Improv for Gamers Review

“How do I play a roleplaying game?” One might answer that question with a bunch of talk about the rules, and the dice, and the character creation, but that doesn’t quite cover all the aspects of the question. What about the actual roleplaying part? I’ve mused among friends and while teaching newcomers that it’s a ‘learned skill’, but don’t worry about, let’s just get into it and you’ll get the hang of it. I don’t think I’m wrong to say that . . . but surely there’s a way to learn the skill, and better yet practice it, besides just fumbling your way through the first few sessions? As it turns out, there is, and it comes in the shape of a book: Improv for Gamers from Evil Hat Productions!

Improv for Gamers is in the same class of book as the Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide, a system-agnostic tool you can use to improve your gaming experience. While the guide tackled the character writing and world building aspects, IfG is addressing something a little more nebulous: learning how to play the roles that come with roleplaying through improvisational theater exercises. Luckily for us (and thanks to Sean Nittner of Evil Hat for getting us in touch) I was able to talk with author Karen Twelves about the book and the exercises within! The first thing I asked Karen during our chat was how the book came to be in the first place, taking it from workshop to publication. It started, as good ideas tend to, by trying to overcome some problems.

“What are the challenges that we have (while playing roleplaying games), what are the skills we would need then to overcome those challenges? How can we practice those skills through these various theater games? So we (Twelves, Mia Blankensop, and Matthew Klein) kind of really curated a bunch of exercises that we thought would work really well to kind of illustrate our points about collaborative storytelling, and making characters together, and decided to teach it at a store in Oakland called EndGame. And it went really well, so we started teaching it at Big Bad Con . . . and then Matthew and I both go up to Seattle for Go Play Northwest, so we were teaching it up there, and then I started kind of taking over the teaching of it in general and doing it solo at other conventions and events.

I used to be a teacher of ESL, in more of a formal classroom setting, so I’d written very detailed lesson plans for the workshops including what are we doing, the instructions, why are we doing this, what to tell people, tips to watch out for – I had a very detailed plan that I’d written up for everything. And people had often asked me, like, hey, can I get your notes so I can remember what these games were that we just did? And sometimes I was like, sure, you can have these notes, but they’re kind of written for an improv coach to read, and other times I was like, I don’t know . . . it’s kind of a mess  . . . written by me for me.

So I kind of kept thinking about that and wanting to put together some kind of book, and originally the thought had been . . .  I’ll package this together for other instructors to lead workshops! But the more I thought about it the more I thought, that’s not really the most useful thing . . . who I should really be talking to are the people themselves who are playing the games, and design it in such a way that they can pick up the book, flip open to a page, read aloud it their friends and play the game . . . then have a little debrief about it and teach themselves! So I kind of then overhauled the whole thing, and rewrote it in the idea that anybody could hopefully pick it up and play and get a couple of ideas out of the exercises they just did. 

So there are sections where, you know,  I talk a little bit about improv and a little bit about gaming, I try not to really pontificate too much just because . . . I’m certainly not an or the only expert, I’m only drawing from my own experiences and there’s a lot of ways to game and a lot of ways to improv, so I really try to be very . . . system agnostic, I suppose, in saying ‘these are useful no matter what you’re doing’, and I’m not saying there’s a certain way.

So that’s kind of how the book came to be!” 

There are a total of 40 exercises in the book, divided up into eight chapters: Warmers, Yes And, Character, Relationships, Status, Space Objects, Timing, and Scenework. Essentially, these sections are in the book in order of complexity, if not exactly difficulty. A Warmer like Sound Ball, an exercise consisting of throwing an invisible ball around among the group and making silly sounds, is more about getting you used to looking a little undignified and not caring about that. Then you have Character Backstories in the Scenework section, which involves players using a one sentence backstory to inform how they act in a scenario, without telling their partner what their backstory is until the exercise is over. So what was the criteria for choosing these exercises, anyways? , 

“Originally it had been designed clumped together for the different workshops I had planned, because I have kind of a series of three: Improv for Gamers, Improv for GMs, and Improv for LARPers. I chucked that and tried to focus on ‘here’s a couple for each skill set’. They start out kind of easy for each chapter, then get progressively maybe a little more challenging, and also at the end they go into the heavier scene work exercises, where people who really want to do more performance-y improv can practice it. Most of them were picked because they are group games, everybody plays them, they’re pretty easy to figure out how to do. They don’t have a lot of performance requirements, like you don’t have to be an improviser or an actor to do them and have fun and be good at them.”

