Long before I became an improvisor, I was a conflicted multi-medium storyteller. I have always been, first and foremost, a writer, but my father felt the need to complicate matters by introducing me to Dungeons & Dragons at a young age. While I loved the idea of a fantasy role-playing game, it was entirely obvious that I did not grasp the core concepts. As a writer, I knew that storytelling was an isolated affair that involved ruthlessly stealing ideas from friends, family, and anyone else that happened upon my path, but Dungeons & Dragons is the antithesis of such selfishness and best understood as method of crafting a communal narrative. Just as the limitations of genre, form, and style bind written stories, so too are there rules in D&D that confine what is possible, but role-playing removes the absolute authorial control that comes with solitary storytelling.
“What do you mean you just rush ahead?”
While many of my old characters and the dungeons that they explored are long forgotten, I still remember the exact moment when I realized just how little control I had over this story. My character was a proud elven wizard that was wandering the world of Greyhawk because her village had been destroyed by orcs. Along her journeys she trained herself in the arts of stealth and treachery so that she would always able to sneak up on her foes before they were even aware she was present. While the character was hardly original, I liked her and knew the tricks that she would bring to a fight – tricks that were entirely dependent on her hiding in the shadows and waiting for the perfect moment to strike, but it never occurred to me that I would not always have those opportunities. She was my character and that meant I controlled what happened to her.
Most experienced role-players can tell you just how I was disabused of that notion. It only takes one player that does not have the patience for secrecy to ruin the day of a character that is sneaking up on the goblin camp. I do not remember if my poor elf survived that encounter, but I do remember being furious. I was entirely focused on the story that I had envisioned and it should hardly surprise anyone that I felt my character was supposed to be the hero – or, if there had to be other heroes, I would be the best one.
When penning a novel or short story there are no mechanisms in place to disabuse solitary authors of this kind of thinking. A common piece of advice that novice writers often ignore until they learn it for themselves is to “kill your darlings” and, while Faulkner was not referring to D&D characters, the point equally applies to role-playing games: just because you love your character does not mean that it is the sole agent in the narrative. This is likewise true in improvisation: just because you have a good idea does not mean that it is the only way to continue the scene.
There are other people that want explore to their own stories too and there are going to be times when those ideas and heroes will be competing for attention. The most memorable scenes often occur when role-players (or improvisors) overcome their instincts to be the centre of attention and their desires to control the story. Sometimes that means that events are going to unfold differently than you imagined; sometimes that means that other people will get to save the day; and sometimes it means that your stealthy elf wizard is going to get stabbed in the face by angry goblins.