Review: ‘Improv for Gamers’

Disclaimer: I applied to Evil Hat to receive copies of some products for review and they sent me ‘Improv for Gamers’. I receive no money from Evil Hat and they have not influenced the content of this review beyond providing some links to their resources (included at the end).

Improv and gaming have a lot of crossover, and using the shorthand of improv is one of the easiest ways to explain gaming, especially live gaming, to the uninitiated. However, improv, like gaming, has its own vocabulary and etiquette, which can be intimidating for those of us who are more comfortable throwing dice on a table than hurling imaginary objects around a circle of friends. At the same time, Improv for Gamers proves that gamers can learn a lot from a form that has always prided itself on innovation and exploration. These techniques can be a valuable way of breaking down anxiety barriers, but you might have to cross those barriers yourself first.

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First and foremost, Improv for Gamers is an introduction to improv concepts through practical exercises that become more complex as the book goes on, weaving in translations of terms that seem simple on the surface but hold a lot of nuance. These exercises are well explained and something I really like (a strength of Evil Hat’s work in general) is the diversity of the people portrayed in the illustrations.

That said, I personally found the exercises a little disconnected from what I’d actually like to do in a gaming session. Most involve physically standing or moving around a space, which is unlikely to be something most tabletop groups have the ability, desire or confidence to do – they’re great for loosening up a group or helping people get over their self-consciousness (which is valuable in itself), but I feel like there’s room for exercises that integrate the aims of a gaming group as well as the aims of an improv troupe. I’d particularly like to see more exercises that involve purely vocal improv rather than physical, and ones that are more geared towards storytelling within a gaming context, especially with more gaming- and storytelling-focused prompts.

To be fair, there is a very good set of explanations of why these exercises are important and relevant to gaming. My immediate thought when I read the ‘Classic Cast’ exercise (which I think is one of the strongest for a gaming group, edging towards diceless story gaming) was that it could really help people get into building shared links in a backstory. But I would love, for instance, to see an improv exercise specifically developed to help people with the Phase Trio portion of Fate character creation, or (for the physical side of things) an object exercise based around being Mimics in a dungeon who have to keep pretending to be different objects every time the hero they’re sneaking up on looks round!

This book did help me re-evaluate my thinking with some of its broad concepts: for instance, building on a prompt rather than coming up with something out of thin air can be very freeing as a GM, especially if you’re the anxious sort. After reading this book, I ran a Masks: A New Generation one-shot for a group of strangers who hadn’t played a Powered by the Apocalypse game before. I drew a villain from the villain deck as our starting prompt for the team backstory rather than leaping straight into the leading questions, and it helped set up a flow that kept going right to the climax of the game. I found myself keeping the ideas explored in Improv for Gamers in mind, and it definitely helped. The value of this for Fate is immense, as well: I really struggle with the Phase Trio, but an exercise providing a prompt or encouraging players to act out a short scene around a concept could be very helpful.

Outside of the exercises, Improv for Gamers has some excellent short essays, including the most enlightening piece I’ve read about the concept of ‘yes, and’. Often, in gaming circles, ‘yes, and’ is presented as the ironclad need to accept every offer a player has made you – but the truth is that gaming is not the same as improv. We have rules constraints to work within, coherent world building and fairness to take into account, and a different culture in which final authority over your own character’s actions, decisions and fate are an integral part of the satisfaction of gaming for many people. There are plenty of gamers who can work with the chaos that unbridled ‘yes, and’ can bring to the table, but it can also lead to some deeply uncomfortable situations. The way Karen Twelves discusses the concept in this book is extremely valuable – especially as the essay moves quickly from ‘yes, and’ to how we can prioritise the comfort and safety of everyone involved.

In addition to all this, there’s a handy glossary of improv terms in the back, a vital section on safety techniques (which are covered somewhat in the main text as well), a bunch of useful prompts and lists of recommended reading and games that are well worth looking at.

This book has a lot of useful tools and it made me re-evaluate the offers people make me during games, as well as my responses. I’d love to see more work building on this baseline, especially with some less physical exercises that bridge the gap between the standalone nature of improv scenes and the more connected type of gaming that I’m used to. But over all, it’s a great resource for any gamer who’s curious about improv techniques but didn’t know where to start.

Links:

Prompts for download here.

Buy from your Friendly Local Games Shop (with Bits and Mortar pdf support) or from Evil Hat here.

Videos with examples of play here and here.

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