Posted by: Sean | January 29, 2009

Theme Week Virtues: Improvisation

Honestly, it’s starting to get difficult to keep track of this now. We’ve had two hundred and seventy two posts here – A drop in the ocean really – but even so I couldn’t remember if I’d posted about improvisation methods before. My brain was firing about as well as a carcano rifle; usually not a good time to ‘blog. But even a carcano can occasionally kill a Kennedy, so let’s talk improv.

Above all else, good improvisation skills are probably the greatest virtue a role-player can have. Every single scene, every line, every moment you ever have in role-play will be at least largely improvised. (Although I suspect a lot of us engage in a bit of pre-scene mental scripting every now and again.) And yet, it’s a skill a lot of role-players find very difficult to do, so a quick guide to improvisation methods is perhaps advisable.

As a quick reminder, the following things about your character can be improvised on the spot:

  • Pretty much anything.

All right, perhaps that’s a bit flippant. You can’t improvise anything you’ve already locked down. If someone asks you, “What colour are your eyes?” and it’s in your description that you don’t have eyes you creepy undead freak corpse then you can’t exactly think, “Y’know, green eyes would be best for this scene. They’re the sweet emerald colour of jealousy.” But even there you could note that your eyes were green back when you had them.

Still, there’s a fairly reasonable opinion, Jess shares it I’m sure, that argues the best way to improvise is to know as much as possible about your character first. It’s a good, sensible opinion: If you can cover all your bases about the ways your character thinks you can spin that out into anything. It’s a really good theory and it’s one that I’ve seen a lot of people use to great effect, so it’s worth considering. Make a character diary; think about your fear, rage and noble impulses. Create a character diamond.

But me? I think that’s too exhaustive. It limits your options in play and frankly, I value drama too much to tie myself down to character that much. The beauty of improvising a character on the spot is that it lets you play up scenarios for maximum dramatic or comedic effect, and I like that. That said, here are my pieces of advice for developing good improvisational skills.

  1. Don’t be afraid to pause. Don’t be afraid to pause. And again, don’t be afraid to pause. I mean it. If I could offer each of you only one piece of advice on improvisation, this would be it. Don’t be afraid to pause. You do not have to rattle out lines of dialogue at breakneck speed like you’re in a David Mamet movie. It is just fine to stop a beat, think it out, and then reply. Take ten or twenty seconds if you need it.
  2. Think of a core truth for your character. While knowing everything about your character I think is excessive, it is essential to know a core truth about your character, something that defines the way that they think and act in a tricky situation. It’s invaluable for sorting out what you will do when you’re uncertain, so choose something that is a good ‘go-to impulse’. For my crazy undead baron, for instance, it’s not that he’s insane. That’s true, and fundamentally deeper within his character concept, but it’s not as useful as, “He values his honour above all else.”
  3. Don’t always take the first option. Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, a really essential resource by the way, suggests always thinking of four options – What will make your player happiest? What’s the most obvious and logical thing to happen? What would be the most dramatic? What would challenge your player most? It’s not really directly applicable to WoW role-playing but the underlying impulse remains the same. Don’t be afraid to pause – And use that pause to think of a few different options. Your first thought is not always your best.
  4. Lastly, you’re not in it alone. You absolutely can whisper your role-playing partners and ask for advice. While that final choice is yours and yours alone, clarification is not bad. Ask, “Wait, where is your character standing?” or “What’s your character’s body posture? Does he look mad?” If you’re unsure of context, ask for clarification. Remember, pauses are allowable. Hell, I’ve had scenes where we’ve plotted out whole histories in whispers so that our improvised conversation made sense. You are allowed to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to.
  5. But most of all? Don’t be afraid to pause.


  1. I improvise everything, except the very basics of backstory. Mainly because sitting down and trying to make something workable from whole cloth hasn’t ended well in the past.

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