Improv Chapter 5: Game Strategy

The earlier chapters of this book have all the Improv rules you need to play. This chapter discusses strategies for how to organize a good game and includes optional rules for customizing the game.

Game Play Advice

Advice for game preparing the settings and the protagonists is discussed in Chapter 2. This section discusses how to manage the story during the game.

Managing Scenes

In Improv, there two key points where decisions are made about the direction of the story: the start of a scene and during conflict. The framing of a scene sets the context for all the action that happens in the scene, making it especially important. A good scene setup encourages interesting things to happen in the scene.

Think about the sort of scenes you see in books, televisions and movies. Most scenes focus on the highlights of the characters lives, not the ordinary moments. You don't generally want scenes where the characters are going shopping, cleaning the dishes or taking naps. You want scenes where the characters are arguing with their friends, uncovering some important clue or fighting for their lives.

Scene pacing depends on the length of the game you are playing. If you are playing a one-shot game, you want to get to the meat of the story right away. Spend a bit of time establishing who the characters are, then dive right into their core conflicts. Since you need to reach the climax by the end of the session, there isn't much time for dithering.

In a longer story, you have more time for "little scenes" that develop the characters, their personalities and relationships. These scenes let you know more about who the characters are so you care more about them when they get into real trouble. Even in longer games, you still want the bulk of the scenes to drive the story forward, but in a longer game there can be more of a balance between the personal subplots of individual protagonists and the main storyline involving all the protagonists.

Since the opportunity to frame scenes rotates among the players, no one person gets to decide what the majority of the scenes will be about. If you want the story to be coherent, you need to work from the earlier scenes framed by other players. If everyone constantly tries to yank the story off on different tangents, the story could unravel completely. Integrating other players' ideas with your own ideas can be challenging, but this is the whole point of the Improv rules.

Managing Conflicts

The framing of the scene determines how a scene starts but the conflict in the scene determines how things turn out. One of the most important parts of the conflict is setting the stakes. The stakes define the different possible directions that the story might take.

Early in the story, the stakes of the conflict should allow the story to move forward no matter who wins the conflict. Each stake can pull the story in a different direction, but shouldn't bring the story to an end. For example, if the heroes were involved in a battle, it would be bad for the villain's stake to be that the heroes all die, because that would end the story. Better stakes would be:

  • The heroes are humiliated and made to look bad in front of the public.
  • Some important item possessed by the heroes is stolen or destroyed.
  • Someone the heroes are trying to protect is kidnapped or killed.
  • The villains beat back the heroes and achieve the next step in their plan.

Similarly, the heroes stakes shouldn't necessarily destroy the villains immediately. Better stakes might be:

  • Protect whatever the villains are after, keeping it out of their hands.
  • Keep the villains from hurting innocent bystanders.
  • Capture one of the villain's flunkies to learn more about their plans.
  • Enrage the villain so that his thirst for revenge makes him more likely to make a mistake later.

Don't forget about the protagonist's personal stories during larger conflicts either. Even though the group as whole may be out to defeat the bad guys, perhaps one protagonist is actually trying to impress his unforgiving father and that is his stake for the conflict. The same advice applies to non-violent conflicts, which can be as much about developing the characters as they are about achieving goals and overcoming the opposition.

Conflict stakes are a good way to maintain the story's pacing. Early conflicts should have small consequences. Later conflicts may have more serious consequences. Final conflicts can dire consequences, because they can bring the story to an end. The resolution of early conflicts should leave dangling issues which escalate in later conflicts until everything reaches a dramatic conclusion.

Every story has to end sometime. A one-shot game must end when the game session ends. Longer games may have many interwoven plotlines that start and end at various times. When you reach the end of a storyline, either because the session is ending or you have reached a natural point in the story, you can set stakes that will make the storyline end by resolving the situation permanently.

Portraying Characters

When you portray a character, whether it is a protagonist or an NPC, it is important that the other players understand that character and his role in the story. The characters can still have secrets that will be revealed at some dramatic point, but if there is something important about character that other people need to know, you need to make sure it is clear.

One piece of advise commonly given to new authors is "show it, don't say it". Rather than stating a piece of information about the character, you should express this information through the character's description and actions. According to this advice, you would not say "this man is rich" but would say how well dressed he is or describe his regal bearing.

This is fine advice when you have time to go back and rewrite passages that were not clear to the reader. A role-playing game is more immediate. If you are unable to convey something important about a character, it can be difficult to add it later to the story. If you can express a character's anger just by words and intonation, that's great. If it's really important that the other players understand that a character is angry, though, it is perfectly fine to say "she is angry" (and maybe say why as well, if that is important).

The smaller the character, the more important this is. Protagonists are in the story for a while and you have time to come to understand those characters. An NPC may only be present in a few scenes, and you need to get to the essence of that character quickly. Say what you need to say about the character, holding back only those surprises that you want to spring later.

If you do forget something important or the other players don't understand what you were aiming at, you reemphasize that point in later scenes. Scene framing is a good time to do this. If the other players misunderstood what you were aiming at and took the story in a different direction, though, it is better to live with the changes they made than try to derail the story back to your original idea.

Preparing to Improvise

Improv is a game of spontaneous story creation. Everything that happens in the story is made up during the game. Some people can handle this kind of on-the-spot creativity fairly well, but other people need more time to come up with ideas. If you are have trouble in game coming up with ideas, don't be afraid to solicit suggestions from other players or to take a break to think things over. You can also prepare some things in advance.

One way to prepare before a game is to come up with exciting moments you would like to see happen. These moments are called "bangs" in the game Sorcerer. The moment could be a confrontation between two characters or some kind of big revelation. Your moment could be defined by the framing of the scene or by stakes in a conflict. During the game, you can work to move the story in the direction of one of your moments. If circumstances arrive that fit the situation you envisioned (or are close enough), then spring it on the other players. If you are having trouble reaching that moment, don't be afraid to ask for help setting things up.

