GM. Oftentimes a GM has a particular idea for the scene and they communicate it to the players, whether its a grueling task the PCs must undergo to achieve some piece of information or a series of clues that leaves room to explore a scene or task further - by taking the information, and sometimes clues of body language or attitude, a player can sometimes determine what a GM expects and either roll with it or thwart it.
This is a rule that I think very few GMs actually apply to their GMing style in any capacity. However, I think its the golden rule of GMing, the most rewarding role-playing experiences don't come from earning XP, they come from being regarded as the heroic standout member of the party. We've all heard horror stories about GMs who include their own personal characters as members of the players' groups, characters who never seem to fail and always get the best equipment suited for their skills. There are few GMs who actually put a player's character in a similar position, to succeed with little effort. I am not talking about fudging dice rolls, but actually allowing a player who creates an inventive or intelligent plan to have it go off without a hitch or stumble.
There are other rules for improv, but most of them repeat themselves or might only apply to being a GM. These sorts of rules usually end with the advice of "Tell a story" or a rule that says "Relax and have fun" - which to me are kind of unnecessary to draw attention to for the simple reason that if you are playing a tabletop RPG then you're probably already trying to have fun. The most important rule of playing an RPG is You are there to have fun. If you're not having fun, or you're causing other players to not have fun, then you're doing it wrong.
Where these original rules were designed to help with comedy, I think they can enhance role-playing as well. I think its unfortunate that more GMs aren't familiar with the basic tenets of improv, and while I don't think there is anything intrinsically wrong with trying to be funny during the game, or having a funny premise for your character, when it detracts from the game, derails the plot or frustrates the GM then its a problem.
I thought I'd share my philosophy and what I know about improv and how it relates to role-playing. I appreciate feedback and comments, as well as spelling and grammatical corrections, but ultimately I just hope you read it all and took it to heart. Thanks for reading.
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Extra bits: Examples of Bad GMing
I played in a Deadlands game for eight years and during that time I frequently had interesting concepts for characters and would then get screwed over by the Veteran of the Weird West hindrance system. (For those of you unfamiliar, the 'Veteran' was a one time bonus of XP a starting character would receive alongside a randomly generated Hindrance, or disadvantage, for the character.) I started making characters without using Veteran, but always felt one step behind the other players who would take the Hindrance. On one occasion I created a character around a hindrance, suggesting that receiving the hindrance is what started his downward spiral into the occult world of Deadlands - but the GM never allowed me to predetermine a Veteran hindrance, and summarily that character got screwed over on his eventual Veteran pull. Very frustrating indeed.
I played in a superhero game once where my character concept was a financial genius whose powers actually revolved around the accumulation of wealth and status. The GM didn't know how to incorporate such a character into his game so suggested that I give him more "combat powers." I defaulted to making a mentalist who I never felt was operating the way I intended him to as the same GM wouldn't allow me to use his mind control to create role-playing effects (such as "he ignores that topic of conversation" or "they no longer feel like asking me about where I was last night") and was flat out told "just follow what it says in the rulebook" - frustration set in shortly afterward.
There is no system more frustrating to the concept role-player than D&D, d20, True20, and whatever iteration it is known as. I have seen dozens of character ruined using the creation rules of D&D so many times that I can't remember all of the characters I haven't been allowed to play in this system. As it is, I will probably never play fantasy D&D (as a player) ever again as I have so many negative experiences with this gaming system and the GMs who lord over it with mathematical precision.
I was once allowed to create a dwarven mage-cleric in a fantasy campaign that a GM was running. The initial concept is broken within the strict rules of the system, but since I never planned on being a combat hog the point was somewhat moot from my perspective. The longterm concept I had behind the character was that he was going to try and invent a mass transit system for main city he lived in, hopefully eventually becoming a local lord or noble. As the campaign was set there and talk of local dungeon delving was the primary reason for playing the game, I felt secure that my mage-cleric would be a constant healer and protective element for the group. In one of our first forays into a dungeon the characters were enveloped by a teleportation ray that sent us all to a world where magic simply did not exist. Let me restate that because it is important: my mage-cleric was sent to a world where magic did not exist. A mage is useless without magic, and priests without magic are just weak warriors, which essentially meant that I was playing a character with four d6 levels of useless. Several other characters were similarly hampered by this transition, and when the GM revealed that we would have to explore this new world to find a way back, which he stated quite bluntly was going to take several sessions and we would all just have to take levels of fighter or rogue in the interim I decided to leave the game, which precipitated a mass evacuation of other players from the game.
I played a D&D game once where I was allowed to play an ogre who had been raised by dwarves. It was explained to me that most dwarves hated ogres so I wrote up the dwarves who raised me as a group of paladins who also tried to raise me as a paladin. It didn't work, but that didn't mean the ogre wasn't trying to do the right thing and make peace with dwarves everywhere. I tried to create a longterm goal of brokering peace treaties between the tribal ogres and hostile dwarves, which the GM enjoyed but also took great glee by making it almost impossible for me to succeed at. I ended up accidentally starting a war, which wasn't my goal so the GM got a kick out of it but I felt like I had failed. Several weeks of game play passed and I discovered that he just didn't take me or my ideas very seriously. He wasn't laughing at glee from my hilarious mistakes, he was taken maniacal glee in tearing down my hopes and wishes. The whole game was turning into this campaign where everywhere we went I was being picked on or attacked by the local dwarves, and when I confronted him about how I wasn't having any fun he just blew me off and told me I could deal with it or leave - making a new character was not an option, so I left.
Extra bits: Examples of Awesome GMing
I once had a GM take me aside and say "You have been replaced by a doppleganger." he handed me a slip of paper and said "These are your goals. Do whatever you want." I spent the next four weeks in game sessions trying to weed information out of two of the other players and they never discovered the truth, it was great.
I played with a GM who had been establishing over several sessions that this bandit army we kept crossing paths with were the "official" bad guys for the setting we were in. We ended up defeating a small group of them, and took several prisoner as we returned to our home village only to find it occupied by the bandit army. We spent half a session arguing, in-character, about whether or not we should execute our prisoners, coerce them into helping us take back our village or simply let them go. It was a great moral dilemma that I have rarely seen GMs put into the hands of players before or since.
Not really an example of good GMing, but of a player using their character's resources to their full and devious advantage. I once GMed a game where one of the players was a voodoo master and had set up shop as a barber next to a train station. The player was deliberately collecting scraps of hair from train conductors, though I couldn't fathom why, and after several weeks of in-game time had passed I notified the player that he had hair from virtually every employee. He used his character's voodoo powers to knock the conductors of a late-night train unconscious, subsequently crashing a train into the local station. From every angle I saw no reason why the train company would be protected from voodoo magic, and it was a pretty awesome idea so I allowed it without much difficulty.
And I know I was a good GM once, I just can't remember what happened. Perhaps one of my players will remember.