141: Improvisation in RPGs


Improvisation in RPGs

We’re back and we’re staring at the players with frightened eyes, peeling our tongues from the roofs of our mouths and drowning in flop sweat. This is our look at the role of improvisation in RPGs. Gulp.

Main Topic: Improvisation in RPGs 

Almost every new GM has felt that moment of panic when the players take the game in an unexpected direction. What should you do? Would it be fair to try to force them back towards what you have prepared? Are quick-witted enough to make stuff up instead? Why does this feel like one of those dreams where you’re back at school, sitting an exam you haven’t prepared for? And why the hell are you naked anyway?

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Nude pictures of the Good Friends are only available at the $100 Patreon tier.

We try to address some of these anxieties in our discussion. Improvisation is a natural part of any RPG and you already do a lot more of it than you might think. Every time a player character or an NPC speaks in a game, the players or GM are improvising. Unless you’re using read-aloud text, any narration is a stream of improvisation. (Don’t use read-aloud text. It makes you sound like a bored tour guide.) 

“On our left, we have a stone archway. Ahead, there’s another stone archway. Then, to the right of that stone archway, there’s a stone archway. Whoever built this place really loved stone archways. Anyway, roll for initiative”

With some confidence, it becomes simple enough to improvise more extensively, especially given some useful tools and techniques. Throughout the episode, we offer advice about how to prepare to improvise. This isn’t as much of an oxymoron as it sounds like. We also talk about techniques that will help you do so. One of our favourites is to steal ideas from other sources, usually films or books. In a recent video, Seth Skorokosky talks about stealing from published adventures — a technique we shall, in turn, steal for ourselves.

Probably the definitive work on improvisation in RPGs, which we mention in passing, is Graham Walmsley’s book Play Unsafe. It contains valuable advice for players and GMs alike, culled from improvisational theatre and comedy. It’s also short enough to read in a single sitting.

Play Unsafe cover

News

We offer a brief overview of what we got up to at Concrete Cow 18 1/2. Thank you to everyone who came along and played with us! We hope to see at least some of you in March for Concrete Cow 19.

Concrete Cow logo

We recorded this episode on Matt’s birthday, so you can listen as Paul gives Matt a present that he picked up at Gen Con. This little wooden contraption is apparently guaranteed to exorcise the demonic bad luck from dice. Should you suffer from a similar infestation, the Dice Devil’s Trap is available from Hrothgar’s Hoard.

Dice devil's trap
If your luck is as bad as Matt’s, inquire about their wholesale options.

This leads to a discussion about rubber chickens’ feet, because of course it does. See the video below for all the explanation we can offer.

Other Stuff

As we remind you in the episode, issue 4 of The Blasphemous Tome is bearing down on us like a hungry shoggoth. (If you want to argue about whether shoggoths get hungry, please find us on social media.) The Tome is the print-only fanzine we create for our Patreon backers. We recently offered up a sneak preview of the table of contents and of the cover, created by the amazing Evan Dorkin. If you would like to secure your copy or copies, simply back us on Patreon by the end of the year.

The Blasphemous Tome issue 4 cover

And in our social media catch-up, we share a new iTunes review. We are always delighted when someone writes a review of the podcast, whether on iTunes or elsewhere. They remind us that we are not just shouting into the void and, more importantly, they help new listeners find the podcast. Please help us crawl our way into more unsuspecting ears.

We also discuss a few comments on our recent episode about Nathan Ballingrud’s short story, “Wild Acre”. As usual, most of the discussion takes place on our Google+ Community. While we have heard the recent news that Google plans to shut down G+ next year, there is still plenty of time before they do so. For the time being, please join the discussion there. We shall find a new home soon.

Mythos Deities: Nyarlathotep

We’re back and we’re learning hideous secrets from Nyarlathotep, Messenger of the Outer Gods, signing his black book and hoping we recognise him next time we meet him. He can be difficult to pick out of a crowd, with the thousand masks and all. Given his reputation for mocking humour, this is all going to end in deadly embarrassment.

Main Topic

Our discussion starts with an overview of Nyarlathotep’s role in Lovecraft’s fiction and his development by other writers. From there, we move on to his portrayal in the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Then we tie things up by brainstorming a few unusual ways we could use Nyarlathotep in our games.

When Nyarlathotep isn’t busy carrying messages for the Outer Gods, he’s a menace in the mosh pit.

In our discussion, we reference a few earlier episodes in which Nyarlathotep appeared. He gets everywhere!