If you are the GM, you may be expected to provide more of the story than the players. One way to prepare is to write a broad outline for a story, omitting only the protagonists actions from the outline. You can decide on who the bad guys are, what their plans are, who will be their victims and what would happen if no one stops them. During the game, you can confront the protagonists with this situation and see what they do.

If you prepare an outline, you should also prepare ways for the protagonists to fit into the story. Character hooks are especially useful here and is whole the reason why hooks exist. Without hooks, it is quite possible the protagonists will simply ignore the situation as "some else's problem".

Connecting the protagonists can be especially challenging if you have to prepare before the game begins and the protagonists are created. You can still manage by using "generic" hooks that you can customize once you know the protagonists. Perhaps your original outline has the villains blackmailing a hero's father, but it turns out the hero's sister or the hero himself is a better fit. Perhaps your original villains were drug-smugglers, but one of the protagonists has an unreasoning hatred of firearms and you change the villains to gun-runners instead.

If you do make preparations before a game, you should be aware that you may not get to use them. It may be that the players pull the story in a direction that no longer fits your ideas. Rather than railroading the story back to your original outline, it is better to work with the story that came out of play. This way, you honor the contribution of other players. You can always reuse your story ideas in a later game.

Finally, you may find yourself needing to create a lot of new characters quickly. Having a book of names is helpful, especially one that is appropriate to the setting. If you are in a modern setting, a phone book with local names can work. There are also plenty of books available with character names from various cultures.

Advanced Characters

This section discusses some advanced options for making richer and more enjoyable characters, both protagonist and non-protagonists.

Supporting Characters

When players frame scenes, they typically make their own protagonist the focus of the scene. This is perfectly appropriate; the structure of the game was built so that each protagonist gets a turn in the spotlight. Unfortunately, it often means that other protagonists don't have a role to play in these scenes.

Rather leaving other players on the sidelines, you can get them involved in the scene by having them temporarily play non-protagonist roles. This let other players be involved in the scene and keeps them interested in how things turn out. An NPC in the hands of a player is called a supporting character.

Not every NPC is appropriate as a supporting character. Bit parts (the store clerk, goon #3) aren't good choices and are better off in the hands of the GM. Ongoing villainous roles are also better off in the hands of the GM, so that he can provide consistent and coherent opposition to the heroes. Short-term enemies or monster appearing only in a single scene can make interesting supporting roles, though.

The best supporting roles are characters with important relationships to the protagonist but not outright enemies. Love interests, rivals, family, mentors and other roles that "support" the development of the main character are all appropriate. When you frame a scene, see if there is room for this kinds of roles in the scene for other players.

If you are playing a supporting role, bear in mind that your job is to support the action of the main protagonist. You are playing a character that is a foil to the main character and the protagonist should remain on center stage. The supporting character can still be an individual with goals of her own, but shouldn't overshadow the real hero in the scene.

Finally, when a scene comes to a conflict, any stakes for the supporting character are set by the GM, not the player controlling them. The controlling player can make suggestions, but the GM makes the ultimate decision. The GM is in a better position to set stakes that keep things focused on the ongoing story, since the GM's job is to focus on the "big picture".

Not every group will want to use supporting characters. Some players will be more comfortable if the GM plays all the NPCs, especially players new to this style of play. Always remember, though, that you can still narrate actions for NPC under the GM's control to make your protagonist's story more exciting. If the GM protests, it simply means you've found your conflict for the scene. NPCs are a renewable resources; you can always make more.

Protagonist Subplots

In a one-shot game, the story generally needs to focus on the action leading to the climax. In longer games, you have more freedom to develop a variety of ongoing and intermingled stories. There are two kinds of plotlines you may have: the main plotline of the story and subplots focused on individual protagonists.

Subplots explore some aspect of the protagonist's life. Appropriate subplots depend on the setting and there are endless possibilities:

  • The protagonist could be seeking to earn membership is some exclusive club or society.
  • An elderly relative of the protagonist could be ill and the protagonist is struggling to earn money for the necessary medical treatment.
  • A rival of the protagonists is working to undercut her at work, ruining her successes and maybe getting her fired.
  • The protagonist has a crush on his best friend's sister and is worried about losing both of them if he acts on his feelings.
  • The protagonist has anger issue that regularly gets her into trouble and has even landed her in jail occasionally.

Subplots are a form of elaborate hook that can pull the hero into all kinds of situations. You can define a few subplots when you create your protagonist and make them part of your character pitch. This way, other players can make suggestions and find ways to be involved in your subplots. You can also start subplots in the middle of the game, by latching onto (or inventing!) something that interests you in the story.

You can explore your protagonist's subplots by framing scenes that focus on those subplots. This lets the subplots develop over time. When a subplot has reach some suitably dramatic point, you can frame a scene in which the subplot is resolved. Other subplots may linger on and not get resolved until the game's end (if then). If you end a subplot, you are free to start another one.

Some players may be intimidated by the idea of creating special subplots focusing on their own characters. If you are not comfortable with creating your own subplots, you can (as always) ask the rest of the group for ideas. If you end up involved in a subplot that you don't like or doesn't interest you, though, feel free to bring it to an end by framing a scene whose conflict resolves the situation.

Character Development

Interesting characters change over time. Even in an one-shot game, you want your protagonists to go through some dramatic experience that affects their lives. In longer games, the change may be more gradual, but should still take place.

In order to have your character develop, you need a character with room to grow. When you create a protagonist, he shouldn't have a perfect life. He should have troubles to overcome and goals to achieve to give his story some forward momentum. A character who already has everything he wants has no way to improve (unless you want the character to have his perfect life be ruined and struggle to recover, which can be interesting).

