Improv 101 — Spelling Bee

One of my friends showed me this game, and it’s a lot of fun, but situational. It’s something that, in my estimations, should never be performed on stage, and doesn’t work as well if you have a sizable audience (meaning over, say, fifteen people watching). I say this having never played it in either of those parameters, but the general vibe I get from this game is that’s its best just to mess around and have fun with rather than playing it to entertain an audience.

It’s a team hoop game, meaning four people jumping through a hoop rather than building a scene. In this game you have two people: the heads of the speller, and the MC. This game is a lot like Dr. Know-it-All, because the speller is three people, and the idea is pretty much the same, only instead of answering the audience’s questions, you are spelling words that the audience throws out. The humor here is that the three people have to play it like a spelling bee. They all say the word in unison, spell it, then say the word again. Depending on how you play and whether or not they spelled it correctly, they can either pronounce it differently after they spell it, or just say it normally. (i.e. “Journal! G-u-r-n-i-l! Gurnill!”) My troupe plays this game very specifically, however, and it goes as follows.

The MC, one of the improvisers, introduces the other three as one person, the “spelling bee champion” of ____ school. (I like to say ridiculous things like “Upside-down Dolphin Elementary School”, or “Sentient Paintings University.) You can have the speller introduce themselves by spelling their name, in which case the MC should call them by their name often, regardless of how hard their name may be to pronounce. Then, the MC grabs words from the audience, asking for a monosyllabic word, then moving on to two syllables, then four, then an “exotic” word, meaning either a huge word or something that is very difficult to spell, like rendezvous. We’ve always played this as a very congratulatory game, where the MC is extremely impressed with their spelling skills, even if they are terrible. After spelling the really difficult word, the MC gives them a medal, a degree, doesn’t matter.

The cool thing about this game is that, especially since we play it for fun, we can play it very differently every time. The MC can be a PTA mom, the janitor, doesn’t matter. The MC can have them spell a ton of different things, grabbing words other than from out of the blue from the audience. For example, you could say, “What color is that man in the front row’s hair?” and see what the speller does. You can create different personalities for different heads (they are in reality different people, after all).

The reason that this game wouldn’t work in a performance is because the gimmick is very simple. With Dr. Know-it-All, there’s a ton of different answers you can give for any question, but in Spelling Bee the game will pretty much always play the same as last time you played it. There’s only so many different ways you can spell something wrong. Throwing in apostrophes and numbers can only get you so far, and you should never do something like that more than once in any one game! So while it’s a lot of fun, it doesn’t have enough diversity to be able to take the game outside of an improv practice session.

Improv 101 — Dr. Know-it-All

Dr. Know-it-all is one of those games that doesn’t ever “fail”. It’s easy, and at worst you’ll get some mild chuckles. But it also has a lot of room to improve. It’s a hoop game, meaning a group of four (as is typical) improvisers playing around the gimmick of the game rather than building a proper scene, as is the case with scene games.

In this particular game, you can have between three to ten people, actually, but playing it seriously and at the performance level works best with the usual four. You have them line up, and the ref grabs questions from the audience. You can easily take questions like “Why is the sky blue?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” but it works best to have the ref shut those questions down as you’ll get them every time you play. Better questions are ones that would have a wide variety of subjects, such as “How do I get my kids to eat their vegetables?” or “Is Australia real?” Once you get a suitable answer, you pose it to the improvisers. The idea here is that they form one person: Dr. Know-it-all. This character knows the answers to all questions, so they know exactly how to get your kids to eat their greens. The way it works is that the improvisers, down the line, answer one word at a time. That’s the whole game.

For the improvisers, there are a few things to keep in mind. It’s imperative that the other improvisers can hear what you say. Obviously it’s hard to form a cohesive sentence if the people after you couldn’t understand you. Once you do that, work on the actual content of your answer. Now, you as an improviser will have an idea of what silly thing you want to say, but remember you won’t get to say it, because you’ll only get to form a fourth of the words in this sentence. Don’t force anything out. Just say the first word that comes to mind when you hear what the person before you said. Again, you’re one person. People don’t typically think about the next word they’re going to say mid sentence, so you shouldn’t in this game. Your answers don’t actually have to make sense in this game (or even be an answer to the question), but most of the things Dr. Know-it-All says should be grounded in reality. Don’t bring up aliens or alternate dimensions in every answer because ludicrous answers to mundane questions gets old faster than you’d think.