News

For the past few months, Scott has been running the How We Roll podcast through The Two-Headed Serpent. This is the Pulp Cthulhu campaign we wrote for Chaosium and which was released last year. The first episodes are now available for download. Come, share in the heady mix of weirdness, madness and extreme violence that only How We Roll can offer!

Our Two-Headed Serpent heroes (and Keeper), courtesy of Rachael Tew.

Speaking of epic campaigns, we have now finished our initial playtest of A Poison Tree. This is the Trail of Cthulhu campaign that we have spent the last four years developing for Pelgrane Press. We are hard at work on writing it all up now and will keep you posted as things progress.

Other Stuff

In Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, we learn of unspeakable rites performed in the Vermont woods, in which the mi-go chant the name of Nyarlathotep in twisted, buzzing voices. To hear such a thing would drive most mortals to madness. Alternatively, some might think, “Now there’s an idea!” and start singing their own unholy praises. We are very much in the latter camp. This episode contains two hideous incantations, crafted to please a pair of new Patreon backers.

And speaking of Patreon, we remind you that issue 4 of The Blasphemous Tome is currently assembling itself from essential saltes, protoplasm and lashings of blood. The paper cuts this thing inflicts can be murder. If you would like to ensure your copy, take a look at our page on the Tome for full details. Issue 4 features a brand-new, modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario written by our own Matt Sanderson.

Way back in the dim and distant past, I played D&D at university. It was my first (and sadly only) adventure in the Forgotten Realms setting. Since then, I’ve collected a few of the books, and often toyed with the idea of running a game of it… Then I look at the mechanics and realize I haven’t got much free time to learn a system I’ve all but forgotten (no pun intended) in its entirety.

While I was at my computer tonight (working on the scenario for The Blasphemous Tome issue 4), I got an email informing me that Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for 5e had just launched on Kickstarter.

That bit of D&D nostalgia came back to me and I went over to the campaign page. I scrolled down the page and came across those words that almost always guarantee the creator gets my money – leather-bound collector’s edition.

I’m glad I jumped on the bandwagon when I did. With only space for 50 backers at the initial pledge level to get the collector’s edition, they sold out in 10 minutes of the campaign going live. Another pledge level (a mere $5 higher) making another 50 collector’s editions available also sold out 30 minutes later.

However, for those still looking for a leather-bound copy, at the time of writing, they’ve posted a third pledge level (currently $95) making another 100 collector’s editions available (26 of those gone already – they are popular!). These will not be made available after the campaign concludes. For those looking for just a standard edition, this is available.

Even if I don’t get to use it as a D&D supplement, the book looks amazing and potentially useful as inspiration for other games. The artwork is amazing – some of which featured in the Pathfinder equivalent of the book, some from Cthulhu Wars, etc. It’s over 400 pages long, featuring monsters, gods, playable races (ever wanted to play an Angry Zoog? you can now!), cults, spells, artifacts… “and more!” as the page says.

I vaguely recall the campaign going live for the Pathfinder version, but as I’ve never played the game, I didn’t have that helpful pull of nostalgia to lure me in. While this version for D&D is apparently similar, it’s been expanded with more artwork and content (gods, monsters, “and more!”).

I suspect I may have to go and track down a copy of the 5th Edition core books now.

At the time of writing, the project is already funded (in just 27 minutes) and is due to finish at 12:00AM BST on Tuesday October 23rd 2018.

Gen Con 2018

We’re back and we’re discussing all the nifty Cthulhu-related stuff that happened at Gen Con 2018 (and one non-Cthulhu thing). Well, I say “we”, but this largely means Paul, as he’s the only one of us who went. To stop this being a monologue, however, he interviewed some of the people he met there.

Some of Paul’s 60,000 closest friends gather to say hi.

Main Topic

Paul starts with news about the convention, including the Diana Jones Award, the Cool of Cthulhu panel (recorded by our good friends at the gold-ENnie-award-winning Miskatonic University Podcast) and the ENnie Awards

Now I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Chad without puppets, even if only of the finger variety.

He then tells Matt and Scott about all the interesting people he met. These include Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios (whose Harlem Unbound dominated the ENnies this year), Sam Riordan of MetaArcade (publishers of the Cthulhu Chronicles app), Bob Geis of You Too Can Cthulhu, and multi-award-winning writer and artist, Zak Smith. You can hear interviews with all of them in this episode.

Paul also mentions a number of listeners he met at the convention, including the hosts of the Dave and Gary podcast. Thank you to everyone who introduced yourselves!

