Improv Chapter 3: Game Play

Game play in Improv is broken down into scenes, where the action of the story takes place. The GM and the players take turns starting scenes involving the protagonists and other characters in the story. Most scenes lead to some kind of conflict. The players and the GM use their game resources (cards, character talents, story-tokens) to win conflicts and move the story in the direction they want.

This chapter discusses how game resources are managed and how scenes are played out. Conflict is discussed in the following chapter.

Game Resources

The players and the GM have three sets of resources to use in the game. The resources are primarily used in conflicts:

  • Cards whose values determine who wins in conflicts.
  • Character Talents which can be spent for a +3 bonus in conflicts.
  • Story-Tokens, spent for a +3 bonus, a redraw or a bribe for narration.

Starting Resources

At the beginning of each game session, the players and the GM start with a specific set of resources.

Player Resources: The starting resources for players are:

  • A hand of 4 cards and no story-tokens.
  • A protagonists with several talents, used at most 5 times total in a session.
  • A talent-marker to indicate when a character talent is being used.

GM Resources: The starting resources for the GM are:

  • A hand of 3 cards plus an extra card per player. In a 5 player game, the GM has a hand of 8 cards.
  • Three story-tokens per player. In a 5 player game, the GM starts with 15 story-tokens.

It may seem like the GM starts with a lot of story-tokens, but her characters don't have talents. The only way for the GM to get bonuses in conflict is with story-tokens.

General Resources: You also need the following general resources:

  • At least two decks of cards, one for the GM and one for the players. One deck per player is even better. Use 54 card decks, including both Jokers.
  • A pool starting with 1 story-token per player. In a 5 player game, the pool starts with 5 story-tokens.
  • A bank next to the GM, which starts with no story-tokens.

The bank and the pool are discussed further in the "Gaining Story Tokens" section below. You may want to use a plate or a bowl to hold chips for the pool; the bank can simply be a stack of chips next to the GM.

You will need 4 story-tokens per player overall. In a 4 player game, you will need 16 story-tokens, starting with 4 in the pool and 12 in front of the GM. Poker chips work well for story-tokens. You can use a different colored poker chips for talent-markers for the players (1 per player).

End of Session: All game resources reset at the end of a session. The players and GM start every session with a fresh set of resources, as described above.


Each player has a hand with 4 cards. The GM has a hand with 3 cards plus 1 per player. The GM would have 6 cards in a 3 player game. Hand-size does not change. Any time you play cards out of your hand or are below your hand size for any reason, draw up back to the your hand-size immediately.

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 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 unless you are the GM.

Card Values

High cards win in conflict. Cards are compared by value:

  • Numbered cards are worth face value.
  • Jacks are worth 11.
  • Queens are worth 12.
  • Kings are worth 13.
  • Aces are worth 14.
  • Jokers are worth 15.

You can spend talents and story-tokens to add a +3 bonus to card-values. Ties in card values are broken 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 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. See also the optional "Hand of Fate" rules in the chapter on Conflict.

You need to manage your cards 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". For example, if you are involved in a conflict but not heavily invested in the outcome, you can deliberately play a low card, allowing yourself to fail but improving your hand. Even if you play to lose, you should still try to bluff your opponents into playing higher cards out of their hands.

Random Card Play (Optional)

Generally you play by choosing a card from your hand and redrawing afterwards. Optionally, you may play randomly, choosing a card from the top of the deck. You might play randomly if your hand is especially bad or if you have no idea what the "right" outcome should be and want to leave the result to chance.

If you play randomly, you do not draw an additional card because you did not use a card from your hand. This means playing randomly will not improve your hand, so you may be better off finding a conflict you are willing to lose and playing a low card instead. The GM is more like to play randomly than players. The GM may choose to play cards from her hand for major villains and randomly for minor bad guys or mooks.

Character Talents

Protagonists have talents, which you can use to get a +3 talent-bonus to a card-value. To use a talent, it must fit the situation and you must incorporate the talent into your narration for the conflict. Be open-minded with talent use; if a talent can fit the situation in some way, even tangentially, it can be used.

Protagonists have 3 or more talents. Each talent can be used at most 3 times in a game session. Furthermore, you cannot use talents more than 5 times total in a session. Put a tally mark next to each talent as it is used.

  • When a given talent has 3 marks next to it, you can no longer use that talent.
  • When there are 5 marks next to all talents, you can no longer use any talent.

