Steve Townshend on Dungeons and Dragons Improvisation

by Mike Shea on 21 May 2012

Recently on D&D Insider, Chris Perkins wrote an excellent article called Triple Threat discussing the importance of improvisation in D&D. When I read the article, the first person to come to mind was Steve Townshend. Steve is the co-author of Madness at Gardmore Abbey, Heroes of the Feywild, the Monster Vault 2: Threats to the Nentir Vale, and was a professional theater actor. I recently recorded a one-hour podcast with Steve on the topic of adventure design.

I reached out to Steve and asked him the following question:

"What can dungeon masters do to improve their improvisation techniques during their D&D games?"

Here is his reply posted with permission. I made some slight edits and added subheaders and emphasis to certain sections.


Steve's Reply

Yes, I can comment on this topic.

Chris talks about building confidence through experience, and that experience informing / feeding your intuition. This is all very true.

Here are a couple other things, some personal, some general.

Personal anecdote

I spent my 20's as a professional theatre actor and an improvisor (which is very rarely professional, since most improv is unpaid). In that time, I performed for audiences across the U.S. and Canada. I played for audiences up to 2,500 people. Playing for huge crowds was a regular thing I did. AND YET...

And yet, every time I got up in front of the 5 or 6 players (my friends) at the game table with an adventure of my own creation, I was nervous. Anxious. Stressed. So if you have that feeling, it's totally normal. You're human. You just humble yourself to the process and get it done. One thing that helped with that — and I think Chris may have mentioned this as well — was realizing that everyone is there to have fun. Their fun doesn't live or die based on how good my adventure is. It usually comes from the players trying interesting things and me saying, "Okay, that happens. And then here's what happens in response." In other words, and to be entirely cliche, "yes, and."

Group storytelling

The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 has a chapter on group storytelling that's absolutely wonderful. I believe Robin Laws (who watches a fair amount of improv in Toronto) wrote that chapter. The group storytelling chapter encourages the DM to throw the ball back in the player's court when you don't know the answer to a question or it's not all that important to you or maybe the player already seems to have a clearer idea. This is really just the way an improv team works. If you're in an improv group, you all make up the show together on the fly. Each member of the group starts scenes, furthers the story, etc. Now think of a game like Fiasco, that's essentially a long form improv loosely disguised as an RPG. There's no DM in Fiasco — you're all responsible for creating the story. Now think of your D&D group as your improv team.

Your group is your team, not your audience

I'll say that again: think of your D&D group as your improv team.

Your TEAM.

Everyone is there to contribute to the story. It is not all on you, as DM, or all about you. I'm repeating this over and over again because it's an important concept to grasp. As DM, you start the story, usually. You set the scene. But when players want to try something, they're initiating a new scene or introducing a new idea that it's your responsibility to react to and incorporate.

The more I've been thinking of my group as my TEAM, the more I've been delegating to them. If someone asks me what something looks like and I don't have the foggiest idea, I say, "You tell me. What are you picturing?" And then we craft that image together. But that person already has an idea. One example I used a while ago was a pillar in an ancient elven tomb. I asked the player what he thought it looked like. He works as one of the education directors at the Museum of Science and Industry, and he'd been looking at a narwhal horn that day. He described the pillar having a curling pattern that showed the transition of the elven race through time. He thought of that because he'd been looking at the narwhal horn earlier that day. I, however, had not been looking at narwhal horns. I had merely placed a dungeon tile on the board that had pillars on it and pillars make tombs look cool. The player put life into that description and made it real for all of us.

I want to put down a list of tips for improv, but you know it really comes down to listening to other people and honoring their ideas. Del Close was one of my teachers; he used to say improv was "the last movement of the counter-culture. It was about people loving and taking care of each other onstage." He said we were to be "poets and geniuses and acrobats of the heart."

Acrobats of the heart

What's that? That's when you're role-playing and you make a choice based on how you feel emotionally. Not what your stats say. Not necessarily the optimal move. You say or do something in a game because that's the way you (and by extension your character) feels emotionally. Another thing Del used to say was that a character is not a mask to cover or hide you. You don't "act like a doctor." How does a doctor "act?" A doctor's a person with the same emotions, loves, and fears as you have. A character isn't a mask, but a straw hat that you tilt one way or another to show different sides of yourself. Every character is you in some way, and uses your emotions. There is a serial killer inside you, and there is a saint. Being an acrobat of the heart is about investing in that character, what he or she will do in any given situation, and reacting to it. I once asked a different teacher, Bob Dassie, what to do when I didn't know what to do in a scene. He said, "Whenever I'm lost in a scene, I say how I feel."

This is good advice for DMs playing NPCs. When you're stuck, say how your feel, or... as my Meisner-based acting teacher, Kathy Scambiatterra of the Artistic Home, would say, "speak your truth." It's a great thing to do when you're lost in improv or your nervous. Speaking your truth just cuts through all the intellectual bullshit you've got going on and cuts right to the heart of a scene.

So let me reiterate:

  1. Think of your group as a team
  2. Everyone on your team is making the game
  3. Someone wants to try something, go there. Try it.
  4. Speak your truth
  5. Don't be an asshole

I haven't talked about #5 yet. I usually don't think I have to, but in the gaming crowd it can't go unsaid.

The other players are your team. Presumably your friends. If someone ever seems upset about your brilliant role-playing move, whether you're a player or the DM, start with, "I'm sorry. I totally didn't mean anything by it personally." After that, you can discuss your choice and move on.

If you have to defend yourself with, "but that's what the character would do / I'm only playing the character," you are probably an asshole and you lose.

In any kind of improvisation you're on a team, and it's not about you. It's about the group, and your relationships with those people are what make your game awesome.


Thanks to Steve for such an outstanding reply.

If you enjoyed this, be sure to follow Steve on Twitter and read Steve's Gamer Blog. If you enjoy tips like these, please take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. Need good minis? Pick up some D&D Miniatures from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.