Improv doesn't have any formal rules for character development. It should happen as part of the story. Every scene that a character goes through will change the character in some way. If you think about the ramifications of the conflicts the character has won and lost, you should get an idea of how the character will change as a result. Your character's personality will naturally change over time as a result of her experiences.

There are two ways you can note the changes in a character. First, you can add or alter descriptive traits that the character has, recording the character's achievements. As discussed in the Settings and Characters chapter, this doesn't have a direct impact on game mechanics, but does have an indirect impact by the Principle of Plausibility of making some situations easier or harder to solve without conflict.

You can also change a character's talents. You can add new talents or alter an existing talent to include new abilities the character has learned. Adding and changing talents does have some impact on the game mechanics, but not enough to unbalance the game. You can change talents freely. As with character creation, it is up you and the group to determine which talents and descriptive traits are appropriate to the setting and how the character is developing.

Many RPGs also have the idea of "character advancement", in which the characters grow more powerful over time. Although adding new descriptive traits and changing your talents can make your character more "effective" within the story, it doesn't give you any new benefit in the game mechanics. If you want to allow mechanical improvements in characters, see the optional Character Advancement rules discussed below.

Design Philosophy

This section discusses the philosophy behind the Improv rules. Understanding the reasoning behind the rules can improve your game play. It also helps if you want to change the rules.

Why give players so much narrative power?

The central premise of Improv is that there are interesting things can happen if the players have more power over the story. There are certain story elements and game experiences that are easier to produce by letting the players take more control. The GM doesn't have to make up as many elements of the story, making her job easier. It gets the players more involved in the story, because they have a bigger investment in its creation.

This is not to say that this kind of player-driven game is the only, or even the best, style of RPG game play. It is all a matter of taste and different groups will prefer different things from their games. If you don't want this kind of player-driven game, though, you probably should look for a different set of rules than Improv.

Why use cards?

Unlike most RPGs, Improv uses cards instead of dice as its primary randomizer. Cards introduce an element of choice into the game that dice don't provide. By resolving conflicts with cards from their hand, players can decide which conflicts are more or less important for them to win, effectively voting for their choices by the card values they use.

Conflict results aren't deterministic, though, because you are always comparing your card to someone else's card. You never know what card the other person picked, so you can never be completely certain you will win. Bluffing is an important part of the game. You always want your opponent to think the result is important to you, to get him to play the best card he has. This adds dramatic tension to conflicts even when one party doesn't really care about the outcome.

Sometimes you are involved in a conflict and really don't know how things should turn out. You can always leave the outcome to chance by pulling a random card from the deck instead of from your hand. This let's the other player's choice have more influence over the outcome without determining the result. This can be a bluff as well, by pretending you don't care when your hand is bad and random draw actually improves your odds of successs.

How are story-tokens supposed to work?

Story-tokens are a visible way of expressing choice in the game. By using a story-token, you are declaring something is extra important and that you want other players to know it. You could still be bluffing, but a conflict that includes story-tokens feels more difficult and important than ones without them. This makes story-tokens an effective way of increasing dramatic tension.

Story-tokens are also a reward system for players. When the GM spends story-tokens, he rewards the players for allowing their characters to suffer by giving them more power to resist future adversity. Players also reward each other with tokens to encourage styles of play that they like. If a player is disruptive, that player will get fewer tokens and have less power in the game. If a player is exciting, clever and engaging, that player will be rewarded with more tokens and more influence over the story.

The token economy works through the flow of tokens, not the accumulation of tokens. If a player hoards tokens, she will probably stop getting them. She will have "enough" tokens compared to other players and there are only so many tokens to give out. This encourages players to spend tokens. Spent tokens go back into the economy and eventually flow back to the players again. This lets you have a constant reward cycle without unbalancing the game.

Tokens are also a reward system for the GM as well. By defining conflicts that the players care about, the GM can get the players to spend story-tokens which come to him. This encourages the GM to make the story exciting so that story-power flows back in his direction.

How do character talents work?

Character talents serve two purposes. The most obvious is that they give the protagonists a way to triumph. The heroes can use their talents to give themselves an edge in conflict. Because the protagonists are the only characters in the game with talents, they are more likely to win in the end (though victory is by no means certain). In most stories, the good guys are generally victorious and Improv encourages that.

This lets the GM to cut loose on the players and play aggressively against them. The GM can try to defeat the players without being a "killer GM", because heroic power is built into the rules. Paradoxically, this may mean the heroes will suffer more defeats than they would in a traditional RPG, because the GM is not fudging the rules on their behalf to keep them from losing. These defeats make the hero's victories all the more sweet, because those victories are earned rather than given. The player's ability to narrate their own failures also softens the blow.

Talents also means the GM must spend story-tokens to be able to compete with the heroes. This kick-starts the game economy, getting tokens flowing from the GM to the players. The fact that players can only use one talent bonus per round kick-starts the story-token flow from the players' side. To outspend the GM, the players must also spend story-tokens.

Since talent use is a limited resource, players must decide when to use them. Players tend to be conservative with talents at the beginning of the game, when the GM has the most story-tokens. Towards the end of the game, the players use talents freely because they are running out of time to spend them. This means that heroic failures tend to happen at the beginning of the story and heroic victories at the end, as it should be.

Finally, the token and talent economy influence conflict results but it doesn't pre-determine them. Cards can still trump talents and tokens, making conflicts go someplace unexpected when all the players and even the GM expect a different outcome.

What do the pool and bank do?

The pool and the bank act as choke points in the economy to regulate the token flow and make it meaningful. If spent tokens simply changed hands directly during conflict, the net effect would be minimal, since everyone would get the same set of bonuses. By making tokens visit the pool and the bank, however, it slows token flow enough to make token use in conflict have a real game effect.