As improvisers get more and more experienced with this game, they can start practicing extra tricks. Really the biggest one here is to churn out an answer with the same speed as if it had been one person speaking, but beyond that actors should work on further enunciation and clarity (so that the audience can better understand, too), and body language. Ideally, every improviser should be standing the same way, i.e. hands folded or behind their back to further and more thoroughly communicate a unity between them. Eventually the cast could get close enough that they can even make simultaneous hand gestures! You can also learn to be the part of Dr. Know it all that adds conjunctions repeatedly to make the rest of the actors continue talking, such as, “and…”, “but…”, “also…”, etc. It’s really funny to the audience when one person in the group does not allow the rest to cease talking.

Improv 101 — Categories (265)

A fun game that we play a lot in our troupe is Categories. It’s a simple game, and another one of those easy things you can casually play on a long car ride, albeit with some different rules because you wouldn’t have a much needed ref. In concept it works similarly to Story, where the ref/coach points to individual people, but instead of narrating a story, that person must simply call out something that fits in a predetermined category.

In a performance, this game would work best with around eight people (give or take a few). Also similar to Story, this is a group elimination game. If somebody hesitates, names something that’s already been said, or says something the ref (or audience) simply doesn’t like, they are out. To start off, the ref asks the audience for a very broad category. Typical examples would be brands of cereal, car manufacturers, baseball teams, names of the fifty states, etc. When somebody is eliminated, you get a new suggestion, and as the game goes on, narrower and narrower suggestions work better. Types of trees, fast food chains that also serve tacos, elements on the periodic table with a larger atomic number than gold, that sort of thing. Another big difference between Categories and Story is that in this game, the ref always ‘goes down the line’ instead of pointing to random people as the game progresses.

Speaking from experience, the way this game is played is completely dependent on the ref. All the improvisers have to do is come up with a list of appropriate responses in their head and say them one at a time until they’re given a new suggestion. The ref has to get good suggestions, know enough about each suggestion to be able to call out bad responses (I wouldn’t know baseball teams, for example), and generally provide the appropriate pacing to the game.

The best part about this game is the suggestions. When you really start thinking about it, you can come up with some really fun things. Some of my favorite categories include animal group names (i.e. pride of lions, murder of crows), the names of moons (i.e. Ganymede, Io, “The Moon” or Luna), or famous people in any given century.

This game is also the best example to use to introduce a new mini lesson! Never call yourself out. I personally play this game very specifically. If I can help it, I try to sneak in wrong answers and pass them off like they’re correct ones. For example, the category “types of rock” could include specific names like sandstone, pyrite, conglomerate, etc. But I like to say things like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It isn’t what the audience would expect, but it isn’t really wrong. Once upon a time, I said “Canada” for the category of fifty states and called myself out (by walking off stage) when it was by far the most entertaining answer. Whenever I get the suggestion of breeds of dog, I will never say an actual dog breed. Instead I will say things that sound like they could be, but since there’s so many nobody would really know*. Here’s the thing: if the audience likes you, you deserve to be on stage. Being entertaining is literally your job as a performer. You’re not going to get fired for being especially good at your job! So if you are preparing to say something funny but wrong, in any game, wait to see if the audience or ref calls you out before you walk off stage.

Go crazy with this game. Play it with your friends and family. All you need is a sizable amount of people to start off. One time we played this while sitting down relaxing and we did the suggestion of “currency”. We used that suggestion for a good twenty minutes because once we started losing ideas, somebody brought up video game currencies and we basically didn’t run out of responses after that because we kept stretching the boundaries of what the suggestion meant.


*Making up dog names is admittedly stolen from a tweet I saw a few years back: “FAKE BREEDS I’VE TOLD PEOPLE MY DOG IS AT THE DOG PARK: Venetian Dabney, Brown Feta, Waxbeard, Oxnard Pike, Blue Hustler, High Presbyterian”

Improv 101 — Chain Murder Mystery

One of my personal favorites, and an easy game to teach to beginners is Chain Murder Mystery. This isn’t a warm-up game, or a large group game, but is the first of dozens of a category I haven’t talked about yet: ‘hoop’ games. These are very loosely described as games in which there is no scene per se (meaning CROW is not established or necessary), but the actors are required to jump through hoops, or rules in order to play correctly.

