REVIEW: Improv for Gamers by Karen Twelves

Improv for Gamers started life as a series of seminars that Twelves ran at game conventions. As someone who is both a teacher and trained at Improv, Twelves would rock up at conventions and run gamers through a series of exercises designed to teach them a few improvisation techniques and generally improve their confidence when it comes to making shit up on the fly.

These seminars were evidently a success and people started asking Twelves for her lesson plans, this forced her to actually sit down and work them out and the result was Improv for Gamers, which is now in its second edition and published by Evil Hat Productions, the people who put out Fate, Blades in the Dark, and a load of Powered by the Apocalypse stuff.

Despite the book’s title, this is by no means the only book about RPGs and improvisation. For example, James D’Amato had a big success with The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide while Graham Walmsley put out a book called Play Unsafe that approached the question from an entirely different angle.

Twelves’ Improv for Gamers is a lot closer to D’Amato’s book than it is to Walmsley’s in so far as both D’Amato and Twelves have been trained in Improv and are trying to take what they learned from those studies and sell that expertise on to people with an interest in RPGs.

The problem is evident from the title alone: What does it mean to write a book about Improv for gamers? Is it an introduction to Improv for people who happen to be gamers, or is it a book that takes the ideas behind Improv and applies them RPGs? D’Amato’s book is definitely an example of the latter and my first read through of Improv for Gamers left the impression that it had a similar aim. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that we need to bear in mind how this book started out: As a series of classes that were content with introducing Improv to gamers without making any grandiose claims as to how one discipline might learn from another.

You can see the thought-process underpinning the creation of these kinds of books:

RPG culture acknowledges that improvisation is an important part of running an RPG session. However, despite near-universal acceptance of this idea, few RPGs will tell you how or when to improvise, let alone how to improve your improvisational skills. As far as RPG culture is concerned, improvising is a bit like painting figurines or writing adventures: You just keep doing it until you get good.

Despite being a really marginal cultural activity whose cultural highpoint was forming the basis for a handful of televised comedy panel shows back in the 1980s, Improv is a field with massive institutional backing. At some point, someone realised that actors might benefit from the ability to improvise and so a market emerged for Improv classes. While these may have started out as relatively inexpensive things you took at community centres and comedy clubs, they have now crossed over into academia and become part of university drama teaching: Where there are university Improv courses, there are credentialed Improv teachers. Where there are credentialed Improv teachers, there are Improv publications. Where there are Improv publications, there is Improv Theory.

Both RPGs and Improv are about using improvisational techniques to be creative in an environment tempered by specific social contracts. However, while there isn’t much in the way of Theoretical literature about the use of improvisation in RPGs, The body of Theoretical literature about the use of improvisation in Improv is absolutely enormous. These differences and similarities have created an opportunity for people to create books and seminars that take what they learned in Improv classes and aim it at the market for RPGs.

The challenge facing these types of works is that while Improv and roleplaying may seem quite similar in that both activities have groups of people making stuff up in an artificially bounded and socially-structured environment, the nature of the boundaries and structures governing the two sets of activities are very different. What this means in practice is that you cannot just take a load of stuff you learned in Improv class and apply it to your Saturday night RPG session. Taking Theory developed to support one discipline and applying it to another discipline is Theoretical work in its own right and while the likes of D’Amato and Twelves may be well-versed in Improv Theory, they aren’t professional Theorists and you can sense both of them struggling to take an established body of Theory and apply it to a completely different discipline with its own structures, boundaries, history, and aesthetic outcomes.

This was particularly glaring in the case of D’Amato’s The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide as he started the book by talking about audiences and then went on to dealing with situations and workflows that are entirely alien to your average RPG group. For example, at one point D’Amato talks about how a campaign might involve people discussing what character arcs they want to explore and then collectively deciding on an appropriate genre and game. This is simply not how RPG groups work as that approach basically involves the players determining the plot, choosing the system, and then imposing these things on the GM who would then take on the burdens of preparation, world-building, and narrative management. D’Amato’s book was hamstrung by the fact that he dealt with the differences between Improv sessions and RPG sessions by brazening it out and pretending that these differences did not exist. The result was a book that felt like a list of themed creativity/group bonding exercises that occasionally fell backwards into some interesting pieces of advice. Twelves is less brazen than D’Amato but this book does have a conspicuous absence when it comes to demonstrating the relevance of Improv to RPGs.

The book opens with a series of exercises called ‘Warmers’ that read a lot like the kinds of social ice-breakers and creativity encouragers that you get at an evening class or a corporate retreat: Lots of stabbing people with imaginary swords and shouting things while tossing imaginary balls about. You can see the logic of these quite clearly as they’re nice little warm-up exercises that allow people to get comfortable and maybe get the juices flowing. While I have never been to a game that involved a warm-up, I can kind of see the logic as some people (particularly newbies) can be very up-tight about stuff like talking in character and throwing out suggestions during the game.

The problems start when we move on to the chapter entitled “Yes, and”. ‘Yes, and’ is a technique that hopped the fence from Improv to RPGs as early as the 1990s and while there was a time when it was treated as holy writ, my impression is that this has somewhat fallen out of fashion and Twelves’ treatment of the idea makes it absolutely clear why. Twelves states that it is socially unacceptable to respond to a suggestion either with a simple ‘no’, or by ignoring or un-making the previous suggestion. The reason for this is that it’s viewed as quite rude, it fosters an environment where people feel less able to be creative, and it hogs the narrative power.

