Book Review: Impro by Keith Johnstone

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A long time ago I asked on Story Games for people to recommend their top books about role-playing… which were not actually books about role-playing.  Simply any books which had rich ideas which could enhance the hobby.  I asked the question because at the time I was doing an MBA and my major area of interest was (and is) organisational culture.  I have used quite a few techniques and theories regarding organisational culture in my role-playing and I was sure that there would be other  disciplines out there which might have similar insights.

I got a fantastic list of books and now my MBA is in the bag I’m making the time to read some of them.  Starting with Impro.

It seems obvious that books about acting might hold some vital lessons for Role-Players but Impro has particular relevance to story games and GM-less story games in general. Admiral Rabalias has already written here about how common problems in improvisational acting are also common in GM-less RPGs.

I would go further than Admiral Rabalias. I think that as traditional role-players coming into GM-less games we have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about improvisation.  There is a temptation to assume we know it all – after all “we never have a script we improvise all the time”.  But in a traditional game this is only true in a very narrow sense – in a traditional game it is very clear who has creative control over which sections of the game, players improvise their character’s thoughts, conversation and actions but by constantly bouncing off the content created by the GM.  In fact much player improvisation is interrupted by the need to ask question of the GM e.g. “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?” “Is there a door in here?” Many GM-less games have techniques for dividing up creative control and this always puts a greater burden on the players than traditional games.  Therefore problems such as a player’s creativity drying up or a lack of confidence often leads to the classic improv problems of blocking and wimping become more acute.

I think we need to starting using and practising improvisational techniques more widely and writing them into our games.

Impro is a great sources for ideas and exercises on improvisation.

But to the book review itself:

I shall be honest and say that the personality of the author is very strong and quite ego-centric.  Indeed the entire first chapter is auto-biographical.  I don’t think I would want to work with the author in real life but if you like his style then you will enjoy this section, if you don’t like it then the other sections are interesting enough to persevere.

It is easy and quick to read with lots of clear examples and good suggestions for easy exercises you could use in a gaming group of almost any size.

The book has 4 main sections about 4 different ways and theories concerning improvisation.  Briefly these are:

1. Status – how feeling stuck in an improvisation can be unlocked by deciding on whether you are playing high or low status – especially in relation to the people you are playing with. I think this could

2. Spontaneity – This chapter goes into more detail about what blocking is, how to recognise it and and how to stop it.

3. Narrative Skills – This section is about making up stories and perhaps more interesting to the role-player, drawing stories out of people who think they can’t make them up.  It explores techniques which revolve around asking smaller questions to build up a story as it is often easier to make up lots of little facts and weave them into one narrative than create one seamless entirely improvised story.  This is not dissimilar to some traditional GMing roles, where the players ask clarifying questions about the scenarios such as “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?”.  However it made me think that we could use these techniques of asking questions about small details to help players who might be floundering a bit in GM-less games. The technique breaks down the amount of stuff players have to invent into small manageable chunks. Some GM-less games have codified systems for this such as Durance which is very helpful but it could be used more widely.

4. Masks and Trance – this was a very odd chapter, it was semi-spiritual and it really read like the author had half an idea, had jumped to some odd conclusions and didn’t really know what they were trying to say.  I think that there might be some parallels here with bleed but nothing terribly helpful is drawn out other than that masks might help people to establish characters and bleed.

In conclusion: There are a lot of useful tips and ideas in the book and also some half-baked, unhelpful pseudo-spiritual ideas.  I would recommend people read the chapters on status, spontaneity and narrative skills for the most useful bit and ignore the auto-biography and the chapter on Masks.

I shall trying out some of these exercises with my gaming groups and writing variations on them for some of the games I am currently designing. I’ll update if anything interesting happens in those sessions!

Reward rules

I’m currently wading my way through Tenra Bansho Zero (the English translation thereof), which I received as a Christmas gift from the ‘rents.

TBZ appears at first glance to be a very trad game indeed. The things that are normally regarded as core mechanics – conflict resolution – are based around a tediously bog-standard attribute and skill combo to generate a dice pool which in turn yields successes to beat a difficulty number (or perhaps someone else’s roll). Combat is based on taking turns each round in order of Agility. The central premise is that you’re all hyper-powerful individuals with kewl powerz who spend much of their time beating up on villains.