The bank slows token flow to the GM so that players don't feel like they are undercutting themselves by spending tokens in conflict. Sure, the tokens may be used by the GM in a later conflict, but they won't be used in this conflict. In the final conflict at the end of the game, players can spend all the tokens they want, because they know the GM won't get any of these tokens before the game ends.

The pool does the same thing in reverse. It also acts as a "double reward" system. The GM rewards the players as a group with more story-power by suffering adversity. The players then award each other for positive and interesting game play. This forms a tight feedback cycle encouraging everyone to play in a way enjoyable to the group.

How is the game balanced?

The Improv rules are balanced to remove nearly all subjective choices from the game rules.

The players don't have to make judgment calls about which talents apply to a situation. Talents always apply, but can only be used a limited number of times. Since all talents are equally effective, the choice between them is more a matter of narrative color than an exercise in maximizing character power.

The GM doesn't have to make judgment calls about the opposition to the heroes. Since NPCs don't have talents, the GM can invent the opposition on the fly without worrying about whether the NPC's power-level is "fair". The opposition in given conflict can be as difficult as the GM chooses, based on the story-token resources the GM has on hand.

Since the rules themselves are not subjective, the players and the GM can focus on the parts of the game where there are real decisions to be made, namely what happens in the story. If there is disagreement, the rules help you decide who gets to decide.

Can these rules be changed?


This discussion of Improv's design philosophy isn't to discourage you from changing the rules. It is to let you know the intent behind the rules so you will better understand the implications of changing them. Some options for customizing the rules are discussed in the next section.

Changing the Rules

Improv is designed to have a solid set of core rules that you can change to suit your gaming style. This section suggests some of the changes you might make to the Improv rules. All of these rules are optional. You may simply consider them the starting point for your own customizations to the rules.

Dice-Based Mechanics

Many role-players love dice and don't want to give them up. Here is one suggestion for playing Improv with dice instead of cards. These rules work best with 10-sided dice, though you can use 6-sided as well.

Dice replace cards, story-tokens and trait markers. There are three kinds of dice, which should be a different colors:

  • Conflict dice (black): Used in conflict, each player needs 3. The GM needs 2 per player.
  • Story dice (white): Replaces story-tokens. You need as many as you would have story tokens.
  • Victory dice (blue): Used only in extended conflicts, you need about 4 or 5 per player.

In conflict, you roll at least 2 conflict dice to win your stake. Using a talent lets you roll a third conflict die (rolling 3 conflict dice indicates you are using a talent). Using a story-die lets you roll that die as well. When everyone has put out all the dice they intend to use, roll all your dice. Compare your highest die to your opponent's highest die to determine who is the winner. If the high dice match, compare the second highest, and so forth.

The GM needs more conflict dice to allow him set more stakes in conflicts. The GM roles 2 conflict dice for each participant he controls, with story-dice added subject to the usual restrictions on story-token use. Remember that the GM can't have more stakes in a conflict than the number of participating players.

Extended Conflicts: In extended conflict, you make conflict rolls each round. If you beat your opponent in a round, take a victory die. If you have multiple dice that beat your opponent's best dice, take as many victory dice as the number of dice that beat your opponent's best die. For example, if your best two dice beat your opponent's best die, you take two victory dice.

In the second and later rounds, you roll your victory dice along with your other dice, thereby increasing your chances of winning future rounds. You keep your victory dice, even if you lose later rounds. The winner of the final round wins the overall conflict. In the final round, you may give one die to another participant, after rolling but before narration, the same way you pass victory cards in the original rules.

In case of a tie on all the dice, re-roll an extra conflict die until one side gets a higher result. If you use the optional "Hand of Fate" rule, the Hand of Fate is only invoked if all the dice match. If you want a bloodier game, you can invoke the Hand of Fate if the top two dice match.

Example Extended Conflict: Within a larger conflict, a protagonist and an NPC are opposing each other. In the first round, the GM spends two story dice for a total of 4 dice (2 conflict + 2 story). The player decides to save his dice until the end, and rolls only two conflict dice. The GM gets 10-7-6-2 and the player gets 6-3. The GM's has two dice beating the players best die, so the GM takes two victory dice, putting his story dice into the pool.

In the 2nd round, the GM rolls 4 dice (2 conflict + 2 victory) and the player rolls 2 conflict dice. The GM rolls 10-7-2-2 and the player rolls 8-1. The GM earns an additional victory die.

In the 3rd and final round, the GM rolls 5 dice (2 conflict + 3 victory). The player adds a bonus talent die and a bonus story die, for a total of 4 dice. The GM rolls 8-8-4-1-1 and the player rolls 10-6-5-3. The player wins in the end, even though she lost the earlier two rounds. The player's story die happens to be an odd number, and goes out of play instead of to the GM.

Multiple Opponents: When facing multiple opponents, you get to take a victory die for each opponent you beat. If your best two dice beat all your opponents' dice, you get an extra victory die. If you best three dice beat all your opponents' dice, you get two extra victory dice, and so forth.

Story-Dice: Any story dice used by the GM go into the pool. Story dice used by the players go to the bank only if they roll an even number. Story dice used by players that rolls an odd number go out of play. Otherwise, story-dice are passed around just like story-tokens they replace.

Dice Strategy: Bonus dice added early to an extended conflict have a chance of snow-balling into more-and-more victory dice giving your more dice at the end. Bonus dice added at the end of a conflict are a sure thing, however, and will always add to the final dice pool for determining victory. Therefore, there are advantages and disadvantages to using bonus dice both early and late in the conflict.

In some ways, using dice simplifies the game because all the game components become dice. They make the game more random, though. No matter how many dice you pile into a conflict, you can be defeated by bad luck. You can't "vote" for important conflict results the way you can by playing a high card and there is no bluffing. Depending on your playing style, though, you may prefer this to cards.

