Improv: Introduction

Improv is a game of collaborative story creation for 3 to 8 players. It is one part improvisational acting, one part storytelling and one part game. The goal of Improv is to cooperate with the other players to creating an interesting and enjoyable story.

About This Game

Improv is a type game is called a Role Playing Game (RPG): a game in which the players take on the role of characters and play out their actions in an imaginary world. The best way to introduce this game depends on the kind of background you have with Role Playing Games in general.

If you want to play right away…

Skip to the basic rules in Chapter 1, then pick a setting from the Example Settings chapter (Murder Most Foul or Zombie Dawn are good choices). Get your friends together and go.

If you've never played a Role Playing Game…

A role playing game is an adult version of the "make believe" games that kids play. It is an invitation to pretend to be someone else for a while. A role playing game is different from most games in that it is a cooperative game, not a competitive game. The goal of the game is to work with the other players to create an interesting story. The only way to "lose" the game is to not have fun.

The players in the game take the role of one of main characters or protagonists in the story you are creating. The players act out the role of their characters and makes sure their characters have interesting parts in the story.

One person must take a special role in the game, called the Game Master or GM. The GM is usually the person with the best understanding of the game rules and the most ideas about what the story will be about. Unlike the players, the GM does not take a specific character role for the game. Instead, the GM takes multiple roles, including the characters opposed to the protagonists (the "bad guys").

Even though the GM takes the role of the opposition, he is not playing "against" the player or trying to beat them. The GM and the players cooperate in creating the story. The GM creates situations and problems for the protagonists to deal with. The players decide how their characters will address these problems. In some cases the heroes will win and in other cases the heroes will lose. Either way is fine, as long as the story develops in an interesting way.

Most of the game play is a cross between improvisational acting and spontaneous storytelling. The game rules exist to ensure the story is shared equally among the players and to resolve conflicts where it isn't clear what should happen next. You can read the Example of Play in the next chapter to get a better idea of what the game is like.

If you've played a Role Playing Game before…

Improv is a bit different from many traditional RPGs. The rules of most RPGs regulate character actions in an imaginary world to determine what the character can realistically do. The rules of Improv mainly address the flow of the story and which players get to contribute to which parts of that story. More specifically, the Improv rules address the player's ability to control the story, not the character's ability to act in the imaginary world.

The Improv rules give the players considerable control over the story. Players can initiate scenes, describe the actions of non-protagonist characters (NPCs) and push the story in the direction that interests them. If a player wins a conflict, the player gets to decide how things turn out. Even if the player loses a conflict, she can describe her own defeat. An individual players doesn't get to completely dictate the outcome of the story, however, since the other players and the GM will also be contributing.

In many RPGs, the GM's role is to control every aspect of the game world other than the protagonists, acting for all the NPCs and interpreting the results of the game rules. In Improv, the players control bigger parts of the imaginary world, including things normally under the GM's control like NPC actions. The GM's primary role is to define the opposition to the protagonists, giving them something to struggle against and overcome. The GM is responsible for the Big Picture, making sure the story told by the players fits together and that everyone gets to contribute.

The rules of Improv are very minimalist. Depending on your background and tastes, the Improv rules may not be meaty enough for you. Improv lets you define World Rules that further describe what is realistic in the imaginary world and more accurately describe what characters are capable of. You can even use the game rules of another RPG as the World Rules for your story.

You can use Improv as a standalone game, but it can also be used as a toolkit for other RPGs. You pick and choose from the techniques described in Improv and use them in other games. Ultimately, how you play is up to you and your friends.

If you've played a "story game" before…

Improv isn't unique in what is trying to do. There are a whole class of newer RPGs that do similar things with story structures. There isn't a widely accepted term for this kind of RPG. Some people call them "indie games", some call them "narrativist games" and others call them "story games" (not everyone agrees on what those terms mean either).

Games resembling Improv have rules that control how the players create the story rather than (or in addition to) what character can and cannot do in the imaginary world. The rules for these games are generally short and simple but can have subtle implications. Most of these games are designed to create a very specific kind of story. The rules can be difficult to customize and many of these games argue against changing their rules, since this might weaken the player-driven elements of the game.

Improv is designed to be generic and customizable. The Improv rules determine who gets to decide what happens next in the story without saying much about what the story is about. All of the rules in Improv are optional and can be modified to suit different playing styles. They provide a generic set of core rules that can be extended to cover a variety of settings, including being integrated with other, more traditional RPGs. You can also play the game "as is" without making a lot of customizations. Simply pick something from the Example Settings chapter and start to play.

If you do like the idea of modifying the rules, everything in the game is available under an "Open" license, so you can take, tweak and even republish the rules as part of your own game. In fact, the rules are available under two licenses: the Creative Commons license and the Open Gaming License (OGL). You can pick whichever license works best for you. All we ask is that you give credit to the original rules.

Using This Book

The chapters of this book are organized to introduce you to the game:

Chapter 1 discusses the basic rules of the game. The rules in this chapter are complete enough to play. If you want to try the game out quickly, read Chapter 1 and play using one of the settings in the example settings in Chapter 6. Murder Most Foul or Zombie Dawn are good choices for introductory games.

