It was forty years ago, this very month, that the game known as Dungeons & Dragons was first published! The concept was simple, a few friends sit around a table with a DungeonMaster (narrator and referee) spinning a tale of adventure fantasy. Each player had a sheet of character details and statistics that helped determine if they could accomplish different tasks, both simple and complex. The game instantly caught on and forty years later, it’s still being played around the globe.
I started playing with a few friends when I was in my early teens and the game followed me all the way to Chicago where I played with several of my improv friends every Sunday. Often, we would change clothes for our improv shows as we played and then ran off to iO at the last possible second. Just last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to a casual game of Pathfinder (a very well-designed spiritual inheritor to D&D.)
Here are few lessons I learned from Dungeons & Dragons that apply to Improv:
– A well rounded character is important to the game/show. When creating a character you can’t just limit yourself to one specialty. A Fighter who can only use broadswords and nothing else is almost useless; take a little archery, use a bastard sword and you better be able to ride a damn horse. You have to dabble a bit in all kinds of interests and skillsets. This applies to performers/players and characters.
– Work together. There’s nothing worse than a member of the party/team who is selfish and arrogant. The good of the party/team/show is the most important goal for everyone. It’s teamwork that pulls everything together… the magic-user can’t cast with fighters defending them. A great scene needs to be edited and supported. Communication, whether it’s inside a scene or a haunted castle, is key.
– The best roleplaying begins in the middle. It’s rare (if ever) that a character is played from the moment of birth up until the person becomes interesting. Knowing that the character has a life we haven’t seen yet brings variety and reality to our portrayal.
– Learning is good. Everyone begins at Level 1. Just as a D&D character must train and take “classes” so must we as performers. It’s hilarious the amount of time we spend on training up our characters but we never do it for ourselves.
– Say & Do. “I look around the room.” This doesn’t help your team. You have to be more pro-active; “I search the room using my infra-vision.” is more helpful. A great improv scene is in motion both literally and figuratively. “I think you’re cheating on me.” vs. “You’re cheating on me!” Let’s get rid of that passive-voice.
– Make Strong Choices. All characters need to make decisions and make them now. Improvisers and role-players have the same lament, “But I was going to….” Make a decision and share it with the group.
– Never split the party. You have to keep your team together. And in improv the same rule applies; everyone is in the group games, and in broader way, everyone is in every scene.. there are no time-outs. I got your back.
– Don’t be afraid of failure. You’ll live to fight again. Even after the world’s worst improv show you’ll be okay. The philosophy of D&D is that you learn from every single encounter; even when you run away. That’s why they’re called “experience points.” The rules don’t judge the experiences per se, it’s the experience that creates the points. Learn from your mistakes. Once, I overheard a 30 year veteran of improv answer the question of how he got so “good.” He said, “Well, I’ve had decades of mistakes to learn from.”
– Keep your Charisma high. Bathe. Wear appropriate clothing. Your team/party will thank you. It can only ever help.
– Balance. There’s a balance that everyone has to find for themselves. In D&D, you have to do the reading- learn what your character can do. What benefits come from this sword vs. this suit of armor? You have to know. In improv, we have to rehearse, we have to know the form(s) we doing and more. But all this work is balanced by fun; that’s the whole reason we joined up! Find the balance between the work & fun and keep it!! You should have both!!
– Learn the Rules, Obey the Rules, then Screw the Rules. Sometimes, in both improv and D&D, we can be too hidebound by the established rules. Someone who stops gameplay and begins to cite book and page of the rules is called a Rules Lawyer and they ain’t no fun. The rules are there to create a world and operating system for productive fun, but when they get in the way it’s time to get rid of them. Collaborate with the DM/coach/rest of the team and create new rules to break.