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As anyone who has ever played Dungeons and Dragons knows, improvisation is key to a successful game. If you can think on your feet and come up with creative solutions to problems, you and your party will be far more successful.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some tips for improvising in D&D, starting from the origin of improvisation.
If you are here you already know that to create and enrich an adventure improvisation is necessary and there is no manual for this, but surely there can be advice on how to exploit it with a starting point.
Improvisation allows you to make decisions on the spot, even if basic lines must be followed.
- Can not be all prepared, even if you prepare certain places and actions, there will always be something that will change your plans, thus entering into play improvisation.
- D&D can not be improvised randomly, as there are rules established by the manual that must be taken into account.
From theaters to your tables
With this article, I would like to let you revive some history about improvisation in the artistic world and then define some principles you may adopt into your roleplaying or mastering experiences. This way, you will be able to enhance the stories you’re sharing with your party and add more fun to these activities.
Where does improvisation come from? The Italian roots
It all started with the Atellan Farce, a masked farce that originated in Southern Italy by 300 B.C. when Italian culture was more about literary and visual art than tasty food. It was a quarter or half an hour of pure, in which stock characters, stereotypes of those ancient people, interacted together with the only goal to entertain the public, respecting their characters’ roles.
This art form evolved throughout the ages when in the 16th-century commedia dell’arte was born (literally, Italian comedy in English), a form of professional theatre that spread throughout Europe becoming a relevant phenomenon. It was called “commedia improvviso” and “commedia dell’arte all’improvviso” to embroider the concept and was characterized by improvised acts on sketches.
The performances did not follow predefined texts but on the “canovacci” there were indications of the action and comic interventions outside the comedy itself, with the sole purpose of making people laugh. It wasn’t that different from the kind of comedies that were performed during the roman ages, but in support of the improvisation, part of these contained some little scripted scenes to help the cast craft a more consistent narration.
The mere fact of having stereotypical and predefined masks gave an even basic line to follow, without leaving everything to chance.
A fun fact was that many of the actual in-vogue personalities used in storytelling originated from these very stories, like the Harlequin: a comic servant, a kind of funny minion of its masters that tries to perform what is told him to do, but always messes everything up creating hilarious misunderstandings. There are many similar characters, such as Dobby in Harry Potter, a bizarre elf, servant of a powerful family (but surely you already know him).
In Italian culture, you can find a significant number of particular personalities that characterize the “commedia dell’arte”.
Improvisation in the Modern Theatre
Improvisation came back into vogue when in the first decades of the 20th century it was proposed as a drama exercise, now studied as a useful tool to enhance the performance in the normal acting itself, both on theatres and movie sets, helping actors become their characters in the best way possible. These techniques became so popular that now there are even competitions where improvisation skills are rewarded all over the world. We can name the “Theatresports”, an improvisation format born by Keith Johnstone in Canada in the 70s, staged all over the world, which is based on a sports competition. This is why many movie scenes don’t have a precise script, to let the actors’ abilities emerge while playing their characters.
An example of improvisation directly related to the role-playing games is “Improv & Dragons”, a show of improvisational theater dedicated to Dungeons and Dragons and to GDR in general. It is made up of two actors who will create a real adventure, with the help of the public. There will be a character, who can be both an actor and a guest, who will decide his fate through the roll of the dice. The audience will help him by creating the character and trying to give him tips along the way.
Following this first introductory part, we continue with the implementation of improvisation in role-playing games.
Your living room as a theater
Now the question is… How to put the improvisation into practice? That’s a legit question.
Our answer: role-playing, as a player, contains a lot of improvisation (except for certain aspects). Thus I’ve come up with some advice, one for players and one for masters, both with the primary goal to help you develop more in-depth improvisational skills.
A good way to start with improvisation: avoid Flat Characters
Now, I’m going to ask a little question: what would your dwarf bard do if someone nearby threatens you with a morning star?
There’s no proper natural reaction, but if you take too much time to answer in a similar situation, it means there’s a problem. Your character would act instantaneously in such a position.
That is why, when creating a character, you have to underline its personality overall, even over its stats, because you have to instantly be able to know what it would do in such a situation. For example, if your bard was more like “just loving music, chill out” kind of character it would have backed one step away as soon as the morning star would have risen, but if it was more of a hothead with a sharp tongue maybe after some insults would have caused a fight inside the yet another inn with all your party facepalming at once, but all went according to your character personality.
