Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Improv Rule for Role-Playing Games

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 14, 2013

This one may be a bit focused on dice & paper gaming today. But hey, for me, it’s all connected.

One of the few “rules” adopted for improvisational acting (and for round-robin story writing exercises) is the “do not negate” rule. That means you can only build on what those before you have said, not contradict them (at least not directly).  Without this sort of rule, you could end up with players in an endless loop of “Is Too! / Is Not!” arguments. While that can be kind of entertaining by itself, the real fun comes from the different artists playing along and building upon each other’s contributions to the story.

When sitting around a table (or lounging around in the living room, which more accurately describes how we play) with dice and character sheets, a role-playing game has quite a bit in common with improvisational acting. While the game master is “in charge” and guides the adventure and has an outline to work from, it’s still an unscripted environment where everybody is trying to contribute to a story.

I believe the “do not negate” rule is not only applicable to RPGs (with some modifications), it’s pretty fundamental. What it really boils down to is that as a player, you cooperate with the shared storytelling efforts of the rest of your group.  So long as they are playing within the rules and playing within the bounds of their control, you play along. It’s okay to stop and negotiate (or, at many tables, kibitz, depending upon house rules), but you don’t negate unless there’s an emergency – things are really about to go off the rails.

One example (which I’m guilty of violating) is when a player has their character say or do something stupid. Now, it’s one thing if the player just wasn’t paying attention, or otherwise didn’t realize what they were doing. That’s the “negotiate” element. As a game master, I may say something like, “You realize you have five highly trained marksmen covering you right now. Are you sure you want to try and kick the commander in the nuts?” If another player has the ability to interrupt the action, they can try. But otherwise — roll with it.

We had an amusing experience the other night where a player’s character was about to blurt out a fact that she shouldn’t have been privy to in front of people we were interrogating (er, sorry, I mean interviewing). My first reaction was to say, “Wait, don’t say that! You were supposed to tell me, not them!” Yeah, I’m a control freak that way sometimes. The player’s response was, “Hey, I’ve got 8 charisma, I’m gonna be blunt and say exactly that.” Negotiation was concluded, and she was right.

Hilarity ensued as my character desperately tried to smooth things over. It was awesome.

This also applies to players and the game master. Within reason, it’s the player’s responsibility to “roll with” the adventure, and to figure out their character’s motivation. The subtle differences in motivation can be a rich source of story and roleplaying – for example, why a thief and a holy paladin might be working together for a common goal. There are times that their motivations might come into conflict, and have to be resolved (hopefully non-violently), but this adds nuance. But ultimately, unless the GM has really screwed up badly (like making an adventure that requires a party full of Lawful Good characters to engage in high-seas piracy), the “do not negate” rule is maintained. The GM has a story to tell, and the players find a place in it and a way to make it their own. And, in their own story, they are all the main characters.

The flip side is a pet peeve that annoyed a lot of us when we were roleplaying in online persistent worlds (or, waaaaay back in the old days, LARPing). A player would create a character that was – in my mind at least – really an NPC. They were not built to be an active participant in a story. They were the kind of character who would sit brooding in the corner of the tavern for hours at a time wondering why adventure never came to them, or why the other players never responded to their angsty emotes. In some cases, they were effectively negating the game masters – they refused to take up the adventure hook unless it was completely tailor-made to their character.

If the GM says, “There’s a commotion in the town square,” a good player will find some way to arrange for their character to be in the town square. Even if it is to negotiate with another player and say, “Call me on your cell phone when you get there!” Most of the universe will not show up – but they are not characters in this story.

In the end, it’s about cooperating and building on whatever has been set in motion, rather than tearing things down and negating them.

There are probably some life lessons to be learned from this, too.

Filed Under: Dice & Paper, Geek Life - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    I disagree. My experience is that players tend to come up with outrageous or nonsensical things, as well as really over-the-top character concepts and someone has to step in to fix it. Normally that’s the GM’s job, but some tend to be pretty lenient. In general, I like consistency, continuity and when things make sense, so I will often argue about something in an RPG session and win.