This assessment is mostly right but it fails to acknowledge that the social contract governing Improv sessions is not the same as the one governing RPG sessions. For example, what is a skill-check if not someone suggesting ‘My character cuts off the goblin’s head!’ only for the GM to respond either with a flat denial such as ‘Oh no she doesn’t!’ or a creative un-making ‘You swing wildly at the goblin’s neck but just as you think your blow is about to connect, the goblin ducks under your blade’?

While the disconnect is quite obvious in matters governed by game mechanics, it is also obvious in less mechanical areas where a player might introduce something into the game that is inconsistent either with the pre-existing Text of the game world or with details that have been introduced and agreed upon before. This kind of situation does not exist in Improv because the imaginative spaces created by Improv are temporally and textually limited. Improv is not built around campaigns with characters and settings that persist for 50 sessions and it is certainly not built around creative interaction with existing IP. The social contract governing Improv sessions is different because the formal character of Improv sessions is different to that of RPGs. Just like James D’Amato, Karen Twelves refuses to engage with the differences between the two sets of imaginary spaces.

The disconnect between the two cultures becomes even more evident when we move on to the chapter devoted to “Characters” as a lot of those stress the importance of physicality and movement despite the fact that RPGs are mostly played sitting down. Similarly “Space Objects” as those exercises are all about learning to handle non-existent physical objects despite the fact that RPG sessions seldom make much use of physical mime.

The problem with Improv for Gamers is that while its early exercises come across as fun little games that might help everyone loosen up before a game, none of the exercises really progress beyond the point of being separate activities and become part of the RPG process. This book contains dozens of exercises and towards the end of the book these exercises become quite complex and involved and yet there is no advice or discussion on how these any of these practices relate to the stuff we do when we play RPGs. For example, one of the later exercises called “Exposure” has the group split into two parts with one part being the “presenters” and the other part being the “audience”. The game involves the two groups staring at each other, swapping places halfway through and sharing at the end of the game how being in the different roles made them feel. I have been playing RPGs for thirty years and I have absolutely no idea how this relates to roleplaying games and neither Twelves nor her myriad contributors provide me with any clues as to the game’s utility.

Having now read a few books about applying the principles of Improv to RPGs, I am starting to wonder whether part of the issue might be how the different activities perceive their formal characteristics.

One of the main things to come out of the 1970s design work that created RPGs as a sub-set of wargames and the Theoretical work done at the Forge in the 2000s was an awareness of first a wargame and then an RPG’s formal characteristics and how those characteristics could be altered to produce different effects for different kinds of games. The vast, overwhelming majority of RPG sessions are quite traditional in that they involve a narrative power imbalance between players and GMs but anyone who has spent any time engaging with the broader culture surrounding RPGs will be aware that the GM/Player divide is not ideologically neutral. It is a creative decision both by the author of the game and by the people playing the games that is intended to produce specific creative outcomes.

The impression I get from books written by people who have studied Improv is that there is little critical engagement with the creative and ideological assumptions that are baked into the formal character of Improv sessions. All of the exercises included in Improv for Games and The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide involve small groups comprising individuals with equal narrative powers sharing the creative responsibilities for the length of a scene that begins and ends at very clear points. At a very basic level, this is not how most RPGs function and if you are going to write a book about applying the lessons of Improv to RPGs then you need to at the very least acknowledge the formal differences of the two activities. Failure to do so results in a book whose relevance to most RPGs is extraordinarily limited. What you get is not gamers learning to improvise, but gamers doing a few weird warm-up exercises before they move on to their actual gaming sessions.

It’s interesting that at the end of the book, Twelves has a series of appendices that suggest other books to read as well as a list of games. Every single one of those games is non-traditional and does away with the traditional role of the GM. There’s also a section recommending RPGs to people who are primarily into Improv and the first piece of advice is to select a game with as few rules as possible.

If your aim is to write a book claiming that all athletes can learn from the sport of cricket, then you cannot just give the rules of cricket, describe a load of tactics used by cricket players, and then conclude with the recommendation that athletes looking to benefit from the book should limit themselves to playing games that resemble cricket. That may be a recipe for a great book about learning to play cricket but it’s certainly not a book about what football and rugby players can learn from the sport of cricket.

I am not anti-Improv. In fact, if I were to happen upon an Improv class tomorrow, I would immediately sign up as it sounds like a lot of fun because it reminds me a bit of roleplaying and doing a few Improv classes might be good practice for improvising in the context of an RPG. As far as I can tell, this is basically all you really need to know about the overlap between Improv and RPGs. There may well be a depth of Theoretical knowledge that can be ported across from Improv to RPGs but nobody seems keen on doing any of that Theoretical work so instead we get a load of introductory books about Improv and some hand-waving about how all of this is somehow relevant to RPGs whereas in fact, Improv is just a different activity that RPG players might happen to enjoy by virtue of the fact that both activities involve structured improvisation. In truth, if you are interested in giving Improv a try then this is a reasonable book to take a look at but you won’t be getting anything you won’t get from any other introduction to Improv. At the end of the day, it’s a list of exercises and some Theoretical jargon and the relevance to RPGs is nebulous at best.

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