Roleplaying and Improv Theater

Started by Enmuro, September 28, 2009, 04:29:23 PM

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I was reading through a nice book on experience design the other day when I came across a chapter talking about Improvisational Theater. The author mentioned the importance of something called 'offerings' to the improv process. Apparently an offering is some new fact or prop each actor adds to the scene during their 'turn.' Its then the job of the next actor to take that offering and expand on it to create a new offering for the next actor. Failure to expand on someone else's offering constitutes 'blocking' and is seen as negatively impacting the quality of improv. Now, this idea sounded awfully familiar to what we try to do as roleplayers. I'd even say that one of the defining marks of a good roleplayer is how well they do at integrating and building on previous posts.

With one tie in between rp and improv evident I did some more digging. I found this article which lists a few other tenants of improv. Its worth the read. Below are my reactions to the larger techniques it brings up, I'm interested in hearing what you opinions are on them or if you'd like to add anything to the list.

1.Yes and... (the offering)
Good gravy yes. Its not as easy as saying 'well, that character just said they checked out a book so now I'll say its the necronomicon'  but this still goes a long way. When someone references something in my post and expands on it I admit I'm thrilled. It's kind of like they are saying 'I like what you did there now lets kick it up a notch.' After reading this article I went over some of my old roleplays and paid attention to where I might have made offerings like this and where I didn't. It was strikingly obvious how, in posts where I hadn't given anything new for my partner to work with, the follow up poster had struggled to say anything interesting.

Looking for offerings, and providing them for others, is apparently clutch.

2. Make everyone else look good
This point kind of makes itself.

3. Allow yourself to be changed by what is said and what happens
At first I had a defensive reaction to this. Maybe this doesn't tie in as since there is more planning in a roleplay and the characters involved. That said, I do find it cool when the plot can provide chances to play sides of my character I hadn't even considered before. A leaf on the wind is still a leaf, it just goes to cooler destinations than most.

4. Co-create a shared "agenda"
Strong plots are nice but I like the idea of playing moment to moment. Instead of trying to railroad yourselves towards an early goal why not just see where each post takes you. My mage academy plot started out with the agenda that we'd torture some prisoners. It ended with the school being blown up by student-demons. Thats a pretty radical shift but it was done because we were just constantly expanding and playing on each other's posts.

5. Be fully present and engaged
This doesn't apply to roleplay as neatly since we're in and out of the forums. There is still a lot to be said for being engaged and actively a part of the plot. When you are excited for where the plot might be going it shows in terms of how quickly you try to respond and how much you read over the other's posts for ideas of what could happen next.

6. Keep the energy going
In one of my last blog posts a number of commentors talked about how low energy and plot death went hand in hand. Stay Excited! In the near perfect words of the article "A mistake happens - let it go move on. The unexpected emerges - use it to move on. Someone forgot something important - justify it and move on. Just keep moving."

7. Seek the good of the whole
I admit I'm sometimes guilty of thinking to myself "so how awesome should I make my character in this next post." Instead I should be looking out for everyone and let them make me look good as the second bold point above suggested. Are two characters having a great interaction with a high post frequency? Maybe I should decrease my prominence in that scene while still being engaged in it. Are people starting to flounder from inaction? Maybe it's time to stretch myself and temporarily play an npc as well. This point seems like less of a technique and more like a skill that needs to be practiced at and adapted over time.

I think I'll try to keep these points printed out by my monitor for the next couple weeks. They can only help rp as bad as mine ;)


Great article & great connection, Enmuro! This is very persuasive--I'm definitely going to apply these guidelines to my roleplaying too. :-) I feel like this also explains the reasons behind why I sometimes become bored with roleplays that seem to be going well.

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Apologies for my slow responses! Please feel free to give me a kick over PM if necessary.


I am definitely going to be on the look out for the offering now.  I realize I was doing it unconsciously when I was really firing on all cylinders.


Yeah, I feel the same way. Now that i know what to look for its just a lot easier for me to be consistently in the zone. I did some googling to see how others have been working improv into rp and found a nifty improv wiki one of them linked to.

favorite article so far:



Great post Enmuro ... I just wanted to say,

A leaf on the wind is still a leaf, it just goes to cooler destinations than most.

This is so clever it took me a while to make sense of it; it's like some kind of homemade Zen kōan.   : )   Did you honestly come up with this line yourself??

