Improv 101 — My Movie

Like many improv games, I’ve seen My Movie played a couple of different ways. The core of the game is the same, but there is a bit of variety to the nuances that can be tailored to suit the needs of a particular troupe.

Most often, it is played as a high energy group game. It can work with lots of people, but generally as long as you have more than four you’ll be fine. The idea is that the improvisers are a group of scriptwriters pitching movie ideas to the ref. You get some initials from the audience and you have the improvisers come up with movie titles using those initials. One by one, the ref points to them and they yell the title of a movie using those letters. If it sounds interesting, the Ref calls “Tagline!” and the improviser must then give a short description that could appear on a poster or in a movie trailer. If the tagline appeals to the ref, they can say “Let’s see it!”, in which case the improvisers must then act out a snippet of a scene from that movie. After that, the ref and improvisers return to calling out movie titles until the next one sticks.

The biggest difference in the two ways I’ve seen this game played is the intro. Namely, what happens before the ref starts pointing at people and the game actually starts. The first time I had seen this game, all the improvisers chant “My movie, my movie my movie, aww yeah!” in the same tone of Big Booty, a game I’ll probably never actually talk about in detail. Because I obviously can’t describe what the tone of that chant is, I think the second way is easier. Instead of the chant, all the improvisers just yell “My movie!” as fast as they possibly can while trying to get the ref’s attention as if they are a bunch of people at a crowded press conference trying to be called on. I prefer it this way, and it’s a lot easier because it doesn’t require synchronization.

Another reason I like the second intro is the faster pacing. The key thing to remember for this game is that it’s meant to be high energy. The ref needs to point to his or her targets quick to get them to pitch movie titles rapid-fire. There should never be a full second of downtime in this game, and all transitions must be seamless. This is the sort of game that is a good warm-up for an audience, because it gets their heart rate up. My Movie isn’t a very funny game, but it only needs to be fast and entertaining to get your viewers into the mood.

This is also the sort of game that combines preparation with on-the-spot moments. You kind of have to think about movie titles as you wait for the referee to point at you, but it’s hard to have both a tagline and a scene ready if it’s a good movie title, so you often have to say the first thing that comes to mind.

With this game, improvisers can do no wrong. With as fast as the pace is set, the most difficult thing about it is that you’ll often be expected to pitch movie titles faster than you can come up with them, and as such it’s a great way to force beginning actors to think more quickly. There will, inevitably, be instances where you have to speak when you don’t know what to say. It happens a lot in improv, but don’t let that stop you from saying anything. Sometimes the most memorable quotes come from instances in which you hadn’t put any thought to your words. And even if you do say something dumb, the game is supposed to be pretty quick. People will only remember the gems in a game like this. And if you have upwards of six people, this game is super easy, because it allows the other improvisers time to think about better titles.

This is one of those games that is great for beginning improvisers, and I try to introduce it very early on to the kids I teach. Also, here is a link to a great example of this game.

Improv 101 — Superheroes

Superheroes is one of those weird games that can’t be played a whole lot. For one, the only version that I’m familiar with is easy to script, and it’s a hoop game where the difficulty is set totally by the improvisers themselves. That being said, it is a fun little game that is easy to teach people with little improv experience.

The game is a low energy hoop game for about four people (but can still work with three or five). From the audience you get a suggestion of a superhero name and a problem for them to solve. The scene starts with that superhero on stage, doing some menial activity their alter ego might do as a hobby. They then get word of this problem via telephone or Batsignal, or anything else as long as it is portrayed in the scene. Instead of solving the problem, however, they think about this for a while, and says something along the lines of “I can’t handle this, this sounds like a job for ___!” introducing a new superhero, who then enters the scene. The first improviser can say any superhero name they want (meaning it can unfortunately be scripted), and the two of them discuss the problem. Even with the two of them, they still can’t solve the problem, so Superhero 2 calls in number three, giving them a completely new name. This goes on until all of your previously discussed improvisers are on stage, and the last person to come onstage does solve the problem (ex. Duct Tape Man solves the problem of the world exploding by taping everything up so it stays together).

Obviously, as each person gets called on stage they should personify their superhero. If somebody is “Talking Backwards Guy” then they should either say words in reverse order or speak gibberish as if he talks backwards. It really doesn’t matter, as long as they portray that superhero.

The grievance I have with this game is that the conflict is an artificial one. The only rule to the first three heroes is that they aren’t allowed to be able to solve the problem, so they are pretty much irrelevant to the scene and can therefore be literally anybody. You can also give the last superhero a power that is perfectly suited to solving the problem. This all leads to a very real possibility of everything happening systematically rather than organically, which is not how improv should be.

