Improv: what do you do when you "got nothing", and how to avoid it.

edited March 2011 in Story Games
So last nights game I GMed petered out a bit early when I basically admitted 'I got nuthin'. GMing by improvisation is a skill I am still learning, and whilst the session before was good, this session was not. There were factors - circumstances conspired to rob me of any time to prep the session, even by refreshing myself about my notes, so I went in cold. Plus I was kinda tapped out from being in meetings all day at work.

Now I know about the concept of bangs. I was sitting there thinking, hmm, what I need to do right now is drop a bang on these guys. But what? I couldnt think of anything that wouldnt seem lame and contrived. I tried writing down a list of the unanswered questions that had been raised by play so far, and stared at it for a while, whilst the players talked about non-game stuff. I couldnt think of anything coherent to answer those questions right then on the spot.

Still, I feel that there must be some kind of best practices that a an improvising GM can fall back on in these situations. What are your thoughts? What do you successful improvising GMs do when you you come to the realization that you have absolutely no idea what happens next?

Comments

  • I did post this same message to the forge, and I got some answers that I think are helpful and that I agree with. I was just reading "play unsafe" and for me, going in completely unprepped was too unsafe, at least for my mental state at the time.

    What Im thinking currently is that its best to avoid this situation by outlining antagonists and their motives up front, such that I can rely on them to react to what players are doing to produce more action.
  • Can you link to the forge answers? Wouldn't want to repeat anything.
  • Huh - I'm surprised that a game with so much room for player input would stall. After you admitted you had nuttin, did the players pick up the slack?

    Because that's one of my moves. "I'm out of ideas. Any of you got something?"
    Posted By: stefoidI couldnt think of anything that wouldnt seem lame and contrived. I
    Your internal critic kicked your ass. Play Unsafe would have said to Go Obvious. Maybe you should have just taken your best bang and run with it - the other players might not have thought it was lame.

    (I know what you mean, though - I ran a game of In a Wicked Age where I had the villain try to broker a deal with just about every player. "Stop opposing me and I'll give you that Best Interest you always wanted." Weak and repetitive, but nobody complained, and one of the guys did the opposite of what I expected in a kind of Han Solo turnabout moment so hey.)
  • Hi there.

    The consistent tool that we have had a lot of success with is a book called Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (ref: http://www.amazon.com/Brewers-Dictionary-Phrase-Fable-18th/dp/0550104119/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1300144684&sr=8-1)

    This is not really either a dictionary or an encyclopedia. It just seems to be a very big collection of weird history that the original authors found interesting.

    When we get stuck, and we often do, we call out for a "Brewer's" inspiration. In my edition there are roughly 1,000 pages, so I roll 3d10 to generate a page, then (typically) a d20 to get a specific entry on the page.

    Whatever that entry is, we allow that to metaphorically be about the story at hand. Dates and times and so on just change to suit, of course, but the general idea is what we take to be about what is going on. Strange as it may sound, these totally bizarre entries just come in from left-field and give us a whole bunch of new ideas about what is happening in the story.

    Any randomising technique can work to just kick start a stalled imagination. This one works for us.
    Hope that helps.
    Andrew
  • IAWA puts a lot of pressure on the GM to drive things, so when I am GMing it I always draw up a relationship map during the setup phase and look to it if I got nothing. I try to figure out a reason for 2+ people to fight, or for one person to fight themselves, and then I frame a scene based on that.
  • Posted By: jdfristromHuh - I'm surprised that a game with so much room for player input would stall. After you admitted you had nuttin, did the players pick up the slack?

    Because that's one of my moves. "I'm out of ideas. Any of you got something?"

    Posted By: stefoidI couldnt think of anything that wouldnt seem lame and contrived. I
    Your internal critic kicked your ass. Play Unsafe would have said to Go Obvious. Maybe you should have just taken your best bang and run with it - the other players might not have thought it was lame.

