New in the Archive: Unframed – the Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Improvisation is a crucial skill for a GM: whether you prefer to preplan you sessions in exhaustive detail, or to make it up as you go along, you’ll need to know how to take in the player’s input, keep the game moving, and react to the unexpected curveballs your players throw at you. Unframed is a book designed to teach you those skills, bringing together essays from GM and game designer legends to give readers tips on story planning, NPC roleplaying, and how to adapt to player’s preferences. It’s an entertaining and interesting read, with something interesting for novices and experienced GMs alike. I’m going to be posting more articles on GMing soon, but for now here’s a free excerpt:

Improvising Dialogue Sequences by Robin D. Laws

Robin D. Laws’ newest roleplaying game is Hillfolk, in which you weave an epic of dramatic interaction in an age of hungry empires. Previous RPG designs include The Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Feng Shui, and HeroQuest. His fiction projects include eight novels and the short story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign. He comprises one-half of the Golden Geek Award winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and can be found online at robindlaws.com

As a GM your most extended exercises in off-the-cuff invention occur during dialogue sequences. Internalizing the simple structure behind character interaction in fiction, scripted and improvised, allows you to sharpen these scenes, making them fun, memorable, and rich in story opportunity.
Petitioner and Granter: Understanding the Scene
A simple structure powers scenes of any character interaction in drama, fiction, cinema, or TV. One character wants something from another character.

  • Wash wants Zoë to show that she cares more about him than she does about Mal.
  • Cersei wants to reestablish her position of superiority over Tyrion.
  • Loki wants Thor to let him out of his cell.

The first character makes a petition of the second character, hoping to get that thing. That makes the first character the petitioner. The character hearing the petitioner has the power to grant this request. That makes the character the granter—although granters refuse requests as often as they grant them. In the above examples, Wash, Cersei, and Loki take the roles of petitioner, while Zoë, Tyrion, and Thor are the granters.

(If this all sounds familiar to you, you perhaps recognize it as the heart of my game Hillfolkand its DramaSystem rules engine. The terms petitioner and granter come from The Conversations, a book-length interview of the legendary film editor Walter Murch by novelist Michael Ondaatje.)

Roleplaying dialogue scenes work the same way. The only difference is standard to RPGs, in that they frequently feature an ensemble of protagonists. Often they’ll make joint petitions of a single character, speaking en masse. Slightly more rarely, they’ll be petitioned as a group, acting as a granter together. Often, you as GM will make a petition in a two-hander scene (one featuring two characters), your NPC and one PC. The PC may then take the petition back to the rest of the group and they’ll debate what to do about it.

The first step, then, in sharpening your improvised dialogue scenes is to identify the petitioner and granter. Thankfully this is a simple call—if an NPC proposes something to the PCs, the NPC is the petitioner and one or more PCs acts as the granter.

  • The March Warden (an NPC) asks the PCs to clear the great swamp of encroaching orcs.
  • Euston Chau (an NPC) asks Dominic (a PC and his wannabe son-in-law) to have Mr. Bright (another PC) committed to a mental institution.
  • The Mugwump (an NPC supervillain) tells Redblade (a PC vigilante) to lay off, or he’ll reveal Redblade’s secret identity.

Petitioning is active; it seeks to overcome the granter’s resistance to put a new story point in motion. Assuming you’re letting the PCs drive the story, they’ll be making more petitions of your NPCs than vice versa.

  • The PCs ask the old hermit they encounter out in the great swamp if he’s seen any orc activity.
  • Dominic asks Euston’s chief security officer why he cares so much about Mr. Bright being sent to an institution.
  • Redblade pressures the gatekeeper of a criminal dark data network for access to the Mugwump’s file cache.

Identifying the petitioner helps by requiring you to pin down what the scene is about. When you’re playing the petitioner, you usually know that from the outset. (Sometimes you’ll shift your NPC’s goal in response to what the player says, which is good. But you still know in the first place what the character seeks, and you still know even if that changes in mid-scene.)
When you’re playing the granter, you find out what the scene is about partway through, when the players make clear their requests. You know your NPC is being petitioned, and immediately or gradually come to understand what the petition is about. When you figure it out partway through, it’s often because the players are also trying to work out what they want from the character. Expect this to happen when you introduce a new NPC without establishing right away what her role in the storyline might be.
When a roleplaying scene seems shapeless, it’s usually because neither you nor the players know what its purpose is, and are muddling around trying to find it. With the petitioner’s goal identified, you see how it can proceed to a resolution.

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