A character doesn't "lose" a talent when it is used up. A character with a "swordsman" talent is still a swordsman even if he has used that talent 3 times. The "used up" talents can still be part of your narration; you just can't use them for any more talent bonuses.

Each player should have a talent-marker. Talent-makers should be a different color from the story-tokens. Put your talent-marker on top of your card to indicate you use a talent-bonus. The talent-marker is just a marker; it isn't used up.

You may use a talent to aid another protagonist as well as your own, if your talent applies to the situation. Your character can only use one talent-bonus in a round of conflict, though, and only if your character is actually present.


Story-tokens let the player and the GM influence the story in ways not tied to any specific character. Represent story-tokens with poker chips, pennies or some other handy token.

Spending Tokens

You can spend story-tokens to:

  • Give a +3 story-bonus to a card-value.
  • Discard and redraw your entire hand.
  • Bribe another player for narration, to insert something into the story.

Story-Bonus: Each story-token spent in conflict gives a +3 bonus to card values. The players may spend as many tokens as they have, on themselves, other players or even the GM. In a simple conflict, the GM is limited to 1 story-token plus 1 per player participating in the conflict. The GM's limit is doubled for extended conflicts. Your character does not need to be present in the scene for you to use a story-token.

Redraws: If you spend a story-token to redraw, you must discard your entire hand and redraw that many cards. You cannot keep some cards and discard others. Players may redraw at any time, inside or outside of conflict. The GM may only redraw during conflicts and this use of a story-token counts towards his limit on the number of tokens that can be used in a conflict.

Bribes for Narration: You may suggest alternate or additional narration for characters controlled by another player or the GM at any time. If the person likes the idea, he can simply accept it. If the other person is unsure, you can bribe him with a story-token to encourage him to accept the narration. Alternately, if someone is asking you for special narration, you can ask for a story-token as the cost for including that narration.

Gaining Story-Tokens

Tokens spent by the GM go to the players. Tokens spent by the players may go back to the GM or to other players, depending on who the token is spent "against". Spent tokens do not immediately go to the person they were spent against, however. Tokens can be located in one of five places:

  • In front of the GM for the GM to spend.
  • In front of a player for the player to spend.
  • In the pool (GM tokens go here when spent).
  • In the bank (player tokens go here when spent against the GM).
  • Out of play (player tokens go here if cards don't match colors).

The Pool: Every story-token spent by the GM goes to the pool, a pile of tokens in the center of the table. Players can award each other with the tokens in the pool for good game play. During a scene, each player can give one story-token from the pool to another player. Players can give out tokens even if they were added to the pool during the current scene. The one-token-per-scene limit only applies to the tokens you can give away; there is no limit on the number of tokens you can receive in a scene.

When you give a token to another player, you should say why you are giving that token to the player. Tokens in the pool are a means of rewarding other players for good game play, so you should explain the reason for the award. You can give tokens to players for any reason, but generally should give out tokens because the player did something cool and interesting for the story.

Tokens left in the pool are available to be given out in later scenes. Story-tokens go in and out of the pool frequently. You may want to use a plate or shallow bowl for the pool to hold the tokens and keep them organized.

At the beginning of the game, the pool starts with 1 token per player, ready to be given away as soon as the story starts.

Player-Spent Tokens: If the player spends a token against another player, the token goes to the pool instead. Player-tokens put into the pool can be given away to other players with the usual one-token-give-away-per-scene limitation. They can even be given back to the player that spent them (though some players may feel this is bad form).

If a player spends a token in conflict against the GM, the token may go to the bank or out-of-play, depending on the cards used in the conflict. If the players card matches the color of the GM's card (red or black), the player's token goes to the bank. If the player's card color does not match the GM's card color, the token goes out of play instead. Jokers, being wild, always match color to any other card. Basically, there is a 50/50 chance that a player-spent token will go back to the GM.

Tokens spent by the players for redraw always go to the bank.

The Bank: Tokens spent by the players against the GM go into the bank. The GM may not take tokens out of the bank until after the current conflict is over. This ensures that tokens spent by the players cannot be used against them in the same conflict. For simple conflicts, this generally doesn't matter much. For extended conflicts it can make a big difference. The GM withdraws all tokens from the bank at the end of the current conflict to use in later conflicts.

Tokens don't stay in the bank for long. You can manage tokens in the bank simply by having a separate token-pile beside the GM that he can't use until the conflict is over. The bank become more important in the GM-less Improv variant.

Bribes for Narration: If you spend tokens as a bribe for narration, the token goes directly and immediately to the person you are bribing. This is the only case where spent tokens do not go to the pool or bank.

