Improv Chapter 1: Basic Rules

This chapter provides an overview of the rules of Improv. The basic rules are complete; you can play with just the rules in this chapter. Other chapters of the book build on these basic rules with more advanced options.

Example of Play

Improv is the sort of game that easier to understand in play than it is from reading the rules. This example of play introduces the basic concepts in the game in the context of game play. Comments are interspersed in the example in [brackets] to indicate how the rules are being used.

Jane, Bob, Susan and Richard are playing a game of Improv about characters who are government agents in a special unit that investigates crimes involving supernatural forces. Currently the agents are looking into mysterious disappearances in a small American town.

  • Jane is the GM.
  • Bob's protagonist is Kit Muldoon, an agent who believes deeply in the supernatural.
  • Susan's protagonist is Diana Scullery, a more skeptical agent with a scientific bent.
  • Richard's protagonist Jason Strong is busy elsewhere, so Richard temporarily takes the role of another character in this scene.

Game play is broken up into scenes. In this example, it is Bob's turn to start a scene. Everything that happens in the scene is made up by the players as they go along.

Bob: I'd like to have a scene where we follow up on that missing girl, Mary Ortega, to see if we can learn more about what happened to her.

Susan: That sounds dangerous. Do you want backup?

Bob: Sure, why don't you have Diana come along. We should also bring Mary's mother, since she knows where Mary was last seen.

Jane (as GM): Richard, your character is still investigating the city records. Why don't you play Mrs. Ortega in this scene?

Richard: Fine by me. Her name was Lucia, right?

Jane: Right. Lucia knows that her daughter was last seen hanging out with Los Lobos, a street gang in the bad part of town.

[One part of scene setup is establishing the cast: who is playing what character. Players generally play their protagonists in a scene, but may play other characters if their protagonist isn't present. The GM plays all the remaining characters not controlled by a player.]

Richard (as Lucia Ortega): Mrs. Ortega takes the agents into Los Lobos territory. She is still acting like she has a thing for Kit. "Oh, Mr. Muldoon, I'm so frightened for Mary. I can't imagine what those brutes did to her. Do you think there is any hope we can find her?" Mrs. Ortega is clinging to Kit's arm.

Bob (as Kit Muldoon): I twist my collar nervously. "Um, sure Mrs. Ortega. It's only been a few days. I'm sure we'd know by now if she'd been ripped to shreds like those other girls."

Richard (as Mrs. Ortega): Yeesh. That makes Lucia whimper and cling more tightly to your arm.

[Players often say "I" and "you" as if they were, in fact, the character they are playing. This helps them get into their roles.]

Susan (as Diana Scullery): I roll my eyes in exasperation. "Come on, we need to stay alert." I move down the street, keep my hand near my gun.

Jane (as GM): Around the corner you see a bar with a bunch of motorcycles out front. There are three tough guys with leather jackets and Lobos emblems standing there smoking and drinking. They glare at you as you come up.

Susan (as Diana): I flipped out my badge and say "Federal agents. We need to ask you a few questions."

Bob (as Kit): I push Mrs. Ortega behind me and move to back up Diana.

Jane (as the gang members): One of the gang members growls, "What are you doing here, federals … are you bring us fresh meat?" All three of them leer at Mrs. Ortega. Their teeth look sharper than they should be.

Richard (as Mrs. Ortega): Mrs. Ortega is hiding behind Kit.

Susan (as Diana): "We are looking for a young girl named Maria Ortega, last seen in this neighborhood. We have reason to believe you may know something about it." I am going to lean in and browbeat him into telling us what he knows about Maria.

Jane (as GM): It's not going to be that easy. If you want to get information out of them, you are going to need to win a conflict. The gang members want to rough you up and try take Mrs. Ortega from you.

Richard (as Mrs. Ortega): Save me!

[When a scene reaches an important decision point where it isn't clear what should happen, you resolve the situation by playing out a conflict.]

Bob: I am going to protect Lucia!

Jane: OK. It sounds like the stakes for the conflict are:

  • Diana wants to get information out of Los Lobos.
  • Bob wants to protect Mrs. Ortega from the gangsters.
  • Los Lobos want to rough you all up and kidnap Mrs. Ortega.

Susan: I also want to capture these bums.

