IMPROVe Your Roleplaying: 5 Tips from Synaptic Chaos Theatre

Logo for Synaptic Chaos TheatreThere always seems to be a sort of overlap between geeks and improv theatre. Most geeks I know are huge fans of improv shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway, and many people have described tabletop roleplaying as, “improv with dice and spreadsheets.”  There are even geeky improv groups, coming out to cons and other events to provide a dose of Whose Line is it Anime or other nerd-flavored comedy.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a seminar led by one such geek improv group, the funny guys at Synaptic Chaos Theatre. Two weeks ago, at Anime Evolution, one of their members, Will Wood, hosted a useful “general” lecture on how to do improv. Among the various tips and tricks he offered, he gave particular focus to five points – part rules, part tools of the trade – to keep in mind and use when doing improv theatre.  In his explanation, he pointed out that good improv involves making the people you’re working with look good – and having them return the favor – and designed the five points to help ensure that happens.

Listening to his points, I was struck not only by how much sense they made and how some of them had real world application as well, but also how applicable they were for roleplaying… which, as noted before, has a large amount of improv content. You could even say good roleplaying is about the players and GM all making each other look awesome! Thus, with kind permission from Synaptic Chaos, I’d like to share their five points in the hopes that it will help GDG readers make the most of their roleplaying experiences… and possibly tap into their inner Colin Mocherie!


No Blocking; Accept Every Offer

Blocking, in terms of improv, refers to the act of refusing or “blocking” whatever in-character suggestions, information, or actions your improv partner throws into the scene (i.e. the “offer”).

                “Let’s go to the mall!”

                “No, let’s do something else.”


                “Hey, this Pokeball just fell on my head. Holy crap, a monster’s inside it!”

                “No, it isn’t. It’s empty.”

In improv, this can really bog down a scene and cause frustration with your co-actors. Here they are, trying to set up a scene, and you’re shooting everything down! As a general rule, if you’re trying out improv, it’s best to run with whatever your partners put forward, or at the very least deal with the offer in an organic, interesting way rather than just ignoring or refusing it.

In roleplaying, this rule can be played a little more loosely… no one expects you to slavishly follow the chaotic neutral rogue’s suggestion that you rob the king, or to meekly follow the GM’s giant signposts that say THE PLOT IS THIS WAY. On the other hand, ignoring or rejecting the input of others just because you don’t feel like it can cause a lot of player drama, GM frustration, and stalling plot flow (if the GM is guilty of this, you end up with railroading!) If the GM or players have provided multiple intriguing plotlines and characters to latch onto, it tends to benefit the game if you, well, latch onto them! Try to work with IC and OOC plot hooks rather than reject them outright, even if working with them may not involve actually doing them for real. This leads into the next point…


No Wimping; Build on Offer

We all know how annoying the blocking examples above can be, but you know what can be just as annoying?

               “Let’s go to the mall!”


               “…okay, and then, uh, let’s go to the food court.”


                “…Um, what are we going to have?”


Wimping, in an improv theatre setting, is the failure or refusal to build on the offer that’s just been made by your partner. If you think this sort of thing is frustrating when you’re making social plans, it’s twice as infuriating when you’re actually trying to develop a scene on stage. Instead, successful improv works by taking turns to build upon the initial hook or offer. Will demonstrated this with a great game where one player made a suggestion, the second added onto it, the first player made some final offer, and they finish with a high five, like so:

                “Let’s go to the mall!”

                “Sure, but only if we visit the anime store.”

                “Yes! Then we can spend all of our money and go broke!”

                “SWEET!” *high five*

While wimping in roleplaying can mean the game goes more smoothly than blocking, it can end up boring and samey if you just nod without expanding on the information and suggestion you receive. In fact, building on the GM’s offers – responding to puzzles and challenges by using strategy, cunning, and action – could be seen as the very heart of what makes roleplaying successful! It’s also very helpful to keep in mind when dealing with character and player interactions. When someone puts forward a possible plot hook or suggestion, try building on it or adding your own little character twist to it. This is also a good way to get around the earlier rule about blocking; if the chaotic neutral rogue thinks you should totally moon the king, you can either build on it by providing alternatives (“Yes, we’ll all MENTALLY moon the king in our minds, shall we?”) or provide hilarious or dramatic escalation (“Okay, I will support you in this mooning plan if you take this kazoo, put it between your cheeks, and salute him with the national anthem.”)


