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  • Improvised Storytelling - Experiences and Ideas (?)

    (First I want to apologise if a similar thread exist. I couldn‘t find one.)

    When I first started storytelling I made elaborated plans, trying to cover all options my group could ever make (or so I thought). It didn't work out and finally I threw my notes out of the window and started improvising. This worked out well so far … at least most of the time. When we have an arc running I am usually able to come up with good (enough) and reasonable ideas but there are situations from time to time when I feel a little bit lost.

    One of these situations is combat. Somehow combat narration often feels monotone. I tried to employ asymmetric warfare tactics, but it didn‘t work out very good. (I took inspiration from historical fights and battles but people in real life don‘t have charms … or sorcery …)

    The only variations I am able to come up with are these: “It‘s an ambush!” | “It‘s not an ambush!” - And of course the strength and number of the opponents vary.




    OK, thinking about this I‘m simply terrible with combat narration, so there’s properly no help T.T


    I also had problems during longer journeys. I figured out that after a while many small locations would be lacking … something. They just stared to feel not diverse or alive enough, like a clone army of towns, villages and forests.


    “Somehow I‘ve the feeling that we have been wandering around in circles“

    Of course one could just skip the travelling but we enjoy the small adventures that pop up while going from place to place.

    What I‘m currently doing against the “clone town army thing“ is writing down word lists from which I derive a name for one distinct feature a location has. Based on that name I am able to create a bit of history or a reason why this feature is named like this. If this information catches the attention of my group I make a small adventure based on this and if not it is a nice addition to the scenery. (If you would like to I could give you an example of such a location and how I created it.)

    -----------------

    Please tell me how are you doing with improvisation? Do you have any tips or tricks? What do you do to make your stories diverse and keep your players interested, especially outside of major plot events?

  • #2
    I don't remember where I heard it originally on this subject, but don't be afraid to tell your players that you need a minute to accommodate their latest move.
    "okay guys, take five and grab some Funions and Mountain Dew. I'm going to need a minute."

    I'd also suggest drawing inspiration from other media, instead of just historical instances like you mentioned. If you thoroughly file the serial numbers off, people can still enjoy a changed setting retelling of another story or scene. Just look at our long running forum game The Great Marriage of Exalted and [Insert Fandom Here].

    If you do it well enough, the aped story itself is fun, and it is almost like a little Easter Egg if they figure out your homage/pastiche/parody.

    edit: I like your little comics. Do you have any others?


    Raksha are my fae-vorite.

    Reincarnation of magnificentmomo.

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    • #3
      Neat picture.

      You're right that Exalted definitely requires a lot of improvisation compared to many other RPGs. I can give you some advice that I've been using for a long time. It's been useful for me, so I hope it'll help you. I'll warn you that it does require a bit of work, but it can really end up making your games better for it.

      -----
      First, for your "clone town" problem I find that the so-called "Rule of Three" is a good one to follow. Come up with a few things to make your town interesting. Aim for having around 3. You can do two if the town is just going to be a brief stop on the road, but don't do more than three unless you plan for the town to be a major hub where the players will be staying for several sessions (and even then more than 3 might be overdoing it).

      When you have some spare time, sit down and come up with 30 different short ideas that could make a town interesting. They don't need to be huge or impressive, just a short sentence or two at most. Make sure to have a reasonable mix of supernatural and mundane things. When you're done, you'll have enough ideas to fill up at least 10 different towns. So if your players decide to go to a new town, just go through your list and pick three things and then cross them off (so you don't accidentally reuse them later).

      Here are some examples I just thought of off hand:

      - The town has a wishing well in the middle and according to local folklore someone's wish can come true but it's a Monkey's Paw type wish.
      - The town has to sacrifice a villager once a year to a demon who lives underground.
      - There is a spooky forest nearby that is said to be haunted.
      - The town is under the thumb of a terrible Guildsman who has been working to get everyone hooked on drugs.
      - There's a bridge and on the night of a full moon it's said that anyone who steps onto it vanishes. Nobody has been stupid enough to try this though.
      - In the middle of the village is a twenty foot tall stone hand sticking up from the ground and people think it might be part of a bigger statue.
      - The town is famous for its rainbow colored rice.
      - The town doesn't have many men because they were recruited last year by a nearby lord and died in a battle. They come back once a month as ghosts.
      - For some reason the town imports all of its alcohol from far away, and brewing alcohol within or near the town is punishable by death.

      These don't necessarily need to be story hooks or things that the players will have to (or even want to) deal with in the game, but rather just something neat to give the town a little more flavor and character. But any one of these ideas could be a hook for a story if the players find one of them interesting. Even if they don't however, they'll at least serve to make that town a bit more distinct.

