Sunday, 2 May 2010
On impro theatre
You can read my introduction to impro theatre here.
Since impro is made in the moment, the actors have to remain in the moment, spontaneous and open to their own and others idea. If you get an idea, act on it; If you notice it feels right to tap your foot, then do just that, and then build on that. If you notice another player bringing an idea into the scene, accept it and then build on that.
In effect, you have to remain sensitive and open at all times. Never plan, never force the scene to become what you would like it to be. Impro is a collaborative effort, you need to get a feel for where you as a group are going right now, and go that direction.
Imagine that our story is a train, and that our ideas are it's fuel. Whenever someone brings an idea to the scene, they bring energy to the scene, moving it forward and energizing the other actors. You need to recognize energy when you see it, grab it and use it.
On blocking in improvisation theatre
Blocking, or rather avoiding it, is a central concept of improvisation theatre. When I introduce an idea and you reject it, that's blocking.
Let's say we're playing a scene about a burglary, and we're considering how to get through a security door. I say "I've got just the thing, I brought the dynamite!"
You could say...
"We'll have to find another way around!" which would be ignoring the idea. Perhaps you're not paying attention to the other actors because you're occupied with planning a window-break in-scene.
"No, this door is dynamite proof!" which would be cancelling the idea and making the last exchange pointless, not moving the story forward and thus dull. There is a tendency to add complications to stories in impro and roleplaying, to make them more exciting, but this is still blocking, putting a dead stop on the idea.
"You doofus, the door is wide open!" which would be sure to draw some quick laughs from the audience, but it would also be rejecting the idea.
All of these are blocking in some form. I've offered energy, but you've discarded it, pulling the brakes on our scene. That's bad. Energy and momentum is vital, our scene cannot live without it. Let's look at accepting:
"Great, let's do it!" Alright! You take my idea an add more energy. Let's go!
"The dynamite!? Whoa, that's dangerous! Can you handle it?" Here you take my idea and add a complication for more energy. Notice the difference between adding something to the idea and cancelling it. (The dynamite proof door-reply) The story is still moving forward! This is the proper way of adding complications.
So complications != blocking. Undoing other players contributions is blocking, and that can be both by providing roadblocks or solving their character's problems for them, if they were interested in exploring these problems.
Blocking in roleplaying games
What's funny is, while blocking is a deadly sin in impro theatre, traditional roleplaying games are built on blocking. The game master has complete control of the story and the players have complete control of their characters, what they do, etcetera. But consider this: If the control of the characters belong to the players, then all the numbers and dice rolls are a way for the game to say when they can't do whatever they like, effectively blocking them
So we're playing, and you say "I run across the roofs to escape, jumping from building to building, staggering on the slick roofing tiles in the moonlight" Cool! That's an idea that inspires me, it gives me energy, get's me engaged in the story and we're heading somewhere. Now the game master says "Roll for Athletics, difficulty 5", so you roll the dice, and they say... "No, you didn't".
And that's it! Talk about roadblock! All that investment and the game just throws it away.
Now, you could argue that it's up to the GM to keep the game moving even with failures, but the matter of fact is that games have traditionally been written so that;
1) If you want to act, you roll.
2) If you fail your roll, your action fails. The game doesn't give you tools or advice to keep the story moving from this point, at all. Hey, most players wouldn't provide the kind of creative input I quoted above, as it would be in vain anyway if your dice roll failed.
3) As a matter of fact, the game can punish you for failing. Injuries provide negative modifications to your stats, making future failure more likely.
As a matter of fact, I've seen GMs use dice checks with the purpose of blocking, so that the players doesn't stray from the pre-planned course or scenario, or to make sure the players doesn't get anything for free. I don't think these are rare cases, either.
Consider that: The players (the players, not their characters) want something, and it's your job as a GM to make sure they doesn't get it. Why should you do that? When the players want something, that's where their energy is, where their interest lie, that's how you get them fired up. You need to go there, give them what they want, add complications if you wish, but give them what they're interested in.
In traditional roleplaying, the GM has a pre-planned vision to lead the players along with. In a tradition were communication between participants is seen as distracting from immersion, the only way for players to realize their vision is to force it through the rules.
Trad gaming is soaked in this philosophy of influencing the game through force.
When trad games implement player influence, it is usually in the form of points with which to buy your influence. When trad gamers discuss shared storytelling, it is in terms of authority, rules for when you as a player may force your vision on others.
But force never leads to creativity. Trust does. Forcing is blocking.
No wonder the game master doesn't trust the players to muck up the story by forcing their influence on the story, because force is all they have.
But enough with the critizism.
To play with creativity
Improvise. Collaborate. Keith Johnstone says in his books on impro that everyone is creative, if they just trust theirselves. Trust your players. Provide a clear, shared vision, and create from it. Don't use force, use openness. Let your character and your ideas be vulnerable, allow them to change. Find the ideas in the shared imagination, not in what you have planned out for yourself.
Listen, like really listen, to each other. Communicate. Do what you feel is fun and gives good movement to the game. If you don't like something, say so. You needn't have anything happen to your character if you feel it is tedious, unpleasant or not fun for you as a player. There aren't winners and losers in roleplaying.
Rules should be written not as laws or maybe even mechanisms of rewards, but as something to relate to, to make the story more tangible and inspiring.
For now, I'll have to point you to further litterature rather than developing this theoretical body.
Graham Walmsley has written the book Play Unsafe on how to adapt Johnstones ideas of impro to tabletop roleplaying. The books, Impro and Impro for storytellers by Johnstone are just as relevant.
John Harper has written Lady Blackbird, a free quick-read game which is improvised, provides a clear and inspiring vision, minimalist rules, rules that inspire story-making a very non-blocking resolution system, and advice how to encourage collaborative creating. Harper is also working on the excellent game Danger Patrol, where a single scene is all the prep the GM does pre-game.
In Mouse Guard by Luke Crane, all actions are successes. If a roll fails, the GM either introduces a complication or gives the character a harmful condition - Sie gets what sie wants, but at a price. No blocking, just adding to the story. The condition mechanic is present in Lady Blackbird as well.
On traditional roleplaying games and indie games
As I critize the traditions of roleplaying, does that mean I wish to promote indie roleplaying games and devalue trad roleplaying?
No. Roleplaying as a hobby is just 30 years old. There is no money in roleplaying, and thus there are no professors of roleplaying and you can't go to roleplaying design college. Thus, the development of roleplaying games are happening right here, right now, and to me, challenging and analysing the assumptions of trad rpgs is how to develop trad rpgs.
Indie roleplaying is just 10 years old, and even moreso trying to find its form. Is creative roleplaying the same as indie roleplaying? Is it narrativism? Or is it something else? You tell me.