As if Paul hadn’t worked hard enough to make Matt and Scott jealous, he also whipped out a box of goodies from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society that he had picked up at Gen Con. This was the Gamer Prop Set that accompanies the HPLHS’s upcoming Dark Adventure Radio Theatre presentation of Masks of Nyarlathotep. The box contains more authentic period handouts, props and eldritch marvels than you could shake a black sceptre at.

News

Paul and Scott will be joining Mike Mason at Tabletop Gaming Live 2018, at Alexandra Palace on the 29th of September. We will be giving a seminar at 12:00, titled Calling Cthulhu, as well as running some demo games.

Stygian Fox have released Fear’s Sharp Little Needles, their latest anthology of modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Matt and Scott have scenarios in the book, and Scott also has a short story in the accompanying fiction anthology, Puncture Wounds. Both of these publications are available as ebooks or print-on-demand hardcopies.

Scott also talks about his recent visit to the Grand Tribunal convention in Cheltenham. This friendly little get-together started out as an Ars Magica convention and has grown into something more general over the years. It takes place annually, with the next one due in August 2019. Highly recommended!

Other Stuff

If you miss Matt and Scott’s voices during the interviews, just hold on for a bit. Towards the end of the episode, we all sing our thanks to a Patreon backer. If you’re not sick of the sound of us after that, we have failed.

Speaking of Patreon rewards, we also remind you that we are busy preparing issue 4 of The Blasphemous Tome. This is the annual old-school fanzine we produce for backers of the podcast. If you would like to know how to secure your copy and what to expect, check out our recent post.

And in our segment on recent social media posts, we mention a lively thread about our episode on the role of insanity in Lovecraft’s fiction. Most of the feedback we get comes via our Google+ Community, but this time it was a post to the Call of Cthulhu Facebook group that blew up.

The Joy of Failure

We’re back and we’re tripping over our feet, dropping our only torch and entirely failing to save the day. This is our look at the role of failure in RPGs. Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be. I’m sure we’ll find some way to bugger it all up.

Main Topic

It’s easy to see failure as a bad thing in our games. Small missteps may be frustrating, making our characters seem incompetent or denying us the chance to do something cool. They could also be entertaining, leading to a bit of humour or raising the tension. Sometimes larger plans fall apart, but isn’t this the kind of thing drama thrives upon? And, yes, the heroes may fail to defeat the villain or prevent catastrophe. Such downbeat endings are an essential part of British storytelling. We love our heroic failures.

No, I said heroic failures…

This all suggests that failure can be a good thing in fiction and, by extension, in gaming. To explore this, we look at how to embrace different types of failure in RPGs. These range from stopping failed rolls being anticlimactic to how to handle an unexpectedly catastrophic end to a campaign.

Give them a good TPK and they’ll talk about it for decades afterwards.

News

Paul mentions some highlights of his visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A Robinson Crusoe of the Soul is Andrew Strong‘s musical exploration of Arthur Machen’s life and work. Apparently, it is part of a larger operatic work called From Ages to Ages. We’re still not entirely sure if Paul saw Urban Death, from Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group. The whole thing sounds like a fever dream to me. The highlight, however, was Providence: The Shadow Over Lovecraft. This is a comedic play about Lovecraft and friends, written and performed by Dominic Allen and Simon Maeder. The production will return from the grave as part of the London Horror Festival at the end of October. Cthulhu willing, the three of us plan to catch it then.

Providence: The Shadow Over Lovecraft

Of course, the three of us shall be at Concrete Cow on the 15th of September. This is Milton Keynes’ own twice-yearly one-day RPG convention. We shall all be running games and hope to see some of you there!

And Scott offers a quick report about the recent charity event organised by the lovely people who run the Necronomicon Discord server. This was a live-stream of various Call of Cthulhu events, including a number of games and panels. Unfortunately, our summer recording schedule meant that we didn’t get a chance to promote this on the podcast ahead of time. We hope that Harry, Elliot and the rest of the team will do this again, in which case we shall let you all know.

Other Stuff

Some of the most entertaining kinds of failure come when someone proves disastrously incompetent at a task. Think of Laurel and Hardy moving a piano, Wile E Coyote strapping a rocket to his back or the three of us trying to sing. There is such an attempt in this episode, where we offer our thanks to another $5 Patreon backer. Be prepared.

On a more successful note, we share another wonderful review on iTunes. If you feel moved to write a review wherever you download your podcasts, you will earn our undying love and gratitude. And when we say “undying”, we mean it.

And don’t forget that there’s a new issue of The Blasphemous Tome on the way soon. If you would like to secure your copy, or to contribute some words or pictures, please see our recent post.