Excellent examples of Improv Techniques

Example of Offering and Endowing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTlYKkm86Vo

This is a very good example of using offering and endowing.

For the first 3 minutes there are lots of offers about who they are and what they’re doing. Note how they offer who they are, what they are doing, where they are, and what the conflict is.

At about 3 minutes there starts being lots of endowments. Mostly about horses.

Then from about 5 minutes on they begin offering and endowing about the new character in the scene, and accompanying details about the first few characters.

At about 13 minutes it starts going off the deep end, but they succeed at bringing it back to the first few details they added. This gets them another 4 minutes of humorous dialogue.

At 18 minutes they introduce the kinetiscope and run more with that.

At 21 minutes they add more detail to the character traits introduced in the 5-13 minute range. This is what allows them to resolve the central conflict that drives the scene.

Note that because they never use a lot of status related acting, achieving a resolution at the end of the story requires the introduction of new details. The conflict that is, at it’s heart, interpersonal in nature, cannot be resolved in a satisfactory way by one character becoming less important.

Example of Status

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5se8qQ4K8G0

Note how this group aims to tell a long term story with slightly more serious characters than the previous example. They still make many, many jokes. They end up using status quite frequently, because they don’t want to resolve conflicts using silly methods. They want the story to make sense. The third scene (15 minutes and 50 seconds into the video) is an excellent example: they never say the guy on the left is the girls boss until well into the scene, but it is obvious. Watch how they end the scene with a status change: the woman assumes high status, the boss assumes low status. It feels very satisfying, and like she is going to get what she wants. This is actually just a set up for a joke of the “bait and switch” variety, but note how they use the status change to set up the “bait.” The fifth scene is quite good for status also (28 minutes). They actually use status so regularly that it’s kind of silly to emphasize each scene that uses it.

Space Navy Action Scenes

I was reading a different blog a while back, and it mentioned a problem with sci fi spaceships in RPGs. Generally speaking, they follow the model laid down in Startrek. Each member of the crew has a specialty: one operates weapons, one operates sensors, one is the pilot, etc. The problem for a game that operates on this model is that the vast majority of choices are made by the commanding officer, and everyone else just gets to role. Most players don’t get to make decisions, and this is unsatisfying.

The Problem

How can decisions plausibly be divided up amongst the players without interfering with the specialized roles on board a ship?

The Solution is Social

Each character’s specialization comes with social roles. A sensors operator is supposed to inform the rest of the crew about what is going on. A weapon operator is supposed to shoot at things, and maybe operate defensive equipment also. The commander is supposed to tell everyone what to do. With that in mind, lets look at social behaviour to find a way around this problem.

With this in mind, each action will involve multiple players. This overcomes the problem of overspecialization removing choice from players not in the command role. The next trick is to allow characters who would normally be suboordinate to declare their actions independently. This is primarily a social problem, and is overcome with roleplaying and the use of improvisational theater concepts. It is also a problem for action economies and time management systems (ie. Initative), but this is much easier to overcome.

Offering, Endowing, and Yielding

I am fond of improvisational theater, and to work our way out of this problem we need some improvsational theater concepts. I have written on them before, and I will cover them briefly here again.

Offering: doing or saying something that invites a reaction from someone else. Often, an offer introduces something new to a scene, but it does not need to.

Endowing: adding characteristics or definition to something already in the scene.

Yielding: responding to an offer.

Often a single act will fit into more than one category. Often the act of endowing actually doubles as an offer, in so far as it invites a response from someone else. Sometimes a yield also invites a response from someone else, thus making it simultaneously a yield and an offer.

Note how the actions taken by each role can be fit into each of these categories. Sensor operators offer by detecting new things in space, and endow by discovering the properties of the things in space. For example, a sensor operator might say something like “Captain, the enemy ship is leaking radiation.” and, in so doing, they are endowing the enemy ship and offering something for the other players to react to. A weapons operator might respond with “Programming missiles to track the radiation. Firing in 3. 2. 1.” In so doing, they are yielding to the sensor operator.

Note how this sounds remarkably like something that happens on the bridge of the enterprise during a battle. These exchanges occur quickly and independently of the captain on the enterprise, who will usually occasionally interrupt the process to assert that they should follow the plan proposed by someone else, or to shout “belay that order!” The commander role is almost unnecessary for these action scenes to play out, however. Most of the time the captain is just a yes man, and the rest of the time the captain’s role is to stop someone from doing something.

Broad Turn and Action Format

Initiative systems remain largely unchanged. The key part is that each player gets one turn per round. However, when it’s a players turn they must always offer or endow. Their offer or endow must line up with their specialized role. Any other player may respond to this, and it doesn’t even need to line up with their specialized role. However, they will tend to be more effective if it does line up with their role just because odds are good those skills are raised.

To keep the flow of the game at a faster pace, I would suggest making it so that the offering or endowing person doesn’t roll at all. However, it might still be desirable to have an effect that increases as the character becomes stronger at their specific role. The specifics of this would depend on the system. Alternity is pretty clear on how this works: at rank 1 it is a step 1 bonus, rank 4 it is a step 2 bonus, 7 it is a step 3 bonus, etc. In GURPS, I would suggest that the bonuses are +1 at level 11, +2 at level 13, +3 at level 16, and +4 at level 21. I came up with these numbers by using the usual values for degrees of success (0, -2, -5, and -10), and assuming a roll of 11 all the time.

