Recommended Improv/Immersion Exercises?

edited April 2014 in Play Advice
Given: A group of trad/computer RPG players who are willing but lack much experience in improv or storygames.
Goal: To ramp up to playing more "story-first" and "bleedy" games, with more player agency, character depth, immersion, etc.
Prescription: As a group, we want to learn immersion techniques, develop improv capabilities, and increase interpersonal trust.

Various types of improv exercises (and certain full-fledged games) are easy and effective ways to enhance the storytelling effectiveness and internal trust of a gaming group. I'm interested in hearing some of your recommendations. Keep them simple. No rules over 2 pages. No games over 1 hour. What I'm really looking for here are things that might fall somewhere between a "game" and an "exercise".

Comments

  • I think you have two options:

    1. Play traditional RPGs and start gently mixing in non-traditional techniques, gradually, one at a time.

    2. Jump straight in the deep end and try something which goes completely against the way you normally play.

    As far as good games/exercises go, I'd recommend Gun Thief, by Joe McDaldno. Ghost/Echo, by John Harper, could also be a good one.
  • I love ya Paul, but I think I have way more than 2 options!

    To clarify: It's not like these players are unwilling, afraid, or in any way opposed to story-first gaming, and I'm not trying to surprise them or drop them in the deep end. As a group, we know where we're going and we're willing to go there. We just want to get better at it. Most of us have no acting or improv experience. I have a little, but I'm always looking for new techniques and tips from my peers, so...

    I'm looking for short games or literal exercises that could be run outside of regular play, or maybe before play to "get in the mood", or on random game nights, to strengthen and develop the group's focus, flexibility and trust. Similar to the sorts of exercises that improv/acting troupes do on a regular basis, but I'm specifically interested in those that work best in the context of storygaming.
  • edited April 2014
    Cool, I wasn't saying that wasn't the case. I just think it would be helpful to decide whether you want to consider choosing limited techniques one at a time and mastering them, or to jump in head-first and see what sticks.

    Each approach has upsides and downsides!

    If there's a third way (other than mixing the two), I'd love to hear about it.

    Edit: I'm writing as an artist here (I'm a professional musician), so I'm approaching this from the angle of someone who's serious about improving a new or different skill. I like to alternate very methodical work/practice ("Let's pick an improv scene framing technique, and use it in five different ways until it's second nature") with a looser, jump-into-the-water-until-you-learn-to-swim approach. I think both are very valuable. However, it's very important to agree on which approach you're taking as a group, so you don't miss each other altogether! ("Today, let's throw all our assumptions out the window and try *this thing*." "Tomorrow, we'll play game X as we normally do, except let's all try to be mindful of/experiment with technique Y.")

    And I still recommend those two games! Both are 2-3 pages and challenge your improv skills in very different ways.
  • edited April 2014
    How about A Penny For My Thoughts? It impresses me, because none of the game's terminology or structure feels odd or metagamey in any way, which is one thing that people sometimes feel about less-traditional games. It'd be a great way to introduce them to a new way of thinking about story, while still being familiar enough to them.

    (I seriously love how there's an in-game justification for the narrative authority handoffs and the scene framing.)

    I'm not totally sure it fits your criteria...but I think the core rules are simple enough to fit on two pages. (A lot of the book is advice.) Unsure if it fits into an hour.
  • Have a look through the game poems here - http://www.ukroleplayers.com/wiki/Category:Poems and you should find some that the group would enjoy that would allow you to explore various portions of play. If you want immersive, and can take dark, give Though Our Arms Are Empty a go.
  • edited April 2014
    Thanks everybody, keep em coming!
    @w00hoo - Game Poems, fascinating.
  • You can have an evening where you all watch Whose Line Is It Anyways and then do some of the exercises from—

    http://improvencyclopedia.org/index.html
  • I've taken a bunch of impro theater courses with some exercises that could be used around a table.

    The first one is Three Things. The whole group clap hands three times and, timed with each clap, say "three things that", then one person turns to the next and says something made up on the spot, like "three movies you like". The next person answers with three things as fast as they can. What they say doesn't have to be true, but it should at least be related to the question, so "Casablanca, Star Wars, Moomin". Is Moomin the title of a film? It doesn't matter. Then you repeat the clapping and "three things that" and the next person say, for example, "three reasons to kill a person". The answer may be "love, hate, jealousy". How do you kill for love? It doesn't matter. The exercise should be completely non-judgmental, and you don't stop and laugh at, or question, any answers. Just keep going around the table, trying to keep the rhythm going. It's important to *not* try to be clever or funny, but to just say the first three things that pops into your mind. The point is to let them out unfiltered, and not care about how they will be received. You can do the same thing without the clapping and just go around the table asking for three things.

