My First Improv Workshop

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I’m one of those extroverted introverts. It’s not an oxymoron; it means that I can and do enjoy interacting with people in an energetic way in certain situations. I am comfortable and confident running a role-playing game for strangers at a con. Yet this past Saturday I was terrified to stand in front of my friends.

A group of us had signed up for Improv Techniques for the Gaming Table: Group Storytelling with Steve Townshend. Megan Pederson of the Jankcast had organized this as part of a series of workshops that apply acting and improv techniques to role-playing games. Since Steve is a trained actor and also a RPG industry professional, he was a perfect choice to run this workshop. Seven of us met in a mostly empty room of the Strawdog Theatre here in Chicago, nervous and awkward at the hellish hour of 9 am on a Saturday. The group all knew each other or were at least vaguely familiar through online interactions through Google+.

Steve led us through a series of exercises to loosen up and work on focusing our attention. This included chants, handing each other imaginary items you’d find in a dungeon, pretending to be in different locations, and a cool exercise Steve called a “conducted” story. Megan gave us the theme of “grapefruit”, then Steve pointed to one of our group, who began to tell a story about a magical grapefruit we were all on a quest to find. Before he got out more than a few sentences, Steve pointed at another person, who had to pick up the story without pause, and so on. Our story was weird and wonderful.

Part of the exercise was to not deny part of the story someone else had contributed, but rather to take it and add to it instead. This is totally applicable to role-playing games. I’ve been in sessions where someone wanted to try something, only to have someone else shut it down. The best sessions occur when the group begins to gel and a coherent story emerges, just like in this exercise. For example, if someone has established their character as an expert with poisons, not taking that assertion at face value, either by challenging them or passive aggressive mockery, would be denying that person’s contribution to the story.

Then Steve had us do the same exercise, but this time it was “non-conducted,” in that Steve didn’t point at who was supposed to talk next. Instead he stood back and listened to the story of why a bunch of ankylosaurs on sharp bikes on a quest for martinis were trailing us to our time machine. The story was pretty gonzo, but it was so great to tell it together. I started recognizing the hesitation on someone’s face when they were stuck, or the excitement when someone knew what they wanted to say next. It brought together the focus exercises we started with as well.

Next up was an exercise where we all created a room together. Now, the whole session had involved us standing up and occasionally jumping around wildly, but now we had to go up and mime where items in a room were. Together we described a creepy abandoned artist studio with a skeleton, escaping statue, cobwebby window, claw marks, a tile circle with a sigil, and a tree with metallic leaves that fluttered as if alive. It was really cool, and weirder than any of us would have come up with individually.

Finally it was the part I mentioned that I found terrifying. Now that we’d gotten the hang of making a room, each of us had to go up and stand in front of the group. One by one the others would come up and describe something about the character, which we then had to embody with our posture and voice. After the description was finished, we had to answer their questions in character.

I was Emira, a rollerskating Wiccan with a blue mohawk and a heavy bag of text books. I slid back and forth on my imaginary rollerskates and talked about my indecision over my major (astrophysics or pottery!), my roller derby alter ego (Maggie Medusa), and how excited I was that my crush (the super cute Cara) was coming to my next bout. I came up with all of that off the top of my head after the description was done. My fear, though, was having to act out this person who was not me. I’ve only ever participated in one LARP (Live Action Role Play) and I had that same tight feeling in my stomach then. It’s only recently that I came up with an NPC that has a distinctive way of moving that I imitate, but something about acting out a character makes me freeze.

After lunch, we played Ribbon Drive by Avery Mcdaldno. It was my first time playing this game, in which you play as a group taking a road trip. Your characters, the scenes, everything is informed by the music played during the game. Steve had a playlist ready for us, and we quickly established ourselves as a group of friends supposedly travelling through the South on a mission to photograph ghosts, although really we were exorcising some demons. You determine goals, called Futures, for your character based on the music, and late in the game

One of mine came true. I was playing Thomas, an insecure underachiever who finally learned his older brother, Bill, was actually proud of him. While the amazing player who was Bill told me this, I grabbed at the table and said, “I’m so uncomfortable right now.” And I was. I had gotten enough into character that I was actually reacting emotionally as if I were Thomas. It was cathartic and weird and uncomfortable and really cool.

wheeltreepressWe had to clear out before the game was finished, but I think we all had gotten the important bits by then. We had a little wrap up in the lobby before a couple of us headed out to decompress through alcohol consumption, and everyone seemed excited by the day’s events. Steve and Megan are planning to have this same workshop at GenCon, and I would definitely recommend attending. Even if you’ve been playing role-playing games for a long time, the techniques Steve showed us on how to add to each other’s stories are practical tools any GM could use. Megan’s also planning another workshop next quarter that focuses more on embodying your character. Information on that can be found on the Wheel Tree Press’s Facebook page.

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About Author

Sarah Richardson is a graphic artist living in Chicago. In addition to illustrating and laying out tabletop RPGs and zines, she burns through comics and books as fast as her eyes can move. Sarah swears a lot on twitter as @scorcha79.

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