However, there is much that is novel and interesting (to me at least) in TBZ. It contains specific advice on organising the logistics of a game session, and advises that players (not just the GM) should read it, as it is considered part of the rules. It has player characters rolling on a D&D-style reaction table to determine how they feel about important NPCs (and other PCs) when they first meet them. It has a damage system that allows the target of an attack to decide how the attack affects them, and forbids a PC to die unless its player has chosen to allow it. So there’s lots to write about here, and I may come back to some of it.

The thing I’m interested in today is the reward rules. TBZ uses a fate point-style system of reward, which is to say, both the GM and the players can award other characters chits which give them in-game advantages. The said chits are also the primary means of character improvement, i.e. they can also be used as XP. The chits can also be spent on vaguely GM-like stuff – altering a character’s rolled reaction to an NPC, or giving another character a few Fate (see below for more on Fates).

What is unique about it, as far as I know, is that there are no limitations placed on how many chits a player can award or be awarded. That is to say, every player is given unlimited power to reward other players, giving them immediate in-game power and the capacity to improve their character. I’ve occasionally considered such a system myself, but always concluded that without some kind of incentive not to award, the system would be open to abuse, with players giving excessive and increasing XP rather like the old monty haul style of D&D treasure acquisition. I shall be intrigued to see how it works in practice; I suppose like most systems it will stand or fall with the good intentions of the players using it.

The intention behind the TBZ reward system is that a player receives exactly one Aiki chit (as they are called) every time they do something strongly in accordance with their Fates (a sort of collection of player-authored goals, beliefs and emotional ties), do something entertaining or awesome without breaking character, or otherwise roleplay “well”. It doesn’t matter who awards the chit, and if multiple people reach for a chit at the same time only one is given.

One brake the TBZ system puts on power acquisition is that the Aiki chits must be exchanged for Kiai points to get maximum use out of them. (Aiki chits are useful on their own, but much less powerful.) In turn, Kiai points can be most efficiently gained by spending aiki chits during intermissions between scenes. Finally, expenditure of Kiai points generates Karma, which has a hard limit before your character goes insane and becomes an NPC. The only way to reduce Karma is to discard one or more of your Fates or change them to reflect changing game circumstances. So e.g. I could give up on my ambition to overthrow the evil empire, or conclude that instead I should attempt to subvert it from within. Or maybe my initial hate for a particular NPC grows to grudging admiration.

Kiai points are immensely powerful. Some fights can only be won through their use. Any opponent can be defeated if you have enough of them (and sufficient Karma headroom to allow you to spend them).

Pretty cool stuff. A system that rewards strong in-character roleplaying without the need for GM fiat, which gives you virtually unlimited power if you use it correctly, and which only enables to use it to its maximum benefit if you change and grow your character. It is described in the book as the “core” of the game, and I think that’s a fair assessment. Contrast it with other systems out there, which reward you for killing powerful monsters, for achieving arbitrary goals set by the GM, or for straightforwardly rolling your stats successfully, and this one stands out, in a good way.

I’m looking forward to giving it a try, though there are other aspects of the game I’m dreading slightly. Let’s hope the good stuff outweighs the bad.

Microscope

Rating: ***

Type: RPG / world creation

# Players: 3-5

Recommended # Players: 4-5

Time to play: 2 hours or more

Summary: Microscope is a collaborative world-building game. More accurately, it’s a history-building game (in the sense of building a fictional history of a fictional world). Players take turns to create elements of the game history at any point in the game’s timeline, potentially changing the context and meaning of events further down the timeline. It’s badged as a GMless roleplaying game, but roleplaying makes up a relatively small proportion of the game unless you deliberately focus on it.

Gameplay: At the start of the game, players set broad parameters for the history they’re creating, deciding what the scope of the history will be (e.g. the rise of technology from fire to the singularity) and setting a short list of things that are banned from the story or definitely included in it. This is the phase in which everyone can discuss the vision for the history at a high level and make sure that everyone’s happy with it – which is important, because discussion is banned at certain points in the game.