Talented NPCs

In the normal Improv rules, non-protagonist characters (NPCs) do not have talents. Talents keeps the protagonists at the center of the story by giving them an advantage that no other characters have. NPCs are distinguished by their descriptive traits, but their power is based on however many story-tokens the GM chooses to devote to their victory.

You may want to have more complex NPCs with individualized talents. At the beginning of conflict, the GM can pay story-tokens to give an NPC talents. There are 4 levels of NPCs power:

  • 0-talent NPCs: Talentless NPCs like NPCs in the normal Improv rules.
  • 1-talent NPCs: Slightly talented NPCs, a bit distinctive but not remarkable.
  • 2-talent NPCs: Powerful NPCs, skilled and dangerous.
  • 3-talent NPCs: Very powerful NPCs, such as major villains.

The GM spends 0-3 story-tokens to introduce an NPC into the game, depending on the NPC's level of power. The full cost only needs to be paid the first time an NPC appears. Thereafter, it only costs a single story-token to bring back an established NPC in future conflicts, no matter what the NPC's talent-level (non-talented NPCs are always free). You do not pay the talented NPCs cost until they get involved in conflict; the NPC can appear in a scene for free if the NPC doesn't get involved in a fight.

A talented NPC can have any number of actual talents, but should have at least as many as her talent-level. The talent-level limits the overall number of times the NPC can use any of her talents in a given conflict. A 1-talent NPC can only use her talents once, a 2-talent NPC twice and a 3-talent NPC three times. This limit is per-conflict; if the GM pays a story-token to introduce the NPC in a later conflict, the NPC may use all her talents up to her limit in the new conflict.

Talented NPCs may have narrative protection equal to their talent level. This protection indicates the minimum number of conflicts in which the NPC must be defeated before the character can be eliminated from the story. A 2-talent NPC must be beaten at least twice before he can be eliminated, a 3-talent NPC three times. Up until that point, any other defeats for the NPC must be temporary, capturing, driving off or blocking the NPC rather than killing her outright.

Only NPCs that actually oppose the protagonists can have talents, because all conflicts must involve the protagonists. If you do want to have an NPC struggling against another NPC, it should be part of a protagonist-vs-NPC conflict, with players using their cards and tokens on behalf of both the protagonists and their allies. The allied NPC's actions are just color for the protagonist's narration.

Talented NPCs give the GM more control over the story, because the GM has a resource (NPC talents) that can be spent without empowering the players. This is mitigated somewhat because the players get tokens when the GM adds the NPC into a new conflict. This can make the game more competitive between the GM and the players, which can be good or bad, depending on your preferences.

Character Advancement

The default Improv rules allow for informal character development through the events of the story. The characters may change, but the talent bonuses they get in conflict never improve. This is because protagonist talents are actually a game mechanical benefit for the player, not the character, and improving talent bonuses would give the players greater story-power compared to the GM.

Some stories have a structure in which the heroes begin weak and grow in power over time until they are ready to face the greatest challenges of their lives. This type of story is called the "hero's journey" and is often used in traditional RPGs. Character advancement is a big part of those games.

There are a couple of ways to add character advancement to Improv. First, you can have characters "advance" by changing their descriptive traits to make the characters more powerful in context of the story. This is especially appropriate if you are using the rules of another RPG to define descriptive traits for characters. This approach was discussed previously under "Character Development" and is discussed again in the section on "Improv and Other RPGs".

You can also modify the protagonist's talents so the characters become more effective in game rules. There are a couple of factors you can improve:

  • The bonus provided by an individual talent.
  • The number of times you can use an individual talent.
  • The number of times you can use talents overall.

If you take this approach, you may want to start protagonists out as weaker than they are in basic rules, with talents that provide only a +2 bonus, useable twice each and 4 times overall per session. The protagonists can improve over time until they have talents that give up to +5 bonuses, are useable 4 or 5 times each and 8 to 10 times overall.

The rate of improvement depends on how long you want the story to last. Figure out how strong you want the characters to be at the beginning and end of the story and give them improvements at a rate that will take them from one point to the other.

Bear in mind, though, that the heroes will eventually become powerful enough that the GM will no longer be able to challenge them. Character advancement also compels an overall story arc for the heroes. Once they become powerful enough, the protagonists should confront their ultimate enemy and their story should come to an end. Ideally, this climax should be at the point in the game where the heroes are strong enough to face the challenge but not so strong that their victory is certain.

If you would rather have the story continue indefinitely, you would be better off not using character advancement and simply "improve" characters by changing their descriptive traits. This will also eventually bring the protagonist's story to an end, but you will have more control of when that ending occurs

In theory, you could also "advance" the GM's power along with the players by giving the GM more story-tokens or higher bonuses. In that case, you would just be playing a shell game in which nothing really changes other than the numbers. Rather than having to worry about constantly rebalancing the game, you are better off using the informal character development discussed earlier in the rules.

Story Arcs

The Improv mechanics are designed to drive the story forward. The pacing of the story is largely in the hands of the players and the GM; the rules don't say where the story should begin and end. You can even have stories like ongoing television shows which simply continue to follow the main characters' lives without even really coming to a conclusion.

If you are trying to recreate a particular kind of story, you may want to add additional structure that defines a specific story arc for the game. A story arc is a rule that controls the story's pacing, helping to determine when and how the story reaches its climax. Story arcs may also help determine how the story turns out. Story arc rules are somewhat like extended conflicts on a larger scale, helping shape the overall story and determine its resolution.

Some of the optional rules in this chapter imply some kind of story arc structure. Protagonists subplots define character-specific story arcs. Character advancement also compels some kind of story arc: when the characters become powerful enough, their story must end.

One easy way to define a story arc is with a "story track". When the heroes reach a certain point in the story, the focus shifts. For example, you might have mystery story in three acts:

  • Act 1: The protagonists and the central mystery are introduced.
  • Act 2: The protagonists' secrets are foreshadowed but not revealed.
  • Act 3: The protagonists' secrets are revealed and the story reaches its climax.