    (I know what you mean, though - I ran a game of In a Wicked Age where I had the villain try to broker a deal with just about every player. "Stop opposing me and I'll give you that Best Interest you always wanted." Weak and repetitive, but nobody complained, and one of the guys did the opposite of what I expected in a kind of Han Solo turnabout moment so hey.)

    When in doubt, start a fight!

    You are right about the internal critic. One thing I really have to clamp down on is critically judging other players input about what they think should work. I do that too much. For example, if when faced with an impasse, a player comes up with a method to solve it that I think is dubious or even ridiculous, my inclination is just to say 'nah, that wouldnt work' or in some way hose it with NPC reactions to the proposal. Obviously the player didnt think it was ridiculous, or they wouldnt have proposed it. And after I hose it, where are we? Still at an impasse, and possibly with a disgruntled player to some degree or other. I have to switch my thinking into 'looking for ways this can work' instead of 'looking for reasons why it wouldnt'.
  • Posted By: bottlesorterHi there.

    The consistent tool that we have had a lot of success with is a book called Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (ref: http://www.amazon.com/Brewers-Dictionary-Phrase-Fable-18th/dp/0550104119/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1300144684&sr=8-1)

    This is not really either a dictionary or an encyclopedia. It just seems to be a very big collection of weird history that the original authors found interesting.

    When we get stuck, and we often do, we call out for a "Brewer's" inspiration. In my edition there are roughly 1,000 pages, so I roll 3d10 to generate a page, then (typically) a d20 to get a specific entry on the page.

    Whatever that entry is, we allow that to metaphorically be about the story at hand. Dates and times and so on just change to suit, of course, but the general idea is what we take to be about what is going on. Strange as it may sound, these totally bizarre entries just come in from left-field and give us a whole bunch of new ideas about what is happening in the story.

    Any randomising technique can work to just kick start a stalled imagination. This one works for us.
    Hope that helps.
    Andrew
    Actually the game has a randomizer built in, but as I was 'rejecting the obvious' to avoid repetition, it didnt help in this instance. I suppose it wouldnt hurt to add a rule 'if you are stick, just roll on it again'.
  • I'll second "Go obvious" as a useful strategy for when you've got nothing but ideas that you think are lame and contrived. You might be wrong about that, after all, and that would be a pleasant thing to discover. Or maybe they really ARE lame and contrived, I don't know, but at least it's something for everyone else at the table to play off of, and one of them might have a really clever way to use or subvert that lame and contrived idea and make everyone happy. Either way, at least something's happening, and that's better than nothing.

    I'll also agree with "prep some stuff" as a useful thing to do. You know all those minutes during your typical day when you're just daydreaming or thinking about whatever? Those are perfect time to think about your games. Daydream about situations and conversations and characters. Play out little scenarios in your head, think about things you'd like to try, characters you'd like to portray, themes you'd like to explore. And then write down your best material in a little notebook or a set of index cards you carry with you, so that you can glance through it in your off-hours and think about how you can use and improve upon those ideas. Then when you get stuck on game night, you can take a beat to flip through your little commonplace book and see if you've already got something nifty you could tailor for whatever scene you're playing. (This works great for players, too!)

    Worst case scenario: take a break, for however long you need. The advantage of improv at the game table is that you don't have to be "on" all the time, you can pause right in the middle of a scene for however long you want, and maybe without the pressure to do something RIGHT NOW your brain might unfreeze. And if the well has genuinely run dry, just call it a night and pick it up again another day after you've had some time to mull things over. Your friends will understand, they've almost certainly been there themselves.
  • This reminds me of the idea of improv skill, "commit". In short, whatever you do, sell it. If you don't believe in it, act like you do. A situation that you commit to ("Suddenly, orcs attack!"), however cliched, demands attention from the PCs. If instead you waffle ("Uh, orcs attack?") then you're inviting them to consider this idea, taking them out of the game.

    (The rest of that improv wiki is awesome and relevant, especially Improv vs. Instinct, which talks about how the desire to protect ourselves from others by hiding our imagination.)