      Personally I've noticed my group tends to remember things related to food more than anything else. If a town has a weird culinary tradition, my players will probably remember it more than other things (in fact, I think I will use the rainbow colored rice idea in my next game because I know one of my players who will love that). So just see what kind of things tend to stick out in their minds and see what they don't care about. If a few similar ideas fall flat, your group might not care about them, so avoid using them in the future.

      Then do the same with NPC's. Come up with 30 or so different NPCs. This tends to take a bit longer so you might want to give yourself a bit more time. Make sure to keep the character's details vague so you can easily drop them into any town or city in any part of the world as necessary. Just give them a name and a short description.

      - Bitter Ash is a woman whose husband recently died. The rest of the town ostracizes her because people think she killed her husband. In fact she did kill him because one day her husband turned into a monster. Since she knew that nobody would believe her, she tried to make his death look like an accident.

      - Standing Elephant is a leader in his town. He wants to be respected and is obsessed with the larger world. He tries to impress travelers and his goal is to get them to say how amazing he and his town are. If they do he'll be their best friend. If they insult him or his town he'll try to find a way to get back at them.

      - Clever Kitten is a young urchin. She recently witnessed a murder and unfortunately the killer spotted her and has been toying with her. No matter where she tries to hide in the village, the killer eventually manages to find her but lets her escape so he can hunt her again. The killer is working with a Bloody Hand.

      Then just drop one, two or three of these NPC's into the town your players go to. All of these NPC's add a bit of color to the town and hopefully the PC's will remember them a few sessions down the road.

      With three NPC's and three unique things to make the town memorable, if your players wanted to, they could spend a session or two just dealing with those mysteries and NPCs if they felt like it. Or they can just go, "Neat!" and move on, while still remembering some interesting tidbit about that town.

      -----

      On the combat narration front, one trick I found that was useful (both as a player and as an ST) is to sit down and watch a few movies with big fight scenes. I've found the Lord of the Rings are a great set of movies for this since it has a diverse set of combat types, including swords, axes, archers, horsemen, etc.

      When a fight scene starts, watch it for a minute or so, then pause it. Pull out your paper or a laptop or whatever and write down what happened. Try to be as descriptive and verbose as possible. Don't worry about using too much "purple prose" or anything, nobody is going to judge you. In fact try and be as overly ornate with your description as you can. The point of this exercise is to simply to get yourself used to describing a combat scene in a way that is either interesting or memorable (and hopefully both).

      Once you have a page or so filled up, look around, make sure nobody is nearby, and then read it out loud (you can cringe if it's embarrassing but make sure you read it out loud). You're getting used to describing an unfolding combat scene with your voice because that's exactly what you're going to be doing as an ST. By getting used to verbally describing combat it'll make it easier to improvise combat descriptions when you're running a game.

      After you've done this with two or three movies, you'll find yourself being able to describe how a battle unfolds in a more free-form situation and hopefully you'll be a bit better at narrating a battle in a way that makes your players interested.

      This is also a handy way as a player to get a bit more used to describing neat stunts without falling into the trap of all of your stunts sounding identical.
      Last edited by AnubisXy; 03-16-2017, 04:25 PM.

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      • #4
        I try always to describe what characters Feel (climate, humid, warm, cold, rain, wind), Smell(what does it smell like here?), See, Hear (river nearby, activity, chatter, children, crying babies, animals, wind)

        Not exactly a trick for improvisation, but it helps make a place different for another and making the areas PC visit distinctive and feel alive.

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        • #5
          Thank you all for the suggestions, they help me a lot.

          Originally posted by MoroseMorgan View Post
          I'd also suggest drawing inspiration from other media, instead of just historical instances like you mentioned. If you thoroughly file the serial numbers off, people can still enjoy a changed setting retelling of another story or scene. Just look at our long running forum game The Great Marriage of Exalted and [Insert Fandom Here].

          I will definitely check out this one.


          Originally posted by MoroseMorgan View Post
          edit: I like your little comics. Do you have any others?

          Thank you.
          Well, I have some laying around here and I make new ones now and then (I drew AnubisXy‘s awesome rainbow rice ) but I don‘t have them online. (I thought they would be a nice, little addition to the thread but never thought other people would be interested in them on their own.)

          @AnubisXy

          Your advice is very helpful! I think I have to work out some nice things and I really like your ideas and I especially love the rainbow rice idea.


          Originally posted by AnubisXy View Post
          On the combat narration front, one trick I found that was useful (both as a player and as an ST) is to sit down and watch a few movies with big fight scenes. I've found the Lord of the Rings are a great set of movie since you had a diverse set of combat types, including swords, axes, archers, horsemen, etc.

