You are not as creative as you think you are, and less so when you are under pressure. Our brains are great at pattern matching, but not as great for storage. So the things we tend to remember are the things that get frequently used, while obscure concepts are forgotten. When we engage in any form of improv gaming, from just the natural improv that occurs between the interaction of the players and the GM in a traditionally prepped role playing game, or the more improv driven story games, we draw first upon what is readily available in our heads; the common stuff. The result is that when we are under pressure we will create similar types of characters or situations, the things that reside in our comfort zone. If you want to keep your improv fresh, you need a way to work outside of your comfort zones and incorporate ideas which are not readily stored in your head. For that, you need some tools.

Freeform vs. Constrained Creativity

Improv is a creative exercise. It requires the raw materials of ideas and the skill to identify the right element and how to employ it into the ongoing story. When it comes to creativity there are two general forms:

Freeform creativity, one where we have an infinite number of choices and no constraints, keeps us in our comfort zones, as we draw those common stored ideas from our minds and assemble them into NPC’s, dialog, locations, and plots. Quick! Think of a color? Was it Blue? Or Red? Or one of the other 64 colors in a crayon box? More than likely it was. It’s doubtful that it was Smaragdine, because with the exception of a few occupations, you don’t normally encounter that color and so its not in your mind for consideration (I Googled it).

We are actually more creative when we are given limits to our choices - this is constrained creativity. Given a limited number of options and the need to incorporate them into a single, cohesive idea, our creativity soars. If those options are also things that are outside of our comfort zone, then the results are richer. It is more work to accomplish, but the results are more satisfying.

The Improv Toolkit

If we need more elements than what are in our head, then we need tools which can provide us those options. Lucky for us these types of creative tools are being designed to support not only RPG’s, but writers and school children as well.

Over the years, I have been slowly amassing a set of these tools, and working out how to apply them to my prep as well as when I am running at the table. I now have a small toolkit that I can draw upon when I need additional ideas or options to stoke my creativity and fuel my improv.


Improv Toolbox

This is my current toolkit complete with its own box. I keep it to the side of my gaming table, within arms reach so that I can use the tools within while I am running my games. Between sessions they sit on a shelf in my office, so that I have them at my disposal while I am prepping my games.

Here is a rundown of the contents:


I will skip any lengthy introduction to this tome. If you are a regular reader of the Stew, then you know all about this book. In essence its 1000 system-neutral NPC’s for fantasy, sci fi, and modern games, grouped as: heroes, villains, and neutrals. Masks is a great resource when I need a fully thought out NPC, with a personality and background; best used for NPC’s you plan on keeping around for a while. Also the ribbon at the bottom of the book is a random name generator, which is also useful in a pinch.

Find out more about Masks (while you are there check out Unframed as well).

Story Forge

This is a deck of 88 cards which contain a good and bad story element on each card. They can be used both singly or in arrangements, to create plots or character backgrounds. I like these cards for when I am generating a plot during prep, or when I need motivation for an NPC during a game. The elements on the cards have general descriptions, allowing for a variety of interpretations.

For some more info about Story Forge check out here and here.

Writer’s Dice

Created by Daniel Solis, this pair of six sided dice contains conjunctions (coordinating and subordinating for you grammar geeks). They are designed for you to take multiple ideas and allow the dice to determine how they will be connected to one another. I like these dice for expanding beyond using “Yes, and” and spurring me into other directions such as “Yes, if” or “Yes, but”.

For more information about Writer’s Dice check out Daniel’s blog (and then stay to read Daniel’s brilliant insights on game design and layout).

Rory’s Story Cubes

This is another set of dice, but these have icons on their faces. They were designed to be used for someone to create a story by incorporating the icons on the dice. They come in three packs: Original, Voyages, and Actions. These can be used a number of ways such as creating NPC backgrounds, and much like the Story Forge cards can also be used for NPC motivations.

Story Cubes have been talked about on the Stew before here and here.

Short Order Heroes

This is a deck of 108 cards which each contain a single personality trait, and are a quick way to create a personality for an NPC. You can create a simple NPC with the draw of one card, or a more in-depth NPC by the use of multiple cards (3 is recommended). I like to use these in my prep to give my NPC’s a range of personalities, and at the table I keep the deck handy if I need to create an NPC on the fly.

We have talked about these before, here.

Under Construction

My improv toolkit is far from complete. I am always out looking at new ideas, like Backstory Cards. As my style of GMing changes, and as new products are designed, I am sure my toolbox will change.

Do you have an improv toolkit? What is in yours? What item do you not have, that you wish you did?