Play Unsafe: Improv Principles and Roleplaying

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Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, is an exploration of improv principles as they relate to your favorite activity and mine: roleplaying games. I liked it a lot. Or maybe I liked it an ordinary amount, but because it was so short, it got an inordinate amount of “like saturation”. It was a good book. Let’s talk about it.

How Improv Relates to Roleplaying

If you’re a GM, or have been playing RPGs for a number of years, it’ll likely be obvious to you how Improv relates to roleplaying, but if you’re new, or an outsider to the hobby, it might not be apparent how these two things relate. What could rolling funny shaped dice have to do with that thing they do on Whose Line is it Anyway?

Everything, is the answer. A Gamemaster (GM) has to be able to roll with the punches. Anyone who has done it knows that the carefully laid plans of even the craftiest GM are dashed aside the moment you let those meddling players interact with your beautiful story.

One story related to me goes as follows: A GM has crafted an intricate hedge maze for his players to navigate. The plan is that they’re going to spend the next several sessions trekking through, fighting monsters. Do you already see the flaw? A hedge maze has no ceiling. Why wouldn’t the player-characters (PCs) simply climb up on top of the hedge maze and see which way to go? Why wouldn’t they hack the maze apart with their swords?

If you’ve ever been in a hedge maze, the only reason you didn’t do this is because it was frowned upon to climb on someone’s gardening, and you were having fun going through the maze and didn’t want to spoil the challenge. Adventurers have no such compunctions. They’re on a quest, and the hedge maze is between them and their goal.

Stop Working, Don’t Plan Ahead, and Hold Ideas Lightly

Now we arrive at Walmsley’s principles. The problem with the aforementioned situation was that the GM spent so much time developing the complexities of the adventure that they forgot to think of the most basic things. They had all these monsters planned, all these riddles, all these keys and doors and things, they forgot about the character’s most basic capabilities.

The temptation in this case would be to invent some reason, on the fly, that the PCs couldn’t climb or hack apart the maze. Maybe there’s an invisible force field covering the top of the hedge maze. Maybe the hedge itself grows back with such uncanny quickness that, like a hydra, it grows back even thicker for every slash made against it.

If the GM was quick on his feet, he could shift gears quick enough that the players didn’t realize they totally caught him by surprise. Or, he could let the player’s plan work, accept that he’s spent hours planning an adventure that they’re going to circumvent, and follow the logical conclusion of their brilliant idea. Maybe there are flying monsters that are patrolling the hedge maze, waiting for some smartass adventurer to climb on top?

But the GM would not have been in this situation, if they’d following the principles: Stop Working, Don’t Plan Ahead, and Hold Ideas Lightly. Stop Working and Don’t Plan Ahead are absolute anathema to the old school roleplaying paradigm. And to be clear, I don’t think it’s the author’s intent at all that you would not plan ahead at all.

I can tell when a GM has done their homework by how rich the setting is and by how easily descriptions slide off of their tongue. Usually, when you’ve done your homework, you’re actually more capable of improvisation, because you’re so steeped in the setting, the lore, and the adventure, that you know what the logical conclusions would be to any changes to it. When playing a non-player-character (NPC), you’re better able to respond extemporaneously in character if you know the NPC’s personality and background thoroughly.

The problem the GM in our example had, wasn’t that they’d planned. It was that they’d over-planned. They weren’t Holding Ideas Lightly. They had a stranglehold on their plot, and any alteration to it completely threw them for a loop. Careful with over-planning, for that is the dark path to railroading (driving the plot forward without consideration of the PC goals or actions).

Be Average, and Be Obvious

These principles are my favorite, because they take a lot of burden off of both the GM and the players. So often, at the table, the GM feels pressure to be spectacular. This can lead to the game stalling, as the GM tries to think of something clever. These two principles, instead, lead the GM to simply narrate the thing that most obviously occurs next in the narrative. So, instead of narrating some ridiculous encounter when they feel put on spot, the GM can take refuge in the knowledge that being obvious will make the plot more organic.

As the book says, when you’re trying to be good, you’ll be bad. When you’re trying to be average, or even boring, sometimes your ideas will end up being brilliant. Obviously, this won’t happen all the time, but when it does, it will be a natural outgrowth of the plot, rather than a random, nonsensical plot twist.

Let Your Guard Down, Don’t Pretend, and Trust

This was the stickiest segment of the book, mainly, I think, because we all have good reasons to keep our guards up, to pretend, and we all know people at our tables who are difficult to trust. But the argument here is that you should do it anyway. You should let your guard down, stop pretending, and trust, even when you can’t, because it will make the story better.

I’m going to call these advanced techniques. Work on Being Average, Being Obvious, and Holding Ideas Lightly first. Then, try Letting Your Guard Down, Not Pretending, and Trusting. These ideas take a more solid foundation in your roleplay group. I don’t think you necessarily have to have the ideal group to try them, but I do think you need to be confident and controlled in the way you employ them. You have to know your group, and know yourself, before you can skillfully allow yourself to be vulnerable for the sake of a good story.

Improv in Writing

Now, I wonder what would happen if you employed the above mentioned techniques when you were alone, by yourself, say, with a pen and paper in hand, and an idea for a story in your head? What would happen if you were obvious and average when you told the story? What would happen if you didn’t plan and stopped working? What would happen if you let your guard down when writing?

My theory is that your stories would be the richer for following these principles. Your plot would be more cohesive for being average, would surprise you for not planning, and would be authentic in a way you couldn’t realize before, because you let your guard down.

If you’ve struggled on through to the end of this lecture on improv principles and roleplaying, thanks. How do you relate to these principles in writing or in roleplaying?

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