Review: Improv for Gamers

Something that has always stuck with me is the observation that tabletop gaming is a rather unique medium because it is the player, a single person, that is simultaneously the creator, performer and the audience. These are a lot of hats to wear, and usually people don’t wear them all equally as well. What’s more, advice for gamers typically focuses on creation, such as design and use of mechanics or audience, appreciation and criticism, rather than performance. Often, the act of…well…acting as your character has been something that players either brought with them to the table or set aside like all those optional rules at the end of the chapter. I think this is because the sort of comfort with improvisation is something a lot of people see as an innate characteristic or something that requires a great deal of study and refinement to master. Fortunately, there is a resource to help demystify this practice that was once usually the practice of drama students and LARPers. In Improv for Gamers, Karen Twelves provides the reader with an inviting, approachable and fun way to see how you can bring characters to life.

This book did not arise out of a vacuum, nor is it merely a translation of improv theater exercises into terms even an AD&D player can understand, though they should be able to manage. Improv for Gamers is actually a physical artifact stemming from a series of workshops designed by the author to empower gamers’ storytelling. With a variety of these workshops having enjoyed widespread acclaim, the book takes the next step by bringing the most useful exercises available to anyone with an electronic reading device or willingness to handle an actual bundle of dead tree matter.

After introducing the history and rationale behind the workshops, Ms. Twelves jumps right in with a series of warm up exercises to get players moving, thinking and acting. I think it’s important to note here that this book requires work from a facilitator to choose, explain and oversee the exercises and make sure everyone is having an opportunity to both participate and benefit from the activity. The exercises themselves start simple and ramp up in complexity and commitment. They range from simple games where a story is told by people in sequence, building off one another, passing the spotlight to another character, to the simple act of pretending to throw a ball across a circle. Each exercise has an objective and things to think about to help improve performance around the table.

As much as this book has to offer, there are some things to consider before opening it up and putting your group through its improv paces. First of all, a lot of these exercises explicitly depend on occupying the same physical space, so online groups will be at a disadvantage. Likewise, a lot of the mechanics of these exercises involve making eye contact or otherwise communicating non-visually, which might be a challenge for some people. Nonetheless, I think the book provides a wide range of tools to help players improve their experience. Even just picking this book up and reading through its advice will give you a lot to think about.

For any group that meets in person, this book as an unqualified recommendation from me. For anyone who plays online, I would say that a lot of the activities presented could be useful with little or no modification. Pick it up today from Evil Hat, DriveThru, or Amazon!

Note: We were provided a copy of Improv for Gamers from Evil Hat for review.

Aser is a visually impaired attorney and assistive technology instructor that started playing RPGs shortly before the podcast's founding. He ran our games of The Strange and Night's Black Agents, and is an advocate for accessibility in gaming. His gaming interests tend towards mythos horror, investigation, espionage, and military role-playing games.

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