Whether you’re playing dozens of NPCs as a Dungeon Master or playing a single character as a player, learning the basics of improvisation will make you a better D&D player, and will help you have more fun playing the game. Some of these tips are drawn from my personal experiences as an actor, some are drawn from formative books by theatrical and gaming professionals, and others are from revelations my players and I have had while playing D&D together.
Before we get started, I want to clear the air about one particular improv tool that gets thrown about a lot—perhaps too much. Nearly every Improv 101 course starts with an explanation of “Yes, And…” a phrase that suggests that good improvisers should never shut down a fellow performer by telling them “No.” Instead, a good improviser should build upon their partner’s statements by instead agreeing (“Yes”) and then expanding upon the idea (“And…”).
This isn’t bad advice. It can keep you from hogging the spotlight and frustrating your fellow players, but it’s not universally applicable. Nowhere is that more true than in tabletop roleplaying games—especially when the Dungeon Master is concerned. The Dungeon Master needs to be empowered to say no to their players and characters when they need to, and players need to be able to tell other players (and indeed, even their DM) no when details about their character that they’ve established previously are being ignored or revised without their input.
This is because D&D is a game that establishes certain concrete details about its characters. It’s also a form of long-form improv that gradually gains layers of context and characterization over the course of a campaign. Players expect a level of continuity that blind adherence to the principle of “Yes, And…” can’t provide. Good alternatives to “Yes, And…” in this form are tools that I call “Yes, But…” and “No, But…”.
Whereas “Yes, And…” requires you to accept any premise another performer (let’s call them players, since we’re talking about improv in a roleplaying context) and then build upon it, “Yes, But…” allows you to accept the player’s premise, but then subvert it to support previously established continuity. This is a great tool for players who are collaboratively building a world together through play, rather than playing in a world that their DM created for them.
For example, Player A might say, “Player B, your character is a mercenary, right? I heard that there’s a fortress full of unscrupulous mercenaries in the desert of Anauroch. Did you come from there?”
If Player B hasn’t created a fully fleshed out origin story for their character, and likes Player A’s idea, B might say, “Yes! That’s right, my character did come from Fort Doom in Anauroch.” Now, Player B likes the idea of coming from a fortress, but they had the idea in their head that their character was a noble-hearted mercenary who only offered their services to compassionate people. B might then say, “But, I left a long time ago. The mercenaries in Fort Doom and I didn’t see eye to eye.”
The difference between “But” and “And” is subtle but important. In this example, Player A’s example carried an implicit assumption that Player B didn’t agree with: “You are one of the mercenaries from this fortress.” While Player B didn’t have a specific backstory in mind for their character, they did have an idea of the character’s temperament and personality, and that assumption clashed with it. So, though they agreed with Player A’s text (and said “Yes,”) B chose to subvert its subtext (“But) instead of building on top of it.
This tool is useful for Dungeon Masters who like to give their players a bit of free reign in designing the game world, but still want to have final say in what gets added to the setting or the story. Rather than agreeing with a player’s assertion, you are empowered to reject it (“No”). However, in order to keep the game moving (and to keep the player’s feelings from being hurt by a flat refusal), you present an alternative option (“But…”).
For example, the DM might establish a character in a scene. “Before you is Lady Morwen, Duchess of Daggerford. She is busied with couriers and other affairs of state, and she pays you no interest.”
Player A wants to interact with the duchess, and sees an opportunity to both deepen the story and get what they want at the same time. A says, “Oh, I’ve met Lady Morwen before! She’s incredibly pious, and we worshiped at the same temple of Lathander together a long time ago. I’ll go up and talk to her and see if she recognizes me.”
The DM likes how their player has creatively approached this problem, and thinks that it will lead to a good scene. But the DM knows that an important part of the adventure they’re running is that while Lady Morwen professes to be a devout Lathanderite, she actually only worships in a secret shrine of the god of war, Tempus, within her castle. The DM says, “Actually, you’ve never seen Lady Morwen out in the local temples. But I like that you know her from somewhere; what’s another place where you could have met her before?”
This approach allowed the player to get a scene similar to the one they wanted, and also allowed the DM to keep an important aspect of their adventure intact. I love allowing my players to flesh out the world in tandem with me (though my current campaign, Worlds Apart, has such a strong mystery element that it’s been difficult to be as collaborative with my worldbuilding). However, there are times when a player’s contribution steps on an important detail. Sometimes, I can justify letting that detail go and reworking the structure of the adventure, but other times it’s important for me to tell my players, “No.”
I try not to do it too often, since it can be stressful for my players to hear their (usually quite good) ideas struck down simply because it disagreed with a story detail they hadn’t learned yet.
Get into Character by Leading with your Physicality
Matthew Mercer, the Dungeon Master of Critical Role, is a huge proponent of physically embodying a character. He’s explained on Twitter that “physicality can change everything,” and that you can get into character as an NPC just by changing “how you hold yourself.”
Getting into character makes it a lot easier to improvise. If you’re in your own head and trying to pretend to be someone else, then you have to work hard to make that other personality shine through. This is especially difficult because your own brain—if it’s anything like mine—will be constantly critiquing itself and trying to edit your own performance on the fly. If you lose yourself in your character, it becomes easier to silence your own noisy mind and let the character express itself through your mouth unfiltered. Try watching this fan-video and seeing the different ways Matthew uses his body to differentiate his NPCs.
Improving your Improv through Games and Exercises
The best way to learn a skill is to try it. Go out and try and to implement these tactics in your own gaming. If you want to build these skills outside of your regular home game, though, you might want to read a book and practice actual improv exercises.
There are several expertly researched primers on how to become a better roleplayer through mastery of improvisation, but the definitive text is Improv for Gamers, a book written by Karen Twelves and published by Evil Hat Productions. This book helped me bridge the gap between my own theatrical background and my D&D games. It's mostly a toolkit filled with improv warm-ups, games, and exercises aimed at gamers who want to pump up their improvisational muscles, but there are also words of wisdom—sort of like the ones I provided throughout this article—that will help you wrap your head around the “tricks” of becoming a better improviser.
Are there any improv tactics that you’ve applied to your characters or NPCs? Share them with your fellow D&D players in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.