Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cooperative Improv

Occasionally, someone on the blog here has read something I've written and said, "Hey, that would be a good topic to cover in the book." And it would be, except that I've just covered it here, and that I did that because I did not want the book to include it.

Realistically, the book cannot cover everything. I would still be writing it in 2017 and the thing would be the size of the Monster in Spaulding Gray's Monster in a Box. That's impractical, and so from time to time I've had to accept that certain things aren't going to make the cut.

One of those things I'm not going to include would have been ripped from Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, where Chapter Four included a section on improvisational comedy and upon at least one rule that governs it, that which is called the single most important rule of improv: "Say Yes - and!" The wording has been ascribed to David Alger of the San Francisco Pan Theater, who seems to have no real background on the web ... but it is the world of improv, so yeah, underground.

A brief explanation of the improv rule would be that whatever one performer says on the stage, no matter how loony, the correct answer is "yes, and ..." which agrees with the premise. To steal Gladwell's example, if one performer says, acting as a doctor, "The leg has to come off," the correct answer is, "Alright. Should we take it off right now?" The correct answer isn't, "I'd rather not; I'm quite attached to it."

The reason for this is because the negative answer ends the scene. There's really nowhere to go except the doctor and patient arguing about whether the leg should come off, which isn't funny and is, in fact, dull. Alternatively, if both performers agree that the leg should come off, there's opportunity to discuss by what method, for what silly reasons and of course all the physical comedy that might come from trying it on stage. In effect, a negative response creates two performers who are at odds, while a positive response creates two performers who are cooperating. And cooperation is essential to both comedy and innovation.

The application of this to role-playing should be obvious. One D&D player makes an assertion or suggestion, and where the response is negative, both players are stymied and the game doesn't move ahead. If, on the other hand, the suggestion is approved, action moves forward and the players are working together towards a goal.

The difficulty lies, of course, in the question of who gets to make the initial assertion, and who HAS to go along with it.

In improvisational comedy, this isn't an issue. No one cares what the performance is, or where it goes, because the purpose is to please the audience, who is outside the construct. As long as the audience is pleased, and therefore laughing and applauding, the performers aren't concerned with who's idea it was, or where it goes, or who ends up looking like an idiot in the end. All the performers recognize that at any given moment, any of them might have to jump in with "yes, and..." in order to make the process flow. Who did what right now, or who's idea it is, is irrelevant. The whole troupe gets the credit because the troupe are all part of the process.

The concern of the D&D player is that they may never get to be the initiator who makes the assertion, but that they will always find themselves being the lackey that has to go along with it. Which produces competition between the players, as to whose assertions have been obeyed how many times, and "what was the last time we did something I wanted," and so on. The competitive reaction builds over multiple sessions until the whole is brought to a crashing halt by one negative assertion too many.

None of this, of course, exempts the Dungeon Master. More than anyone at the table, the DM must be the one that says, "yes, and ..." The players are driving the game, and are the primary performers and initiators in that game. This is not to say the DM does not initiate; obviously the DM does, and quite a lot. Only there is less justification for the DM to insist that the players answer "yes, and ..." than there is for the DM to do so. If the players refuse, it only puts the onus on the DM to initiate something else; and the DM should have lots of possible assertions in his or her bucket that permits that. On the other hand, if the DM is negatively responding to the player's assertion, then there will be conflict and problems that are going to be difficult to resolve. The players will feel pushed, ridden, constrained and otherwise not permitted to run their characters.

So the pattern should run more or less like this. The DM should produce at the outset of an adventure (or a break in the action) an assertion that the players are more than willing to respond, "Yes, and ..." followed by, "We'll go to the inn/castle/far off place and get/destroy/investigate the thing/creature/unexplained occurrence." The players then state how they're going to do that, how they're going to supply themselves and when they're going to be off, and the DM replies, "yes, yes, yes, yes ... and, and, and, and ..." throughout this process. Eventually the players set off and as the various instances come up, the DM gives information and the players reply and on the whole, the process is cooperative with both sides working jointly towards the ultimate solution, creating and resolving the given situation.