As with most team games, (games that don’t involve large groups of eight or more), Chain Murder Mystery works best with four people. The idea here is to play a game of improvisational telephone. The actors must each convey three ideas to each other using only pantomime and gibberish. So, three actors leave (where they will not hear or see any suggestions), and the coach gets suggestions from the audience of a location, occupation, and murder weapon. (As far as suggestions for murder weapons go, take things that can’t easily kill people, like a crumpled piece of paper, or a broken heart. It’s more entertaining to get abstract stuff than “a tire iron” or something).

Once the suggestions are given, the improviser that remained in the room will have ninety seconds to accurately describe each of those three suggestions to the next actor. (Indicate
which idea you are conveying by using three specific pantomimes: Stomp on the ground for location, tap your chest for occupation, and pantomime the psycho holding a knife above his head for murder weapon. That way everyone knows what you’re doing when you transition to the next idea). After the ninety seconds are up, the newcomer will pantomime killing them with whatever they thought the murder weapon was. The next person comes on stage, and they now have sixty seconds to convey the same three ideas (though those ideas may have shifted a little because it’s hard to be completely accurate!) When the timer’s up, the person pantomiming gets murdered, and the process repeats one last time, only now the improviser only has thirty seconds to get those same three things across. All-in-all, only two actors will ever be on stage simultaneously with this game.

When the third and last person gets murdered, the improvisers line up and take turns saying what they thought the location was, starting with the last person on stage. This should get more and more accurate as the guess get closer and closer to the first person that performed. After that, everyone says the occupation, and finally the murder weapon.

There are a few extra things about this game, though. It’s very simple, and honestly hard to mess up with how entertaining it is. With most games, though, there are things you have to keep in mind in order to play it effectively.

First, and this is the hardest pill to swallow, this game is most entertaining when you give your actors complicated suggestions. Don’t give them “the mall” for a location, give them “the mall during a zombie apocalypse”. Don’t give them “doctor” for an occupation, give them “telepathic heart surgeon”. Admittedly, those are incredibly difficult to accurately pantomime in thirty, twenty, or ten seconds, but that’s not the point. It is not the improviser’s goal to successfully portray all three ideas across all four actors. That’s boring! The real entertainment of this game is watching as each person pantomimes radically different ideas from the last person because they don’t get what the other person was trying to say. Complex suggestions do all the work for you in that regard.

Lastly, do not repeat actions. It’s something of a pet peeve of mine, but every beginning improviser does it the first time they play this game. If somebody is given the suggestion of a bowling alley, and they pantomime bowling, you are not allowed to pantomime the same action. There are two reasons for that. The first is that it’s a cop-out. If you’re copying what they did, it means you didn’t have to really understand the location, and you’re just trying to skip the responsibility of thinking how to transfer the same message. Second, it’s boring for the audience. They don’t want to see the same actions over and over again. I don’t care if there’s only one way to pantomime bowling alley (which, by the way, isn’t even remotely the case). Don’t repeat actions.

Improv 101 — Story

Story, or as it may also be known, Story Story Die, is a group game that is simple in concept, but can actually get pretty difficult once the cast has experience with it. In this game, a bunch of people stand in a line while the ref/coach points to them. Whichever actor is being pointed at is the one narrating a story, and the idea is to have one cohesive narration regardless of how quickly the ref moves their finger.

This game works best with at least six people, but can work with up to about twelve before things get a little boring. This is the first of a sub-genre of group games, however: elimination. Whenever somebody messes up, they are out, and can no longer play. The ref or coach gets a suggestion of a book that has never been written (Typically you’ll get a title like The Lost Shovel or The Little Engine That Couldn’t because people aren’t very imaginative). Then, starting with chapter one and speaking one at a time, the improvisers will narrate the tale of insert possibly clever title here. When somebody “messes up”, they are out, and that chapter concludes, starting over a new narration sequence with chapter two, until finally you only have two people left (which will usually be around chapter eight or so).