Bravo, regardless.   : )


These are great points, Enmuro!

I am adding:

Always beeing at the edge of oneself. Never faking it. And allowing everybody to so too....

"You can discover more about a person in a hour of play than in a year of conversation."


 A good entry, thank you.

I am also aware of a book called Play Unsafe, that discusses applications of Improv theatre techniques to roleplaying. Some of it is more suitable to IRL or chat roleplaying than forum, but it is still broadly applicable.

Thufir Hawat

I've been roleplaying for years, and some of these were still a good reminder. And I recognized the first rule as one of the most acclaimed rules in Burning Wheel...;D
Thank you for the post, Enmuro, and I'll definitely look over the links when I have more time!
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Thanks for the book suggestion Ty. I just read the description on Amazon and it sounds amazing. Maybe Play Unsafe will even fuel a follow up blog post to this once I get to reading it :) I was just playing a tabletop game today actually where the party took the mission in sort of a different direction than the gm had intended. The GM could have railroaded us back onto his track but instead he rolled with it and as a result the game went very quickly into epic territory. Can't wait to see what the book has to say about that sort of off the rails scenario.

Glad you enjoyed the post Thufir (I tried thinking of some clever reference involving improv leading to good in game flow and Spice but failed X). Burning wheel ey. I'm not too familiar but I like how it has ties to the forge. Judging by the keywords associated with 'Play Unsafe' on amazon I'd say that books author does as well. Which makes me uber happy because the forge is awesome.


Thank you very much for this, the points make a great deal of sense and like others I've realised by comparison to these points why some of my games went fantastically well and others didn't.

I do however think our biggest difference here on a forum is the medium we use. I have found that all the roleplays I've really enjoyed have been because I have also enjoyed the company of my game partners - whether 1-on-1s or groups. I find a great story with lots of potential can easily collapse if the writers do not mesh together mentally or socially.

This brings about an issue of its own which someone could elaborate on via another blog entry and that is the frequent disappointment of RPing with strangers; you don't know you are going to get on with someone or not - if you'll 'click' until... well... until you get on with them or not. By the time you know the chemistry isn't happening the game is often dead anyway and effort is wasted. Its a conundrum: Do you continually keep playing with people you know, trust and like and whose writing style engages you, or do you keep branching out with new players but suffer a higher proportion of failed enterprises?


Back in my table-top and LARP days, I ran with many a GM and many a co-player.  There was one memorable incident where the writer of a LARP had the opportunity to play in his own creation (a supernatural romp through the mystery of the Marie Celeste) - about halfway through the game, when the vampire dolphin showed up, he sat down, laughing too hard to speak for a moment, and then said 'I wrote the thing and I don't know what's going on!'

It was widely considered to be a Supreme Moment of Gaming.

On the other end of the spectrum was a person who was not so flexible.  When playing, the GMs had to bend over backwards to get her character involved (including one spectacular failure where the GM did everything short of handing her character an engraved invitation to join a superhero plot), and on the rare instances that she GMed, the players found they were futilely defending their characters against god-like NPCs or freakish environmental hazards.  In one case, the entire party of seven revolted and Pattern-walked out of the story (it was an Amber campaign.  We went to Disney.)

Rules 4, 5, and 6 are commonly forgotten.  A player puts an item into a scene that someone else didn't think should be there, and then gets reprimanded.  A character hovers on the edge, and gets overlooked.  Someone focuses on their own goal to the exclusion of other players.

Ideally, we learn from each failure and do what we can to keep it from happening again.  Role play, whether forum-based, live-action, or table-top is cooperative fiction, and there are no actual directors in control of the work - just referees who are there to make sure everyone has fun.
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 I dropped this line to thank you for posting this topic. Hopefully it will help me with my RP skills which are evidently lacking as my stories seem to die off before reaching any type of conclusion. I really enjoy role playing and intend to keep writing regardless of whether any of the stories I write on reach a finish. I am new to role playing so I expected to be knocked down but I am back up and off I go. Practice. Practice. Practice.


This is a great post, Enmuro. I've done semi-professional improv for a number of years, and it's very true that many of the techniques work great in a roleplaying setting too. Particularly roleplaying of the sort you find here at Elliquiy, where the focus is much more on building a good story and much less about competition among the players.

