When someone asks me about DnD, I like to tell them that it’s Writing meets Improv meets the Game of Chance. I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me that they’re in an Improv troupe, all I can think about is this scene from Broad City (and I was a member of one in high school!). What comes to mind is a group of some cocky, wannabe-comedians who think they are God’s gift to the stage. In reality, improvisation doesn’t have to be just for theater. In fact, you could argue that every conversation you have is improvisation! It’s a real art form: thinking quickly on your feet, coming up with your next words on the fly. It’s not an easy skill to master, but with all character skills in DnD, any skill can be improved with practice!
If you struggle when it comes to the spontaneous, you’re not alone! As an introvert, I totally feel your pain! One thing that I’ve found really helpful in stepping up my improv game is knowing my character inside and out. It’s just like getting to know someone in real life. What are this character’s hopes, dreams, and fears? Why are they going on this journey? What was their childhood like? For every question you answer, you learn a little more about who you’re playing, and can file that information away. I’m not saying you have to fill out a whole worksheet about them (though if you want to, here’s some), but learning more about and developing your character will help you better figure out how they might respond to a certain scenario.
Much like an actor on a stage, there are so many things to learn about the character you’re portraying. DnD isn’t just about the battles and the monsters–that’s only part of it. So much of DnD and other tabletop roleplaying games is about telling a story. Your role in that story is determined by your character. What are their motivations to be on this quest in the first place? What do they think of the other characters around them?
Improv creates infinite possibilities. There are so many ways a situation could go that just about anything is possible (within the DM’s reason, of course). Doing most of your “homework” and knowing your character inside and out means you can all be fully present in the moment. The more often people mentally “check-out” of the game, the slower the pace will feel, until it grinds to a halt.
That doesn’t mean you have to know everything about a character before you even start your campaign! In fact, your character will most likely grow over the course of their journey, as they make new friends and face new foes. Development is often what gets people so invested in a character in the first place–it’s so much more exciting to watch the hero character on a TV show face the villain after he spends three seasons training before he beats him. Know who your character is before you start playing, but the blanks will be filled in over time. I like to call this stage of the character the skeleton, with the flesh being all the little details and accoutrements that come up situationally as you play the game. For example, I might not know my character’s favorite food, but if I know he grew up on an apple orchard with his grandma, I could probably pick something that would make sense in no time at all. Maybe he loves apple pie; or maybe he hates apple pie since his grandma made it so often. A story might have infinite possibilities, but once you start to narrow down the basics, the spider web of possibilities shrinks to a reasonable, improv-able size. And that’s where the real fun begins.
Until next time, players. Let the good dice roll!