Now, personally I’ve experienced improv through a couple different lenses. I’ve seen it used as a practice or warm-up exercise for scripted theater, and then I’ve seen improv theater for its own sake as entertainment. This isn’t Improv as Acting Practice or Improv as Performance, though, it’s Improv for Gamers. So I was particularly curious about how approaching improv through the lens of roleplaying games – tabletop or live – changed the design of the exercises/the writing of the book.

“Part of it was the selection of things that we did. So, there are other types of exercise that may be a little bit more for performers that I didn’t worry about so much, and again I tried to really write it with a tone of ‘it’s okay if you’re not great at this, it’s okay if you’ve never done this before, it’s okay if this feels weird and new, that’s part of trying out improv for the first time’. So I was really trying to write it to assure people that it’s going to be okay if they try out these weird theater games! It’s kind of the slant more of what we would call ‘applied improv’, which is a really kind of large overarching term in teaching improv to anybody who is not a performer, so taking improv out of the theater entirely. It’s often taught to regular folks, I teach a class called Improv for Real Life, where we play a lot of games and then talk about just how it makes us better and more awesome people . . . You can teach those types of classes for corporate team-building, and focus on communication and collaboration so it just depends on what exercises you want to pick and then how do you want to talk about how it is useful …

The overlap in my opinion between the skills that you’re using in roleplay games and the skills that you’re using in improv are almost a perfect circle. There’s so much overlap that a ton of it is very useful. That immediately struck me when I took my first improv class, I was like ‘oh my gosh, my gaming is going to be amazing now!’ But I had to do a lot of the translating myself . . . here’s specifically why this is good in this gaming situation, so [the reader] didn’t have to piece through it and try to find just the parts that worked for them.”

Were there any exercises that Karen liked that didn’t make the cut?

“Not that they didn’t make the cut, they just didn’t get in on time! There was certainly no page limit to this when I pitched it, you know, I kind of pitched ‘here are the words I have so far’. But there were some exercises that . . . you know I’m always still learning new things too, and even though I am performing and I am teaching I still take classes because I want to learn from other people and always get new perspectives. So while the book was in development I was putting on some shows with people I hadn’t performed with before and learning all these cool warmups from them, but it was just too late to put it in the draft!”

One thing that did make it into the draft is that quite a few of the exercises have an expansion suggestion – not a harder version of the exercise in question, as Karen explained, but simply another way to get something extra out of the content. For one example I’m A Tree from the Yes, And chapter is all about posing together and making statements to build a scene: I’m a tree, I’m a squirrel, I’m the nut the squirrel is trying to hide in the tree. Practice, basically, for creating a scene together that makes internal sense. I’m A Tree can be expanded into Genre Tree, where a genre such as the Old West or cyberpunk is defined before play begins, adding the objective of maintaining that genre’s tone and keeping the elements introduced relevant to the setting. Not only do these expansions give the exercises more room to work with, I think they encourage players to consider tweaks of their own to the exercises, even ones that don’t have an expansion already.

Now obviously Karen considers the value of improv to be high for gamers, but I wanted to hear her talk a little bit about why. What’s the elevator pitch for convincing someone to buy the book?

“I would say it’s a great way to practice things like collaboration, making up a story on the spot, having really interesting characters, and being comfortable . . . . making really interesting narrative choices, not necessarily dangerous, but interesting ones. There are all the different skills you need to do that collaborative storytelling, and I know we sometimes don’t think that applies to every type of gaming, but any story you are telling – even if it’s a dungeon crawl – is a story, hence collaborative. Even if there is a power dynamic, even if there is a GM or there isn’t, you’re all working together and making stuff up. All of those require certain skills, like listening to one another and being open to people’s ideas and not questioning your ideas so much – I think that’s a huge challenge in improv, and one of the reasons why it’s so good to keep practicing is to just be more comfortable being uncomfortable or uncertain. Being confident that you will survive that moment of uncertainty.” 