Token Flow Summary: The following diagram illustrates the story-token flow:


To summarize:

  • Tokens spent by the GM go to the pool.
  • Tokens spent by players against players go to the pool.
  • Tokens are awarded by players to other players from the pool.
  • Tokens spent by players for redraws go to the bank.
  • Tokens spent by players against the GM go to the bank if the card colors match.
  • Tokens spent by players against the GM go out of play if the card colors don't match.
  • Tokens in the bank go to the GM after a conflict.
  • Tokens spent as bribes for narration go directly to the bribed individual.


Game play in Improv is broken up into a series of scenes. Each scene is a distinct part of the story describing one particular set of events. A scene generally happens at a specific location with a given cast of characters. Most scenes include some kind of conflict, which is usually the climax of the scene. The GM and the players take turns setting up scenes.

Scene Setup (Scene Framing)

When it is your turn to start a scene, there are two things to consider:

  • Focus: What is the scene about?
  • Cast: Who is present during the scene?

The player whose turn it is to start a scene gets to decide the focus and cast for the scene. This is called scene framing or framing the scene. The player that started the scene is called the framing player. Other players and the GM may make suggestions for the scene, but ultimately it is the decision of the framing player as to what the scene will be about.

Scene Focus

The focus of the scene is what the scene will be about and sets up the action for the scene. The focus can be very specific, foreshadowing what the conflict for the scene will be. The focus can be more general, just describing who will be present but letting conflict arise naturally from the interaction of the characters.

You can divide scenes up into two general types:

  • Personal scenes develop the subplots and personality of a specific protagonist.
  • Plot scenes move the main story forward and often involve multiple protagonists.

A personal scene should focus on a single protagonist. It could explore some personality trait or relationship of that protagonist. It could expand on an ongoing subplot for that protagonist. Other protagonists may be present in the scene, but the focus remains on the particular protagonist.

A plot scene should focus on the main storyline. It should advance the main plot towards its conclusion. Plot scenes usually involve multiple protagonists and have more complicated conflicts including various non-protagonist characters (NPCs). Most game sessions end with a big plot scene involving all the protagonists, which brings the main story to a climax.

The GM tends to frame plot scenes to keep most of the players involved in the story. Players can frame either personal scenes or plot scenes, depending on their inclination. The division between personal and plot scenes isn't rigid. Some scenes may be both personal and related to the main plot at the same time.

The focus for the scene should indicate what the scene is about, but not how the scene will end. The focus is just the starting point. The resolution of the scene should be determined by game play and conflict.

Cast of Characters

The cast consists of those characters present in the scene. The cast should almost always include at least one protagonist, generally the protagonist of the player framing the scene. Other protagonists may be present as well, especially in plot scenes. The scene may involve several non-protagonist characters (NPCs). The NPCs may be chosen by the framing player or may be added to the scene by the GM to meet the scene's needs.

If a player's protagonist isn't present in a scene, that player may temporarily take on the role of an NPC. An NPC played by a player is referred to as supporting cast. Supporting cast is discussed in more detail in the Game Strategy chapter. Any remaining NPCs are played by the GM.

If you are stuck for ideas when framing a scene, it helps to begin with either the focus or the cast. You may decide which characters will be in the scene and then figure out what the characters are doing. Alternately, you may decide what is happening in the scene, then figure out who needs to be present to make it happen.

Playing the Scene

Once you have set up a scene and assigned the cast, you play the scene out. Each player acts on behalf of her character, speaking as if she were that character and describing her character's actions.

There is no formal turn order in normal scene play. The players speak and describe their characters' actions as appropriate and the GM describes the action of all NPCs not controlled by a player. If things get too chaotic, the GM can choose the order in which players get to describe their actions, in some kind of rotation. This is rarely necessary, though; if things get unruly, it probably means it is time for a conflict.

Principle of Plausibility

In theory, anything can happen in a scene. In practice, you should be guided by the Principle of Plausibility and limit your descriptions to things that can believably happen. What is "believable" depends on the setting and premise for the story. Something like magic may be ridiculous in one story but perfectly normal in another. If you have World Rules for your setting, let them be your guide to what is believable.

By default, anything you describe happens in the story, unless someone else protests. If another player or the GM describes something that you feel is unbelievable or that goes against the direction you want the story to take, you may protest their narration and ask them to change it.

If you protest a narration, you may discuss the situation to find a mutually satisfying resolution. You can also resolve the impasse with the conflict rules. You can deliberately provoke a conflict in a scene to make the story more exciting. Provoking other players' characters is an important part of the game and creates drama.