          When a fight scene starts, watch it for a minute or so, then pause it. Then write down what happened. Try to be as descriptive and verbose as possible. Don't worry about using too much "purple prose" or anything, nobody is going to judge you. In fact try and be as overly ornate with your description as you can. The point of this exercise is to simply to get yourself used to describing a combat scene while keeping one combat scene from feeling like another.

          My I ask what “purple prose“ is? I definitely have to try that. Do you (or someone else) have suggestions for more movies with good battle scenes?


          Originally posted by Volivat View Post
          I try always to describe what characters Feel [...]

          I think I should make some notes on different feelings, smells and background sounds, so those things won't be all the same.

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          • #6
            I have a few simple suggestions to aid improvisational gameplay:

            1. Sample intimacies. Come up with groupings of them. Nations, Religions, Philosophies, et al. Once a character becomes recurring you can refine basic versions they might have.

            2. Quick Characters. Have a variety on hand or don't be afraid to refluff one as a very different kind of monster.

            3. Random tables. A game like Godbound or other places on the net can produce some simple but good ones. Use these to generate places or plots or groups of people, as they will help take some of the contextual load off, though you should always do final conceptual tweaking or reroll if you think what you got doesn't sit right. I generated a satrapy for Prasad using a nation generator as an example.


            Leetsepeak's Ex3 Homebrew Hub - Hub of homebrew for Exalted 3rd Edition that I've made.

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            • #7
              I read a book about writing novels once, and one piece of it stuck with me. It advised to combine characters and setting elements where possible. If the story has a protagonist, a best friend, and a local sorcerer who is feared by the townsfolk, the story becomes more interesting when the best friend IS the sorcerer.

              I apply this rule liberally to every element of the games I run. If the story affords me an opportunity to expand an existing locale, I take it. Travel is still possible and advisable; I just have three or four locations that I'm continually embroidering with bits of story.

              In my experience, the best way to make combat interesting is tie the combat to the greater story. Random fights for the sake of fights lose their flavor pretty quickly. My players don't just fight random outbreaks of undead. They fight the undead legions of the Solar Ghost A'run Akun'rae. He refuses to end his siege of the city until the Necromancers imprisoning the Ghost of his wife are slain and she is free. If the players are really itching to roll Join Battle, I might once in a while throw in bandits or an escaped Demon. Mostly, though, combat is the result of story.

              I can milk many, many combats out of the above, but they matter because they add tension to the story. Every time they fight these undead, the players witness more innocent civilians of the city die, and they and their allies are hurt. If they don't hurry, they may not have the resources to take on the Necromancers.

              This does assume you aren't running completely off the cuff, of course.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Piri-Piri View Post
                My I ask what “purple prose“ is?
                It means being really flowery with your words I think.

                Originally posted by Piri-Piri View Post
                Do you (or someone else) have suggestions for more movies with good battle scenes?
                This thread has some youtube examples for you.


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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Piri-Piri View Post

                  The only variations I am able to come up with are these: “It‘s an ambush!” | “It‘s not an ambush!” - And of course the strength and number of the opponents vary.
                  In Exalted, a lot of variation in combat comes from where it takes place. An ambush in a town square is different to an ambush in a bamboo forest is different to an ambush in a giant, creaking windmill. I find that the way to make Exalted always lively is to treat the environment like an NPC - it has features that help, hinder, inspire and can be used to make the combat that much more interesting.

                  I also found that a good way to encourage stunts and get players more engaged in the narrative of combat is to ask players to narrate character actions in the third person. That way they're always going to ta least have a 1 die stunt. Even the basic "I hit him with my daiklaive" becomes "Duanwu swings her daiklaive hard at the guards head" and starts to provide a bit of flavour.


                  Visit me at Tales of Grey - my RPG Game-Master's blog.

                  "If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy, I could have won" - I gave you all, Mumford & Sons

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                  • #10
                    Agreed, some exotic locales can make fights very memorable.

                    Just as an example, one manse I threw at my players had defensive reservoirs (designed to flush out attackers with collected rainwater), as well as over a hundred bound demons (not all of which were combatants!) and pseudo-portcullises (the grates wouldn't move - they would shift between materialized and dematerialized when certain levers were pulled).
                    Last edited by TheCountAlucard; 03-23-2017, 09:42 AM.

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                    • #11
                      One counter-intuitive trick for reacting to what your players do is not doing it so much.

                      Some STs really like building and running sandbox-style games, where you know in advance what the world has in it, and players wander around seeing it all. Which is cool! But I think some STs think that's what you're *supposed* to do, and I think that's because when people share their work (casually online, or in officially published campaign setting material) that's how they tend to do it. But personally, I would find that exhausting. If I weren't being paid for it, anyway.