    The second one is Story Spine; telling a shared story based on specific phrases. One person starts and then the turn moves around the table. The phrases are:

    - Once upon a time...
    - Every day...
    - But, one day...
    - Because of that...
    - Because of that...
    - Because of that...
    - Until, finally...
    - And, ever since then...

    So the first person might say "Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in a castle." The next person continues "Every day she watered the flowers in her garden." The next person continues "But, one day all the flowers were gone!" And so on until all the phrases have been used. It's fun to see what the others come up with, and the phrases make the story follow a dramatic arc. This can give an idea of how to use a similar arc during an RPG session or for a specific player character. More information here: http://improvencyclopedia.org/games/Story_Spine.html

    The third one is Alphabet Game, where you play a scene together where each line of dialog must start on the next letter of the alphabet. You decide a situation, say employees preparing the office Christmas party, and then someone starts with A and you go around the table saying a sentence each:

    - And here we are again; same old thing every year.
    - But I LOVE the Christmas party!
    - See, we can't even agree on whether we like the party or not.

    And so on...

    I cheated on C; the point is not to be super-strict, but to have fun. When you start talking, you can't go back and start over, so you have to finish the sentence in some way.

    To recommend an improv-enabling RPG it has to be InSpectres. Ten bucks for that game is a steal! I could teach a group the basics of the game, create characters and a ghost hunting franchise, and play a 5-point mission in an hour, if we don't stop and discuss every aspect of the characters. Neither the players nor GM knows the story before it starts. On successful skill rolls the players decide what happens and on failed skill rolls the GM decides. This makes the story a shared improvisation exercise, where you have to build upon what has been established, while you add new wrinkles to the mystery. When you have created the PCs and their franchise it would be easy to run a short 5-point mission before the regular game in future sessions. The risk is of course that InSpectres is so fun it becomes the main event.
  • To recommend an improv-enabling RPG it has to be InSpectres. Ten bucks for that game is a steal!
    I was going to suggest InSpectres but forgot about it. I've played this game a lot on conventions and a 15-point mission takes me around 45 minutes, but I have certain structures to speed up the game.
  • edited April 2014
    You can have an evening where you all watch Whose Line Is It Anyways and then do some of the exercises from—

    http://improvencyclopedia.org/index.html
    The stuff in the encyclopedia looked good but I'm not sure I'd suggest 'Whose Line Is It Anyway' I've only done a little bit of Improv stuff (if you're in London, I recommend the Spontaneity Shop courses) but one of the things they talked about was the different approaches to Improv and how most of the attempts to put it on TV relied heavily on quite aggressive styles because they were much more likely to be instantly funny.

    You'll probably get more use out of the collaborative exercises where you are improvising a story rather than attempting to go for a laugh. You can come up with some pretty serious stuff that way if you let the story flow in that direction. Most important bit of advice is, don't plan. Be willing to just let whatever is in your head come out, and trust that it'll be good. It won't always happen, but when it does it's that much better. We'd be about to start an exercise, the 'director' would say "right, have you got an idea? Yes? Don't use that then, and go."
  • edited April 2014
    PENNY is one of the games I'd like to lead this group to. I think it's really cool. But I don't consider it smooth or fast to get into, despite the in-game exposition it attempts. The mechanics have an odd crunchy quality because of the pennies; the IF/THEN skippy layout is complex and not easy to read quickly; the exposition is verbose, convoluted, and full of peculiar conceits. I think I would want a group who has discussed the game in detail before playing. But thinking about it did lead me to an idea for an exercise, which is basically to use the game's core mechanic and toss out everything else...

    Player 1: tells a memory, stops at the point where she is about to do something decisive
    Player 2: says what happened next version 1
    Player 3: says what happened next version 2
    Player 1 chooses one of those versions and says "yes and..."

    I think if we did that exercise a number of times, we would be much more prepared to actually play PFMT!
  • Penny is an odd one, it's basically the "yes and..." exercise you have above, made in to a game and is very much an improv exercise (which I think is mentioned near the back somewhere). The first time I played it we knew nothing about it at all (including the person pitching it) and played it straight from the book. It played well, but long as we were second guessing too much. It's a bit of a victim of its own marketing in my mind as it hides what it is too well. In the games I've played in the UK it's run at around 4 hours in for 4 players, I've not tried it with different numbers.