Chapter 2 describes how to prepare for a game of Improv. The main focus of the chapter is how to create settings and protagonists.

Chapter 3 talks about how to play the game. It discusses the resources you can use to influence the development of the story. It also describes how to set up and play through the scenes in a story.

Chapter 4 discusses the conflict resolution rules. You use conflict when two people (two characters or two players) want something different to happen and you need to figure out who gets their way.

Chapter 5 is about game strategies. This chapter doesn't introduce any new rules. It discusses ways to use the rules from earlier chapters to tell a good story. It also talks about how to customize the Improv rules for different playing styles and kinds of stories, as well as using Improv together with other RPGs.

Chapter 6 includes several sample settings to get you started playing Improv and give you ideas on how the rules can be used to create different kinds of stories.


The following terms are used in the Improv rules. These terms are discussed in more detail elsewhere in the rules, and are listed here as a reference. Some of the more unusual terms (such as GM and NPC) are used because they are traditional terms in many Role Playing Games.

Bank: Any story-tokens spent by the players against the GM go into the bank during conflict. The GM withdraws tokens from the bank after conflict.

Cards: Ordinary playing cards, used to resolve conflicts. High cards beat low cards. Improv uses 54 card decks, including both jokers.

Character: An imaginary character in the story. The most important characters are the protagonists. Other characters are called non-protagonist characters (NPCs).

Cast: The characters that appear in the current scene.

Conflict: A decision point in the story where things can go in more than one direction, usually a clash between characters. Conflicts are resolved by playing cards to determine who gets to decide what happens. Winning a conflict gives you narration rights over the current situation.

Descriptive Traits: Character traits that further describe the character without having any mechanical benefit in the game rules.

Extended Conflict: Longer conflicts, broken up into several rounds of card play. Winners in each round of conflict keep their card as a victory card towards winning the overall conflict.

Game Master (GM): The person who "runs" the game, by controlling non-protagonist characters (NPCs) and creating problems for the protagonists to overcome. The GM is responsible for making sure the story created by the player fits together and that all the players have a chance to contribute.

Focus (Scene Focus): The initial setup for the action in a scene, what the scene will be about.

Framing (Scene Framing): The act of setting up a scene, choosing its focus and cast.

Hook: A character trait or flaw that pulls that character into the story.

Narration: The act of describing what happens in the story. Usually, players narrate for the protagonists and the GM narrates for the NPCs, but there exceptions, especially during conflict.

Narration Rights: The right to determine what happens in the story. The players have narration rights over their protagonists. The GM has weaker narration rights over NPCs. Conflicts can be used to win narration right in cases where there is a dispute over what should happen or when two characters oppose each other.

Non-Protagonist Characters (NPCs): All the characters in the game except for the protagonists. By default, these characters are controlled by the GM, but players may describe some actions of the NPCs when it helps to make the story more interesting for the protagonists.

Players: All the people playing the game except for the Game Master. Each player controls one protagonist.

Principle of Plausibility: Whether something can be believably added to the story. This is the main guideline for narration.

Protagonist: One of the main characters in the story. Protagonists have talents, hooks and descriptive traits.

Pool: A collection of story-tokens in the center of the table. Story-tokens spent by the GM go into the pool. Players can award each other story-tokens out of the pool for good game play.

Round: One step in an extended conflict. In each round, participants in the conflict play cards and narrate the action for that round based on the winners and losers. The winners keep their card as a victory card towards winning the overall conflict.

Role Playing Game (RPG): A game in which the players take on the role of characters and play out their actions in an imaginary world. Improv is a role playing game. There are many other published RPGs, which describe a wide variety of imaginary worlds.

Setting: The background and environment in which the story in a game of Improv takes place.

Scene: A portion of the story in which specific characters (the cast) are involved in some activity (the scene's focus). Most scenes involve some conflict. Players take turns starting (also known as framing) scenes.

Stake: The desired outcome of a participant in a conflict. Before a conflict begins, all participants choose their stake for the conflict. If you win a conflict, your stake happens. If you lose, your stake doesn't happen.

Supporting Cast (Supporting Character): If a player's protagonist does not appear in a scene, that player may temporarily take the role of an NPC for that scene. NPCs played by players are called supporting cast or supporting characters.

Story-Tokens: Game tokens used to influence the story. You can spend story-tokens to get bonuses in conflict or use them to bribe other players to move the story in a direction that interests you.

Talents: Abilities the protagonists have that can help them win conflicts. Only protagonists have talents; NPCs do not.

Talent-Marker: A marker you can use to indicate when you are using a talent for a bonus. It should be a different color from story-tokens.

Token: Short for story-token.

Victory Cards: Cards used to track how well you are doing in an extended conflict. If you beat your opponent in a round of conflict, you keep the card you played as a victory card. If you have more victory cards at the end of the conflict than your opponent, you win the conflict.

World Rules: Additional rules describing what is plausible in the setting for the story, used with the Principle of Plausibility. The World Rules for Improv can be the game rules of another RPG.

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