Book Review: Impro by Keith Johnstone


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!