Improv Techniques Made Art Gallery Gaming Awesome


Ghastly spaghetti-stuffed pinata visible over my left shoulder.


Allegra LaViola’s blog notaboutart has pictures from the OD&D Tower of Gygax adventure I ran at her gallery last Thursday, as well as from the opening of the Doomslangers show on Friday. I had a great time at both, although I did have to explain to my son:

Not every art gallery opening lets you roll a dice to see if you die or get to swing a wooden sword to chop limbs off a giant animatronic undead pinata. In fact, that will probably never happen again; your peak gallery experience happened at age 8, it’s all downhill from here.

Here is a post I promised Tim Hutchings about what DM tricks I used that I think made the adventure I ran fun:

Ask questions. After the game, head Doomslanger Casey Smith – player in this game, DM for their epic campaign that’d climaxed the night before (pics also on the notabout art link above) – mentioned this as a really noticeable part of my style. “At first it caught us by surprise – why are you asking us about what was in the room we just ran away from? But after getting over the initial hesitation, the creative juices really started flowing and it became really fun to be put on the spot and asked to invent stuff on the fly.”

Asking questions is one of the commandments that the fantastic indie game Apocalypse World gives to its MCs (aka GMs), but don’t be misled into thinking this means it’s some kind of hippie thing; it works spectacularly for red-blooded beer-and-pretzel RPGs as well. The most common questions I asked were: “Please describe what happens when you deliver the killing blow to your enemy” and “Please describe your horrible death.”

Say yes. To get the players’ creative juices flowing, there needs to be the implicit assurance that however they answer a question is not going to be wrong. Part of what makes this work is that you’ve already set the tone; the players are going to reach for references that draw from what’s been established in the game and/or their well of D&D lore. Part of it is that you only ask questions you won’t need to negate. “Describe how you kill it” is awesome because when you ask the question you’re announcing “this opponent is all out of hit points and I now relinquish control over its fate.”

A similar kind of question I asked a lot was to introduce new PCs when a players’ old one died: “You were teleported here when you mis-cast a very complicated spell. What was that spell trying to do?” Here again the question contains the information I need to establish as GM: you’re here now. What the character is leaving behind can be as wild as the player wants; there’s no risk in saying yes, and a big payoff in that the newly introduced character arrives with a spontaneously created narrative that gives them personality and verve.

Reincorporate. Not everything the players invent needs to become part of the fabric of the game, but as GM it’s fun and satisfying to draw from the pool of answers the players have just given you when you do your own improvisation. At the very beginning of the game Allegra decided that their characters were fleeing a giant snake, so when I needed a wandering monster here it was, an enormous serpent with a venomous bite and corrosive blood. Another player decided that the reason a god had cursed his new PC by teleporting him here was that he had accidentally let his pet pig befoul the god’s backyard shrine, so when I was narrating a miss in combat I decided that the charred corpse of the pig got underfoot.

Let the players be awesome. This may seem at odds with the fact that the death toll in this game was 100%. Tim Hutchings’ character was the only one to survive the final zombapocalypse; since we were out of time I had him roll a saving throw to see if he made it out of the dungeon alive, and the answer was “no”.

I think it’s easy for the players to feel like their alter-egos are icons of coolness when all is going well. Having things go wrong is an important part of the game, but it’s more fun if you use a little DM technique to frame it as fantastically wrong instead of just a simultaneously lame and boring whiff. So sometimes, when a player missed their dice roll and I felt they could use a little more spotlight time, I’d ask them to narrate the failure: “Okay, your character is obviously a great and competent warrior, so something unexpected must have happened for you to miss like that. What was it?”