Jane: Well, you will have to capture at least one in order to get information.

Susan: All right.

[At the beginning of conflict, you have to establish what is at stake: what happens if various people win or lose. To resolve the conflict, the participants each play a card. Higher cards beat lower cards.]

Jane (looking at the cards): I have a Jack, Susan a King and Bob an 8. Susan wins, but I beat Bob. Bob, the gang members are jumping off their bikes and coming at Kit.

Bob (as Kit): Dang! Since I am losing, I guess I try to get my gun out, but Mrs. Ortega is still clinging to my arm so I can't get it lose.

[Since Bob lost, he won't achieve his goal and loses his stakes. Bob still gets to decide why he lost. In this case, it was because Mrs. Ortega got in his way, not because Kit is incompetent.]

Jane: Right. The gang leader runs up and decks you. His buddy grabs Lucia and pulls her onto his bike. Lucia is screaming.

Richard (as Mrs. Ortega): Eek!

[Jane beats Bob, but not Susan. Jane can describe her character's overcoming Bob's character Kit but not Susan's character Diana.]

Susan: Can I get Mrs. Ortega?

Jane: No. Protecting Lucia was Bob's stake, not yours. The gangster with Lucia is going to get away.

Susan (as Diana): Grr. Well, I can still get the leader. I pull my gun and pistol-whip him across the jaw, knocking him to the ground.

[Susan won the conflict gets her stakes, so Susan can narrate a successful resolution to the conflict for her character. She only wins own her stakes, though, not Bob's. This means Jane's characters were partially successful.]

Jane: The other gang members get on their bikes and drive off.

Bob (as Kit): I get up and take a pot shot at them, but since I am still dizzy, I miss.

Susan (as Diana): I haul the leader off the ground and slam him against the wall. I put my pistol right up against his temple. "You better tell me where they are taking her, and fast." The punk is definite scared of me now that I've proven I'm tougher than him.

Jane (as the gang leader): Since you won the conflict, the gang leader spills his guts. "T-they're taking her to Raymond. All I know is that he wants Mrs. Ortega for some reason."

[The rest of the scenes fills out the ramifications of the conflict. A quick conversation establishes that Raymond Tollen is a local drug dealer with a strange reputation. For the next scene, Kit and Diana go to pick up Richard's protagonist, Jason Strong, so that all three of the can confront Raymond.]

The Basic Rules

In Improv, one person must take the role of the GM. Everyone else is a player. Each player controls a protagonist as her main character in the story. The GM creates and controls the opposition to the protagonists.

Game Setup

Before you begin, you need to prepare for the game. There are two things you need to choose before the game begins: the setting and the protagonists.

Setting: The setting is, in general terms, what the story will be about. Think about the sort of information you see on the back cover of a book or in a movie preview. That's the kind of information you need for your the setting: an overview of what the protagonists will do in the story without saying how the story will turn out.

Some possible settings:

  • The protagonists are government agents that investigate crimes with supernatural elements.
  • The protagonists are soldiers in World War II trapped behind enemy lines.
  • The protagonists are genetically engineered psychics on the run for the corporation that created them.
  • The protagonists are the staff of a politician facing corruption charges and a difficult reelection campaign.

The setting can be anything you want. It just needs to sound interesting and give the protagonists something to do. The Setting and Characters chapter discusses how to create settings.

Protagonists: The protagonists are the main characters of the story. The protagonists don't have to be the most powerful or important individuals in the setting, but they do have to be the focus of the story. Each player in the game controls one protagonist.

The protagonists must be consistent with the setting of the game. The protagonists must have a reason to interact with each other and should fit in as part of the group. If the game is about foot soldiers on the front line in World War II, a character who is an aircraft mechanic or a hospital nurse probably wouldn't work. Protagonists who were members of the same unit of soldiers would be better.

The description of each protagonist should indicate what each character is like and what her talents are. The protagonists should be able to work together as a group, but they should also be different from each other. The Setting and Characters chapter describes how to create protagonists in more detail.

How to define the setting and protagonists: You usually pick a setting first and then define the protagonists. If you are pressed for time, you can divide up the responsibility: the GM can decide on the setting and each player can create the protagonist he will be playing in the game. It is better, though, to create the setting and protagonists together as a group. By letting everyone have input into the creation process, you are more likely to end up with a story that will interest everyone.

