Tabletop roleplaying games began as an outgrowth of military miniature wargaming, and the earliest RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons were typically played as a sort of boardgame without the board, with careful calculations and dierolls determining outcomes and players working primarily to maximize their experience point gain. As they moved to digital media, RPGs continued more or less along the same path, since computers are good at performing careful calculations and generating random numbers.
In the world of tabletop and live action roleplaying, however, the trend has been in a different direction. In a roleplaying game, by nature, each player controls a single character, and even though the rules of early RPGs did not reward or provide systems to support actual roleplay, that is, improvisational acting in character, the mere fact of having individual characters, and their existence within an imaginary world,
encouraged players to explore the improvisational aspects of the milieu.
Over time, a number of independent movements have arisen among roleplaying gamers and designers to push roleplaying games more in the direction of theater; and indeed, in some cases the sorts of games these movements create are hard to distinguish from “acting games,” the improvisational exercises some acting schools use to develop actors’ skills.
One such movement is the indie RPG movement, whose enthusiasts often participate in the forums at The Forge (http://www.indie-rpgs.com/). In principle, any tabletop roleplaying game that is self-published or distributed in ways other than the conventional hobby market is considered “indie,” but the practitioners of these games generally move in a “narrativist” directon. The term “narrativist” derives from Ron Edwards’s “gamist-narrativist-simulationist theory” (GNS theory), which characterizes roleplaying games by their tendencies along each of these three dimensions. Edwards is himself the designer of one of the best known indie RPGs, Sorceror, a game in which each player is literally demon-haunted and may perform powerful magic – but only at the expense of losing an element of his or her humanity.
The focus of narrativist RPGs is on story-telling rather than improvisation per se; but their systems are often quite different from those of conventional tabletop RPGs. In a conventional RPG, game systems are primarily concerned with determining the success or failure of specific actions taken by the player characters. In a narrativist RPG, quite often the game system is used to determine whether a scene or confrontation is “successful” or not from a player’s perspective, but with players having great freedom to narrate the events of the scene, without additional die rolls or the like to determine whether or not specific actions succeed. E.g., in a conventional game, the outcome of a fight would involve many dierolls to determine whether a character hits and then how much damage he does; in a narrativist game, a dieroll might be used to determine whether a characters wins or loses the fight, with the players then describing how this happens freely.
Narrativist RPG designers are primarily interested in shaping the arc of a story, rather than in improvisation and roleplaying; but this inherently produces improvisation and roleplaying by the players.
Story games (see http://www.story-games.com/forums/) are subtly different from indie RPGs. A story game is a framework for shared story creation; quite often story games entirely dispense with the idea of a “gamemaster” entirely, instead providing a set of rules for determining who “controls” the narrative at any given time. The rules tend to tend to be more robust than those of “acting games;” indeed, the rules of acting games are rarely described as “rules,” but instead in terms of instructions from a director or teacher. Because story game creators emerged from the tabletop tradition, they think in terms of using rules to shape an experience, and of modifying those rules over time to improve the outcome. Perhaps the main difference from “acting games,” however, is that players roleplay and improvise while sitting around a table rather than while standing and moving as their characters would; story games still transpire in the imagination, not on a stage, and the characters played may look nothing like the players who take their roles. The improvisation, in other words, is primarily verbal, not in terms of action and stance.
Live action roleplaying games (LARPs), by contrast, make a virtue of physical performance as well as character improvisation. There are, however, many different kinds of LARP. One common form is the “bopper LARP,” a game, generally in a fantasy setting, in which physical combat, often with padded weapons, is the main focus of the game. Even in such games, however, costuming and adopting a persona, remaining in character, are considered important.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Dogma 99 larp (http://fate.laiv.org/dogme99/en/index.htm) , a larp designed in accordance with a manifesto promulgated in 1999 by a group of Scandinavian larpers. (In the Scandinavian larp community, “larp” is considered a word in itself rather than an acronym, and is rendered in all lower case letters). One of the rules of the manifesto is that “there are no rules,” which seems paradoxical, but by which they mean that such larps are not to have any game-y systems to handle things such as combat; all action must be live and real, and the larp should be structured to avoid situations, such as combat, that cannot be readily handled in a pure roleplaying context. Another rule is that all players must remain in character for the duration of the larp, except in specifically designated “cool down” areas, and that suspension of disbelief must be sustained to the highest degree possible.
An equally interesting larp type is the “jeepform,” a style pioneered by the Swedish group Vi åker jeep (http://jeepen.org/). A jeepform is intended for play by a handful of players in a short period of time, along with one or more gamemasters, who often have roles to play within the jeepform itself. Jeepforms are shaped toward the creation of story rather than ‘roleplaying for show,’ and are often designed so that characters emerge over time through play – and often so that the player of a character has only partial input into the nature of his or her character, with both the gamemasters and the other players able to establish things about the character. As a result, they tend to foster wild and rapid improvisational roleplay.
LARPs are sometimes highly structured, with characters designed in advance and with the game operators shaping a pre-determined story arc; others are far more freeform (and indeed, the
“freeform” is a kind of LARP, characterized by a minimal rules set and no predetermined outcome). Even in the most structured LARP, however, all conversations are improvised by the players; and in less constrained LARPs, the experiences of the players are highly improvised as well, within the context of a pre-established setting and tone.
The nature of digital games, with their predesigned art assets and precoded capabilities, make anything beyond the merest conversational improvisation impossible (and that only in online games). The nature of boardgames, with their tradition of formal and complete rules, also mitigate against improvisational play. But in roleplaying games, particularly in their more experimental forms, the techniques of improv have been enthusiastically adopted and extended to create games that are artistically exciting mergers between theater and “the game.”