Lessons improv can teach you about playing Dungeons & Dragons

Improv acting is when two or more people improvise a scene with one another rather than following a script. You’re always going to find moments in your roleplaying games where you have to make things up on the spot as it’s impossible to plan for everything and improv gives you tools to do exactly that.

I recently finished an 8-week improv course with the folk at Monkey Toast which has been an eye-opening experience. Though the course was focused on improv comedy it has taught me a metric tonne about how to run Dungeons & Dragons games and I wanted to share that golden info with you and tell you how that can translate some improv lessons to your D&D games.

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Why you should be running critical fumbles in your D&D games.

Critical fumbles are a much maligned beast. They seem to have been introduced into the Role-playing world officially through Chaosiums Runequest although they may have colloquially appeared earlier in house rule documents for D&D.

They can feel a little absurd and unfair, a well trained warrior arbitrarily gutting themselves from a bad dice roll just adds salt to the wound and isn’t really what happens in combat that often. Missing sucks and having that miss mean an even worse effect occurs sucks even more for a player. So why bother with fumbles?

The point of a fumble isn’t to simulate actual combat, nor is it intended to make a player feel heroic. It’s a game mechanic that is intended to add an element of randomised chaos to a combat system that simulates  the chaotic nature of combat. A fumble means that nobody is ever truly ‘safe’ within a fight which means players really do have to weigh up if a fight is worth engaging in, even one that seems like it could be quite trivial, as there’s always a small chance it could go really badly.  This is in the classic spirit of OSR D&D where combats are a last resort and rightly so as they’re a dangerous thing.

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Capitalism and the ideology of the Games Master as the content provider

Modern capitalist lingo relegates artists and creative’s to the role of ‘content providers.’  Such artists only real value is their ability to produce tangible content which can then be consumed for the purposes of increasing capital for a corporation or other such entity. Within such a system a creative piece of work is judged on its ability to create ‘engagement’ with its audience, usually with the goal to draw traffic and clicks to a website which create advertising revenue.  The audience in this case are passive consumers of products. The works of the artist just another commodity to be consumed.

There is a deeply entrenched value judgement at work here and vast swathes of art as well as artists simply don’t fit into such a model as their work is difficult to frame in the context of what is marketable. Beyond making it difficult for such an artist to make their daily bread it creates a difficulty for the artist, as well as  the purveyor of the art, to see any inherent value in a work that doesn’t fit this model of marketable content to be consumed as entertainment.

Modern RPG’s, especially the more commercial kind like 5E D&D, put the GM in a similar role. They exist to provide content to their audience, the players, for consumption. This puts the GM in a position where they are expected to design what amounts to a narrative experience for the players to go through. The inciting incident, the call to action, the journey into the unknown, the climax, the denouement.

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Knowledge checks are stupid

“Does a bear shit in the woods?”

“You might know but your character doesn’t, give me a nature check. ”

“Err, 7?.”

“You’re unsure whether bears do indeed shit in the woods.”

I wish I was being facetious but this is a legitimate entry in the D&D 4E monster manual.

Bears live in forests. Your character can only know that if you roll a 15 which represents moderate difficulty.

That’s not to take a complete dump on 4th edition, in fact, this is probably one of the best monster manuals for actually using the knowledge skills properly in that at least you have clear guidelines about what you can tell the players based on what they rolled on their check.

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