So, what constitutes as “messing up”, you ask, oh theoretical reader? There’s a number of ways. The idea here is that the actors are reading from a book. If an actor says something that doesn’t make grammatical sense with what the person said before it, they’re out. If they stutter or mess up their own sentence, they’re out. If they take too long to say anything (hesitation), they’re out.  They can also be eliminated by a number of additional rules to make the game harder as the game progresses (rules you can also begin with depending on how skilled the cast is).

The biggest rule to establish if the previous ones no longer work is the cutting of stalling techniques. “So”, “Decided to”, “And…”, “uhhh…” that sort of thing. With this rule, if an actor says or does anything that doesn’t add to the story, they are subject to elimination. My favorite phrase is “… and so they decided to….” because that can provide an extra two seconds to figure out what you’re going to say and it makes use of nearly every common stalling technique. Nearly everyone says it at some point in their improv career.

Lastly, when all else fails, you can eliminate letters themselves from the game. “No more words that start with the letter C”, or even “No more words that contain the letter E at all“. It’s hilarious to watch somebody struggle with talking with multiple rules like that in place. For my group, typically the final two improvisers will have two or three letter eliminating rules like that, usually making it impossible to say a main character’s name, or even mention and important plot object (say, a shovel). The best part about this rule is that you can pile more and more on, and regardless of how experienced the cast is, it will always overcome them eventually.

This game is pretty fun and my troupe has a lot of inside jokes from past runthroughs. It’s easy to play, but it forces beginning actors to really start thinking and getting into an “improv” mindset where other games do not.

Improv 101 — 185

185 is a simple game that can literally be played between at least two people during any free moment. To say it simply, it’s just a joke format where you come up with a pun. It doesn’t require any actual acting, and the only improv involved is the joke.

The joke is always in the same template. Given a suggestion (typically some sort of occupation, but object or animal works here, too), it goes as follows. “185 ___ walk into a bar. The bartender says ‘We don’t serve your kind here!’, so the ___ say, ____”. For example, “185 ducks walk into a bar. The bartender says ‘We don’t serve your kind here!’, so the ducks say ‘Oh come on, just put it on my bill’.” It sounds sort of dumb, I know, but the example always is sort of dumb. The point is, anything the ducks respond with should involve a duck or bird related pun. In a performance, the only real number requirement is however many people it takes to ensure there’s no downtime in between jokes (if you have an audience you always want something happening on stage). For a normal performance, this usually means the whole cast of eight to ten play this game, but if you’re good at coming up with puns you can do it with four or even less.

There actually isn’t much more to say about this game. It’s incredibly simple. There’s no ‘advanced’ way to play it, unlike many of the games I’ve explained so far. Once you play this game once, you know it. The only further steps you can take is practice.

There are two things I always tell beginning actors when I’m explaining this game, however. First things first, whenever you start playing this game, always enunciate your syllables. Some people in my performance cast have played this game so much they get bored saying the joke setup (especially since we all know it), and fly through it getting to the punchline. It’s a mistake, and a grave one in a performance. You want to make the first three or four jokes very clear so the audience can get familiar with the format. They won’t get the joke if you say “Ahuneif ducks walkintoabara’thebartendersays… (blah blah) put it on my bill!”. So, for the first minute you play this game, and every time you play this game, say the first few jokes slowly.

Another thing you can do with this game is play with the format. After the audience understands the game, you can pull a fast one on them and change it up. For example, “185 inspectors walk into a bar and are dissatisfied with the service, so they close it down. Now they don’t serve anyone anymore.” It’s only barely reminiscent of what the joke setup is, so it only works if the audience expects something else. (For the record I came up with that one on the fly as I wrote this. I’m pretty satisfied with it, too.)

The best part about this game is how easy and simple it is. If you and a friend are bored, you can play it. In the car, over the phone, doesn’t matter. It’s a great game that anyone can play, and you don’t even have to like acting to have fun with it.

Improv 101 — Freeze Tag (240)

Freeze tag is like the improvisation game that every one knows. No, I’m not referring to the game of tag where people freeze in place. Well, it’s actually sort of like that, but this is a popular game that’s simple and easy. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that even people who don’t watch Whose Line or never been to an improv show often know the basic structure of how this game works. Even many non-actors are familiar with this game. But even if you haven’t heard of it, lets talk about how this game is structured and how to play it so the actors have fun and the audience enjoys it.

