I have never done improv comedy, except for one sad day that I attended the improv comedy club at my college. To my personal disappointment, I wasn’t Whose Line Is It Anyway?’s Colin Mochrie (in body type and looks, I’m probably closer to Ryan Styles, but I’ve always felt more like a Colin) and I didn’t find it fun enough to commit to. But on a smaller stage, I’ve done more than my share of improv — I play Role-Playing Games.
Every so often, Role-Playing Games come up in one of my classes, and inevitably most of the students have never played these games, nor do they have any stronger impression of them than whatever detritus about D&D has washed over the transom. I usually explain it this way: Role-Playing Games are a set of rules that provide a basic setting and a few limiting mechanics through which a group of players can tell a story together. Some games feature a prime narrator, a “Game Master,” who organizes the overall flow of the game, but good role-playing games involve all the players as storytellers, and use their rules to facilitate that storytelling.
Like improv, this kind of storytelling takes real trust between the game master and the characters. The game master needs to know what the players like and craft a story that fills some of those needs; the players need to know what other players like and accommodate that too. They need to be willing to take center stage when it’s their turn, and step to the wings when someone else gets to shine. And like improvisational comedians, they need to remember the “yes, and” rule. (“Yes, and” refers to the philosophy that improv performers should pick up and add to the ideas offered by the previous person, rather than negating them or leading off in a different direction. It goes back to trust.)
These guidelines are more important as you work with games that have fewer and fewer rules governing your behavior. In D&D, if you want to assert your character’s right to do something ridiculous, the GM can restrain you by demanding a dice-based skill check, likely leaving you defeated, wounded, or perhaps dead. My high school D&D party abandoned a friend who just wouldn’t take things seriously, kicking him out and leaving his character’s corpse in a treasure chest in some remote, Hell-blasted keep, for instance. But the more rules-light RPGs depend on players who can successfully grab onto and expand the existing storyline. When things get too fractured, the game can go awry.
So in RPG design, “Yes, and” is a useful and necessary mechanic. In Board Game design, though, I think it’s pretty underused. Some thoughts on it:
- Panamax, the much-discussed story of container ship movement, seems to have an interesting “yes, and” mechanic by which you can pile your company’s containers on other players’ ships, buy stock in their company, and even tank your own for the profits. When they’re doing well, you glom onto their success.
- Stephenson’s Rocket, an old Reiner Knizia game, uses a similar mechanic, as each player vies for control of 19th century British railway lines. On each turn, you can build your own stations or move any of the train lines. When you move a train line, you get a share of stock in the company, which you can ‘spend’ to control where the train goes, or you can hold to maintain your share of the profits that line has. The game ends when tiles run out or when all train lines converge, so owning shares becomes very important. Since no player owns any of the lines, any player can ‘hop on the bandwagon’ when they feel like a particular line is going to dominate the game.
- Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery also seems to use “Yes, and” a little bit by allowing players to bet on the outcome of gladiator battles when their own gladiator is not involved in the fight. Once again, here the players get to glom onto another player’s success.
- Cosmic Encounter is perhaps the best implementation of this mechanic, as players can jump in on one side or the other of a battle (though the primary person can refuse their help), sometimes turning the tide or otherwise gaining victory on another player’s coattails.
What other games use a mechanic like this? What other ways can we take aspects of the RPG experience and translate them back into board games?