Play proceeds round the table and on their go each player gets to create a single element of history – an era of time, an event within an existing era or a scene within an existing event.  Importantly, nobody is allowed to discuss, cajole or otherwise attempt to influence another player’s creation. In this sense, the game isn’t collaborative at all – the collaboration sort of emerges from individual isolated decisions. The selling point is that the world you create is genuinely an emergent property of all the players, never dominated by one mouthey player.

The history-elements are written on index cards and placed in a big timeline. You can create new elements anywhere on the existing timeline, which means that as you create new elements they add context and colour to the the bits of the timeline that follow them. So, for example, I could create the assassination of a major politician in one turn, only to have you create a scene preceding it which makes it clear the politician was actually an undercover agent working for another country. Again, the timeline emerges from the players as a group.

I said play proceeds round the table, but that was oversimplifying in two important ways. First, every round one of the players gets to be the lens. That means s/he decides what the focus of play will be for that turn (e.g. the invention of the wheel) and everyone else’s turns must relate to that focus. It also means s/he gets two goes, one at the beginning of the round and one at the end, and on each go s/he gets to create not just one history element but two, provided the two are nested (i.e. an era and an event inside that era, or an event and a scene inside that event). Being the lens is enormously powerful.

The second thing I omitted before was the “legacy” phase, which happens at the end of each go round the table. One player gets to create a “legacy”, a thing which will persist from round to round, and then create a history element relating to it or another legacy. In my view, this phase is a little under-used – the legacies could help to create a more cohesive history but because they can only be used once per round, they have a limited effect.

The scenes ought to be the most interesting bit of the game. In a scene, actual roleplaying happens(!) in contrast to the rest of the game. The player who creates the scene sets a question to be answered through it, a situation and some characters to be present in that situation. The players collectively answer the question by roleplaying out the scene. Maybe it was just my group, though, but the game as a whole put us in a mode where we were more interested in creating eras and events, and not so keen on relinquishing the creative control that our turn gave us to the other players. As a result, Microscope feels more like a world creation game than a roleplaying game. If you like the sound of that, I strongly recommend Microscope to you.

Components: An 81-page rulebook, with a simple cover and no internal art. You’ll also need index cards and something to write on them with, and enough space to spread yourself out a bit.

Qwirkle (Mindware)

Rating: ***

Type: Strategy

# Players: 2-4

Recommended # Players: 3-4

Time to play: Up to 1 hour

Summary: Qwirkle is a spatial strategy game. Players take turns to try and make rows and columns of tiles that either match colours or match symbols. It’s sort of like Scrabble but without any vocabulary requirements or pesky triple word scores. This is its strength: it is also its weakness. Qwirkle is incredibly easy to learn and master, and quick to play. As such it is well-suited to families and casual gamers. The dedicated strategy gamer may become frustrated by the limited strategic options and strong role of luck.

Gameplay: Players draw six tiles from a bag, and take turns to place them on the table. Tiles must be placed to form a continuous row or column, though existing tiles on the table can be incorporated. No row or column may contain tiles that do not match on colour or symbol, and no row or column may contain tiles that match on both colour and symbol. Since there are six colours and six symbols it follows that you can only ever make a column or row that is at most six long, and you are often prevented from doing this by other nearby tiles.

A point is scored for each tile in your row or column (including those which were already on the table) and, like Scrabble, it is possible to score more points by placing tiles to simultaneously create multiple rows/columns. Play frequently revolves around cunningly placing your tiles to maximise this effect. At the same time, completing a row or column of six tiles (called a Qwirkle) earns you a six-point bonus. This bonus is just enough that it is nearly always a good idea to go for a Qwirkle if you can, and nearly always a good idea not to put a five-tile row in play if you can help it.

Qwirkle is intensely easy to learn due to its simplicity. This makes it very attractive for families and casual gamers who may not want something too demanding. While it initially seems equally simple to play and, indeed, chiefly a game of luck, there are in fact some moderately complex strategies that can be deployed to maximise point-scoring if you are so inclined. Because of the six-point Qwirkle bonus mentioned earlier, the game remains competitive even when players of quite disaparate skill levels play together.

