Improv, LDN and Chimaera

“punky electronica…kind of grime…kind of like…new-wave grime…but kind of maybe like more broken beats, but kinda dubby broken beats…but a lil bit kind of soulful….but kind of drum’n’bassy, but kinda more broken drum’n’bass like more broken beats, but break beat kind of broken drum’n’bass. Kind of…Do you know what I mean?”.

God, I love that start to a video (It’s Lily Allen’s LDN, for those not in the know) as it’s a go-to for me to explain so many things. And today, it’s improvisation.

Explaining improvisation can be a bit daunting, for me at least, as it’s something that I have had to use for so long in my gaming life as a GM, and my professional life as a former teacher, that it’s second nature. Lily Allen helps, and allows me to have a through-line that I follow, and whilst I think it gets a bit convoluted, it works for me so here goes.

First, we need to think about chimaera. Because of course we do. When we try to describe chimaera, we do so by smashing together concepts from different animals – a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent for a tail. Why? 

Because we cannot imagine new things.

Everything we ‘imagine’ is simply a mosaic of other things that we know and have experienced. Try describing a new colour? You will inevitably do it in terms of other colours. A strange sound is almost always described as being ‘like X, but with Y’ – you get the picture.

So if we cannot imagine anything new, how can we possibly improvise adventures in a fantasy landscape with imaginary characters?

Well, first we need to be honest with ourselves and think about how our own mental imaging works. This is potentially controversial, and I can already feel people reaching for their literal or metaphorical glasses to ‘Well, actually’ me, but …  we’re all susceptible to imagery. What do I mean? Well, let’s consider fantasy dwarves?

Stop. How many of you have an image of Gimli from the Lord of the Rings films in your head? How many have a self-animated version of a Warhammer Trollslayer? How many have one of the characters from Time Bandits? How many of you have some Larry Elmore D&D art from 1983? (Permission to push glasses up noses now, by the way…)

I’m guessing the majority of you will have had one of those images in your head. In many cases, where you have read a book before you have seen a film, the images from the film may have supplanted the images you generated from the book – those imagined images themselves are just chimaera of other things. A mental photobash, if you will.

So why not lean into this phenomenon?

Why not accept that we are absolutely great at this chimaera thing, and with the right materials in our heads, we can unleash great waves of imagination? Now imagine we did that not just to imagine images, or things, but also stories?

The huge mass of media we have access to gives us an unlimited library of films, TV, comics, books, music, theatre and other bits and bobs to absorb into our toolbox of chimaera parts. The more you consume, the more parts you have. The more parts you have, the more options you have to improvise with!

These don’t have to be direct lifts from movies or books either – I think it’s safe to say we’re all tired of the ‘Chewie Move’ from Star Wars being reenacted over and over again. They can just be fragments or themes from scenes.

Here’s an example, just using Lord of the Rings – let’s put together a scene where PCs in a heroic ancient Greek style game, like Agon, have to cross the River Styx? Maybe they are being pursued by something horrid too?

OK, well the Nazgul pursuing the Hobbits towards the Brandywine Ferry seems like an obvious start for this one. We know the themes of desperate fleeing and the oppressive hunters. That’s good. I also remember one of the hobbits jumping onto the raft? So maybe Charon’s Ferry has already departed and the PCs need to leap to the boat. Oh excellent. Now, maybe Charon is a bit pissed – he’s not a bus conductor after all. You’re supposed to pay before you sail! So what does a pissed off Charon look like? Well, a Nazgul would fit the bill. And what does the Styx itself look like? Well how about the floating faces of the long dead from the Dead Marshes scene?

Well, there you have a quick scene – a chase, a leap to the boat, the calming of Charon and the threat of falling into the haunted waters. You know the ‘plot’, you have the imagery and you can convey that to your players. Job done!

You can extrapolate this technique to entire plots or even campaigns! You can use it for NPCs too – take a character from a TV show and transpose them into a different setting. So your next pair of wily merchants trying to foist their latest wonder cures onto the PCs are, in your minds eye, Del Boy and Rodney, and the ultra annoying know-it-all arch mage they have to work with to save the Prince, is of course, House. Don’t make it too obvious though – if every wizard is a flavour of Ian McKellan, and every bard asks them to spend a coin for the Witcher… you get the idea?

There are a few problems with this technique that you should be aware of though. The first is that it is exceptionally easy to let your description of a scene drift into Lily Allen speak.

“It’s like the Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, but dusty like in Dune, and with dragons flying around in House of the Dragon and armour that’s more ornate, like a Chaos Warrior in Warhammer, but with green skinned riders, like Orions, that all look like Dejah Thoris from John Carter – Do you know what I mean?”

Chances are, no they do not. Try to hide the seams where the chimaera has been sewn together with some deft description instead.

“The ornate, beautifully crafted towers and bridges rise from the swirling sand of the deserts, that sand driven by the beating wings of dozens of guardian dragons – large and small – swooping around driven by their beautiful emerald-skinned female riders – riders and dragons both wearing the same style of aggressive red lacquered armour you have grown to recognise as the mark of the Emperor’s personal guard.”

The second is when you’re leaning heavily on a single plot to ‘improvise’ your game and people recognise what it is. As soon as the characters realise they were all individually recruited to defend a village against a local warlord, being paid with the last money the villagers were able to scrape together, it’s easy to know that you’re in a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven chimaera! OK, this isn’t always a bad thing if people lean into the premise and enjoy the ride, but some people like to make it like when someone knows all the punchlines to the gags at a comedy show and shouts them out before the comedian delivers them. Pillocks. If that happens, you have to dip hard into your box of tricks and pivot to something different, or introduce new elements that change their assumptions of what’s going to happen.

And that, to me, is improvisation. Smashing bits and pieces of different media together and then hiding the seams. On a small encounter level, an NPC level or a whole adventure or even campaign, when you lean into the reality of chimaera building, improvisation becomes much easier.

And much easier than Lily Allen getting the right record!

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