You may also have multiple story tracks, each following the progress of the story towards a particular end. Advancement along each track can be controlled by the character's actions in the game. There are two examples of this kind of track in the Example Settings chapter: the "Death/Insanity/Triumph" tracks in the Zombie Dawn setting and the "Grace/Damnation" tracks in the Angelic setting.

You can easily invent other kinds of story arcs to drive different kinds of stories. A story arc does limit the story, by putting it on a specific path. Those limitations can actually encourage creativity, however, because you only have to worry about the details of the story and not its overall structure.

GM-less Improv

The GM doesn't have as much to do in Improv as she does in a traditional RPG. It is simple to eliminate the GM role entirely. In GM-less Improv, the forces of opposition are represented by the bank. The "GM tokens" are stored in the bank until they are withdrawn by a player representing the opposition for a scene.

For each scene, you must choose two players: one to frame the scene and one to play the opposition. These can be the same player if you want. To choose the opposing player, you can set up some kind of rotation, let the framing player choose the opposing player or simply solicit a volunteer.

The opposing player cannot use his own story-tokens, cards or his protagonist during the scene. Instead, he uses the story-tokens in the bank. When conflict begins, the opposing player draws a new hand, based on the number of players in the conflict: 3 cards + 1 card per participating player. The opposing player uses these cards instead of his own. In all other respects, the opposing player acts as the GM for the current scene.

At the end of the scene, the opposing player discards his opposing hand and puts the remaining opposition story-tokens back into the bank along with whatever tokens were spent by the players in that scene. The opposing player goes back to using his own protagonist, story-tokens and cards in later scenes. Other players can reward the opposing player with tokens from the pool if they thought he did a good job as the opposition. These tokens go to the player instead of the bank, which also true of any tokens used as bribes for narration.

You can even have more than one opposing player in a scene. In that case, the opposing players split the tokens in the bank at the start of the scene and each uses opposing hands with 4 cards. You should make one of these players the "lead" opposing play; this player fulfills the basic GM function of managing the group for this scene.

GM-less Improv can be refreshing, but without a single person defining the overall opposition, your story may be less coherent. You may want to add additional rules, such as story arcs, to maintain story structure. On the other hand, you may enjoy the free-for-all narration that results from unrestricted GM-less play.

Changing the Token Economy

The token economy is designed to encourage the style of play preferred by your group by letting players reward each other for appropriate play. If you want to reinforce other kinds of behavior, you can use the same token economy to make those rewards. Possibilities include:

  • Giving rewards or penalties for specific kinds actions in the story.
  • Changing the bonuses for story-tokens making them more or less important.
  • Changing the number of tokens in the economy (especially in combination with bonus changes).
  • Letting some or all tokens carry over from one session to the next.
  • Adding ways for new tokens to enter the economy or old tokens to be spent permanently and leave the economy.
  • Making the tokens represent some trait of the protagonists so that the ebb and flow of the tokens affects the protagonist's abilities.
  • Making the tokens represent some kind of meta-story element such as the mood of the community or the alignment of supernatural powers.
  • Allowing more than one type of story-token, each with different meanings (such as good karma/bad karma).

The token economy in the basic Improv rules has been carefully tested for balance. If you change the token rules, bear in mind that the changes may have subtle and unanticipated effects. This warning doesn't mean that you should avoid modifying the economy, but be prepared to tinker with the rules during play until you find a new balance where the economy works the way you want it to.

Alternate Narrative Structure

The basic Improv rules rotate scene framing among the players, giving everyone considerable freedom to narrate for NPCs but restricting Narration Rights for protagonists to their controlling players except during conflict. This narrative structure was designed to spread narrative control equally among the players but still have them focus primarily on their own protagonists while allowing the GM to guide the main plotline.

You can change this structure to distribute narrative power in different ways:

  • You could modify the scene rotation, giving the GM more scenes than the players or no scenes at all.
  • You could allow multiple players to frame a scene together, letting one player choose the focus, another the cast and others different story-elements for the scene.
  • You could modify the narrative structure to put one player in the spotlight for an entire game session, with more narrative control for that session. The spotlight could rotate from session to session.
  • You could change who gets to narrate successes and failures. For example, each protagonist could have another "friend" and "enemy" player, with the friend-player narrating the protagonist's successes and the enemy-player the protagonist's failures.
  • You could assign Narration Rights for a groups of NPCs to an individual player, letting that player control those NPCs the same way she controls her protagonist (or even instead of her protagonist).
  • You could play without any formal protagonists, letting players assign character control however they want when they frame scenes.

As with changes to the token economy, be prepared to tinker with your rule changes until they work the way you want them to. These kinds of changes can be especially interesting in conjunction with GM-less Improv.

Improv and other RPGs

In a way, the rules of Improv are disjoint from the rules of most traditional RPGs. Most of the rules in a traditional RPG regulate how characters are defined and what they can accomplish in the imaginary game world. The rules of Improv regulate what the player is able to contribute to the story. There is some overlap, but these rule-sets are largely independent and can be combined into a single game.

There are several ways you might combine the rules of Improv with a traditional RPG.

Using Another RPG as an Improv Setting

One easy way to use Improv with another RPG is to use that RPG as the setting for an Improv game. The RPG's rules would define the World Rules for the setting, indicating what is and is not plausible. You can use the character creation rules of the other RPG to define the descriptive traits for the characters and use its character advancement rules to improve those descriptive traits.

During game play, use the rules of Improv. Choose some of the character's abilities as talents to use in conflicts. Conflicts are resolved using story tokens, talents and cards according to the normal Improv rules. Use descriptive traits from the other RPG to determine what the character can plausibly do outside of conflict.