There are a lot of tips and advice throughout the book. Death in Sixty Seconds, a Status exercise that sees two players acting out an exactly 60 seconds long scene that sees one of the characters dying before the end, includes a note on Stage Combat Safety. Lead With Your Body, a Character exercise focused on accentuating certain body parts as you move, advises considering what leading with one part does for the rest, and what emotions might be wrapped up in the motion. If you’re leading with your shoulders and leaning forward, moving quickly, are you agitated or nervous? If anything I’d say the advice in the book typifies the entire Improv for Gamers experience; the first thing we read in the book aside from the ‘what is this book and what do you do with it’ stuff is about playing nice – and well – and the last thing are a quartet of appendices with safety techniques, words of wisdom and cheat sheets for locations and relationships, recommended reading to learn more, and recommended games (tabletop and LARP) that are good for improv. The book strives to be helpful throughout.

In the spirit of that, what’s the best piece of advice Karen has to give to a gaming group considering picking up IfG and giving it a try?

“Hmm. I find whenever I’m trying to encourage somebody to try out improv I always say ‘It’s going to feel a little weird, but we’re all going to be doing it together, so now it’s not going to be weird!’ Like something might be new and scary but if you have a buddy with you then you’re going to be great . . . just give it a shot!” 

So does Karen have any other irons in the fire?

“Oh my gosh! I’m in a weird place right now because I quit my day job, and now I’ve had a lot of other opportunities kind of come my way, and I feel slightly overwhelmed as to what to do. I am working as a copy editor in gaming, so I am working on some other projects right now, but for me . . . you know I am trying to think of when I will have enough material for a Volume 2 or a Second Edition Expanded Extra Special Ultra, where I can finally put in those extra games, and I want to change some of the language in the book a little bit. There are things I would already do different with it . . . I’m also just trying to teach the workshops more [at events like GenCon and places like local theaters]. “

I jumped on the bit about changing some of the book’s language, curious about what Karen meant.

“I really messed up, and I made a lot of ableist language, and I absolutely didn’t need to and I didn’t think about it. Then I had some more experiences in the past year teaching with some people that had more mobility issues and realized, oh man, I really dropped the ball on this one. I talk a lot about ‘everyone stand in a circle, everybody walk around, everybody move your whole body’, and you don’t need to do that! And not everybody can do that! And I could’ve worded it in different ways, I could have said ‘everyone gather in a circle, everyone move around, everyone feel your character in your body’, and had a much more inclusive language in general . . . so I do regret that . . . that would be one thing.”

Aaron wrote a review of the Fate Accessibility Toolkit earlier this week, and talking with him about it behind the scenes we mulled over the fact that if you’re going to make gaming on the single table level and the industry level more inclusive, you have to put in the work. Sometimes, that means acknowledging mistakes and trying to correct them. My respect for Karen went up a notch as she identified the language issue with IfG, and I hope she gets the chance to fix it the way she wants some day.

Good news is, any prospective Improv for Gamers Second Edition Expanded Extra Special Ultra wouldn’t just be about fixing a mistake. In addition to the additional exercises mentioned above, we could expect some interesting growth too.

“I think another thing content wise that I would put in that a lot of people had asked about is how do I do improv solo, and I haven’t figured that one out yet. I’m excited to hear what other people have done on that, and how other people are hacking games to play them solo . . . because these exercises were designed to be done as a group. So definitely, yeah, thinking about giving more ways that you modify [the exercises] to play at a table instead of an open space, to play solo, things like that. Also maybe point out the ones that work really well for streaming or times when you’re not actually physically there.”

Final words?

“I was actually teaching an applied improv class earlier today and I was giving a big talk, actually it was kind of part seminar, at a professional development conference, and I had a really pithy catchline . . . so much about improv is about creating a really safe environment where you are comfortable with people, you trust each other, you are really listening, and you’re trusting that other people are going to listen to you, and you can create this environment where you can succeed because it’s okay to fail.”

“How do I play a roleplaying game?” Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough – all the faster by having some fun with the exercises in Improv for Gamers. You can net yourself a PDF at DriveThruRPG for just $10.00, and physical copies (along with free downloads and some example videos) on Evil Hat’s own site.

Thanks to Sean again, and thanks to Karen for taking the time to talk to about the book.

If you like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together, please consider telling your friends about us, visiting DriveThruRPG through one of our links,  and/or pledging your support on Patreon!

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