Practical tip: while writing the background of your character use at least one row of text to point out its personality, otherwise you could complete the description and the adjectives’ box in your character sheet.
As Game Master, surely prepare an environment and imagine the possible actions of the players is useful to create a cohesive story, enrich with details related to the culture of that particular place, for example. But in the moment of the game players will choose other paths, you will have to shape your plans on them.
Can you run a D&D Game with only Improvisation?
I know that a party, as well as life, is unpredictable, thus only in rare circumstances you’ll be able to predict what your friends will do; in my experience, if a house has 7 doors they would enter by the chimney.
Thus, don’t be over-prepared, inspired yourself at best, but not waste time detailing everything about what will happen but just some key points and describe along the way. Shape more of a commedia dell’arte than a movie, because most parties improvise through what the world will throw at them.
The first times it will be difficult, I swear to Pelor how difficult it will be, but if you accept this challenge you’ll be able to create much more memorable scenes every time something goes “wrong” with what you’ve expected and you’ll be able to take to the next level your storytelling skills.
Improvisation is, therefore, necessary but to create a richer and more linear story must be created a basic structure with the background, characteristics and personality of the character as well as the story itself in order to have a logical thread and conductor, but when the game starts improvisation will come on the field and you will still have to be accompanied by it.
It is obvious that players will surprise you several times by making you change or shape what was at least a starting idea and not to fall into too much confusion and contradiction is recommended to have a baseline to follow, so that we can all actually be in the game and in line with it.
The importance of visual elements in the improvisation
Remember that improvisation is very important and can lead to the distortion of the adventure enriching it and making it even more fun and surprising but as just mentioned, it is also important to have key elements that give a logical line.
For this reason, it is definitely recommended to have visual images, or even better, maps (not necessarily structured in detail), that give a unique idea and image to players of where you are and what you can do. This will allow you to immediately have a clearer idea of the various actions to be performed, in line with the setting, the elements present and the possible distances to be covered.
Through this description you can make even better use of the elements present, being able to see them and have them in the head as clearly as possible, avoiding forgetting useful objects and valuable moves to be made.
This will allow you to be even more inside the game and to have all participants the same goal and the same playing area, so you can improvise but without being too out of context, especially for those who are at their first arms must be able to adapt to the best feeling inside the game and the character. One of the biggest fears, for them, could be that of saying something wrong or not suitable and the possibility of having a clearer view of where you are, could definitely help to feel more confident and to imagine various possible moves.
Surely all parts of the game are stimulating and unpredictable, but the end is the culmination and it is right now that having images in front helps in the exploitation of every object, weapon, strategy, and space possible. At this moment participants, even more than before will try to achieve their goal, and the game master, most likely, will be forced to submit to all their decisions.
Bonus tip for better combat: the 10 seconds rule
While reading the Savage World’s manual, a really fun RPG where combats are as frenetic as possible, I’ve found a rule that I’m going to rename the 10 seconds rule.
Let me explain it to you: once your turn starts you have to come up with what your character is going to do in 10 seconds, if you don’t manage to do it, you get “paused” and can act after any other player’s full turn. This rule is useful to make you react instinctively as your character would, using your improvisation skills at your best, and if you can’t, it doesn’t create a situation in which the whole party is paused waiting for you. I know you got some doubts and I’m going to answer them right now:
- But if I’m a wizard and need to think about what spells to cast? Don’t worry then: just tell you’re going to cast a spell and then take time to think about which, your wizard should be smart enough to know all its own spells by heart, you frankly shouldn’t. Of course, it’s the same with other characters which have certain rules that have to be read before acting, the important part is that you instantly know your character would do that and that she/he’s firmly committed to doing that in these 10 seconds, it is like placing a bookmark on your actions.
- Do I have to follow this rule even if I’m the master? Well, yes, everyone should improvise and you are no exception, and trust me, it really makes things even funnier.
- Aren’t 10 seconds too little time? Yes… and no. If you think that in many games a turn is about 6 seconds long in-game. But don’t feel restricted by this time limit, it should be a stimulus, not a limitation, thus if it feels too short you could increase it to 15 or 20 seconds, even though I recommend you to shorten it as soon as possible to fully benefit from this rule.
And now... let's play!
So.. Dungeons and Dragons is a great game that can be made even better through improvisation. If you’re looking to take your D&D games to the next level, try using some of these tips to add spontaneity and excitement. Who knows – you may even come up with some new ideas that everyone will love!