Narrative Rights

In general, you only describe actions for characters you control. In game terms, you only have narration rights over what your own character says and does. You may suggest actions for other characters, but the player controlling that character may veto that suggestion.

Narration Rights are a spectrum rather than an absolute rule. A player controlling his protagonist has the strongest narration rights. You should be careful about making suggestions on behalf of another player's protagonist and may always veto any action someone else suggests for your own protagonists. Also, you should not protest the action of another protagonist unless that action directly affects a character you control.

Anyone controlling an NPC has weaker narration rights. NPCs exist to play a part in the protagonist's story, so you have more freedom to suggest actions for NPCs if you think it will make things more interesting for your protagonist. The controlling player may still protest, but you can ask for a conflict to resolve the situation rather than accepting his veto.

The same thing applies to the environment in a scene, limited only by the Principle of Plausibility. If any person or item could reasonably be present in a scene, you may include that as part of your narration. If no one protests, it becomes parts of the story.

Things are more ambiguous when one character's actions can affect another character. If another character takes an action that affects your protagonist, you may protest, but cannot simply veto the action because it wasn't your character's action. You can ask that the situation be resolved as a conflict, to see whether the action was successful. If you lose the conflict, the action takes place but if you win, you block the action and may be able to turn the tables on your opponent.

Conflict in Scenes

In theory, you could play out an entire scene using nothing but the Principle of Plausibility and negotiating protests over different players' narration. Your story would probably be predictable and boring, though. Most interesting scenes involve conflict, where one character wants something that another character is unwilling to give up.

In some cases, the conflict for the scene may be defined when the scene is framed and you move into conflict quickly. In other cases, the conflict may arise through the character interactions, turning out to be something unexpected from when the scene began. All stories need some conflict. If the players do not introduce enough conflicts, the GM is responsible for adding more conflict to the story.

In a conflict, there are two or more ways in which the story can go. The participating players and the GM use cards, character traits and story-tokens to try and win the conflict. The winner of the conflict gets to narrate the conflict's outcome and decide how things resolve. The conflict rules are discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

Ending the Scene

At some point, a scene must end. If a scene is dragging on too long, the other players and the GM may ask for the participating players to wrap things up. In most cases, a scene will end with a conflict. The conflict determines the new direction for the story and later scenes can follow up on the results of the conflict.

A scene doesn't always have to end with a conflict. Sometimes the conflict comes in the middle of a scene, followed by an epilogue exploring the ramifications of the conflict. For example, if the protagonists win a conflict to extract information from an NPC, the scene may continue with the NPC revealing the information to the protagonists. Some scenes may have multiple conflicts, with a small conflict early in the scene leading to a larger conflict later.

It is also possible a scene can end without any conflict at all. The scene may reach some kind of natural resolution through the interaction of the characters. If the characters reach an accord, you can end the scene without having a formal conflict if all the participating players agree. This kind of scene is more common in longer games, where you have more time to develop the characters and their interactions.

Scene Rotation

The option to frame a scene should rotate among the players. Usually the GM will frame the first scene in a session to set up the main plot and get the protagonists involved. Thereafter, you can rotate among the players, giving each a turn to frame a scene, until each player has had an opportunity to do so.

You don't have to frame a scene if you don't want to. If you don't have an ideas, you can pass or ask for suggestions from the other players and the GM. If you have a good idea for a scene, you can make a suggestion even if it isn't your turn, but the player framing the current scene doesn't have to accept your suggestion. If you do make a suggestion, it should be about the other player's protagonist rather than your own.

When you start a new scene, it doesn't have to be an immediate follow-on to the previous scene. Think of the pacing of a typical television show. One scene may end on some kind of exciting conflict, followed by another scene involving different characters doing something unrelated. You might not follow up on the original scene's conflict until several more scenes have passed.

Once every player has a chance to frame a scene, the GM frames a new scene and you go through the rotation again. This continues for however long you choose to play the game. You may wish to vary the order of rotation for each round scenes, alternating clockwise and counterclockwise, so that scenes do not always go in the same order.

When you are reaching the end of the game session, you should frame a scene that brings the current story to some kind of conclusion. Typically the GM frames the climactic scene. In a one-shot game, the climactic scene should involve all the protagonists and bring the story to an end. For longer games, you can have intermediate "climax" scenes for various subplots and storylines that you mingle with the rest of the story wherever they fit best.

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