    When I facilitate it I have a print out of the notes from the PDF which I have highlighted for who reads what when. This is pretty simple to do, but helps take out the 'second time round' notes from the middle of what you have to read which is handy. I also like how this document is becoming an artefact in its own right as it ages from repeated, if occasional, use. You could just do this to the book, but I hate writing in books...

    To stop the second guessing situation we ended up in first time, and to emphasise the nature of the game I have also written an intro letter from the doctor in charge giving the players a little bit more information as to what is happening (largely, trust the game, it's not a trick).

    Finally, be aware that because it's based on 'yes and' it actually gives players carte blanche to be dicks if they are so inclined. While the version 1, version 2 stage gives you the out that one of the players is going to suggest something you are interested in, the memory trigger stage allows players to just outright state things that you are supposed to run with and add to. You know your players, which is a good start, and it sounds like they won't revel in making other players uncomfortable. But if there's any doubt, this is probably a game where the X card would make a lot of sense (rather than a lines and veils approach).
  • edited April 2014
    ... but I'm not sure I'd suggest 'Whose Line Is It Anyway' /.../ because they were much more likely to be instantly funny.

    /.../
    Most important bit of advice is, don't plan. Be willing to just let whatever is in your head come out, and trust that it'll be good. It won't always happen, but when it does it's that much better.
    Yes, there is an unnecessary pressure if you have to be funny too and WLIIA got a lot of pimping going on and that's hard and takes trust. However, to be able to read about improv and understand it, I think the person must know what improv means but most of all, see it in action. Perhaps I should had suggested (without being sarcastic) the slightly less humoristic British version or Fast and Loose. Sure, it's still entertainment but more loose and with as less focus on the humor. But watch some episodes of some of the improv shows out there, read about some of the improv techniques and then watch some of the episodes again.

    Suggested reading is Keith Johnstone's Improv, because I wonder if someone can just do the games without the understanding of the basics of improv: accepting, trust, offering, chivalry, keeping away from self-censoring and all that.
  • edited April 2014
    I guess that Penny makes more sense if you approach it while consciously thinking of its meta level. To me, it seemed definitely logical. Also, great point on using the X-card. (I could easily see adoption of a procedure where you discard a "contaminated" memory trigger, because it's obviously incongruent with the player, and choose someone to write a new one and throw it into the can.)
  • ... but I'm not sure I'd suggest 'Whose Line Is It Anyway' /.../ because they were much more likely to be instantly funny.

    /.../
    Most important bit of advice is, don't plan. Be willing to just let whatever is in your head come out, and trust that it'll be good. It won't always happen, but when it does it's that much better.
    Yes, there is an unnecessary pressure if you have to be funny too and WLIIA got a lot of pimping going on and that's hard and takes trust. However, to be able to read about improv and understand it, I think the person must know what improv means but most of all, see it in action.
    I suggest going to YouTube and search for "improv long form". The best ones are not from a TV studio, but from a theater stage. It's even better if it's an improv course group performing and not professionals, because it's easier to see what they're doing when they're not super quick thinking and totally synchronized. It's refreshing to see an actor go totally blank and then find something to say that keeps the scene moving. In Who's Line, even when they go blank you almost think that they're acting, because they're so good.

    You probably need some understanding about improv basics ("say yes", and so on), but as long as you keep reminding yourself that they haven't planned anything it's quite amazing what a group of people can come up with on the spot. Sometimes there's a hidden structure about who sets the scenes or which characters return in which scenes, but the actual content when two or more people are on stage is of course created on the spot.
  • http://www.amazon.com/Games-Actors-Non-Actors-2nd-Edition/dp/0415267080

    All of Augusto Boal's works are challenging and good for developing powerful improvisational muscles. Also look for works by Viola Spolin.
  • You guys totally rock. I'm loving all these suggestions.
  • edited May 2014
    I'll shamelessly plug The Trouble with Rose, it has structure and roles that makes it an easy to run story stick parlor game and is good for one shots.
    tangent-zero.com/trouble.htm [Oh, it's also free.]
  • You might try some exercises from the Workshop Handbook blog -- http://workshophandbook.wordpress.com/
  • edited May 2014
    I find Fiasco to be a very helpful game for developing impro/immersion skills.
    Since you're going to crash&burn your character anyway (it's called Fiasco...), there is no pressure to "succeed". So you can focus on the story-telling part. Without stat or character sheets, there is not much else left anyway.
  • I'd do Yes, And exercises. You start a story, I say "Yes, and..." and continue that story, and so on.

    That's the key skill you want for Penny For My Thoughts and similar games.

    There's also an exercise I like, where you focus on telling a story that makes the other person happy. That's something you can do during the game: play it for someone else.
  • Graham: Yes! Beautiful.
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