Nevertheless the strategies available are quite limited and if you’re looking for strategic depth you should probably look elsewhere. The game can get fairly repetitive but retains interest despite that if, like me, you are obsessive about maximising your score.

Components: 108 chunky black tiles with brightly coloured symbols on, with a large drawstring canvas bag. The tiles are designed to stand up – so you can hide your “hand” from your fellow players without needing a special rack as in Scrabble. One complaint is that the red and orange symbols (and to a much lesser extent, the green and blue symbols) are quite similar in hue, so unless you have good light this can be confusing. The instructions are clear, simple and well laid out.

Mwahahaha! (White Wolf)

Rating: * *

Type: Resource building/card game

#Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 3+

Play time: 3-4 hours

Summary: Mwahahaha! puts the players in the role of super-villains attempting to build a secret weapon with which to threaten the world. The players collect four kinds of resource to construct their weapon, and to deploy various supporting cards, including minions which can be used to try and steal resources from the other super-villains. The players must progress through four stages, starting with threatening a city and ending in successfully threatening the world (the game’s victory condition). As the game’s name and concept suggests, the various super-villain characters, secret weapons and support cards are “humorous”. In fact, getting into the wacky spirit of the game is a minimum requirement to enjoy this game, which lacks much in the way of interesting gameplay.

Gameplay: The objective of Mwahahaha! is to collect enough resource tokens, from four types, to activate a secret weapon and thereby intimidate increasingly large sections of the world into submission.

Each player chooses a super-villain and receives a small number of secret weapons to choose from. These vary only in the number and type of resources favoured – and, of course, the variety of amusing theme played to – something I’ll come back to later. Players are then dealt resource cards which can be exchanged for resource tokens. Resource tokens can be used to buy empire cards (permanently improving the level of resources you can collect), or minion cards (used to steal other player’s resources and empire cards, and to defend against same), or to activate your secret weapon.

The chief point of gameplay is to build up the correct number and type of resources, which in turn is dependent on the resource cards you draw. You can sidestep the need to draw the right resources by collecting empire cards or by attacking other super-villains with your minions – or by trading with other players. Finally, there are also dirty trick cards which act as one-shot effects to enhance your actions or disrupt others.

Eventually someone will get enough resources to threaten their first city. This is resolved with the roll of some (usually a lot of) dice, with a pretty high probability that the city will cave in and offer you tribute in the form of more resources. Once you’ve done that you need to put still more resources into your secret weapon, so you can threaten a state, then a country, and finally the world. As you get closer to threatening the world, chances are the other players will try to dog-pile you with their minions and dirty trick cards, so you’ll need to put more time into defending yourself.

Strategically, Mwahahaha! is pretty lacklustre. There are plenty of choices to make but none of them really seem to make much difference to the fundamentals of the game, which is grinding out those resources. Maybe we at Black Armada were missing something, but this felt tedious and long-winded, with the slow build-up from threatening a city to threatening the world only serving to draw the game out.

The main element of the game that promised to be fun is the amusement factor: every card represents some comic or movie trope, and the super-villains offer the opportunity to do slightly racist accents (Doctor Hitler vants a banana, dumbkopf!). In turn your choices may at least partly revolve around what will be funny. Care to threaten the world with a giant robot? Or perhaps you’d prefer an army of dinosaurs? As you can imagine, this is fun at first, but the underlying lack of gameplay interest meant that it wasn’t long before even the humour left us cold.

Components: Mwahahaha! is a great-looking game. The box contains high-quality components with unique artwork on most of the 271 cards and on the 10 mad scientist cards. It also contains 20 doomsday devices, which are made of the same sturdy cardboard as the mad scientist cards and designed to slot into them (although we found it was occasionally a bit of a tight fit). Finally, it has 230 colourful tokens and as well as a large number of really spiffing luminous green and purple dice. (The contents claim “all the dice you need to play” – we make it 20 dice.)