  • McTeddy said,

    It depends on the group. During my favorite sessions we played like Coyote’s group. There were days we didn’t even NEED the GM because we were busy in our own crazy adventures together.
    I will NEVER forget our Chaotic Evil adventures. Half of the adventure was spent protecting ourselves from each other. “Hmmm… narrow bridge over raging rapids? Grease Spell! Come on over guys, the bridge is fine!”

    The big problem I tend to have with RPing these days is that many players are video gamers. The only way they know how to do things is “I stab it with my sword!”
    My last group usually spent 15 minutes setting up an adventure and 3 hours fighting. Even when there was a clear way to talk or sneak through it… they’d always fight.
    Between that and Min-Maxing their stats to be powerful… it just wasn’t the same.

  • Maklak said,

    > My last group usually spent 15 minutes setting up an adventure and 3 hours fighting. Even when there was a clear way to talk or sneak through it… they’d always fight.

    That’s my biggest disagreement with XP for killing. Experience should be for coming to the session, quests, whatever, but not kill count. Sure, you won’t get what the enemies have in their pockets if you don’t fight them, but without killing XP, fighting becomes a way to loose resources and, in a way, a punishement for not avoiding it.

  • Felix said,

    You know, it’s curious. As a player, I often break the Do Not Negate rule, usually without thinking. But as a GM, I always roll with my player’s actions, and it has served me amazingly well over the years.

    McTeddy, you’re right that many player nowadays are used to the hand-holding and limited range of action in video games. But you can teach them better. And there are always more mature players out there. Besides, you need to discuss with them the kind of adventure you want to have. If everyone around the table wants to kick ass and be awesome, there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s play style conflicts you want to avoid.

    Experience should be for coming to the session, quests, whatever, but not kill count.

    I applied this rule in my roguelikes (it’s not unheard of in video games but still very uncommon) and got positive feedback in return. But in actual roleplay it depends on the situation. I vividly remember an adventure I ran where one of my players went with a young and cowardly character… that is, until the situation forced him to be brave, and not only he did great in combat, but also got his first weapon ever as spoils of war! A crowning moment of awesome if I’ve ever seen one. Could you honestly let it go unrewarded?

  • Maklak said,

    As a GM, it may be good to roll with what one of the players comes up with, if it’s not too far-out. It may ease the world-simulation burden on the GM and make the session better at the same time. But as always, there are limits.

    > A crowning moment of awesome if I’ve ever seen one. Could you honestly let it go unrewarded?

    No, maybe I wasn’t clear enough. Crowning moments of awesome, a lot of trauma, character learning something eye-opening, or maybe coming up with something creative, like using “rock to mud” spell to bypass some trapped corridor – all of these should be rewarded. My character once got extra XP for being forced to rape a child at gun point… then lost humanity for not trying to do something about that place.

    What I’m against is players basically grinding kills for XP in a tabletop game and expecting that every problem is either a skill challenge or a combat challenge, never a “puzzle” challenge. It gets even worse if the players expect (which DnD even has rules for) that everything be combat-balanced for their level. Level-scaling just doesn’t make much sense to me.

  • Xenovore said,

    It does depend on the group; and the GM as well. I’ve played with groups where everybody was on the same page and the role-playing was awesome — we could totally expand off other player’s actions and the GM supported that.

    But I’ve also played with groups where players would do ridiculous, silly things (unrelated to the campaign) and the GM — whose job is to keep the players “on task” — would do nothing to curtail it. (A group of my friends is currently doing some D & D, but I refuse to play with them because of this exact issue.)

    So yeah, definitely players should be able to role-play how they want, and other players (or the GM) should not ever be role-playing for them (i.e. telling another player “Your character can’t do that!”). But at some point somebody’s got to draw a line and say “Hell no” when players are being lame.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m with Xenovore, everything depends on the group. While I am a roleplayer, I’d never ruin other peoples fun by forcing it. If I can’t enjoy the way a group plays, I won’t join in.

    The last big group I played with was all for the combat. They enjoyed playing a wargame and they didn’t WANT to talk their way through.

    There is nothing wrong with their style. My style is much cooler and is filled with memorable characters… but the golden rule of D and D is “Everyone should be having fun.”