If this were all there was to the process, then we'd be fine and could simply play according to those rules and the games would be better for it. However ...

The DM cannot be entirely acquiescent to everything that goes on. In improvisation, the audience's disapproval for what goes on stage is made evident in a lack of applause and moody silence. A participant in a company troupe that consistently insists upon the limelight, pushing aside other performers, playing up their own importance and deliberately showboating, will be dismissed. If he or she is not, because they are among those of bad temperament who also happen to be talented, then other performers will become unhappy and they will leave. Off-stage, the social interaction between members of the troupe will be something like that presented in The Commitments, a brilliant example of how people who truly, fundamentally hate each other can still get together and perform splendidly.

This is not the sort of interaction that's wanted at the gaming table, even if it 'works.' Nobody who is playing should be put into a position where they are feeling any resentment, whatever the reason. If resentment has begun to gather, something at the DM's table has gone seriously wrong, and it should be nipped in the bud.

The key is the improvisational theatre's policy that what is happening is focused on this moment, and not through racking up the number of instances in the past that Bob has done this so many times and Jimmy has participated in that on occasions 1, 2 and 3. It is what I said about no one caring about who looks like an idiot right now. In the long term, Bob will have his turn to be the dupe, and then Jimmy, Amy, Margaret, Jerome and Stacey will each find themselves in that position. No one is special. No one draws a line in the sand where they say, "I won't do that" ... because that's going to produce a negative response and that response is death in improv.

It's death in role-play, too. Roles are fun to play, they build excitement and produce humor, they're interactive and they allow us to step outside of our ordinary behavior and be another person. But roles are, and must be, a convenience. They cannot be a fixed, immutable element in the game. That is because the role's immutable quality will always produce the inevitable response, "No, I can't do that," and then the party and DM are at odds. Cooperation is struck dead and play comes to a halt.

Games, and all social activities, are pleasant when they are cooperative. Remove the cooperation and all you have is a reason not to play.


Lukas said...

There is something to be said about the difference between open traits and closed traits.

Comparing the hindrances from Savage Worlds (penalties taking on to acquire more benefits), you see that some are superior in this regard.

Curiosity is an open hindrance, "In investigate and..." Greed is a closed hindrance, "I demand more than the other players, the other players defy this."

However, frequently these can be twisted to be opposing if you interpret the hindrances as party oriented.

Greed can be open by interpreting the satisfaction as the PARTY gaining the maximum amount, "I negotiate for more than the original deal, pray I do not alter it further."

Curiosity can become closed when used aggressively against other characters, "I dig through their packs, what the hell are you doing?"

You'll note that the party gain mindset seems to open more opportunities for interesting interactions. Although perhaps with less convenient results being a possibility.

Obviously in many games hindrances are not a rule, but even in those games, you can adhere to your traits in an open manner.

Taren said...

This is an excellent post, Alexis, thank you! Your comments on ego and competitiveness inhibiting cooperation and good etiquette are spot on. I agree that the DM is not exempt.

I am thrilled to find you bridging the gap between D&D roleplaying and improve performance in this way.

Until I moved out of the country, my long running gaming group was comprised of actors, musicians & backstage artists… our gaming world was often intersected by the theatre. Half the guys in the group would also be doing a show together. And we’d all do theatre sports and improv as warm ups before rehearsals and shows. It’s loosens the YES brain ;)

We’d use “yes, and...” as an exercise in and of itself – the next comment was ALWAYS “yes, and” until the scene found its natural close.

Later on I used these improv games as warm ups for English classes I taught in Japan – they help reduce inhibitions and limber up the mind – we always had much better conversations afterwards, less fear.

Your post has stimulated a good idea, actually… I have a new gaming group starting soon, diverse backgrounds and play experiences, etc. After reading your post and being reminded of the power of cooperation, I’m going to do theatre sports together as a warm up.

Thank you for the post, as always I love reading your blog.