So, this, like all the games I’ve talked about so far, is a large group game, meaning its meant to be played with at least six people. Unlike some of the games I’ve mentioned, however. It does have a limit. Typically, only two people will be performing at any given time, so if there are twelve performers on stage its very possible that none of them will go on stage because they don’t have enough ‘stage presence’. So, the golden zone, especially for a performance, is about six to ten performers.

The way that this game works is that you have  your performers stand in a line (or an slight arc as the case may be). When starting this game, have two performers step forward. Now, this game being so large in the theater community, there are a number of ways to play/begin this game (any popular game is going to have innumerable amounts of variations troupe to troupe). The way my troupe starts is with the initial two actors starting to flail. The ref/coach calls ‘Freeze’, making the actors stop flailing and freeze in place, and the scene begins. The actors must now justify, through actions and dialogue, why they are in the positions they are in. Remember that the actors should try to establish CROW in every scene they do. After the initial scene, we leave it up to the other improvisers on stage to call ‘Freeze’. When they do, the actors stop what they’re doing and the person that called freeze tags one person out, assuming their position. When they are done, they begin a completely different scene, (continuing using those positions and justifying them for this new scene).

As far as when the actors on stage calls ‘Freeze’ to start that new scene, that’s sort of up to you. The goal my troupe shoots for in this game is to establish CROW as quickly as possible in each scene and then call Freeze as soon as every element has been established. This can take anywhere from one to ten seconds, but generally this game is more entertaining when the scenes roll through quickly.

Now, there are a number of things to take into consideration when playing this game. If you’re just having fun, it’s probably best to just experiment with what works for your troupe. This game is super malleable so just play it and figure it out as you go. When I’m teaching Freeze Tag, I try to steer my actors towards “easy” scenes. For example, any action and position can be justified by establishing it as yoga. It literally doesn’t even matter what position it is. Any position can be justified through yoga, exercise, or dance moves. It’s a bit of a cop-out to use any of those for a scene in Freeze Tag because it means the actor didn’t have to really think about how they could make an interesting scene out of it.

Lastly, once your troupe knows the game well, you can cut the two person requirement. This opens the game up to a lot of new possibilities, but adds a lot of rules, as well. I personally prefer playing it this way, but its a bit complicated for beginning actors to grapple. The simple explanation is that improvisers can now enter scenes without calling freeze, becoming a third person on stage. They can also leave the stage, leaving two or even one person. When one calls freeze, all performers on stage freeze as normal, but now that person can tag more than one person out. When this happens, the improviser chooses one person to assume the position of. If your actors have a problem with entering a scene without knowing how to leave, tagging multiple people out is an easy fix. They can even tag everybody out and start a new scene off as a monologue.

Primary thing to remember: this game is super simple, and if you want to play an easy game that actually requires improv (meaning not Bippity Bippity Bop, Zip Zap Zop, or 185, a game I’ll talk about next week,) then this is the game. Learn what works and mold how you play accordingly!

Improv 101 — Zip Zap Zop

Just like Bippity Bippity Bop, this game doesn’t involve much actual improv. It’s a good warm-up, and it can build energy if you play it right (though it takes the effort of the whole cast in order to use it in such a way). It’s really simple and quick, but there are tons of variations to this game. It’s pretty adaptable! This game can work with any number of people, but I’d say it works best with a group of between six to thirty. Any more than that and you run the risk of getting people who are “playing” but never actually participate.

This game is essentially a game of imaginary hot potato. Everybody stands in a circle, and one person claps (to draw attention) and points to any other person, making eye contact and saying “Zip!” The person they point to claps and points (the same action), pointing to a different person, and says “Zap!” The last person repeats this action, saying “Zop!” At that point, you circle back around to “Zip”. The idea is to get into a rhythm of zip, zap, and zop as quickly as possible. This builds energy because it’s supposed to go as fast as you can, and it also promotes a nice group mentality, since you have to make eye contact (and trust me, you have to make eye contact or people won’t know who you’re pointing to).

Baseline, that’s it. That’s the whole game. But this is a great game because since it’s so simple, it’s easy to build upon. The more familiar the actors get with this game, the harder you can make it. For one, you can stop clapping and pass the zips and zaps purely via eye contact. This is far more difficult because you no longer have moment to draw the eye’s attention. (It’s also obviously more quiet because now nobody’s clapping.)

