GMprov – It’s a Set-Up


This week, I’m going to focus on another rules of improv: Establish the Scene.

Whenever you’re writing a play or a book, you have months to build up the proper setting and mood. You can take your sweet time to refine the language, and use flowery language to establish the mood. Ol’ Poe describes his chamber “the bleak December / and Each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” (Beautiful, ain’t it?)

When you’re running an improv scene, the average time you have door opento establish the scene is roughly 34 pictoseconds. When you’re GMing a rambunctious group, you might have about the same.

To set up the scene successfully, you need to establish with lightning speed, in order of priority:

  1. Who is everyone?
  2. What’s the conflict?
  3. Where are you?

You would think that the “where” would go first, but if you have to choose only one detail to give, the players are more likely going to need to know that the assassin darting through the crowd was the woman with the scar across her forehead, and will care less about the fresco on the temple ceiling.  When in doubt, people are fascinated by people, not things (which is why no talking cartoon animal ever looks 100% like the animal it was based off of.)  When you’re running Improv scenes, it is important that the player not only establish their own identity, but also the identity of the other person, and their connection.  This may seem like a lot to establish, but a skilled performer can set it up with a single sentence. Examples:

 “Young lady, you are not going to school dressed like THAT!”  Relationship: younger daughter (probably teen) and parent.

“Ladies and Gentleman of the board, as the CEO of Enerdine corporation…” Relationship: CEO, the board members.

“Excuse me officer, I’m sorry to bother you, but my wife and I are lost…” Relationship: Wife & Spouse (husband, her wife) and a stranger, who is a police officer.

Of course, the players have probably set up THEIR characters already, so you just need to set up the NPC characters. Young or old? Knowledgable or naive? In charge, or a mere pawn?

Also, remember that the player’s relationship with another person may vary drastically based on their reputation and goals. In their minds, they might be world-saving heroes, but others might see them as smelly, rampaging mercenaries. For a pop culture example, remember Indiana Jones: we see him as a gruff, heroic adventurer, but his students see him as a stuffy archeology professor, and the natives of the countries he’s see him as an infamous grave robber.

Next, mark sure you set up the conflict. Who wants what, and how badly? I talked about this a lot in the Chair/Bus Stop blog a few months back, but in a nutshell; every scene always ends with one of three possibilities:

  1. Both people get what they want.
  2. One side gets what they want; the other side can go no further to get what they want at this time.
  3. No one gets what they want, and no one can go any further to get what they want at this time.

Setting: This is the least priority, but not by much. It is vitally important that players get a few facts and a feeling about the world they inhabit. In Fate Core, these show up as situation aspects. If I have one flaw as a GM (note: I have WAY more than one), it’s that I have a habit of spamming a scene with way too many situation aspects. But how can I not? There are so many fun things to include: the space, the objects, the mood, the emotional tension.  Heck, I love situation aspects so much I built the Dungeon Tours game, which is built around players creating fun settings.


Character Creation Tip

Set-up Check list:
Who – are they talking to?
What – is the relationship?
When – Day or night? Is the clock ticking? Is the person rushed, and has no time for your foolishness? Alternatively, are you racing a ticking clock, and this person taking their sweet time?
Where – Location? Someone’s home turf? Tangible Factors? Intangible factors?
Why – Why are you two talking? What motivates each party? Why are you here?

Relationship – Quick Trick
Not sure what relationship to set up? When in doubt, a stranger is a mirror to viewer.

  • An honest person will see others as honest.
  • A lying crook who looks after themselves will assume others are crooks.

A great example is the movie The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is surrounded by lying murderers who use threats, bribes and seductions to get him to reveal what he knows about the statue, and to give it up. He insists he doesn’t have it and knows nothing, and they assume that he’s lying to drive up the price; because if they were in his place, that’s what THEY’D do. They don’t even consider that he might actually be telling the truth, and that he DOESN’T have it. He’s not as big of a crook as they are (though, not by much.)


QUESTIONS: Does and don’ts!

2 thoughts on “GMprov – It’s a Set-Up

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s