Improv Chapter 2: Game Setup

There are two things you need to define before you can create a story in Improv: the setting and the main characters. These are, broadly speaking, what will be happening in the story and who will be at the center of the action. The setting and the protagonists are closely related and is best if you create them together as a group.

Setting Creation

There are no formal rules for creating settings in Improv. You can sit down and have a brainstorming session with all the players until you come up with an idea that interests everyone. Alternately, one person may have an idea for a story and pitches it to the other players; this person generally volunteers to be GM for the game. If a single person makes the initial suggestion for the setting, you should still discuss it as a group to give everyone a chance to add their ideas before you create characters.

Brainstorming the Setting

Here are some suggestions for how you might choose your setting.

Genre Fiction: Pick an existing genre of fiction, such as Sci Fi or Westerns. Use that as the basis for creating your setting. Most genres have established conventions that you can build on to define the setting.

Plagiarize: If you are stuck for ideas, steal from things that interest you. Spin off an existing piece of fiction. Create a sequel to a movie that you like. Use the setting from another published RPG. Base your setting on a documentary you saw recently. You can use the same characters as the original story or make up new ones live in the same imaginary world.

Normal plus Extra: Take some setting you know and add something different or strange. Cowboys plus dinosaurs. Cops, but they are on a space station with aliens. A team of doctors that fix patients by shrinking and working inside the patient. A high school drama where everyone is a super-evolved humanoid animal. Brainstorm on the ramifications of the changes you make.

Don't Obsess on Originality: Your setting does not have to be an amazingly original idea. You are producing a story to satisfy the people in the game, not some larger audience. If the idea is interesting to the people in the room, then it is good enough.

You can also look at the Example Settings chapter of this book for inspiration.

The Role of the Protagonists

One of the first thing you must decide is who the heroes are and what they will be doing in the story. Assuming you have more than one player, you need a group of protagonists. You should decide what defines the protagonists as a group, such as:

  • The protagonists all belongs to the same family.
  • They have a common enemy.
  • They share a debt of honor.
  • They all have some secret power that could turn normal people against them.
  • They are all employed by the same organization.

You should also consider is why the protagonists are the ones at the center of the story rather than someone else. Perhaps:

  • The protagonists are the only people with the training and skill to handle the problem.
  • They are the only ones that believe that something is going on.
  • The problems they face are personal and not of interest to the world at large.
  • The normal authorities are corrupt and unwilling to address the issue.
  • The protagonists are destined to face the challenge, chosen by the gods.

The longer the story will be, the more important a strongly-defined group becomes. For a one-shot game, the group could be thrown together by circumstances and have no real reason to stay together. For longer games, it is important that the group has strong reasons to stay together and continue to face new challenges.

Mood

As part of describing the setting, you should decide what mood you want for the game:

  • Upbeat and a bit silly.
  • Grim and gritty with lots corruption.
  • A thriller with over-the-top action.
  • Personal drama and tragedy.
  • Grotesque horror with plenty of death.
  • Cartoon wackiness.

Game play will be more smooth if all the players aim for the same mood. If some players want a serious story and others are playing for silly fun, then someone is going to be disappointed. By discussing mood before the game begins, you can avoid conflicts in style, focusing on the more interesting conflicts in substance instead.

When you agree on a mood, you may also want to discuss where its real boundaries lie. Perhaps you want to play an upbeat and humorous game, but want to stop short of outright silliness. Perhaps you want to play out an intense tale of horror, but want to avoid tormenting children because it makes some players uncomfortable.

World Rules

As part of your setting, you can establish facts about your imaginary world and how it works. These facts are called World Rules. If you are building on an existing setting, these rules may be as simple as "things work as described in the Star Wars universe" (or whatever your setting is). If your setting is from another RPG, you can use the rules of that game as the World Rules of your story.