                      What I do instead is design an arc with major beats (players encounter this tribe, meet this NPC, find this ruin), then build out elaborate details around those beats, then what I improvise during play are the paths that get the players from one to another. Really cuts down on wasted work. The amount of attention I give each one is relative to how far in the future it's likely to come up, so that I can fill in details based on the particular actions the players take, what they like and don't like, and so on.

                      Done ham-fistedly this can feel like railroading, but done well it's just taking advantage of the fact that players don't get to see the path they didn't take, in order to make the one they did take as exciting and engaging as possible.
                      Last edited by Blackwell; 03-23-2017, 10:54 AM.

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                      • #12
                        I find Inspiration Pad Pro to be really useful for helping improvise interesting locations and people. It's free so you might like it as well.

                        Here is an example culture I put together with some Godbound charts and some custom tweaks.

                        'They are a people who practice a democratic or technically republican society ruled by the many. Currently, they are interested in stasis. They want to stop some threatening change. Though some may consider it a stereotype it is true that many of them are gluttonously appetitive. Outsiders they observe closely. It is natural to spy and be spied upon. Rigid castes divide the populace.

                        They aspire, as a culture, to the ideals of loyalty to friends, lieges, and those pledged with it. Most of the society is defined by protector and subjects. They hold skill in trickery in high esteem. Those guilty of personally doing violence are shunned by this society. In terms of technology, the inhabitants are capable of displaying sophisticated methods and techniques. Complex muscle, wind, and water-powered devices are possible, perhaps with crude essence technology. Magical traditions are reserved. These people have a thaumaturgical tradition, but it is restricted to a specific group– rulers, priests, specially ordained wizards, or some other subgroup.

                        The 'Seed' of ruination was consumption of a dwindling resource. Owing to this it came to pass that a hostile people or God strove against them. Sadly, it was made worse by weakness, and failed, feeble attempts at a resolution. Only through sacrifice, with much suffering and loss of wealth was the issue resolved... if it was ever resolved.'


                        And one more, so you can see how they are distinguished from each other -

                        'They are a people who practice ectocracy, ruled by ancestor spirits and deceased elders. Currently, they are interested in peace. They desire an end to some terrible conflict. Though some may consider it a stereotype it is true that many of them are naturally treacherous. Outsiders they warily interact with though never trust. They will deal, but with great caution. All behavior must conform to a certain book.

                        They aspire, as a culture, to the ideals of courage in the face of danger or horror. Most of the society is defined by nuclear families. They hold devotion to the ancestors in high esteem. Those guilty of fighting authority are shunned by this society. In terms of technology, the inhabitants are very poorly organized. They have metalworking and muscle-powered devices and tools. Magical traditions are hidden. Thaumaturgy is deplored and despised, and those who shepherd knowledge of it must hide that fact.

                        The 'Seed' of ruination was consumption of a dwindling resource. Owing to this they were almost eradicated by a foe or plague. Sadly, it was made worse by apathy, as pervasive indifference toward resolving it was a constant. Only through wisdom of science or spiritual leaders was the issue resolved... if it was ever resolved.'


                        Anyway, I highly recommend this program to Exalted improvisers.

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                        • #13
                          Also don't forget an important part of improvisational gaming is involvement from the players. Expecting one person to carry all the weight of constant creative improvisation can be exhausting for that person, particularly given the numerous other demands on a Storyteller's time and attention. A good improvisational game will have an expectation on the players to regularly volunteer their own clever ideas and help flesh out in the world around themselves as they move through it. So long as this is done in good faith, that kind of collaboration can be very satisfying and can take a lot of pressure off the ST.

                          Exalted tends to reward players who help define their own stories. Part of that is helping paint the world that the characters inhabit, even if it's just by hearing the ST sketch out the broad strokes and then filling in the details to bring it to vivid life for everyone else. Trying to do it all by yourself is a recipe for burnout.


                          Share your wonders in The Artifact and Evocation Workshop

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Ferryman View Post
                            Also don't forget an important part of improvisational gaming is involvement from the players. Expecting one person to carry all the weight of constant creative improvisation can be exhausting for that person, particularly given the numerous other demands on a Storyteller's time and attention. A good improvisational game will have an expectation on the players to regularly volunteer their own clever ideas and help flesh out in the world around themselves as they move through it. So long as this is done in good faith, that kind of collaboration can be very satisfying and can take a lot of pressure off the ST.
                            I used to have an ST who'd do this by asking everyone to give 5 ideas for things they'd like to see in the game with their character backgrounds. Things like "A Solar who's maintaining an outpost in the Underworld," "A town that shelters slaves who've escaped the Guild," or even just "I want Cynis Avaku to be a part of this story."

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