There's a book that comes highly recommended on the connections between improv and roleplaying called "Play Unsafe". I haven't read it yet, only excerpts and reviews, but it looks really good. Here's a link: (Not sure if this sort of thing is frowned upon here. I have no interest or stake in pushing the book.)

Thanks for bringing up this topic.


This is excellent advice.  Thank you very much.
"Ring the bells that still can ring and forget your perfect offering.  For there is a crack, a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets in."  Leonard Cohen

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You present an interesting problem Haibane. Stay with the tried and true rp groups (safe) or branch out and find new experiences and new rp partners (prone to time consuming failure). In the end you're going to end up with some balance between the two. I imagine newer players gravitate towards meeting plenty of different partners while more established members of the community favor known rp partners. As a much more established elliquian than myself, Haibane, I'd be interested in your breakdown between the two. Do you split your time evenly between rpers you know and those you don't, or does one take precedence over the other?

That does sound like an epic moment in gaming Oniya lol. I agree with ya wholeheartedly that 4,5 and 6 are the ones that tend to get left out in rp. I can see why as they are less common sense and in some cases go against our normal tendencies to provide criticism and plan ahead.
In the case of 4, creating a shared agenda only gets harder when players start to plan out things for their own characters and ignore the larger group which is their wont. And I think most of us have been guilty of letting the energy die on a plot for one reason or another. A simple thing like pointing out how another player's post accidentally misrepresented the scene can hurt the energy. It takes effort to just accept something we perceive as wrong and roll with the change.

Cajun, I do believe my first 3 plots here all died out for one reason or another so you're in good company trust me lol. Keep up that positive thinking and keep analyzing failures as Oniya said and you should be golden. Also, as an amusing side note, someone I recently met here had the same experience with failing rp plots as you. He now seems to be running a wildly successful plot I wish I had the time to join in on. Persistence and flexibility lead to good times.

Thanks for the comment Ebb. Its nice to know an actual improver can validate all this :) . Someone else recommended the same book so now I'm double pressured to go out and read it.

Glad you found it helpful Tylia. Now I just have to follow it up. I think Haibane has given me an idea for me next post though thankfully.


Thank you for that very enlightening post.  My daughter has begun RPing as well, and she has been asking me questions about structure that I can't answer.  Your post is now on our desktop. 

I'll make a point to bookmark this....
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Very interesting post Enmuro, that book does indeed look worth picking up. Also some very interesting replies and experiences. I do try some to follow some of the pointers, but have been known to fail, i think my worst vice (which in some way tries to guard me against failed endeavours with newer or stranger partners) is to try and pre plan the scene too much. Nowadays though i must admit the planning of a game can be as enjoyable as the actual playing though.

Anyway, very interesting post with lots of food for thought!  :D
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Rping with really interesting partners has cured me of too much preplanning.  I anticipate their answers somewhat...but I really enjoy the twists and curveballs I am thrown.    If I always know what move they're going to make, then it's boring for me.  I like to read posts that inspire a new idea, an new direction.  This kind of thing sparks off a whole row of other ideas.  The more they throw, the more I feel I benefit from it.  The more notes I leave myself for future posts.

I do make notes...little phrases, actions, or descriptions I might use in the reply..but I consider it a rough draft only, I paste the reply next to my notes to write my next post.
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Preplanned or spontaneous rps are both enjoyable for me personally. And I'm totally with you Artist on using preplanning or brainstorming sessions to get a feel for other players. In brainstorming it is really easy to throw out ideas, build on them, or use them to shift to an entirely new direction. Brainstorming also has the side benefit of building some level of expectation between players even before the rp starts.

Valkyrie, the notes you use seem like a great way to plan to be spontaneous. I enjoy letting the rp flow but sometimes it is really hard to come up with just the right words or actions on the spot. It also sounds like you're already a natural practitioner of 'yes and...' from how you build on your partners' posts, I'm quite jealous  :-)



Thank you for this intriguing conversation.  When trying to explain role-playing at all to a non-gamer, I usually end up using the phrase 'impromptu theater'... especially with LARP.  Comparing it to 'Whose Line is it Anyway' is always an amusing conversation starter, but most norms are not familiar with real improv on a stage.

Not having been involved in Improvisational Theater since school, it never occurred to me that I might take those lessons into my regular role-play and thereby benefit from them.  Thank you for the reminder.

(Hellos to Ty and Haibane, two of my favorite rp partners)