This is a good way to try out the Improv rules in a longer game but still "hedge your bets" in case your players don't like this game style. You can fall back to the original RPG's game rules if the players are unhappy with the Improv style of play. You can also use the technique to switch an existing RPG campaign to a game of Improv, but you should be more careful here. Major changes in game rules can be very disruptive to an existing game and you should make sure everyone understands the implications of the change before you switch.

Using Some Improv Rules with Another RPG

A lot of the Improv rules are techniques that can be used as extra rules in another RPG.

  • You can use the Improv scene rotation rules to let players start scenes as well as the GM.
  • You may give players more narration rights to describe the environment, NPC actions and their own victories and defeats.
  • You can set up something like story-tokens to let players reward each other for good game play. The tokens could be used for bonuses or extra dice in the game.
  • You set stakes before a conflict to determine possible outcomes. This makes conflict more focused and encourages players to define different goals for their characters in fights.
  • Some of the advance suggestions in this chapter, like supporting characters, subplots and story-arcs, work well in any game with minimal modifications.

This approach lets you mix the ideas that you like from Improv into another RPG. This is probably the best approach if you want to use some Improv techniques in an existing game. By adding a few rules at a time, your players can decide whether they like this style of play without completely disrupting the game.

Combining Improv and Another RPG's Rules

A third option is a hybrid approach that combines the rules of another RPG with Improv. You would create characters using the rules of that RPG and designate some of their abilities as talents. Because you are combining rules, you should reduce the number of times talents can be used from 6 down to 3 times per session.

Both the players and the GM start scenes as in the Improv rules. During play, the person who framed the scene can decide whether the scene is a story scene or an action scene:

  • Story scenes are resolved using the Improv rules.
  • Action scenes are resolved using the rules of the other RPG.

Generally the GM frames action scenes and the players frame story scenes, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Story-Tokens and Bonuses

Players should be able to spend story-tokens for bonuses in action scenes as well as story scenes. If the RPG rules already have a bonus system (Willpower, Karma, Fate, Confidence, Hero Points), you can equate story-tokens to those bonus points.

You may need to adjust the value of story-tokens depending on the rarity of the bonus points in the other RPG. If the bonus points are numerous, you should decrease the bonus value of the story-tokens in story-scenes and increase their overall number. If the bonus points are rare, you may increase their bonus value and reduce their number.

Alternately, you may leave the story-token bonuses the same and adjust the rarity of the bonus-points to coincide with number of story-tokens in a normal Improv game. Games that have very rare bonus points may not give you the level of player story-control you want, so adjusting them upwards will give an more Improv-like flow to the game.

If the other RPG system has no mechanism for getting bonus points, simply assign an appropriate bonus value to story-tokens and use them in both story scenes and action scenes.

Action Scenes/Extended Conflicts

Generally speaking, you should use action scenes when detailed conflict rules are will be more exciting, such as tactical combat situations. Action scenes are generally used in place of the extended conflict rules from Improv.

In an action scene, the GM should judge the difficulty of the opposition and spend that many story tokens to represent the opposition difficulty. The GM must spend that many tokens to bring the opposition into play:

  • 0 tokens: The opposition is weaker than the protagonists and likely to lose.
  • 1/2 token per player: The opposition is almost as good as the protagonists.
  • 1 token per player: The opposition is as good or a bit better than the protagonists.
  • 1.5 tokens per player: The opposition is better than the protagonists, likely to win.
  • 2 tokens per player: The opposition is overwhelmingly powerful, almost certain to win.

The tokens are only spent when the fight begins. Spent tokens go into the pool to be distributed among the players as usual. These story-token partly compensate for the power of the NPCs. Because of the limits on giving away tokens, this benefit may not come fully to the players during the action scene's conflict.

At the beginning of the action scene's conflict, you should decide what is at stake, just as you would in a normal Improv conflict. That let's the players know what they will win if they are victorious and lose if they are defeated. It also let's you set stakes that result in something other than the death of the heroes.

Once the NPCs are in play and the tokens are distributed, the GM should do her best to win the fight. The GM should not fudge rolls on behalf of the players or have the NPCs back off if the players roll poorly. If the heroes lose, they lose. This is why it is important to set good stakes, so that the protagonists' defeat means that they are driven off, humiliated, captured or lose some important item rather than being killed outright.

If the NPCs are not defeated, the GM can bring them back in future scenes without paying story tokens for them again. The protagonists may need to fight them several times to win and may want to use intermediate story scenes to find some way to eliminate the NPCs' tactical advantages.

Story Scenes/Simple Conflicts

Story scenes use the normal Improv rules, but only use simple conflicts, since extended conflicts are replaced with action scenes. The conflict winner and narration rights go from highest to lowest result, as usual. For greater consistency with the other RPG's rules, you may want to adjust the simple conflict rules to be more like the rules of the other RPG.

For example, suppose you are playing an RPG that uses dice pools of six-sided dice, with rolls of 5-6 considered a success and spent Karma points that add an extra die to the pool. You can use this same mechanic in story scenes, with a base pool of 3 dice plus one die per story-token and talent spent.

Alternately, you have the character make some kind of ability check against an "average" difficulty. The ability rating would represent the character's talent, story-tokens can be used for bonuses and the GM can spend story-tokens to increase the difficulty. No matter how you decide to resolve simple conflicts, you should still set stakes and narrate victory and defeat as usual.

Preparing NPCs

One big advantage of Improv is that NPCs require very little time to prepare. This lets the GM adjust to rapidly changing stories. If you use more detailed rules from another RPG, NPC preparation can take a lot of the GM's time. The requires more up-front story preparation and limits the GM's ability to modify the story in game to incorporate the player's contributions.

You can compensate for this by using RPG rules that have a large bestiary of established opponents. When the protagonists get into an unanticipated conflict, the GM can simply use one of these prepared NPCs to set up a conflict with minimal preparation. Many RPG have an "opponents" or "monsters" section with appropriate enemies. For popular games, the Internet can be a good source of pre-created characters as well.

