You may not consider yourself an improviser, but improv isn’t just limited to professional performers taking suggestions at a live show. When your players do something unexpected, or when the GM presents you with an engaging NPC, you’re improvising. Whether someone is onstage performing or roleplaying at the gaming table, they’re engaged in collaborative storytelling.
The Venn diagram of the skills needed to do improv and play a TTRPG is almost a circle. They’re techniques that sound simple but can be difficult to master: engaging in active listening, showing openness and enthusiasm for your friends’ ideas, and being comfortable taking risks with your characters.
And, like any skill, it’s something you can improve with practice. Improv for Gamers is a resource packed with quick and easy games you can use to practice creating dynamic characters, establishing meaningful relationships, sharing the spotlight, and being an overall stronger collaborator and storyteller.
But how do you practice improv if your group lives in different parts of the country or isn’t meeting face to face right now?
In 2020, online improv was very new to most everyone, and came with a lot of challenges: How can I have an engaging scene with someone when there’s lag? How can I connect with my scene partner if we can’t actually make eye contact? How do I indicate that a scene is over if there’s no stage to exit? Improvisers had to find a way to do improv that felt genuine, spontaneous, and electric in the same way that it does in person.
Video chat can be an adjustment, but we’ve all seen how engaging TTRPG streams can be and we’ve learned a lot in the last two years. If you’re thinking of sharpening your improv skills with your online group, here are some tips:
Approximate eye contact. When speaking, look at the camera (or just above it). To the viewer, it looks like you’re making eye contact. When you’re listening, focus on the speaker, so you can feel like they’re making a connection with you.
Set the turn order. Lots of in-person improv exercises are performed with everyone arranged in a wide circle. To make this work online, designate the order beforehand. Heck, roll for initiative if you want! You can use your trusty tokens on the Roll20 desktop to recreate a circle, the turn tracker, or arrange your videos in a way that’s the same on everyone’s screen. You could also post a list of names in chat or on the desktop, where everyone can see them. Alternatively, do away with a set turn order entirely! When one player is finished, pass to anyone else by saying that player’s name first.
Use breakout rooms. Want to practice something in small groups or pairs? Take advantage of breakout rooms to split up a large group. This way, everyone can have more time playing.
Be onstage or offstage. Agree on a way to indicate being “onstage” or “offstage.” For example, if you’re offstage, turn your camera off, or the host can highlight just the active players. If you’re using speaker view, mute all players not in the scene. If all else fails, you can simply physically move out of range of your webcam.
Keep your energy high. When you’re sitting and looking at a screen, you risk dropping your energy and disconnecting a bit from the action. Improv is all about being in the moment and ready to respond on the spot. If possible, stand up and adjust your camera accordingly. You can stay comfortably seated when you’re not an active player, and stand up when you’re in the spotlight.
Stop looking at yourself. If you’re getting distracted by seeing yourself on the screen, turn off the self-view option! Alternatively, arrange your screen so your video is closest to the camera. This will help create the illusion of eye contact.
Embrace the mess. Improv can be messy; that’s just the nature of live, made-up theater. Don’t worry about getting everything “right.” It’s not a contest to see who has the smartest or funniest response. And if you have to ask someone to repeat themselves, or adjust your microphone, or switch partners when someone’s connection drops, that’s okay. It’s all part of the online experience.
I’ve tried to make sure that most of the exercises in Improv for Gamers easily translate to online play, but as part of the current crowdfunding effort, we’re also building a Roll20 module to make your online sessions even more seamless.
For instance, the book includes a list of different inspirational prompts – locations, relationships, and more. But rather than making you roll and cross-reference a chart like you would with the book, we’re building those prompts into multiple decks of cards you can quickly shuffle and deal in Roll20.
We all take time to read the character advancement rules or preview the next chapter of the adventure in order to sharpen our skills and help ensure our next session goes smoothly. My goal with Improv for Gamers is to give you the tools to do the same thing for your creativity, characterization, and confidence when things take an unexpected turn –as they inevitably do.
But an underlying message throughout the book is that you can always adapt these games to whatever way works best for you. And if there’s one thing gamers have in addition to creativity, it’s the ability to house rule. I can’t wait to see all the inventive ways folks make Improv for Gamers their own, in person and online.
Look for Improv for Gamers coming to Roll20 in Q3 2022!