I just got finished with my stint at Con on the Cob. I and the other gnomes, who schlepped it out to Ohio for the convention, had a blast. By and far one of the best moments of the convention for me was the total improv game I ran on Sunday. The title of it was “WHOSE GAME IS IT ANYWAYS” and the description read like this:

“Ever feel like watching the Game Master wriggle? Well with this game you can. Absolutely nothing about this game except the system and any pregens the players want to use will be developed beforehand. Players will decide the theme, tone, style, and the Game Master will improv everything using the Silvervine Game system. Come check it out and have a game that is completely yours!”

Ok. So that was the promise. Nothing developed beforehand but the system and any pregens. I had one person use a pregen, everyone else made their character. How did it go? Epically AWESOME! The players had a blast, they were incredibly engaged, and everyone was able to have an incredible impact on the game because they helped design it.

The Process For An Organized Improv Game

  1. This actually worked as a good process, so I’m going to lay it out here in case you want to replicate it.
    I had everyone make an initiative roll of a single dice with no modifiers. Just to see who got to add things in first. If everyone shouted things at the same time or I went around the table, people might feel like their idea or element didn’t get a fair shake.
  2. In order from highest die roll to lowest I asked each player for one element they wanted to see included into the game. Anything, their choice.
  3. Once those plot elements were decided and written on a piece of foam board, which I set in clear view of my chair as the Game Master, I began including the elements from the bottom up. Those with the highest rolls got to put their ideas in first, but those with the lowest rolls got to see their ideas implemented first and become some of the grounding for the plot.
  4. Once all that was done, I tried to weave a story through the plot and see how I could connect the elements.


Yup, those were the elements I got to run with.

The Story, As It Played Out
The group started inside of a city overrun by movie style zombies. They began in media res, with a bit of a backstory that they arrived and the zombies began attacking and infecting people. They began in a combat to start things off exciting and destroyed hordes of zombies. They saved one survivor, who informed them that many many cities had succumbed, as this one had, to a plague first. The dead from the plague rose as the zombies and the survivor had gotten to this one looking to find her sister. Her sister was a princess, whose fey blood made her immune in some way. She might be the key to curing the plague. So far we were about 45 minutes in and had covered the first three as the hook. The group rushed off to find the princess and save her in order to find the cure.They found her in a city park, being guarded by mythical creatures, 3 of whom were Steampunk faeries who had been attacked by imps and rebuilt their bodies using the interior of an old clock where they lived. These three faeries were protecting the princess and contained great magic, but didn’t have all they needed for the cure.

The PCs learned this after they fought their way past zombies and other monsters who were under control of the one working this plague. Once inside there was a big amount of roleplaying, and one character was revealed to have been the source of the plague (he was the one who chose the plague as an element). His character’s backstory was that he sold his soul to end a plague in his village, but the demon who took it twisted the plague and made it stronger. Another character playing an intelligent rabbit was chosen to be the envoy to the “wise ones”, intelligent gorilla men who lived on another plane. The faeries sent her to the other plane with the use of their magics, where she met and spoke with the wise ones, who turned out to be celestial beings. They took the infected blood from the character and the immune blood from the princess and turned into into an antidote for one person. They also gave her a magical token in the shape of a clock and the word in the first language for door.  Using the word and the token, they decided they needed to take the cure back and immunize the character’s previous self in order to prevent the plague from happening. A quick time travel sequence with the magic the celestial gorillas gave to the PCs and they found themselves at the time when the character was making his deal. They snuck into the manor and were confronted by demons who were sent back to stop them. A rolling spree and combat to reach the character, with a haily mary roll, and the PCs just made it. The character was immunized and time began to re-write itself. One final battle, outside of time where 2 PCs died, and the players had righted things. The characters who died were returned in the fixed timeline and everyone remembered what had happened, but the rest of the world had no idea that half of it had succumbed to a zombie plague. Everyone loved it.


This game was so easy, it sometimes ran itself. That is me on the 
right, sitting back while the players role-played during their big scenes.


Why Was This Game Awesome, or The Moral Of the Story
There are a lot of reasons why this game was incredibly awesome to the players and there are a few reasons that it worked so well.

  • The players knew what was going to happen and didn’t feel like they were going to get ambushed. Having that small amount of knowledge about the general flow of things made the players more comfortable with elements that led them in that direction.
  • Knowing where things were going to go, the players picked up on clues more readily. Knowing steampunk faeries were going to be involved, the first sign of something faery like or steampunk like made that element stick out. There were no issues with having to point out elements that were important.
  • Having the players make up the elements instantly hooked the story into them. The players put in elements they thought would be fun.
    • Demons – A player who wanted to take on demons decided on this one.
    • Time Travel – A player who liked sci-fi declared this one.
    • Gorillas – A player who liked animals declared this one.
    • Steampunk Faeries – A player whose character was very steampunky.
    • Rescue The Princess – A player with a very chivalrous character wanted this.
    • Plagues – A player whose character was a plague doctor and who wanted to bring out his detailed backstory wanted this, and so was able to integrate his ideas into things already happening.
    • Undead – A player whose character was a necromantic healer and who wanted undead put this one in. It worked in well.
  • The Players Could Easily Pick Out When It Was Someone Else’s Turn In The Spotlight. Knowing who incorporated what element let the players know when it was someone else’s moment. The person who wanted steampunk faeries knew they would have a time focused on them coming up and were more supportive and attentive during others’ times.
  • The Game Master Didn’t Have To Worry About Prep. Ok, there is a lot of stuff implied with this one. I didn’t have to worry about getting anything relevant to the story setup beforehand, but I did have to make sure I was ready to grab an element and roll with it. Stat blocks of enemies were important to have handy. A big group of minis that represented elements enough were on hand to make use of. I made sure that I could map out things on the fly with blocks and other elements as needed.

image             Pretty impressive setups can be done one the fly with the right tools.