No Steamrolling; One Offer at a Time

If wimping is not building enough on an offer, steamrolling is too much.

                “Let’s go to the mall! And when we get there, there’s going to be an alien, and he’ll capture us and take us off to the magical gumdrop land, and while we’re there, we’ll find an alien princess who’s a total badass and has a whip and recruits us to be in her army of pretty men, except we’re not that pretty, and you’re not a guy, and there will be lots of shenanigans, and then we settle on a planet and have lots of beer.”


Clearly this doesn’t work that well for improv – the other actor doesn’t even need to be there! – so the Synaptic Chaos guys recommend that improv actors only throw out one or two offers at a time and wait for their partners to build upon it further. Improv, after all, is a collaborative activity, so both should be contributing to the scene, rather than having one dominate the entire story.

Most of us roleplayers have encountered one of the most egregious RPing examples of this steamrolling… the railroading GM, too in love with his/her own plot, characters, and dialogue to let the PCs get a word in edgewise or do anything that doesn’t follow their script. For a good example of this (along with some blocking-heavy players), check out DM of the Rings. But players can be guilty of this too, frontloading tons of character action or dominating the table without letting others provide their input. Not cool! If this is an issue, try keeping the Synaptic Chaos method in mind; provide a plot point or plot offer, then pause to allow others to respond.


No Pimping; No Offers That Make People Uncomfortable

This requires a bit more knowledge and understanding of your improv and roleplaying partners, but is very important to keep in mind. Uncomfortable offers certainly include certain content – sex, violence, abuse, etc – but it can also refer to actions or skills that your partners cannot, will not, or do not want to do.

                “Let’s go to the mall!”

                “All right. Let’s go. *beat* Right, we’re at the mall. Oh hey, look at those breakdancers! I know you absolutely hate dancing and feel really embarrassed doing it, but would you dance with them?”

                “…I hate you.”

This rule can be relaxed once you’re really in sync with your partner(s) and know how to play with each other’s boundaries, but when you’re starting with someone new, throwing something incredibly difficult, embarrassing, or emotionally taxing at your co-stars is a great way to throw them out of the scene and into a frustrated funk that kills the mood and breeds resentment. In general, avoid abusing your power over your partner, and take their own limitations and preferences into account.

This is definitely true in roleplaying as well, above all in scenarios that involve difficult or traumatizing subject matter like sexual violence, slavery, child abuse, or other topics that may be triggering or upsetting to your players. In particular, never initiate sexual contact with a character without express consent from the player; failing to get that consent can result in deeply uncomfortable and distasteful scenarios that will sour the game and possibly even traumatize the players involved. However, the advice also applies for the type of game and characters you are running. Encouraging players to push their boundaries is one thing, but forcing them into roleplaying they don’t enjoy is another. If a player, for example, is very shy and has trouble speaking eloquently or with charm, don’t then FORCE them to fully roleplay out a manipulation scene and then penalize them for a lackluster performance. Be willing to use the dice as a conduit for allowing characters to do what a player may not want to act out. Pushing a player’s boundaries should be a mutual, fun thing, not an exercise in humiliation.


No Gagging; Don’t Rely on Memes and Punchlines

This one is a bit tougher to nail down, particularly for a geeky improv troupe, but let’s just say that this isn’t ideal:

                “Let’s go to the mall!”

                “Sure, there’s a new cake shop there that we can—“

                “THE CAKE IS A LIE! LOL LOL LOL”

While a few gags and references are fine, shoehorning them in or twisting the scene to include them usually results in stale, forced humor… particularly when the gag is over 9000, *cough* sorry, overdone. Let the scene flow naturally, and throw in the gags, punchlines, and memes only if and when they make sense naturally.

Same goes for roleplaying. Yes, we all love ourselves some meme goodness, but there are lots of cases when they’re not appropriate… particularly serious drama or tense battle scenes. Overuse can dilute the impact and make people roll their eyes. That’s not to say you should never go for the obvious gag – sometimes a judicious OVER NINE THOUSAND can reduce a table to hysterics – but let them happen naturally rather than trying to cram them all in.


Many thanks to Will Wood and Synaptic Chaos Theatre for the great seminar and for permission to share their improv tools!

Have you ever seen improv? How about doing it yourself? Any improv advice you can give to roleplayers?

Speak Your Mind