Again, you can make it more difficult by passing around two (or even three) at once! This, as you can probably imagine, is super tough because now you can’t just be following the movement. You have to watch for two different things at once, and be prepared if one (or both) land on you. If you practice this, I recommend looking straight ahead so you can use your peripheral vision to see if anyone points at you. You drop the eye contact, sure, but its the only way to ensure you are ready to pick it up. If two fall on you on the same beat, best case scenario you point at two different people to make sure there are still two going around. If you try this method, establish a beat that the actors can work with. You want both people to always be saying “zip” (or whatever the relevant word may be) simultaneously and so on so it doesn’t get confusing. Make sure the beat isn’t too fast so everyone can use it without getting flustered!

Lastly, if you intend to be playing this game for a while, you can add penalties for messing up. You can define what constitutes as “messing up” on your own, but for my troupe its defined as whatever stops the flow of the game. Sometimes we can’t pin the blame on one person so we throw it on two or three. In any case, whenever somebody messes up with this rule, they must say new “words”, going down the alphabet every time they mess up and skipping vowels. If you’re on “zip, zap, and zop” and you mess up, now you say bip, bap, or bop instead. If somebody calls “zip” on you, you now point to somebody and call “bap”. If you mess up again, now you say cip, cap, or cop, and so on. It can get pretty difficult when you’ve been playing for a while and it sounds like “Dip! Bap! Hop! Tip! Gap! Fop!” Especially when it can be a sort of funny-embarrassing for that poor soul that is already on the letter T.

Again, there’s actually virtually zero improv in this game. It’s just a fun game you can play with a group of friends. Super simple, and the variations are only for when you get too good for upping the tempo to mean anything anymore. If nothing else, this is a game everyone can have fun with.

Improv 101 — Bippity Bippity Bop

Bippity Bippity Bop isn’t really all that much of an “improv” game. There isn’t much improv (until you’ve played it too much), but it is amazing at both building energy and forcing actors to be more comfortable with each other. It’s quick, and works best with at least six people, but it can still work (and be fun!) with upwards of forty people!

Here is the gist: a large group of people stand in a circle (comfortably shoulder to shoulder works best), with one person in the middle. This person is “it”, and their goal is to get somebody to mess up, and make them “it”, meaning they would switch places. The person that is it has a few tools to work with, but as I said, this is an energy building game. The only consistent way to get somebody to mess up is to be quick enough to confuse them or catch them unawares. This person goes about the circle as quickly as possible and tossing words out to people, trying to get them to slip up. Henceforth, the person in the middle will be called the “It”.

There are several words (or phrases) that the It can say, falling into two distinct categories: response or actions. Response words require the person to respond a certain command. The It can say “Bippity bippity bop”, in which case the person they make eye contact must say “Bop” before the It. This means that the It must say the entire phrase quickly (while articulating each syllable), because obviously “Bop” can be said nigh instantaneously. Conversely, the It can say just “Bop”. In this instance, the person it is said to must say and do nothing. If they mess up and accidentally respond with “Bop” (or anything else) they become It. (Another response command is “Hippity Hippity Hop”, which requires the person to respond by hopping before the It says “Hop”. My group doesn’t use this phrase because it gets used too often and it is too easy to catch people with it.)

Action words are used more often. This requires not only the person to do something in response to the phrase, but it also requires the two people adjacent to them in the circle to also do something. Most often, we use the words “Elephant”, “Kamikaze”, and “Charlie’s Angels”. When the It says one of these, they say it and count to ten as quickly as possible. If those three people don’t complete a picture of what that phrase is, they are out. (Most often it’s one person that messes up the most). For “Elephant”, the primary target extends an arm out and puts the other arm around their bicep. This makes the trunk. The two peripheral people make big ears by pantomiming a huge open space with their arms (in the shape of ears). For “Kamikaze”, the primary target uses their hands to pantomime wearing goggles to be the pilot and the adjacent people extend both arm outwards to form the wings of the plane.
For “Charlie’s Angels”, the three people make the classic gun pose of the three girls.  The people make guns with their hands and stand in formation, one facing forward, and the other two facing in the direction of their respective sides.