This type of game might not work for every Game Master, but giving it a try at least once can definitely help you improve. I’m a huge improv Game Master, but I’ve rarely run a game with zero planning before. Usually I have a base story line and go from there, changing it as the players react to it. Having the players tell me what they wanted beforehand took it to a whole different level and really made it easier. So what do you think? Have you ever run a game like this? How would you change the formula for running an improv game?

          10 replies
          1. Rafe
            Rafe says:

            Nice! This article illustrates why player buy-in trumps all.

            One of the few zero-prep games I’ve seen is “In A Wicked Age” by Vincent Baker. It plays quite a bit like you were describing: the players choose one of four fantasy styles (sword&sorcery, intrigue, etc) and the GM randomly chooses four plot pieces by drawing four playing cards. Out of those random phrases, everyone brainstorms possible characters — anything goes! Then everyone picks one, fills in the simple character sheet and it’s game on.

          2. John Arcadian
            John Arcadian says:

            @Roxysteve – “player buy-in trumps all.”

            Absolutely. Getting the players engaged is key to having fun within any game. I like the random idea, but with the game we were running it was very character based. I definitely noticed players incorporating elements that would draw them into the spotlight.

            @Rafe – Thanks for the compliment. I have to say it isn’t entirely unique though. I’ve seen many other people run heavy improv games, and there were 2 reasons I did it this way. The first was to showcase the adaptability of the Silvervine Games System. The second, was to show that Eureka could be used to run an improv game. I however forgot my copy of Eureka and so ran it from nothing. I know Patrick runs a lot of improv games, mostly with no prep but an idea in mind, and the game on sunday actually had 9 alternates waiting to get in, so someone picked that up and ran the same concept. He reported just as much success.

          3. Toldain
            Toldain says:

            John, could you talk a little more about the tools you bring to the table to support your improv? For example, what did you use for stat blocks, just a collection of published books? A notebook? A computer?

            I’m guessing you had to improvise the steampunk fairies, though I’m not sure you needed stat blocks for them, your narrative doesn’t seem to describe a fight with them, but maybe I just overlooked it.

            You clearly had a lot of minis, and blocks and square grid paper/mats.

          4. John Arcadian
            John Arcadian says:

            @Toldain – I’d be more than happy to. The impressive setup was actually from the table that split from ours. My game had 9 extra players trying to get in, so we split into two tables and I sent the other group over and took my group up to 8 players. A friend of mine brought all his terrain building stuff and wanted to make something that looked awesome for the other game.

            I tell you what. I’ll whip up an article on my game setup. It is what I take to practically every convention I run at, and it is geared towards multiple games being able to be run on the fly. You’ll see the article probably early next week.

          5. Roxysteve
            Roxysteve says:

            @John Arcadian – Yes please! We’ve had articles on what not to forget when GMing at a con (pencils etc) but one (or more) quickies on what’s in your convention go-bag would be very welcome.

            Mine has:

            * poker chips (new SW convert, me)
            * several decks of cards (one SW big deck, a standby “Karnival Assassin” deck and a plastic waterproof deck for the messier, greasier groups who don’t deserve to use my nicer stuff)
            * a chessex battle mat
            * water-based pens for same
            * spritzer and paper towels
            * a bunch of pencils
            * good quality (Staedler) plastic eraser
            * quadrille pad (graph paper)
            * dozens of dice in that converted CD case/dice tray I talked about months ago
            * a folding lectern for rulebooks (rarely used)
            * my all-purpose home-made GM screen
            * a box containing four different Bag o’ Zombies!!! sets for characters and extras on the grid

            And of course any rulebooks that will be needed. Thanks again Gnome Stew for giving me the idea of having my SW:Explorer’s Edition (and my copy of FIASCO!) fitted with a spiral binding. That one idea was worth coming to GS for, though I would suggest anyone doing the same ask that an oversize spiral be fitted. Everyone who sees my book wants one the same.

          6. John Arcadian
            John Arcadian says:

            @Roxysteve – My SW explorers guide is the same way. The thing I tend to use for my kit (and it works so freaking incredibly well) is a … well I’ll tell you soon.

            Joking, Joking! Stop throwing halflings! I’ll give the full skinny on it soon, but the most ideal thing I’ve found are portable file cases. Staples has some good ones for $9.99. I can keep things in file folders inside and they contain other gaming supplies well. I suggest the ones with handles on the side. The weight of them can do bad things to hingetop handle types.


          7. Razjah
            Razjah says:

            Oh, man I have to do this with a few members of my college’s role playing games club. This would be awesome with something as simple as Microlite20, or Savage Worlds. I have a new goal: run a game with no prep as awesome as this one.

            I am definitely in awe of your improv skills. Did the game flow the whole time or did you call for 5 mintues to clump out the next part of that game?

            Also, I can’t wait for the artilce about what you bring to conventions.

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