    There's a great W.H. Auden quote along these lines:
    "Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about."
  • Great link to the Improv vs Instinct. Really nice stuff. And very true. To get a good story telling game going you really need everyone to jump on board and help build the story - not wait for it to be presented to them so they can react.

    I once had an atrocious game where the players had only one character hook. It did not matter what it was, as long as they could play it out. One player said, "I have a good idea!" would be his hook. Great, I thought. However, when the action stalled he looked at me and said, 'I have a good idea,' and then expected me to tell him what the good idea his character had to help put the action back on track.
  • It doesn't happen often that I completely dry up but if it does I go to the toilet and have a browse through the books, mostly trivia and so very good for ideas. A good response is to throw up something that leads to disagreement in the party, there's nothing like a bit of interparty tension to get the juices flowing.
  • Posted By: GB SteveIt doesn't happen often that I completely dry up but if it does I go to the toilet and have a browse through the books
    Could you stop doing this? It's really unhygienic.
  • What the juices or reading Schott's Original Miscellany?
  • A suggestion I haven't heard yet is: stop the game for an hour or so and do something else, watch a TV show, yack about nothing, play cribbage. Maybe you just don't really want to play tonight. It's not a crime.
  • I remain in favor of "Ninjas attack!"

    A little prep can go a long ways, as well as a break, as well as... Any number of other things.

    But when all else fails, it's ninja time.
  • Posted By: stefoidWhat are your thoughts? What do you successful improvising GMs do when you you come to the realization that you have absolutely no idea what happens next?
    I tell my friends I've got nothing and ask for suggestions.
  • A powerful GMing phrase to use, "What are you doing?"

    "You just barely escaped from Mr. Big Bad, what are you doing?"

    What everyone has said so far on Being Obvious is great, there is just a little something that I want to add. Sometimes the best thing you can do is put the pcs in a boring scene, and let them have control of it. Example: The party retreated to a resting spot and is taking a break. While they're on break, pcs will either talking with each other and have character development, or they'll think of something that they want the pcs to check on. If they're talking with each other, you have a moment to take a breather, and think of the most obvious thing to happen next. If the pcs are checking on things, a lot of times this can create an opening for the GM.

    The only thing about this is that sometimes pcs will try to cruise through a boring scene and not let the GM breath. If that happens, try to ask some questions about the boring scene and that character. Example questions: What's on your character's mind right now? What is your character most worried about? Did your character wait until he was fully healed to start preparing for the next fight, or was he really impatient?

    Though, it also helps to warn your players before game that you're kind of tired, they'll usually cut you some slack.
  • "What's on your character's mind right now?" yes, I like this one.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyA suggestion I haven't heard yet is: stop the game for an hour or so and do something else, watch a TV show, yack about nothing, play cribbage. Maybe you just don't really want to play tonight. It's not a crime.
    Ha, beaten like a GONG:
    Posted By: Accounting for TasteWorst case scenario: take a break, for however long you need. The advantage of improv at the game table is that you don't have to be "on" all the time, you can pause right in the middle of a scene for however long you want, and maybe without the pressure to do something RIGHT NOW your brain might unfreeze. And if the well has genuinely run dry, just call it a night and pick it up again another day after you've had some time to mull things over.
    It's a last resort, though. Obviously, it's better if you have some resources and techniques on hand to get back on track, that's kind of the whole point of this thread...but if you do get stuck and nothing works and you're staring down the barrel of a Bad Game Session (That's All Your Fault), then just go ahead and wrap it for the night. I promise you that your friends will understand.
  • edited March 2011
    This happens to me often and I took improv for years. I do the same thing Jason does. I can't recall a time that hasn't worked well.

    In fact, I should do that more often rather than serve up some of the weak sauce I sometimes do.