If you aren't sure where to start, you can use the sample settings and character in the Example Settings chapter.

Other Characters: In addition to the protagonists, the story will have other, non-protagonist characters (NPCs):

  • Villains: The opposition to the protagonists, the "bad guys".
  • Bystanders: Minor background characters with small roles.
  • Supporting Characters: Neutral characters who may aid or interact with the protagonists.

You can define these characters before the game starts as part of the setting or you can create them as needed during the game. The GM usually plays villainous characters and bystanders. Supporting characters may be played by the GM or by another player, if that player's protagonist is not in the current scene.

Playing Scenes

Game play is broken up into scenes. Usually the GM begins the first scene to get the story started. You should rotate around the group giving each person an opportunity to start a scene. You can pass if you don't have an idea for a scene. You can also make suggestions for a scene out-of-turn if the current player is stuck.

Scene Setup: Starting a scene is called scene framing. To start a new scene, you must decide on two things:

  • Focus: What will the scene be about?
  • Cast: Which characters are present in the scene?

Focus: The focus defines what the scene will be about without dictating how the scene will end. If it is your turn to start a scene, you usually choose a focus involving your own character, but that isn't required. The focus should involve some kind of action or activity for the scene. This could be either a personal subplot for your protagonist or be tied into the main plotline of the story.

Cast: The cast defines which characters are present in the scene. The cast should almost always include one protagonist, usually the protagonist of the player starting the scene. The cast can include other protagonists, plus non-protagonist characters (NPCs) played by the GM. If a player's hero isn't in the current scene, that player may temporarily play an NPC to stay involved in the game.

When you have set up the scene, play it out, acting in the roles assigned to you for this scene. Most scenes will proceed until they reach some important conflict. The resolution of that conflict generally ends the scene.

Scene Narration

Any player can say anything about what happens in the scene, but it isn't considered "true" unless everyone else accepts it as part of the story. If you disagree with another player's narration, you may protest the narration. Different players can veto different things. The right to decide the direction of the story is called Narration Rights.

Narration Rights are a spectrum rather than an absolute rule. You have the most Narration Rights over the actions of the characters you control. You get to speak for that character and say what they actions they take. Other players may suggest actions for your characters but can't "take over" that character and start narrating for them.

In the story, protagonists have more weight than non-protagonist characters (NPCs). You have more freedom describe actions of an NPC, especially if it is something that will make your protagonist's part in the story more interesting and exciting. If an NPC is not in direct conflict with your protagonist and is not under the control of another player, you should feel free to narrate actions for that NPC. The GM can protest if you go too far.

At some point during a scene you will arrive at a situation where you cannot negotiate an outcome. This happens when two characters have opposing goals and are trying to act against each other. You figure out what happens by playing cards to resolve the conflict. Conflict is a good thing and an important part of the game; it means you've reached an interesting point in the story where things can go more than one way.

Conflicts

Conflicts are decision points where the story could follow multiple paths. You use conflict when two people (a player and the GM, two players or two characters) want different outcomes in a situation. Every story needs some conflict. If everyone always agrees with everyone else's narration, the story will be boring and predictable. If players don't introduce enough conflict, the GM is responsible for adding it to the game.

Conflicts can be resolved in three steps:

  • Negotiate Stakes: Agree on what the conflict is about and roughly what happens if each participant wins.
  • Play Cards: Play cards to determine who wins the conflict. Higher card values beat lower card values.
  • Narrate Results: Bearing in mind the winners and losers, describe the outcome of the conflict.

Negotiate Stakes: At the beginning of a conflict, you should negotiate what is at stake. Each participant should state, in general terms, her desired outcome for the conflict. The stakes should be appropriate to the situation and the current scene. If you are arguing about who gets a promotion, you don't want to set stakes that your opponent suddenly has a heart attack and dies. If someone sets inappropriate stakes for a conflict, negotiate until everyone is satisfied with the various possible outcomes.

Play Cards: Once you agree on stakes, each participant plays a card face down, revealing them at the same time. Cards are compared by rank. High cards win Narration Rights over low cards. If you have a low card, you lose your stake and your desired outcome will not come to pass. If you have a high card, you win your stakes and your desired outcome is what happens.

