What I learned about improv from Dungeons & Dragons



I am going to share some experiences I had whilst playing Roleplaying Games (RPGs) and how they have informed my improv. I will just explain the basic idea of an RPG to give you some context if you have never played them. Essentially you sit round a table, make stuff up and roll some dice to see if your actions are successful. It’s like a cross between playing chess and improvising a play.

One person is the Games Master (GM), they create the world and run the game, the other players make up their own characters then play them as they go on adventures and mess around in the game world. Being a GM is like being a director, a referee, scene painter and tour guide of a theme park. You make up the encounters, you play the actions of all the supporting characters and if there is a question about the reality of the world then usually you are the one who decides what exists and what doesn’t. Usually you play a campaign which is a long series of adventures with the same characters. Like a whole bunch of short stories about the same heroes, where they grow and learn.

I have played RPGs since I was about 11, usually I am the guy running them. I think running RPGs has taught me more about stories and how they work than anything else in my life . Even reading and watching loads of fantasy and sci-fi and writing my own don’t give the same sort of immediate feedback of creating a story with a group of people sitting in the room with me.

So here are the things I have learned, which influences how I approach improvising.


What is interesting?

What is interesting is only known after the fact. When I create allies or enemies in game I never know which ones will be recurring characters because that depends on how much fun they are for me to play and how much the players love/hate them. It’s completely impossible to design the perfect archvillain. Instead I have found that a player will take a dislike to an enemy and the reaction he gets means I just bring that enemy back.

In improv I have found the same. I used to think I could come up with interesting ideas and bring them in, now I understand that I discover what’s interesting by doing stuff and then finding what’s fun in that stuff.


Character is motivation and reaction

One of the hardest things in designing an adventure is getting the party from point A to point B. Sometimes the clues or actions are obvious, but I have been sat at the table many times and realised there is absolutely no reason for the heroes to move on to the next part. This connects into the idea of finding out what’s interesting. If the players hate the evil king then they will find plenty of reasons for their characters to go after him. Some heroes are motivated by money, others by helping people, every person has something they are trying to achieve. Without that there isn’t a character, there is just a bunch of numbers and equipment moving through the quest.

In improv I find that I discover more about my character as I react to things in scene. If I hate something or I love something, that makes a more defined character than somebody who is neutral about it. And my character is really what he or she is trying to get in scene, having an accent or physicality is great, but that’s just the surface. The real work for me is reacting to my partners’ offers.

Story is what you remember afterwards


The memorable moments in game are the random ones where something unexpected happens or a character gains a personal victory. The overarching plot of defeating the king is never the real point of running a game. It’s the bits inbetween where random rolls turn up strange patterns like the Wizard always failing his research rolls in the library, so he may know the seven secret spells to undo the world but apparently he can’t figure out the Dewey Decimal system. Or the talking donkey sidekick making an incredible charm roll against a Dragon and getting a firebreathing beau.

So, I have tried to approach improvising a story from the point of going on the journey of it myself, rather than trying to explain it to the audience. I don’t like thinking about plot and I don’t think you ever have to think about anything offstage. The audience will remember the story after you have told it, you can’t make it up before you have improvised it.


The main thing I took from my years of playing RPGs is that it’s supposed to be fun and co-operative. You can have fun going on an adventure together, you just have to all be there for the same reason and care about the groups fun as much as your own fun. It’s fun to pretend to be your noble swordsman, it’s not fun to try and think what a ‘real’ noble swordsman would do. It’s fun to pretend.


2 Comments on “What I learned about improv from Dungeons & Dragons”

  1. zippy says:

    So when ARE we gonna RPG then?

  2. Alex Fradera says:

    Oh man, Luke. I can’t believe we’ve never talked about roleplaying (or better yet, never played!)

    In lieu of being able to do that properly, here is some stuff at ya:

    My friend Graham wrote a book about improv techniques in roleplaying games. It’s pretty great.

    My friend Jason wrote an award-winning game which is basically bringing an improv-heaving approach to rpging – subject matter Coen brother’s films

    A couple of friends wrote a framework for freeform play – hard to explain, but when you see it you can see the improv connections. I wrote a section on comedy that got edited in too!

    I’m nodding vigorously at your take-aways, especially the ‘what is interesting’. you never know, right? Just be open to what turns out to be fun.

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