    Thus resolved.
  • Posted By: FuseboyThis reminds me of the idea of improv skill, "commit". In short, whatever you do, sell it. If you don't believe in it, act like you do. A situation that you commit to ("Suddenly, orcs attack!"), however cliched, demands attention from the PCs. If instead you waffle ("Uh, orcs attack?") then you're inviting them to consider this idea, taking them out of the game.
    Our version of this (in improv) is "double down". Whatever you're doing, when you feel like you're stalling out, or it starts to feel weird or uncomfortable, or you've got nothing, do it twice as hard, ten times as hard, a hundred times as hard. Turn that little tic into a full-blown freakout. Turn a minor attraction into an obsession. Turn an awkward moment of silence into never speaking again. Grab what you've got and turn it up to a million, and something will surely come of it.
  • Love this thread.

    I'm a hardcore improv-GM. I don't prep for shit. My main skill? I play my NPCs. As if I was a player, really. I go, "Okay, what does Roarke want right now? Oh yeah. He goes and does that." I might not have any ideas, as, like the GM, but man -- my NPCs! Those guys have so much shit to do.
  • edited March 2011
    When I start a game, I got three names and a general idea of a place (eg,: a secret lab inside a dormant volcano plus something like Doktor Kruger, Eve ven Mittledorgen und Professor Jeremiah Pebblestone). And I have no idea, what will happen, who are the guys behind the names (Fraulein Eva can be a femme fatale, a damsel in distress, a leather-suited strzyga from Shock Squadrons). I give my players a starting situation - a pub, an office of Director of Operations, a shootout on a blimp spiraling to its death in a jungle full of dinosaurs. Then the gear catches, engine starts running - the game is on. Throw in your NPCs, your place - and wait for them to react.

    As John said - you need plethora of characters, know them well and use them.

    Also, know the options for how to progress with the plot. Give them (the players) a fabular knot to resolve - they will run the whole "plot inventing" thing for you (they probably know what they need far better than you do).
    I strongly advice Vladimir Propp's "Morphology of the Folktale" - it's a brilliant structural analysis of a "magical tale" - with all the functions and plot possibilities uncoverd. I'm quite sure all my games could be deconstructed with Propp's tool.

    And we have "the secret rule for GM" in our game. It's a steampunk-fantasy thing with a lot of pulp action in it. So, it goes like this: Each time you don't know what to do with your story, let the HUGE steam-powered golem run through the wall and ablaze characters with the gatling fire! If you need to know - this rule always works :-)


    l.
  • edited March 2011
    The start of the folklore morphology has a reference to establishing the hero in his environment before the weirdness starts. That reminds me: 'play unsafe' also mentions that factor which it calls 'platforms and tilts'. This is supposed to be for dramatic effect when the weirdness/trouble starts.

    If memory serves, the 'boring' platform establishment stage is supposed to be useful thinking time. The point of this thread is when you cant think of the tilt. So it could be that going through the process of establishing the boring environment will give cues to what can be fucked with to cause the tilt.

    Previously I was of the opinion that things like travel between locations was best immediately skipped over in a 'and you arrive in ...' fashion. But maybe those sorts of situations do deserve to be dwelt on to some degree. Like 'the trip is going to take X amount of time, how do you spend it?' etc.... could be good for character development?

    Ingenero has a story phase distinct from the challenge phase for precisely those types of situations, but maybe Im not making full use of it.
  • Posted By: John HarperAs if I was a player, really. I go, "Okay, what does Roarke want right now? Oh yeah. He goes and does that." I might not have any ideas, as, likethe GM, but man -- my NPCs! Those guys haveso much shit to do.
    Our Hellas GM Eric basically crystallized what I had been thinking for a while. In between sessions, here is the only "session prep" he does (aside from reviewing the characters etc):

    1) Look at all my NPCs.
    2) Review what they want to happen (their goal(s)).
    3) Determine the next step that they will take to make that happen.

    And that's it. The stories practically write themselves at that point.

    -Andy
  • Back when I was running a sandbox supers campaign, I always kept a stack of index cards with complications on them (hunted, addicted, dependent NPCs, etc.) I also had a few blanks in there for when the improv moment did strike. Toss in a few plot points, red herrings, and random crimes and I could roll with just about anything the players could throw at me. Well worth the investment in time to set up.
    --
    TAZ
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