You don't have to be formal about describing your World Rules. Simply note the basic facts that the players agree on about the world before the game begins. If you are integrating Improv with the the game rules of another RPG, the process is more complicated. This is discussed in more detail on the chapter on Game Strategies.

One thing you must understand about the World Rules is that they have no direct mechanical effect on the game. A given World Rule will not make it any more or less likely that you will win a given conflict. On the other hand, the World Rules help determine what should be a conflict in the first place. By determining what is and is not plausible in a given setting, the World Rules indicate what makes a good conflict or a bad conflict.

Setting Quick List

Here is a summary of the questions you should answer when defining the setting:

  1. What is the setting about? Is it based on an existing fictional setting?
  2. Who are the protagonists (heroes) in the setting?
  3. What defines the protagonists as a group?
  4. Why are the protagonists at the center of the story (as opposed to someone else)?
  5. What mood do you want the story to have?
  6. (Optional) What special World Rules do you want to use?

Character Creation

This section describes how to create protagonists. The protagonists are the most important characters in a game of Improv: they are the focus of the story. Each player creates and controls one protagonist. When you create a protagonist, you should focus on the things that make your protagonist exciting and interesting.

You should write information about your protagonist down on a sheet of paper. If you prefer, you can put the information on an official character sheet, which you can copy from the back of the book.

Group Roles

The stories in Improv are about group of heroes (one per player). Before creating individual protagonists, you may want to discuss what roles these characters will play inside the group. Suppose the setting for your story is government agents investigating seemingly supernatural crimes. Before creating the characters, you can brainstorm what kinds of characters that might fit into this group:

  • The dreamer, who believes everything is tied into the supernatural.
  • The scientific skeptic, who looks for a logical explanation to everything.
  • The paranoid, who thinks the government is covering up more than it reveals.
  • The bitter old agent, looking forward to retirement and playing it safe.
  • The company man, assigned to the group so he can watch out for "rogue" agents.

You can also define roles within a group based on the kinds of talents the characters have:

  • A forensics expert, skilled at dissecting a crime scene.
  • A criminal profiler, knowledgeable in psychology.
  • A streetwise agent, who knows how things work on the other side of the law.
  • The politically-astute agent, who works the system to get what the agents need.
  • The occultist, with extensive knowledge on supernatural lore.

You can define group roles at the same time as the characters themselves. As you create each protagonist, discuss what role that protagonist fills in the group. If two protagonists have similar talents, adjust them until they are different enough not to clash. You also want protagonist that won't always approach problems the same way. You want enough variety that the protagonists can have interesting interactions among themselves.

Character Concept

The character concept is the core idea for an individual protagonist. Since concept is so tightly tied to setting, it is hard to give general advice on how to come up with good character concepts. Most genres already have well-established character concepts. You can steal ideas from your setting, based on characters in similar works of fiction. If you do base your concept on an existing character, try to make something new and different about that character to personalize the concept for yourself.

Here are some things to bear in mind:

  • The concept must fit the setting of the game.
  • This concept should be interesting both to yourself and other players.
  • The character must have some kind of drive to act in the story.
  • Something must distinguish the character from the other protagonists.

Character Pitch (Optional): Once you have a concept for your protagonist, you should pitch it to the group. Pretend you are the writer on a television show trying to convince the producers to add your character to the cast. Try to answer the following question: why would your character be an interesting addition to the story? This serves the dual purpose of telling the group about your character and using them as a sounding board for your ideas.

When someone pitches a character idea, don't just shoot it down if you don't like it. The purpose of the pitch is to let the group to make suggestions on how to improve the concept and make it fit better with the other characters. You can protest aspects of the character you think will be a problem, but you should also look for way to connect other protagonists to your own and make the whole group better. Be constructive in your criticism.

Character Talents

Character talents describe what your character does to be successful and overcome challenges. These talents can be used for bonuses in conflict, as discussed in the next two chapters.