Now, I have thought of a fix to this game. I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know if it actually works, but here’s the idea. Once all four(ish) superheroes on stage, they can solve the problem, but only when all of them work together. It doesn’t quite work if you act out the fix, but rather the superheroes should come up with a plan. If Treeman, Catface, Steelletto, and Astronomurder all get together when all the world’s water somehow evaporated, how do they solve it? Easy. Instead of saying “Astronomurder can just make a bunch of water-rich asteroids collide with Earth, problem solved”, you must include all of their powers. Astronomurder calls down a bunch of meteorites, sure. But how will this not also destroy the planet? Easy. You get Treeman to turn into a giant tree, which Steelletto climbs, and once the meteorites breach the atmosphere Steelletto uses his cool sword legs to slice all the meteorites into tiny debris. Catface brings all her cats for moral support (or leaves one at the top of Treeman’s tree form to inspire Steelletto to climb at heroically fast speeds).

This way, a bunch of seemingly random superhero names can become a team to solve any problem, and only with their powers combined were they able to handle the task at hand. This makes the improv game into one where each person really has to use their head, and allows them to personify really weird characters to boot.

Also, I’m pretty sure Astronomurder is actually a super villain given his name and power. But maybe he wants to destroy the world on his own terms, or get revenge on his nemesis, Treeman, before killing everybody off. This is all stuff that can (and should) be explained in the actual context of the scene.

D&D — Dispelling More Misconceptions

Just like there are many things people don’t understand about playing Dungeons & Dragons, there are even more things to get wrong in regards to the dungeon master, even for avid players (especially for the players, in fact). Being a dungeon master is both more and less work than people realize. So let’s talk a bit about the things I’ve learned over my years of playing D&D, and what I’ve learned from being a DM.

People have the idea that being a DM is all about inventing a world, monsters, and even politics that the players can interact with. Apparently, if you don’t do everything from scratch, you’re not hardcore or dedicated enough. All the pros invent everything off the cuff, right?

Not even close. I guarantee that any official module you buy online will be more creative and detailed than anything you could come up with yourself. Most of the dungeon masters I know of have started their campaigns off with a preset city and quest. There’s no shame in it. It does a ton of the work for you, and the only cost is the literal one your wallet will have to face. Besides, it’s a great way to learn about what being a DM is all about before you venture off into the hard stuff. Nothing is stopping you from building a world around the module once your players get through it, either! (That’s what they’re there for.)

The consideration of whether or not a DM is morally obligated to worldbuild their adventures from scratch completely sidesteps what it really means to be a dungeon master. This is something that a lot of people don’t understand. You are not (necessarily) an evil overlord trying to kill your friends. You are not an author dragging your friends through an adventure.

The way I see it, the dungeon master is the true force of neutrality. They set the board up, and the players move their pieces around however they want. They shouldn’t be punished for making what you might consider the wrong move. Dungeons & Dragons is all about choice and freedom. You give them the world, and then you supply the means to make it interesting. A campaign is not the dungeon master’s game, or his/her story. It is everybody’s story. The players set the tone of the narrative just as much, if not more, than the dungeon master does. In the words of Matthew Colville, who has a series about DM’ing adventures on YouTube (go watch it), “Giving the players one choice is the same as them having no choice at all.”

Now, there’s a lot to learn about being a DM. I won’t pretend to be somebody seasoned enough to go through all the do’s and don’ts, but the key thing is that it is the DM’s job to ensure that the party is having fun. They give interesting things for the players to do and explore. They challenge their wits and their rolls. A realistic campaign is all well and good, but sometimes realism has to fall by the wayside in order to make sure the experience is enjoyable for everyone.

A DM is somebody that knows (or makes) the rules. But they are also the person that breaks them in favor of memorable and fun adventures.

D&D — Dispelling Misconceptions of Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons is a strange thing that exists in our world. Arguably, probably the nerdiest. It’s basically a group of friends sitting around a table pretending to be a bunch of people way cooler than they are, slaughtering monsters and going on adventures. It used to have a huge stigma (and probably still does in a lot of places that aren’t southern California), but really, it offers a unique experience, and I would say that pretty much anyone could benefit from playing the game. So today I’m going to talk about why it’s a lot less scary than it sounds, and why it’s better than alternatives (referring to video games, books, and movies, not alternate table-top role-playing games).

