Improv and RPGs, part 1: Listening to others

I’ve done improvisational theatre for two years now, and I’ve been a roleplayer (mostly the GM) for twenty years on and off. Improv has done a lot to make me a better player; and for a long while I thought roleplaying made me great at improv. Sure, I had my strengths, but this post focuses on what I sucked: listening to other people. There will be sequels.

I had no problem being at the centre of things, especially if I had to come up with ideas and dialogue. That’s what I had been doing for twenty years. For a long time, my GMing style was very traditional; and while during the last five years I’ve come to try different styles of games and to prefer very improv-heavy drama games, the traditional style had its roots deep; the style where the GM is mainly responsible for the fun in the session, and is the centre of attention. I GM’d a lot of horror games and I’d gotten used to controlling and pacing the scenes. I was responsible for the flow of the story.

I’m sure I’m not the only GM in the world who usually found it hard to be merely a player in the traditional sense. When someone else GM’d, the temptation to step in his shoes was overwhelming. It wasn’t easy to let go of power.

The same thing carried over into improv. As I said before, coming up with colourful stuff on the fly was pretty easy (if improv is ever easy). But it wasn’t as easy to listen to others. Sure, I had my ears open and paid attention to what they said and did. What I mean by listening is being sensitive to what’s going on in the scene – who’s controlling it, who’s contributing the most, who’s being overly aggressive with ideas, who’s blocking the development of ideas, who’s giving who the limelight and so on.

And that’s super, super important in improv, and in roleplaying as well (with variations among different styles of gaming, of course). In improv, the scenes come first, the actors second; in RPGs, the game first, the players second. The individual personalities and egos must yield to the betterment of the overall experience. If there is to be variation, change, and improvement in your improv or your roleplaying, you need to give up your need to control.

It sucks. It hurts. It says that you’re not as good as you thought you were. That your ideas aren’t the best there are.

Next up: happy scenes and slow build-ups.

ADDENDUM: Shortly after writing this, I realised I forgot to clarify what I feel listening is essentially about. Here I’m a getting a bit philosophical (but that’s what you get for doing improv, reading Hegel, and practising Zen Buddhism). I think it’s a fundamental stance that one needs to adopt and find in oneself. It’s somewhere between being active and being passive on the stage or at the gaming table. If you’re too active, you’re dominating and not letting others do stuff. If you’re too passive, you’re not actually paying attention to what you need to do right now. I might change my opinion or formulation on this once I’m more experienced, but I think improv and some forms of roleplaying are about doing what needs to be done, about fulfilling the needs of the game. The impetus for action comes not so much from you planning and thinking ahead, but from you letting go. Sometimes the situation calls for you to act; sometimes you need to sit back and let the other people be the stars.

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