Narrate Results: After the cards are revealed, narrate the results, bearing in mind who is winning and losing the conflict. Everyone may participate in the narration, but the winner has Narration Rights over the loser. It generally works best if losers narrate before winners, but you don't have to be rigid about narration order.

If you lost the conflict, you may choose narrate your own failure. You cannot narrate a victory over your opponent, but you can to put a spin on your own defeat to soften the blow. If your narration doesn't undermine the victory of the winner, the winner may accept what you say. If you go too far, the winner can veto your narration.

If you win a conflict, you can narrate the final outcome, either building on the loser's narration or describing the entire result if the loser chooses not to narrate. You can veto the loser's narration if it contradicts your stakes. You can also narrate your own stakes coming to pass. You don't have complete freedom, however: you cannot narrate beyond your original stakes. If your stakes were that you win the promotion, you can't arbitrarily decide this means your opponent is fired from his job.

Once the results are narrated, the conflict is over. You can continue the current scene or move onto another scene.

Multi-way Conflicts: Complex conflicts may involve multiple participants with a mixture of opposing and allied stakes. Depending on the cards, you may end up both a winner and a loser in the conflict. You get part of your stakes against those participants you beat, but lose other parts against the participants that beat you. This tends to flow naturally from Narration Rights, but the GM can untangle complex results if necessary.

At the beginning of a multi-way conflict, try to choose stakes that are different from your allies. If the protagonists are in a fight with the villains, they shouldn't all have stakes that are simply "beat the bad guys". Try to find an interesting mixture of stakes based on your character motivations and the situation, so that it will make sense if some of the protagonists win and others of the protagonists lose. Part of your stakes may even oppose other protagonists.

Conflicts and Scenes: Usually conflict happens at the end of a scene. Most scenes should have some kind of conflict, either implied by the focus of the scene or introduced as the scene goes along. The conflict is generally the climax of the scene and indicates that you are ready to move on to a new scene.

You don't have to follow this rule absolutely. Some scenes may resolve naturally without a conflict. Other scenes may have a minor conflict early in the scene leading up to a major conflict later. Some scenes have a conflict in the middle that leads to a post-conflict epilogue exploring the ramifications of the outcome. Be flexible with how you use conflicts.

Card Play

You play cards to resolve conflicts. Each player has a hand of 4 cards. The GM's hand size depends on the number of players: 3 cards plus an extra card per player. In a game with 4 players, the GM would have 7 cards. Hand size is fixed; whenever you play a card out of your hand, you draw to replace that card. If you find you are short a few cards because you forgot to redraw, you can draw up to your hand size as soon as you notice you are missing cards.

You cannot shuffle your discards back into your deck until you have used all the cards in the deck. The easiest way to keep track of things is to put your discards face up at the bottom of the deck. In most cases, you will not go through the entire deck in a single game session.

You can play Improv with just two decks of cards: one for the GM and one for the players. In general, though, it is better to play with one deck per player. Use 54 card decks, including both Jokers.

Playing cards: You choose which card you want to play from your hand. All participants play cards simultaneously, putting them face down and revealing them at the same time. You need to manage the cards in your hand carefully. If you use high cards on every conflict, you may be left with nothing but low cards on a conflict you really want to win.

It is perfectly acceptable to "play to lose". If you are involved in a conflict but not heavily invested in the outcome, you can deliberately choose a low card, allowing yourself to fail but improving your hand. If you play to lose, you don't want your opponent to know that is your goal. It is better to keep the results uncertain to bluff your opponent into playing a higher card out of their hand.

Card ranks: Cards are ranked as they are in poker. Numbered cards (2-10) are low, followed by face cards (Jack, Queen, King) with Aces high. Jokers beat all other cards.

If two cards have the same rank, break ties by suit, in order of Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts and Spades (low to high). This is alphabetical order, the suit order in bridge and some poker rules.

If you are using multiple decks, you can end up with two cards that are exactly same rank and suit (or have matching Jokers). Draw random cards from the deck to break the tie.

Talents and story-tokens: The advanced rules adding more game elements to the conflict rules:

  • Talents: Character traits that give bonuses in conflicts.
  • Story-token: Tokens you can spend for bonuses or new cards.

These advanced rules are discussed in the next later chapters.

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