Most people I talk to about D&D that have no experience seem to have this idea that you have to know how to play the game in order to enjoy it. They see a lot of confusing numbers and different kinds of dice and think “that’s too complicated for me”. If that isn’t enough to dissuade them, the idea of pretending to be somebody else usually does. And I don’t blame them. Those ideas are scary. But that isn’t what D&D is about. If you think about role-playing or number crunching when you think about Dungeons and Dragons, you’re wrong.

To me, D&D is fundamentally about having an outlet for one’s own creativity. And it’s an outlet that nothing else can fill. There is nothing that can let you be somebody else in a dynamic world. One that changes because of the choices that you have made. D&D (and other table top games) is the only thing that can hit all of those targets. The closest thing is playing a video game where you kill monsters and level up, but the character you play isn’t uniquely yours, and neither is the environment you’re in. Every session of D&D is unique because even if the dungeon master is using a module they printed out online or bought from a store, the way they present the characters and the world will still be one-of-a-kind, not to mention the interactions your characters will have in that world.

Now, I won’t beat around the bush. Dungeons and Dragons is undoubtedly an extremely complex game. If you’re playing the fifth edition of the game, any serious dungeon master will have at least the core three books: The Player’s HandbookThe Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and The Monster Manual. It’s a lot. But here’s the thing, you don’t have to have those to play. Heck, the DM doesn’t even have to have those! They are nothing more than a tool to enhance the experience, and they are pretty much meant to be instructional so that you can access information quickly, rather than them being supplementary on “this is how to roleplay your character” (though there is that, too, if you’re so inclined).

For somebody unfamiliar with D&D, there is precious little they need to understand before they can have fun. Basically, the only thing I tell people is what choices they have for class and race. I look for the type of fantasy that would suit them best, and then I help them create a character from that. They don’t need to know what all the abilities are, how to calculate their hitpoints, or even what anything means. Any experienced player can do that for them, no teaching necessary. (I would, however, make an attempt to get them vaguely familiar with how to access all the information on the character sheet in front of them.)

But let’s say you’re still not interested. It may be simple for a newcomer because other people can do the numbers for you, but what about the roleplay? “I don’t want to sound ridiculous pretending to be a half-orc barbarian!” you protest. That’s fine. Don’t roleplay, if it doesn’t suit you. This is something a lot of people (even a lot of DM’s) don’t realize. It is perfectly acceptable for people not to be interested in roleplay. Does it diminish the creativity and the immersion of the game? Maybe a bit, but there are so many types of D&D players it’s kind of ridiculous. Not everyone likes to really become their character, and that’s fine. But you can be a part of the world and make important decisions without speaking in your character’s voice.

In fact, your friends can even be a little cheeky and explain that your character is mute. It’s a simple explanation that eliminates all the possibility of making you uncomfortable. Can it create obstacles for your character and the party? Absolutely, especially if the DM wants that to happen. But now you’re one step closer to having a unique and memorable experience, and that’s what the game is all about.

Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.

Improv 101 — Numbers

Last week I covered the fundamentals of performing a basic scene in an improv scenario. You need an anchor to serve as the “main character”, you only want two or three people on stage at a time (never one or four if you can help it!), and the goal of the scene is to follow the “rule” of the game while establishing CROW.

Numbers is probably the most basic scene game there is. There’s only one rule: every improviser in the game is given a number, and everything they say has to contain that many words. If their number is one, they can only say one word at a time. That’s it.

As far as setting up the game goes, every improviser should have a specific amount of words. One person should have one or two. Another should have three to five. Another should have five to seven or eight. The last person should have a huge number like eighteen or twenty nine.

The easiest way to make a scene like this work is to have your anchor be somebody that can talk “normally”. The anchor should be the person with a number between three and seven, as long as they don’t have difficulty speaking.

The “one or two” person works as a great safety net, because they can introduce a problem or push somebody off stage very easily. They can come on and say “Fire! (Help!)” or “Police! (Stop!)” and immediately change the direction of the scene.

The person with the huge number should, in the ideal circumstance, come on last. Especially if they have an absurd number (like forty six), they should only be allowed to speak once. The second time they would normally speak (if the scene calls for them to do so), somebody should cut them off before they start talking, or the ref can call scene (as long as the game has gone on long enough).

By far, the most difficult thing about this game is the counting. Virtually everyone in my improv troupe miscounts once or twice when they play this game (unless their number is one), and in a performance, the audience isn’t going to fly with not following the game’s only rule. But even then, you should never count on your hands. For one, it won’t make sense for the character to be doing that, and it makes it impossible to pantomime while talking. But it’s also cheating in a way that isn’t really funny for the audience. The idea here is to try to have a “normal” scene, and if you’re counting on your hands that won’t work. (There is an exception here. If you must, the person with the huge number may count on their hands, but if they do, they must do so correctly and hold their hands up for all the audience to see. The difference is that this improviser will have a hard enough time speaking, so its extra funny to the audience when their suffering is increased by gratuitous counting).