Likewise, when characters died, I’d make it an event by:

  • asking the player of the dead PC “What are your dying words?”; even if these are usually “Aaargh!” it always drew a laugh from the table and reinforced the idea that death is an especially fun & vivid part of play
  • instructing players to “describe your horrible death”. This isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill slipping feebly into that good night; even if you were senselessly killed by a kobold, it will be a grisly senseless death worthy of an accursed hero (and as hammy an actor as you want to be)!
  • displaying my evident relish of killing the PC with a big grin on my face: this is fun for me at least, and in retrospect it’ll be memorable for you too, why not enjoy it now?
  • letting players roll up new characters as soon as they died and introduce them the next time it was that player’s turn so that losing a character didn’t mean missing out on the action

One of the nice things about letting the players narrate their own awesomeness, or at least the reasons that kept them from realizing their potential to be so, is that they’re better at hitting their own definition of awesome than you could ever be. When Tim’s character failed to make it out of the zombie-ridden dungeon, I would have said that he surrounded himself with a wall of dismembered corpses  until his protection from evil spell finally ran out and he died fighting. Tim’s narration was much better: “I grab the treasure and make for the exit, but on the way up the stairs I slip and accidentally crack my skull.”

P.S. At the opening the night after the game, I introduced my son: “Allegra, this is Javi; Javi, this is Allegra, I killed her cleric last night.” I wish to apologize for this grave injustice. In point of fact, her cleric died of willingly drinking from a poisoned fountain, a heroic sacrifice that proved to be the party’s (temporary) salvation.

6 Responses to “Improv Techniques Made Art Gallery Gaming Awesome”

  1. October 25, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Your techniques and mine are extremely similar- one of the biggest revelations I had in my gaming was that asking players questions about everything is extremely fun, and like you said, letting players hit their own definitions of awesomeness is a lot easier than guessing at it!

  2. October 25, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    “I am splattered with blood!!!”

  3. October 26, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    @James, I think we can expect this will indeed be the last time Javi goes to a gallery opening and utters those words. At least, I hope so.

    @N. Wright, was that a revelation you hit on yourself or was it inspired by something you read/saw? I do think that the most basic act of DMing is aking questions – “it’s your turn, what do you do?” – and that the process of maturing as a DM largely consists of taking that to its logical conclusion, moving away from the idea of the DM planning a story for the players to experience (like the afterschool kids do, because that’s their idea of how stories go) and towards creating a situation in which it will be fun to see what the players do (based on your experience of roleplaying games as different from stories).

    Some stuff that helped me develop this style and/or become aware of my use of it, though, were (in reverse chronological order) the Apocalypse World advice for MCs, Graham Walmsley’s _Play Unsafe_, and a blog post by Jonathan Tweet at Wizards back in the Gleemax era when their staff had on-site blogs. I don’t think it’s still accessible so I’ll post it below:


    In my campaign, there’s a “table rule” I call kill shot. Here’s how it works.

    When a PC kills an enemy, instead of saying, “It falls to the floor in
    a heap,” I often say, “You kill it. What does that look like?” The
    player then improvises a short scene in which his PC kills the
    monster. “My arrow goes through the hobgoblin’s thigh, bursting his
    femoral artery. He stops in his tracks, then just collapses
    soundlessly to the floor.”

    Traditionally, the DM narrates everything other than the PCs’ actions.
    A new crop of indie RPGs, however, questions this division of
    authority. My kill shot rule is a baby step in the direction of
    sharing narrative authority with the players. On a less abstract
    level, kill shot is a chance for players to express something about
    their characters and to get into the cinematic fun of describing key
    scenes. It also focuses the rest of the players on a key event,
    bringing them back from the mechanics of dice rolling to the imaginary
    world. And it gives me, the hard-pressed DM, a break. Getting others
    to do my work for me, I guess I’ve learned something from being a

    I make a point of exploiting my players’ capacity for description in
    other ways, too. The first time a wizard casts a new spell, for
    example, I’m likely to ask the player to describe it. As in the Hero
    system, I consider special effects to the player’s prerogative.

    Kill shot isn’t a hard and fast rule. If I’ve got a good idea for what
    a death looks like, I might narrate it myself. The more petty the dead
    monster is, the more likely I am to skip the kill shot. Taking down
    the boss monster generally warrants a kill shot. Kill shots are more
    likely when there’s less pressure to move quickly through the fight,
    usually at the beginning or end. A player who’s had less time in the
    spotlight is more likely to get a kill shot scene than one who’s
    already been playing a starring role. As with the rest of DMing,
    practice follows the needs of pacing.

  4. 4 Ray
    November 28, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    hey! thats Thor from BWHQ in that picture! right?

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2010

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