[Prognosis: Death] Impro & RP

In the last few years, I've become pretty involved with an improvised theatre group here. They've got a solid following, and do something reasonably unique: main-stage long-form. For anyone with knowledge of impro, the difference is basically preparation. The group directs specific genre shows, with "rehearsals," costumes, predetermined characters, props, music, etc. The only thing left to improvise on the night is dialogue and plot.

So, in a pretty significant way, this seems like an RPG to me.

Which is why I'd like to turn their most successful show, Prognosis: Death, into an RPG.

Here's the source material I'm working with -


... and words.

It's an "improvised science fiction supernatural medical soap opera." At the moment, I'm just trying to figure out how to play the relationship between impro and RPGs. Can anyone point me towards the best discussions for this kind of thing? I know there are a lot of people who indicate a relationship between the two, but I can't find anything that really blows me away in terms of genuine insight.

I should acknowledge that I don't yet have the intellectual property rights. The idea is to approach the director with a solid pitch, once I know what I'm doing.


  • Hi Ash

    I really like this idea! I wonder if you could give me a bit more detail, as currently there's a few ways I could take what you're going for.

    Are you interested in using the impro as a source to build the setting/theme and attitude for your game, in the same way as one might write "Indiana Jones the Rpg"? This is what I take from your provision of images and copy text, and the summary of "improvised science fiction supernatural medical soap opera" - that the colour and content of the show is something you want to make concrete.

    But maybe you are more interested in making a game that leads you through the same kind of interesting beats and situations that the impro seemed to do for you. Less about the predeveloped details of genre and more about having a game which makes easy and intuitive all the things that you do in your impro shows. No-one needs to scratch their head about, say, whether characters who die are able to return to life, or how romances develop - you're taking the way it works in your style of improv play and encoding (or free-coding) it in your system.

    Or maybe you are interested in a game that provides its players with the same feelings you had when you were performing in the show? I think this is pretty fertile and interesting ground myself; I recently wrote up my experience doing a 26-hour marathon improv show and it underlining how the risky quality of performing adds a whole layer over the joy of creating together.

    On a general note on improv reference, Play Unsafe is getting talked about on-forum just now, that's a great primer for introducing improvisation-like principles into your roleplaying.

  • Hi Alex -

    Thanks for your response!

    To answer your question, I am very firmly leaning towards this as an exercise in colour. The show began as an experiment. A big part of the concept was hitting genre conventions - episodic stories, with (generally romantic) subplots that build over the course of the season. Prognosis: Death has since developed its own conventions, almost its own genres. There are fans who know the canon (such as it is), and can be counted on to squeal whenever characters get together.

    At worst, it can actually get bogged down by these predetermined notes. At best, there's a real sense of community for those in the know. You can buy badges and stuff.

    So, to use what I'm sure is outdated terminology, the game is about Simulation. I want a group of gamers to build their own canon, their own alternate Saint Love (the fictional town that Saint Love Hospital is set in). There should never be any doubt that good will triumph over evil, although sometimes secondary characters may need to make sacrifices. Nothing should fundamentally change in the world, although characters' relationships should slowly drift in and out of focus, accruing little details and meanings. Perhaps most importantly: all characters need to be fundamentally likeable.

    I probably won't boil any hardcore impro techniques into the mechanics, but I do want a good grounding in impro-RPG crossover, and what's gone before. In all likelihood, the main market for this game will be fans of the show. That is, people who already watch a LOT of improvised theatre, have probably taken workshops, and won't need a lot of encouragement to apply those skills. A simple "What is an RPG? It's like improvised theatre" page should do the trick.

    But, again, I'm just keen to know what's gone before. Thanks for showing me that thread - stuff like DTTBA are straight crossovers from the world of impro.
  • Great stuff! To answer your last point, Penny for my Thoughts uses a fair bit of impro, and I think Fiasco would be worth a look, especially considering this review by a fellow improviser.

    There may be some other good advice from other storygamers, but I'd like to make some suggestions for your next step beyond this thread: to create a short document (page or two) that outlines an idealised shape of play. This could include

    1. All the thematic colour stuff mentioned above
    2. Why you're making it and the target audience, together with thoughts on what would appeal to them and you in terms of mechanics/play structure; for example, would they prefer a light set of rules?
    3. Any features feel strongly about already, given what you're going for.
    --For instance, you might feel that to recreate the Saint Love feel, each character should be created with a lot of backstory that weaves together (Spirit of the Century does something like this). Or you might feel this feel is better served by beginning with a thin archetypal character and letting details develop in play.
    --Similarly you might decide that all key decisions in the story be framed as conflicts, with failure in conflicts earlier feeding successes later in play (to achieve that big climactic victory feel). Or you might feel that things should be managed to agreement at every stage, in a consensus-based approach, or even mandated "Next will be the scene where Dr Ted Hackleway suffers a stunning reversal of fortune!"

    4. Consider practical features like how long you would want it to run (session length, typical no of sessions), group size - this stuff you probably have a sense of as it ties back to the 'feel' of what you're trying to recreate. I wouldn't recommend trying to tease out technical stuff like GM/noGM unless you have a strong view on that yet.

    (It wouldn't hurt to review things like The Big Three which were popular a while ago, but don't get tied down by it.)

    Next I would probably take it to somewhere like The Forge's Game Development forum (maybe after posting in their Actual Play area, as is customary, to introduce some of your gaming background). Unless there is a lot of buzz and appetite for a game idea on Story Games, it tends to get lost in the buzz, so a dedicated forum is good. Some people use Praxis, although I haven't spent much time there myself.

    It's an interesting idea - I'd like to keep tabs on it as it develops and see where it goes!
  • Hi Alex,

    Thanks for the running list! I think that's going to be a good way of tackling this. I've already got an account on the Forge, so will probably spend the weekend assembling a PDF before posting there.

    I love finding stuff like the big three! After reading indie lore for the last 18 months or so, it's great to keep finding new ways to think about games.

    Once I have a document I'll post it here as well, so you can have a look if you're interested. A lot of things like GM/GM-less are probably already answered, since the show has a narrator. But I think you're right, it will be good to leave those rules undecided until I've got the "feel" clear in my head.
  • edited October 2011
    Thanks for mentioning Fiasco. I talk about using Fiasco (and roleplaying games more generally) as a tool for improvisation, and interview some improv actors at length, in The Fiasco Companion.
  • Good call on the companion Jason. (Bumps it even higher up my to-read list!)

    Good luck Ash and keep us updated!
  • Jason, why do you want all my money? Because, I'll give it to you, don't think I won't!

    In a strange slice of fortune, I should be spending 12 days over the next month in hospital, for a medical trial. This seems like a good time to write my game about doctors and nurses.
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