There are two things I always tell people when teaching this game: the first is to remember that multiple syllables don’t count as two words. You’d be inclined to count “firefighter” as two words in this circumstance, especially since it takes so long to say, but the audience will know better. Take an extra half second to count the words in your head if you have to!

The second helpful hint is to break up phrases into small chunks. Our brains group larger numbers into threes and fours in order to make them easier to count. Imagine how you tell somebody a phone number: you give them three or four numbers at a time rather than saying the whole string in one go. that’s because as soon as a group of things is more than five, our brain splits them into multiple, small groups and adds them together.

If you apply that principle to this game, it should help a lot. If your number is six, for example, instead of thinking of a sentence exactly six words long, it’ll be way easier for you to make two small sentences three words long. Lets say your character is in a hurry. Instead of trying to say “I’m in a hurry we should… (awkward pause)”, you can say “Can we leave? I’ll be late!” If your number is a bit uglier like seven, you can simply add a name to that sentence without having to count any more!

This game may be simple, but like many scene games, it’s still quite difficult. It requires juggling rules while still trying to establish CROW, and even with moderately experienced improvisers, nailing all four aspects of CROW can be tough! So don’t be discouraged if a scene game is hard. Like everything, it just takes practice.

Improv 101 — Basic Scenes (295)

So far, every game I’ve gone over has required little to no scene structure. For many games like Chain Murder Mystery, or Dr. Know-it-All, the characters and location of wherever the scene takes place is irrelevant. These games are often referred to as “hoop games”, where the game is based off whatever the rule of the game happens to be, and no scene needs to be built.

But before I introduce “scene games”, its important to know how to properly build a scene in the first place. Building a scene is something that is required on top of whatever the rule of the game is, so knowing how to do it is equally as important for entertainment purposes than the rule of the game is.

There are a few terms this includes that I’ve never brought up before, so I’ll define them here. These are elements that are necessary for virtually any improv where scenes are involved.

First and foremost, the goal with scene construction will always be the same thing: CROW. We’re trying to establish Characters, Relationships, Objectives, and Where. Most often, if a scene fails to be funny or make sense, it’ll be because part of CROW is missing or contradicted with what was previously said/established (which means its denial). The easiest way to ensure that CROW is established is to start any scene game off as ABA. Have the first person pantomime, and establish your characters and where you are in the first two lines of the scene. It makes your life so much easier.

There’s a few ground rules to scene games. First, we can go on and off stage here. Many games will still require four people, but they won’t be performing all at once. In fact, you never want more than three people on stage at the same time. You don’t even want three if you can help it, but it can work. This is because it gets confusing when there’s too many people on stage, and you’ll find that when so many characters are on stage, some become irrelevant so they just stand there doing nothing. If this ever happens, find a reason to leave the stage. When improvising, often you won’t have a “backstage” to go to, so “offstage” in this case simply means off to the side doing nothing so other improvisers know you’re not in character.

Scene games will also pretty much always have what’s called an “anchor”. This is an improviser that serves as the main character of the scene. Other improvisers will come and go on stage, but the anchor is always on to make sure everything that happens on stage revolves around them, and this makes things more concrete. Most often, the anchor will either start on stage when the scene starts, or be the first person to walk on stage when it does. The main thing here is that the anchor doesn’t ever go off stage.

If you have some improvisers that are more veteran, you can use one in a scene game as a “safety net”. Put simply, this is a person that stands off stage and doesn’t go on unless the scene needs saving. If the improvisers start bickering or no longer have anywhere for the scene to go, the safety net comes on and helps. Sometimes its simply to pull somebody off stage (you can arrest them, call them home for dinner, etc), but it can also be to introduce a new conflict. If the scene’s conflict was solved early, the safety net can walk on stage and introduce a new conflict. The reason this needs to be a seasoned improviser is because they need to know how to fix a scene that devolves in the first place: something that beginners wouldn’t know how to do.

Before I teach actual scene games to beginners, I go over these basics and run normal scenes with them just so they get the hang of building a proper scene. Basic scenes are rarely funny, but it does happen. This isn’t the point though. In order for a scene game like Numbers, Forward/Reverse, or New Choice to work, CROW needs to be established. The rules above are probably just some of the simplest ways to achieve that.