5 Things Improvisers can Learn from Dungeons & Dragons

Stephen Clements shows us how these two popular pastimes are more similar than you might first think and what you might learn from this…

It’s easy to think that Dungeons & Dragons and improv have little to do with each other outside of having risen to popularity at around the same time in the late 20th century thanks to the efforts of their respective gurus (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for D&D; Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, and many others for improv). According to stereotype, improv is for quirky extroverts rattling off gags in a student or backroom of a pub, D&D for nerdy introverts rolling dice and moving miniatures around a map in someone’s basement. Stereotypes are often inaccurate. D&D and improv are fundamentally about the same thing: telling a story together.

Stories! We’ve loved them ever since we learned to communicate with each other. As two modern expressions of this ancient art, improv and D&D can learn a lot from each other. Given that you’re reading this on an improv website I’m going to assume that you’re an improviser, so here are five things you can learn from Dungeons & Dragons to improve your improv.

1. Focus on the characters

Dungeons & Dragons was not originally about stories. To begin with, it was a spinoff of the wargaming system Chainmail. Where traditional wargames had the players control units of soldiers or whole armies in contests of strategy and tactics, D&D had the players take control of a single character each. Instead of battling against each other, players would see who could best overcome the traps and monsters within a dungeon and loot its many treasures. Despite its narrower, less military focus, early D&D was still very much a strategy game: it emphasised a player’s skill in a battle of wits against the devious Dungeon Master (DM). Your looted gold acted as a high score, and there came even official D&D tournaments.

It wasn’t until later that they realised people were finding joy in playing the roles of their characters and exploring their stories, rather than treating them as disposable game pieces. In the words of RPG designer John Wick, D&D was a “sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game” which was “like giving your rook a motive” in a game of chess.

Players’ attachment to their characters is what made D&D a success – it was wildly more popular than the wargames that had spawned it and was followed by dozens of other games in what quickly became the RPG genre. Every successive update to D&D has been more focused on your character and their story, and less on tactics (with the notable exception of the much-maligned 4th Edition [which remains an excellent way to start an argument on the internet]), and D&D is still the most popular pen-and-paper RPG today because of it.

Why should this matter to an improviser? Because D&D learned early on that people care about characters. It’s easy with improv to get caught up with the details of a narrative structure, expanding on throwaway details, or just a good gag, but audiences are always more interested in the characters and their stories. More than once I’ve realised mid-show that I’ve spent so much time thinking about other things that I haven’t spent any time just being the character I’m playing. Every time, my improv suffered. Focusing instead on being present and playing your character grounds you and your audience in the reality of your scene or story. Characters are, after all, the medium through which the audience experiences a story.

2. Be Interested and Be Interesting

Creating characters in improv and D&D are very different processes. In improv it’s a gradual process of growth throughout the scene as more details are added by your own offers or by endowment from a scene partner. In D&D you create your character in advance with a fairly involved process using lots of numbers, tables, and invention of backstory. This is all to the good – different processes for different purposes. What’s really interesting are two of the requirements for a really good D&D character: Hooks and Knives. Not literal hooks and knives, of course (though most D&D characters will carry daggers).

A hook is a detail that attaches the character to the story – the reason that the quest is personal for you. It’s fine to want to slay the evil archwizard because they’re a threat to civilisation, but if they murdered your parents and you’ve burned with the desire for revenge your whole life, even better! A character who cares about what is going on is more compelling than one who doesn’t. As an improviser, the easiest thing you can do to make your characters more compelling is to give them a hook that attaches them to the scene – to give them a reason to care about what’s going on. If your character is interested in and affected by what’s going on, the scene will be better.

A knife, conversely, is an established detail about your character or backstory that can be used later on by someone else to engage with you. Say your character never knew their father (a classic knife) – when the villain has them cornered and dramatically reveals that he was their father all along, the knife is used and the stakes have become higher (and intensely personal). Knives make it easy for the story to develop in a satisfying way. As an improviser, every established detail about your character can be used this way by your scene partner. A few interesting details that could be picked up later can make the difference between a good character and a great one. Give your scene partner the gift of a few knives that they could use!

3. Don’t be afraid of failure

Fear of failure is something every improviser has to contend with. Whenever you set out to do something without knowing exactly what will happen, there will always be that little voice that asks, “What if everything goes wrong?”. Overcoming that fear, ignoring the little voice, and doing the thing anyway are some of the first hurdles you face in improv and they never really go away completely.

D&D has an intimate relationship with failure – that’s what all the dice are for. Whenever your character does almost anything in D&D, from swinging your sword at a foe to making a good impression on a potential ally, rolling the dice ensures that there is a risk of failure. Embracing the potential for failure has several advantages. Risking failure makes success more exciting – a narrow victory against the forces of evil that sorely challenged your abilities is far more interesting than coasting to victory with ease. It teaches you resilience – coming up with a new plan after the first one fails spectacularly is a classic part of the D&D experience. It also shows you that failure can be a good thing in itself – if your character dies in battle with the villain, simply make your new character a family member on a quest for revenge and you’ve got a great hook ready to go!

As an improviser you should strive to embrace failure in the same way as a good D&D player, because taking risks is a key part of improvising.

4. Remember it’s a team effort

D&D and improv both occasionally suffer from the misconception that it’s a game you can “win”. In improv it might be someone trying hard to be the funniest or most interesting character in every scene, or simply unwilling to have their character not get what they want (one of the main reasons why arguments don’t usually make a good scene). In D&D it’s often the old-fashioned idea of the game as a contest against a DM who’s out to get you.

In both cases the answer is to simply remember that you’re all on the same team. In D&D the DM is not your enemy, they’re your ally in the goal of telling a great story and they’ve usually put in a heck of a lot of work preparing story details and supporting your choices as a player. There’s no DM in improv, but the lesson is the same: everyone improvising with you is your ally in the shared goal of a great scene or story, and you all have the responsibility of supporting each other’s choices. Remember that you’re all on the same team – whether it’s your improv team or your D&D group – and you’ll make success that much easier.

5. Give people what they want

I think it’s fair to say that there’s a tendency amongst improvisers to want to make choices that are clever and unexpected, to turn the situation on its head, to dazzle the audience with your skill and intellect. We’ve all known the pain of a performance that tries too hard to shake things up (to say nothing of being ‘random’ or ‘wacky’).

D&D has a lesson to teach here, and it’s to keep it simple and give people what they want. For almost 50 years D&D has been about the same kinds of story with the same tropes and clichés – the heroes fight monsters, overcome adversity, and challenge the villain in a climactic battle (probably acquiring loads of treasure along the way) – and people love it! Fulfilling your audience’s expectations is the easiest way to give them a good time. It’s less enjoyable to be completely blindsided by a twist than to have the satisfying moment of “I knew it!” when what you expected comes true. Fulfilling expectations is so important to D&D (and RPGs generally) that it’s a common practice to spend an entire session before the story begins just discussing everyone’s expectations about the story you’re about to tell and making sure everyone will get an experience they’ll be happy with. This ‘Session 0’ sets the group’s goal for the kind of story that they’ll be working together to create and is a fantastic tool for giving everyone a good time.

As an improviser you usually won’t have a whole evening to find out what your audience expects, but you’ll often have a sense of what they want anyway – how else could you try to be unexpected? The trick is to resist the temptation to always be more clever and more complicated. Keep it simple, give people what they want, and you’ll have an easier time telling a story that pleases you and your audience

Stephen Clements is running an online taster course of ‘Dungeons & Dragons & Improv’ on Tuesday 8th December. Find out more about the upcoming 6-week online course, starting 5th Jan here.