If there are not enough pre-created characters in the RPG rules or other sources, the GM can recruit the players to help him create characters. This means the players will some idea of what the NPCs are capable of. The GM can tweak the finished NPC's abilities to keep the players guessing, both for player-created enemies and standard enemies from the rule books.

Finally, if the RPG rules have some kind of established power level for the characters, you can use that to assign a story-token cost to each NPC, based on their relative power versus the protagonists. As guide, NPC costs should be between 0 and 3 tokens, with "half-token" costs also being legal. An NPC equal in power to the protagonists would be 1 tokens, with weaker NPCs costing less and powerful NPCs costing more.

This is similar to the optional "Talented NPCs" rules discussed above. It gives the GM a budget limiting which NPCs they can add to an adventure, making conflicts more balanced. This (combined with the stake rules) also gives the GM the freedom to do his best to beat the protagonists in a fight, making the conflicts that do happen more meaningful.

Example Combination: Mutants and Masterminds

The Mutants and Masterminds rules use a d20 plus various trait bonuses to resolve conflicts. Characters have power-level indicating their general strength The rules have a hero point mechanism that player can spend for re-rolls and other benefits. These hero points are roughly equivalent to story-tokens. You can combine Improv and M&M by combining story-tokens and hero points. Use some kind of token to track hero points.

GM Tokens: The GM has a starting pool of 3 hero points per player. Hero points spent by the GM go into a pool in the center of the table and are not awarded to the players. The GM spends hero points for introducing complications or opponents to the game.

  • Each villain equal in power-level to the heroes costs 1 hero point.
  • Every two power-levels of any individual villain above heroes' power level costs 1 hero point.
  • You may include a single minion group for no cost. You may have a minion group equal to the number of heroes if the minions are 2 points below the heroes' power level. You may have twice as minion minions as there are heroes if the minions are half the heroes' power level.
  • You may increase the number of minions by 50% for 1 hero point and one step up on the Time and Value Progression table for 2 hero points. You may do this multiple times for large groups.
  • "Neutral" NPCs such as bystanders or potential allies cost no HP.
  • Each complication costs 1 hero point. Suggested complications appear in the M&M rules.

Examples: Against a group of five PL 10 heroes:

  • A group of five PL 10 villains costs 5 HP.
  • A PL 16 master villain costs 4 HP.
  • A group of five PL 8 minions is free. A group of eight costs 1 HP, ten 2 HP, fifteen 3 HP, etc.
  • A group of ten PL 5 minions is free. A group of fifteen costs 1 HP, twenty 2 HP, etc.

The GM must spend the appropriate number of hero points when the villains are first encountered. If a villain survives a given encounter, the GM can bring the villain back at no cost in future encounters.

Token Pool: Hero points spent for the villains' HP cost or for GM Fiat are put into a pool in the center of the table. Players reward these hero points to each other. Appropriate reasons to reward other players are the same as the original M&M rules: heroism, good role-playing, cool stunts and suffering from setbacks and complications. The GM cannot award hero points directly to a player and players may not award hero points to themselves. Awards can only come from other players.

To allow for immediate rewards, the pool starts with a number of hero points equal to the number of players.

Spending Tokens: If a player spends a hero point, it may return to the GM. If there is a roll that is part of spending the hero point (such as a re-roll), give the hero point to the GM if that roll is an even number. If the die roll is an odd number, the hero point is removed from the game instead of going back to the GM. If there is no die roll for spending the hero point, roll a die anyway to determine whether the GM gets the hero point back.

Hero points earned by the GM in this way cannot be used in the current encounter. These points should be set aside and added to the GM's hero points only after the current encounter is finished. This means that in the final encounter in an adventure, the players may spend hero points freely, because the GM cannot use them before the adventure ends.

Story Scenes: If you use story scenes, conflicts should be resolved using an opposed roll between the most appropriate of the hero's ability. The GM should roll the most appropriate ability of the hero's opponent, or a rating of "10" if the hero has no active opponent. Hero points may be spent as usual to modify the end result.

Example Combination: Storyteller Rules

The Storyteller rules use a dice-pool mechanism where 10-sided are rolled against some difficulty value (typically 6, 7 or 8, depending on the version of the rules). Each die that gets that number or better counts as a success. The rules have a Willpower mechanism that gives the characters a bonus to ability rolls. To combine Improv with the Storyteller rules, combine story-tokens with Willpower.

Use tokens to track Willpower. Players start with their normal starting Willpower. The pool in the center of the table starts with 1 token per player.

GM Tokens: NPCs don't have individual Willpower ratings. The GM has a pool of story-tokens that can be spent as Willpower for bonuses to all NPC actions. Because each protagonist will have some starting Willpower, the GM should start with more story-tokens than in a normal Improv game (4 per player).

The GM should spend tokens as Willpower on behalf of NPCs as well as a general measure of an encounter's difficulty or an NPC's strength, as discussed above. GM-spent tokens go into the pool for players to award each other as usual.

Token Pool: Rather than using the standard Willpower recovery mechanism, let the protagonists recover Willpower when they are awarded story-tokens by other players from the pool. Characters are allowed to go above their maximum Willpower from story-token awards, but this excess Willpower goes away at the end of the session.

Spending Tokens: Player-spent tokens go back to the GM only if the total number of successes the player rolled is an even number. 0 successes counts as an even number. Willpower earned by the GM cannot be used in the current encounter.

Story Scenes: In story scenes, the player rolls an appropriate dice pool against a dice pool set by the GM (their opponent's pool or an pool representing the abstract difficulty). Willpower/story-tokens can be spent for the standard bonus. The highest number of successes wins. Re-roll ties, or let the GM win ties, since having the protagonists suffer many personal failures is in keeping with the mood of Storyteller games.

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