Improv Techniques

Many low-prep or no-prep games are heavily rooted in the practice of improvisation. For those of you with theater or comedy backgrounds, good for you! You know all of this already. Get out there and show us how it’s done.

For the rest of us, there is Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe. This is a superb text about how you can apply improvisation techniques to game play. Here it is on Amazon! Or you can get a PDF on the Un-Store!

Play Unsafe is amazing and it is highly recommended. But for those of you on a budget, below are just a few tips and tricks that you can use in game. When you get stuck and are unsure of what to say, you can do one of these things.

Then there is The Fiasco Companion by Jason Morningstar and Steve Segedy. Though The Fiasco Companion is, well, a companion text to, uh, Fiasco, they include a quick and dirty about improve performance. We won’t go into even that much detail here. The following briefly paraphrases some concepts outlined in greater detail in both Play Unsafe  and The Fiasco Companion.


Unlike many other things in life, where you go for it as if you will never get another chance, play a game like you will play it again. Don’t sweat the rules much. We’re all learning here even if we have played the game before. Making sub-optimal choices is a part of this process. Now you know, you’ll get it right next time, move on.


Trust your fellow players to bring a high level of enthusiasm, energy and creativity just like you. Everybody wants you have a good time!


Put stock in your own creativity and contributions. You have seen movies, read books and enjoyed stories. You know a good story when you hear it. You also know how to listen and take turns and be a good sport. You know what you like and that is more than enough.


You may have had plans for some detail in this story game, and some other play just said something that throws a wrench in your gears. Be generous with credit and trust them that their idea is awesome. Let them have it, even though you liked your ideas too. And then they will do the same for you.

Yes, And…

This picks right up from Generosity, above. So, somebody just made a contribution in game. Instead of saying “No” say “Yes, and” and work with it. Build on it, twist it, turn it upside down, and so on, but work with it. Besides, “No” or other negating responses bring the story to a dead stop.

Don’t Plan Ahead

First of all, planning ahead is work, and the harder you are working the less fun you are to play with. Second, with other players being able to steer the story all around, your plan can fall apart. If there is no plan, they can’t fall apart. Third, if you have pre-planned material, you are already biased against the contributions of others. Work together!

Be Obvious

It’s your turn to say something. Go with the obvious thing. Say whatever is obvious to you. Yeah, we probably agree that it’s obvious, but that makes it easy for the other players to work with it. But sometimes what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to the rest of us, and you surprise us! Shoot from the hip – it’s okay if not everything is brilliant. But we will remember the things that were brilliant and natural, while trying to be clever doesn’t often pan out, and can often seem contrived.

Let Your Guard Down

Give us your unfiltered response. Even if it is uncomfortable. Especially if it is comfortable.


Endowment means supporting each ‘ideas by adding in little bits of color to flesh out the scene. Another player is taking the reins with the major important details, and you are slipping in the smaller, less critical background details that give the scene texture. This will also take the burden off the person who is doing the scene framing!


In other words, listen! Instead of coming up with new story material, use one of the characters/ideas/themes/etc. that have already been introduced. This allows us to see a new side of the given story element,  will make for a stronger, tighter story. Especially use this technique to really cast a different light on something. If you are stuck trying to find something to say, looking back at the things that have already been said is a great place to start. Then, surprise us!

Don’t Wait

If you want to see a cool thing happen, do it now. There are no promises that you will get a future opportunity – who knows where the story will take us? And, we only have so much time, so if you don’t get to it we may not get to see the cool ting at all.

Scene Framing, Hard vs. Soft

Scene Framing means going to the next ‘most important moment’ and saying where what is happening and who is there. Structuring stories in terms of scenes instead of a continuous moment-to-moment view of the game’s events helps us get to the juiciest bits right away. The fact of the matter is that we only have a few hours, and we want to get to the good stuff now.

Soft scene framing means setting up a situation and asking what happens when these story elements collide. Hard scene framing means starting the situation right in the middle of the action and demanding the others to respond to it. Put another way, soft scene framing politely asks questions about the story, while hard scene framing rather rudely makes statements about the story.

Keep in mind that scene framing techniques may not be appropriate in all games. In some games where scene framing is appropriate, hard scene framing may still be out of spirit. But if you have the option, air on the side of hard scene framing. This will help us get to the hottest parts quickly.

Also, when in doubt, cut scenes short. Short and sharp scenes are often more effective than long drawn out scenes. And we can get to more scenes.

Permission to have a Bad Game

You can’t win ’em all. A game can go sour for any number of reasons. And that’s okay. It will happen a certain percentage of the time and that’s just how it is. It’s not any one person’s fault that a game may not work out.


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