Use your character concept as your starting points for defining your character's talents. Talents do not have to be a complete description of all of your character's abilities. For example, if your character concept is an FBI agent, you don't need to have talents indicating that your protagonists understands the law or knows how to shoot a gun. These abilities are implied by your concept.

There isn't a strict limit on the number of talents your character can have. You must define at least 3 talents, but may define more. The longer you intend to play with the character, the more talents you should have. If you are playing a one-session game, 3 talents will be enough if all the talents are relevant to the story. If you are playing a longer game, you may want twice as many talents. The game is balanced so that you can have protagonists that have more talents than others without giving them a significant advantage.

In longer games, your talents can change as your character develops. You don't need to have a perfect set of talents at the beginning of the game. In fact, it is fun to let a character change over time from your original concept. You may want to deliberately choose a set of talents that leaves room for growth.

Example Talents: Talents should be abilities that are unique to your character, distinguishing them from the other protagonists. They indicate what kinds of problems your character is good at solving and how you tend to deal with challenges. The talents you pick should be appropriate to the setting. Possible talents are:

  • Very persuasive.
  • Forensic pathologist.
  • Knows fire magic.
  • Expert swordsmen.
  • Good at puzzles.
  • Lots of political pull.

Make sure your talents don't overlap too much with the talents of the other protagonists. If you have talents that resemble those of another protagonist, see if you can find a way to make them more distinct. If two protagonists are both "excellent swordsman", perhaps one can be a "master fencer" and another can be a "maniac with a claymore". Both are still good with swords and their talents are equally useful, but each character remains unique.

You can put as much detail into your talent as you want, but give the talent a short two or three word label so you can discuss it easily during game play. You can see more example talents in the sample characters in the Example Settings chapter.

Talent Usage: Talents can be used for bonuses in conflict. Each talent can be used a limited number of times. Any given talent can be used at most 3 times per 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.

Since there is an overall limit on talent usage, it doesn't matter much if one protagonist has more talents than another. The complete rules for using talents are discussed in the chapters on game play.

Non-Innate Talents: Talents do not have to be innate abilities of your protagonist. You can have talents based on your possessions, your role in society or your relationships with other people or organizations. Any trait that your character can use to succeed in conflicts can be considered a talent.

Character Hooks

Hooks are things that get your protagonist into trouble and drawn into the story. There are many possible story hooks:

  • Your protagonist is hot tempered and jumps into situations without thinking.
  • Your protagonist has some heavy debts and needs to earn money.
  • Your protagonist follows a code of honor that obligates him to help people.
  • Your protagonist has a younger sibling that always gets into trouble.
  • Your protagonist wants to be the "best" and won't turn down a challenge.

In a sense, hooks are character flaws that create problems for your character. This can be bad for the character, but is good for the game and the story. The goal of the game is for your protagonist to lead an interesting life, not a good one. A protagonists without any hooks will have fewer problems, but may end up on the sidelines while more richly-defined protagonists take center stage.

Your hooks can be tied to your character talents as well. Perhaps your hot temper gets you into trouble but also makes it more likely you will see the trouble through. Perhaps your younger sibling causes problems, but your protectiveness of that sibling motivates you to successfully bail them out.

Relationships: One special form of hook is a relationship, with either another person or with some kind of organization. Relationships can be both good and bad, but they should be important to your character. The related person should be someone that your character will go out of his way to help or hinder. Alternately, the related person is someone that makes point of helping or hindering your protagonist. Interesting relationships can have mix of both good and bad aspects.

Relationships are easy to understand and make powerful hooks. Each relationship defines some non-protagonist character (NPC) for the game, possibly multiple characters if the relationship is with an organization. These character may be played by the GM or by another player. See the section on "Supporting Characters" in the Game Strategy chapter for more information.

Don't forget that the protagonists can have relationship with each other. This is especially important in longer games, where much of the drama can arise from how the protagonists interact with each other.