The yielding character is the one who gets to roll. They get to decide what they are doing, of course, but it must be a reaction to the offer. Their results are determined normally. If someone totally ignores the offer they automatically fail their attempt. Note that there are ways to act against the spirit of the offer that do not ignore it.

Note that is far easier for some roles to offer than it is to yield, and vice versa. Players should take this into consideration when choosing what they would like to play as.

Enemy Initative

Since the players will quite plausibly end up taking 3-5 actions, which involve the actions of 6-10 characters, it can be quite cumbersome if the GM acts with a similar attention to detail. It is also potentially problematic in that this system could result in weapons being fired 3-5 time, before the enemy ship even gets to respond.

A nice simple way to handle this eventuality is to count the number of times a player yielded since the enemy ship acted, and give the enemy ship that many actions. If there are 4 players, and the enemy ship goes 2nd, then on the enemy’s first turn it only takes 1 action. On the enemy’s next turn, it takes 4 actions.

Example

We have 3 player characters: Captain Charidee, Noah the Weapons Operator (and Saurian alien), and Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie. They are all aboard the spaceship Marengo, a mighty warship. They are battling an enemy flying saucer.

GM tallies everyone’s initiative. It is as follows:

  1. Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie

  2. Captain Charidee

  3. Flying Saucer

  4. Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator

Chief Engineer Fancy-Bowtie says “Redirecting power to lasers.” Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator responds with “We need time for the lasers to charge. Beginning evasive maneuvers.” Noah makes an appropriate piloting roll, adds the bonus from Fancy-Bowtie’s engineering skill. The result is good, and the ships defenses go up. Note how Noah acknowledged what Fancy-Bowtie said, but chose to do something totally different than what Fancy-Bowtie obviously intended.

Captain Charidee analyzes the enemy. “They’re holding back. They’re prepping something big.” Fancy-Bowtie says “I’ve got a trick up my sleeves: flaring the engines. The radiation will mess up their tracking.” Fancy-Bowtie makes a check related to ECM, with a bonus from captain charidee’s tactics skill.

The flying saucer gets to take two actions, because two players have gone. It attempts to scan the ship to find a weakness in their defenses, and then shoot them with a plasma blaster. Fancy-Bowtie’s ECM causes some severe penalties on the sensor check, and the Flying Saucer fails. The attack roll must be made without the aid of a sensors operator and the players have the benefit of evasive maneuvers. The flying saucer fails its check, and thus does not hit.

Noah the Saurian Weapons Operator says “Lasers fully charged.” Captain Charidee says “Fire!” Oddly, in this situation it will end up being the captain that determines whether the attack hits, and the Weapons Officer skill is only for buffing the attack. They never got a target lock, so they’re lacking the significant aiming bonus. The players are lucky, though, and Captain Charidee rolls a hit with the weapons operation skill.

Hogging the Yields

It is certainly possible that someone will jump in and always take the yields. By virtue of being faster and more assertive than everyone else (and by the vice of not caring enough to share), no one else will ever get to roll. This problem can probably be solved by the GM reminding them to share, but if you prefer a system that uses special game mechanics, I have a suggestion: at end of every round, if no one has yielded twice or more, the captain gets a use of a special ability of some kind. I would suggest borrowing a page from GURPS: Action, and have the captain earn a use of Good Luck. Note how I said it is earned if no one yielded twice or more, and that this is different than if everyone yielded once.

Acting Games for RPGs based on Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when an audience knows more about events in a story than the characters within the story, and this results in differences of meaning for the audience than it does for the characters.  I saw a simple, light hearted example of this in a film today: The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey.  I don’t think this counts as a spoiler because it’s in the first half-hour of a three hour movie, but, just in case, consider yourself warned.
Bilbo Baggins wakes up in the middle of the night and a dwarf shows up.  Bilbo tries to find out what’s going on, but more and more dwarves keep on showing up before he gets answers.  And they keep taking his food!  This is obviously quite distressing for Bilbo, but it is a little bit of light hearted comedy for us in the audience.  This is because we had just had the pleasure of a lengthy exposition about dwarves.
Lets turn this into a game for PCs and the GM to act out.
Step 1:  The GM decides a piece of information to share with the PCs.  This is communicated in a short hand out, and one player does not get a copy.  This character will be called the Host.
Step 2:  Decide on a setting for the scene.  I suggest asking the Host to choose, based on what they would normally be doing at a particular time.  
Step 3:  Other PCs arrive one at a time or in groups.  They are coming because of the content of the hand out.  The Host’s goal is to get them to answer questions and explain what is going on.  However, the other PCs will attempt to find things to distract them from answering the questions.  They can use features of the immediate setting, backstory, character traits, and a great many other things.
Step 4: Eventually the host manages to get some answers.  The only question is how quickly.

Rewards:  If the host manages to get the answers they want, they should get a reward.  If everyone else always manages to evade questions by greeting other PCs, talking about something in the setting or environment, or changing the topic to something the host would like to talk about, then everyone else gets a reward.  You can decide what reward is appropriate.

Lets generalize this.  The real trick is to create an imbalance in the information available to PCs, and to assign one player the task of getting the information.  It requires the players to participate in platform building, so long as it is about the immediate location or the characters who are currently present.  It works best at the beginning of a plot to introduce the central conflict, but could be used for introducing any piece of information.  If done later in the story, the imbalance of information is often reversed: one character has all the information and is trying to communicate it, and the other characters are trying to avoid hearing it.  When analyzing status, the host is a low status character struggling to attain high status.