Small World (Days of Wonder)

Rating: ****

Type: Strategy/warfare/resource management

# Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 2-5

Play time: 1-2 hours

Summary: Small world is a game of conquering empires, but with a twist; every empire must eventually fall and be replaced. Players choose from a set of races and a separate set of special powers to create a unique army with which to conquer the game map. Players score victory points by capturing and holding areas of the map. It’s a nice little wargame with a good mix of special abilities so no two games are quite the same. Plus, berserker skeletons… what’s not to love?

Gameplay: At the start of the game, the players are presented with an unoccupied map divided into territories, and a stack of potential armies* to choose from. The armies are made by combining a race card (randomly selected from the deck) and a special power card (ditto). Players choose from a stack of five available armies, adding new ones to the stack to replace the ones they pick. Each race and power has a number on it – add them together and you get the number of tokens that make up the resulting army.

Once the armies have been picked, players take turns to use their armies to conquer territories on the board. At the end of each player’s turn they are awarded victory points according to how many territories they hold. There is no element of chance to conquest, for the most part – a fixed number of tokens can be used to capture a given territory – but if you have an odd number of unused tokens at the end of a turn you can attempt one final conquest with the roll of a special die. It takes more tokens to conquer a territory than it does to hold them, so there is a tendency for each army to get progressively more thinly stretched. Further, there is only so much territory to go around, so eventually players end up attacking each other, destroying each others tokens in the process.

The killer mechanic in the game is the ability to send your army into decline. When this happens you miss a turn (bad) but you get to pick an entirely new race and special power, with a full set of tokens as if you had started the game afresh (good). Further, all the territories you captured with your last army stay captured, and you continue to score points for them (amazing). So it isn’t too many turns before you start wondering whether you would gain more points by retiring your current army, and indeed it is possible to keep starting new armies over and over if you wish. The management of when to go into decline is a key part of the game, and introduces a resource-management feel to what is otherwise a sort of light wargame.

The strategy and tactics of the game comes from the mix of special powers and races available. Each army gets two special abilities, one of which comes from its race card and one from its special power card. There are 14 races and 20 special powers meaning there are 280 possible combinations of abilities that can come up. Abilities vary from relatively pedestrian, e.g. bonuses to attack particular types of terrain, to wildly game-changing ones such as the dragonmaster power which allows a single territory per turn to be conquered with a single token irrespective of how well defended it is. To the untrained eye, many of the powers appear absurdly overpowered (though in play they are reasonably balanced, and various mechanisms are present to avoid a runaway victor). The chaos which can result from the shrewd application of these abilities make the game fairly unpredictable, and adds a lot of enjoyment to picking your army.

There is the usual effect associated with such games that if one player appears to be doing very well, s/he will often get dogpiled. The game tries to compensate for this by keeping everyone’s current victory point total a secret, but you can’t quite get away from the fact that runner-up players can be kingmakers. This is about the only gripe though and overall the game is a lot of fun and quick to play to boot.

*Note, the game rules don’t include the term “army”. Races are used to refer to both the types of creature you can choose from and also the collections of tokens which are used to conquer the map. I have used the term “army” to refer to the latter to avoid confusion.

Components: Small World comes with two game boards (for different numbers of players), a special die, 14 race cards and 20 special power cards, and over 300 tokens. The box is almost ridiculously well designed, so that the tokens for each race can be placed in separate compartments that are exactly the right size for them, for example. It’s a very nice-looking game, with cute illustrations, and the components are pretty sturdy too. The rules book is well-designed, and each card comes with a symbolic summary of its abilities on it which, once you’ve learned what the symbols means, reduces rules look-up a fair bit.

Blokus (Mattel)

Rating: *****

Type: Strategy

# Players: 2-4

Recommended # Players: 2-4

Time To Play: Up to 1 hour

Summary: Blokus is a simple strategy game that resembles a sort of competitive jigsaw puzzle. Players take turn to place pieces on a grid according to simple rules, with the key mechanic being that the pieces can block each other (hence the name). The object of the game is to be left with as few pieces as possible unplayed at the end of the game. The game is incredibly simple to learn and play, fast, and yet the tactics are complex enough to retain interest over many games. The game comes in 2 player and 2-4 player versions.

