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Improv Proficiency 4: Don’t Mess with the Baby

Improv Proficiency 4: Don’t Mess with the Baby

Roleplaying in a game is one of the most effective ways a player can interface with their character and immerse themselves into the world of the game. A common concern among newer players however, is that they don’t believe they can think on their feet, so they can’t roleplay in what they believe is a meaningful way.

Luckily, it’s easy to cultivate improvisation skills! The dirty secret of improv is that you can practice it. You’re at the table anyway, so try these games and tools to improve your skills.

Catch up on all installments of Improv Proficiency!

Improvising a scene with your fellow players is always fun when you are all working toward the same objective. Remember, a scene is any moment of a game in which roleplaying is in the forefront.

When you begin to understand the implied rules and etiquette that go into crafting and roleplaying a scene with others, you can start to experiment and push the boundaries. How do you think outside of the box and push your creativity to the next level? It’s simple: don’t mess with the baby!

What Is the Baby?

A “baby” is an improv term used to describe the central object or idea of focus in any particular scene. The first unusual thing (see Improv Proficiency 3: Games Within the Game) often becomes the baby in a scene, since players are on the lookout for it. TTRPGs are special in that there will typically be an objective the party wants to achieve—a short-term goal to be solved within a scene or a long-term goal pursued over several sessions. These objectives can become the baby of any given scene since they are reliably in the minds of the players and GM.

A short-term baby is an immediate objective that can be addressed in the current session or scene. Trying to pull a lever to open a gate, breaking out of a cell, or convincing a guard to let you get by could all be short-term babies.

A long-term baby is campaign-spanning. Avenging your character’s dead relative, pursuing a mythical pirate’s treasure, or closing a portal to another realm could all be long-term babies.

You can use a baby like you would the first unusual thing. Establish the elements of LARCH (see Improv Proficiency 1: Using LARCH) while having your roleplaying decisions relate to the baby.

Don’t Mess with It!

A simple way to stretch your creative muscles to get used to thinking in spontaneous and unexpected ways is to not mess with the baby. A short-term baby usually has a direct and obvious way to address it. Using the lever and gate example, the most straightforward solution to this baby is approaching and pulling the lever to open the gate.

Now, all you need to do is not mess with the baby. Try anything to address the obstacle instead of the most obvious. You could try to lift the gate using only your strength, fashion some rope into a lasso to pull the lever at a distance, convince someone else to open the gate for you, or anything else except the straightforward answer. Let the baby sleep.

What’s the Point?

By barring yourself from the easiest solution available, you train your brain to develop newer and more interesting solutions. This thought process feeds directly into your improvisational skills, since roleplaying in a scene requires you to be in the moment and to think on your feet.

The ideas you come up with may not be 100% thought through. That’s OK. Improv is not a single-player game. Just as you build off the ideas presented by your fellow players, trust that they will build off yours, even if they are on the goofier side. That makes it more fun!

Knowing When to Mess With the Baby

Keep in mind that not messing with the baby can put an unfair amount of creative responsibility on the GM, who must take your spontaneous (and unexpected) idea and transform it into something plausible.

Ultimately, messing with the baby is the objective of a TTRPG. There is an extremely fine line between being extemporaneous and wasting other people’s time with unnecessary complexity. How often you should use this tactic depends on you knowing your fellow players.

Is your group very focused, more interested in following direct routes? Are they dedicated to pursuing the plot as quickly as possible? Then use these ideas sparingly.

Is your group more relaxed in their gameplay style, preferring to wander around and see where their whims take them rather than following a hard plot? Then you can feel lean into these ideas more often.

In either case, have a conversation at your table to get a better understanding of what everyone wants out of the game. Communication is key in order to give everyone a fun, fulfilling experience.

Exercise: Don’t Mess With the Baby

This is a more involved exercise for 3 or more people and requires some space to be able to move around without bumping into things.

This game is played completely silently. Standing in a line, the first player enters the room and pantomimes placing a baby onto/into an imaginary piece of furniture. They then leave the room the same way they came in, and go to the back of the line. The next player enters the room in a brand new way (different door, through a window, etc.) and must introduce a new imaginary object and interact with it and the baby in some way. They then leave the same way they entered and play continues until all of the players have gone three times.

The goal is to craft an imaginary room full of objects that you may or may not interact with in relation to the baby, just as you would in a scene while playing a TTRPG.

When trying this exercise for the first time, try one of these prompts on your first turn to get started:

  • Enter through a window and place the baby on the window sill.
  • Enter through the front door and use the baby as a doorstop.
  • Dig up through the floor and give the baby the shovel.

For more insight into how the games are played and made, told by the pros, check out Kobold Guides!
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding gets you inside info on making your world more fun and real.
The Kobold Guide to Gamemastering gives you tips and structure for upping for GM game!
And there are many more, waiting for you!

about Evan Noone

Evan Noone is an independent TTRPG writer and designer. Whether his storytelling prowess is a gift from his infernal patron, The Imp, or he is the fiend itself remains to be seen. You can explore his collection of TTRPG supplements on DMs Guild or follow him on twitter @impgames_.

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