Subplots: Some hook are more complex and personal than others. Complicated problems take time to resolve and define ongoing subplots for your protagonist. Subplots can be particularly important in longer games. The chapter on Game Strategy discusses subplots in more detail.

Story Goal: In a short game, you don't have as much time to define complex hooks for a character. You can instead create a goal for that character for the story. The goal should be about something the character currently doesn't have but wants to achieve by the end of the story. Alternately, it could be something you as a player want to see happen to the character by the end of the story.

Your story goal is a combination hook and subplot for a short game; if it involves other people, it defines a relationship as well. You may not be able to actually achieve your goal by the end of the story, but it gives you something to strive for and helps the GM and other players shape their interactions with your character.

Descriptive Traits

Talents and hooks are your protagonist's most important traits, but may not provide a complete picture of your character. You can add descriptive traits to your character to fill in the missing details. This may include:

  • Abilities that mostly aren't relevant to the challenges currently faced by the heroes.
  • Abilities shared by most of the protagonists and therefore not distinctive enough to be talents.
  • Narrow, specialized abilities that refine your talents like combat maneuvers or magic spells.
  • Traits that are not particularly helpful or harmful, like physical descriptions.
  • Further background information and history for your character.

The important thing to understand about descriptive traits is that they have no mechanical effect on the game. Only talents give you bonuses in conflict; descriptive traits do not, even if they would be helpful in a give situation.

This doesn't mean that descriptive traits have no effect on the story. Descriptive traits can add flavor to your narration when you win or lose conflicts. Descriptive traits can also influence which things become conflicts. If your character is friends with the police chief, you probably shouldn't have a conflict based on getting permission to visit his office. The conflict should be about something else, such as getting the chief to agree to your crazy ideas.

Descriptive traits also help define what kinds of actions your character can plausibly do without conflict. For example, your character might be able to speak a foreign language. Your character might have enough money that buying plane tickets for the entire group. Your character might have a magical ability to sense vampires. All of these traits would allow you to plausibly add elements to the story without getting into a conflict.

Traits and World Rules: Improv does not have formal rules limiting what descriptive traits your protagonist can have. If the trait fits the setting and the group agrees, you can have that trait. If you are using a set of World Rules for your game, you can use those rules to determine what kind of descriptive traits your character has. This is especially appropriate if you are using another RPG to define the World Rules for your game. See the chapter on Game Strategy for a longer discussion on using World Rules from other RPGs.

Character Quick List

Before creating protagonists, decide:

  1. How many talents will each protagonist have? (Minimum of 3)
  2. (Optional) What character roles do you want to see in the group?
  3. (Optional) Will you use World Rules to define descriptive traits?

For each protagonist:

  1. What is the character's name?
  2. What is the character's concept?
  3. What role does the character play in the group?
  4. What are the character's talents? (Minimum of 3)
  5. What character hooks get him involved in the story?
  6. (Optional) What hooks does the character have (relationships, subplots, story goals)?
  7. (Optional) What descriptive traits does the character have?
  8. (Optional) Make a character pitch to the group.
  9. Write everything down on a sheet of paper or character sheet.

Non-Protagonist Characters (NPCs)

In the Improv rules, the protagonists are the only formally defined characters. Other, non-protagonist characters (NPCs) exist only to play a part in the protagonist's story. Some NPCs may be created as part of the setting or a protagonist's background before the game begins. Other NPCs can be defined as needed during the story.

NPCs may have names, concepts and descriptive traits, but they do not have talents. This means their abilities have no mechanical effect on the game. As with the descriptive traits of protagonists, NPCs traits may still have a big influence on the narration of the story, however, by indicating what kinds of conflicts are appropriate.

How to define and portray NPCs is discussed in more detail in the Game Strategy chapter.

Sample Settings and Characters

The chapter on Example Settings provide a number of sample settings and characters. If you are not sure how to start, you may use one of these examples, either as is or to give you an idea of what you need to define your own setting and characters.

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