Gameplay: Each player in Blokus starts with an identical set of 21 plastic pieces in four colours. The pieces are made up of a varying number of squares arranged in a shape (see illustration). Each piece within a set is unique. Players take turns to place these pieces on a grid, starting in the corners (in the 2-4 player variant), and the continues to place each turn according to a simple set of rules: you must play each piece touching corners with another one of your pieces, and you may not play a piece touching edges with another one of your pieces.

Gameplay revolves around trying to exploit the gaps left in the board by other people’s plays, while blocking other players from doing the same. Each player ends the game when they are unable to put any more pieces down; the game ends when all players have reached that point or run out of pieces. The winner is the player who has the smallest number of squares worth of pieces left over (there is a bonus for putting all your pieces down, and a further bonus if your last piece played is the one-square piece – harder than it sounds, since this piece is extremely useful for getting out of a tight spot).

The above isn’t so much a review as a complete description of the rules. It really is that simple, which means you can pick up Blokus and start playing it inside of 5 minutes if you read fast. Play is fast, but despite the game’s simplicity the tactics have an enjoyable complexity. There is something rather devilish about (effectively) trying to complete a complex jigsaw puzzle while other people build their own jigsaw puzzles around you.

Components: Four sets of 21 plastic pieces and a plastic game board. Simple and sturdy. The game rules are simple and easy to learn. There is also a smaller 2-player version which is portable enough to be used as a travel game to rival travel Scrabble, travel chess and so on.

Condottiere (Fantasy Flight Games)

Rating: * * * * *

Type: Card game/strategy/bluffing

# Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 3+

Play time: 1-2 hours

Summary: Condottiere is a strategic card game. Players fight battles to capture provinces in renaissance Italy. Condottiere is fast-paced, easy to pick up, and plays well. Games don’t usually take too long (provided careful players don’t take forever to contemplate each move – always a risk with games of bluff!), and the game retains interest over multiple plays, and regardless of whether you’ve been dealt a strong hand or a weak one. It is complex enough to be an interesting strategy game but simple and elegant enough to avoid bamboozling new players or requiring constant rules look-up.

 

Condottiere

Gameplay: In Condottiere, players take turns to play numbered Mercenary cards representing the forces they deploy in battle. The player with the highest total wins each battle; win enough battles and you win the game. So far, so simple. What makes the game fun – and replayable – is the other cards in the deck which interplay with the mercenaries in a variety of ways, transforming a simple slug-fest into a game of bluff and cunning.

 

Most of the other cards modify mercenary cards in some way. These cards consist of the Drummer, the Bishop, Spring and Winter. They make mercenaries stronger or weaker, remove them from play altogether, or allow you to withdraw them to your hand. The effect of these cards on play can be dramatic, taking a player from clear loser to clear winner in seconds, or allowing a player to withdraw and keep their powder dry for a future battle.

 

Other cards can have equally dramatic effects. The Surrender card, perhaps the most feared card in the game, ends a battle where it stands, with whoever happens to be in front declared the winner. The Maiden provides a powerful mercenary-like card but which is immune to all the special cards mentioned earlier. The Courtesan allows players to fight to control where the next battle will be fought.

 

Because of all this, every move in Condottiere is a calculated risk. Cards like the Bishop and the Surrender card can totally change the outcome of a battle, and players will be keen to assess whether their opponents might possess either card. Battles can turn on a dime, and in turn the tide of the war can shift through clever play, enabling even players dealt a weaker hand to potentially win. Equally, cunning players can bluff their way through a battle, keeping their opponents from knowing their true strength right until the end. And even if you think you’re winning the current battle it is always worth trying to convince your opponents to extend themselves so that you can go on to win more.


Components: Condottiere comes with 110 glossy playing-card size cards, with pleasant enough illustrations. The small game board showing the map the players are competing to dominate has the slight drawback that it never seems to want to completely unfold, so it tends not to sit completely flush with the playing surface – a minor irritation. Players’ conquests are marked using small coloured wooden counters. The game rulebook is a small 20-page booklet. Like most of FFG’s game rulebooks, it’s quite pretty but uncharacteristically, it’s reasonably well-structured so you don’t have to hunt around for rules as with some of FFG’s other products.
Condottiere components