Again, the only way this game will work is if there is energy. It is intended to keep people on their feet, and is a great way to warm up for a series of real improv games. As the cast learns this game and gets better and better about how they respond to what the It says, you can make it harder for everyone by throwing in the wild card of allowing the It to say whatever they want before counting to ten. If they say “Eiffel Tower”, the target and two adjacent people have to make a picture that makes sense with that phrase. There is no limit to the creativity when you throw this rule in. Just remember that if you do this, allow people to justify the pose that they are in. If their response makes sense, say “I’m a tourist taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower!”, perhaps what they were pantomiming is enough to justify the scene. It’s up to the actors’ interpretation.

Me — Backstory

So, I’m starting two Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, and I’ve noticed that some people don’t really want to spend time making their character (especially new people), they just want to jump in and fight some goblins. While I won’t disparage that style of play, I think this is a consequence of how so many video games encourage us to interact with our virtual environment. We don’t care about how the farmer’s home was ravaged, we just want to know how he’ll reward us when we kill the bear that ate his corn. But that isn’t what Dungeons & Dragons is meant to be. This game is about building a world from scratch and experiencing it with your friends! This means that its at its best when the players roleplay as their characters, building relationships and forging friendships as they travel around the world and find out just how big the dragon at the end of the tale really is. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Unless the dungeon master actually has a huge dragon as your “final boss” because dragons are cool. Looking at you, thirteen or fourteen year old me. You can do better than that. Ahem. Moving on.

Backstory and character background is the best part about building something to roleplay, because how else are you going to make your game interesting? But some people don’t know where to start. I can give you a list of races and classes to work with, but that’s not where the intrigue comes in.

When I’m worldbuilding, regardless of what it’s for, I look for that moment of “Oh, that’s an interesting idea”. Once I find it, I know I’m on to something, and that’s what gets you excited to not only play the game, but explore the possibilities of that character (or world aspect).

What I mean about that “Interesting” moment, is when you take a weird idea, cram it into something, and make it make sense. But first, you have to find that piece you want. Let me give you an example. In one campaign, I wanted a character that was lawful evil, since I had never played that sort of alignment before. (Basically lawful evil means following the rules while disregarding morality entirely.) So I took that element: lawful evil, and looked for something to contrast with it. What does not make sense for a lawful evil character? Bard. The entire bard class doesn’t make sense for that alignment. Alright. Lawful evil bard. What race would he be? Well, what’s an abnormal race for a bard? Drow (or dark elves). Now, drow are typically neutral evil or chaotic evil, but so I have to justify a number of things here. One, how in the world did this drow become a bard? Two, why isn’t this drow simply evil (aka why is he going on an adventure?) And finally, how does he use his bard class to express his alignment?

Through these justifications comes backstory. I have to tell his story in order to be able to explain why he is the way he is. The way I see it, backstory is not pulling common tropes out of thin air and applying them where it makes sense, but instead it is the explanation for how this weird character got into a normal situation, or how a normal character got into a weird situation.

So, whatever the case may be, find something that interests you, tie it to something, and marry the two ideas. If you can’t think of something to tie the interesting idea to, throwing in a typically contrasting element works marvelously (as I showed above).

But maybe you’re under the illusion that you’re not a creative person (which is a load of crap. Humans are a creative species). But let me toss out some more examples. Lets say you want your character to be a child for whatever reason. Maybe you have the perfect kid voice. That’s cool. So what class or races makes no sense for a child adventurer? A barbarian could work, since they base their merit off strength, which a child wouldn’t have much of. So how would this child have the capabilities of a competent barbarian? Perhaps his father was an alchemist and used his kid as a test subject. Maybe this permanently endowed him with imbued strength. Or, maybe you don’t want to play a fighter character. Let’s go on the opposite end of the spectrum. How would a cleric or sorcerer work for a child? Perhaps this character was really old and was cursed into an eternal youth. Or maybe he asked a genie for this eternal youth and the common trope of not getting what you really wished for came into play.

Basically, anything is possible. I think we all have a little bit of “I wish I could be a chivalrous knight/evil necromancer/elven wizard” in us. So my advice to you, is find that piece of what you want, and find build the rest of the character off of contrasting ideas. Interesting characters don’t evolve from boring ones, I’m sorry to say. At least, it’s very difficult to force a boring character to be interesting. No, you have to hit the ground running with somebody that you want to learn more about. Good luck.