1.3 – Game Mechanics


Some definitions:

Pattern – a sequence that can be repeated / a structure that can be reused

Game – a sequence of actions, related by rules of cause-and-effect, that heightens with repetition

A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. That’s a fine pattern. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark. Repetition makes the sequence purposeful. And repetition alone is heightening – imagine a room filled with “A rocketship, A thumb and An aardvark” wallpaper.

But in aspiring to elevate pattern work into game play, we focus on two aspects. One, we want a relationship between the nodes of the sequence. And, two, we want a progression of subsequent relationships that heightens the sequence in a concentrated direction.

The improviser’s “Yes, And” motto implies a relationship between what is agreed to and what is added. Yes, I’m afraid of the dark, and I’m a big wuss. Tight games are developed by making each contribution in the context of everything that came before it. As we consistently “Yes, And” to the whole of what’s been laid down before us, we aim to heighten in one direction.

The “rules” of a game define how the parts of a sequence relate – “C” follows “B” as “B” follows “A.” Clear rules enable everyone – the audience included – to play the game. With clear rules, improvisers no longer have to contrive a response, they are compelled to respond – it’s that “Ooh, ooh, I got this” moment. With clear rules, the audience is engaged in the scene, proud for having “gotten it.” The clearer the rules are defined, the faster and easier the game can be heightened, can be evolved, can be played boldly and confidently.

Think of patterns as being defined by three moves.
– The first move is the Offer. Anything is an offer. In the nothing of space, we have improvised one something. Anything.
– The second move is the Set move. Of the myriad directions available after the Offer, the Set move begins to define a single trajectory.
– The third move is the Cement move, clarifying the pattern in a direction that can be repeated and heightened.

In our One Person Scenes, the Set move is Player Two’s choice to agree with Player One’s initiation – mirroring the perspective, the self-contained emotional statement, the posture, the anything of the Offer. When Player Three also agrees with the other players – and all three are captains at ships’ wheels who hate the sea – it is cemented for the rest of the group that they’re playing a One Person Scene.

The Offer is anything. The Set move seeks to establish a relationship with the Offer move. The Cement move seeks to heighten the relationship between the Set and Offer moves through its own relationship with the Set move. The progression of Offer, Set and Cement moves define the rules to the relationship between nodes in the sequence.

Walk backward with me using Word Associations…

From the Offer of “Orange,” there are many different paths to take, but the Set move seeks to orient the group onto one of them.

Example One – “Orange,” “Red”
Example Two – “Orange,” “Lemon”
Example Three – “Orange,” “Blew”

Thanks to the Set move we start to see that the first example is following Colors, the second is following Fruits and the third, Homophones. But we don’t want our Cement move to just be any Color, Fruit or Homophone; we want to establish a heightening progression. With a Cement move we want to confirm more than just the category we want a clarified direction for subsequent contributions.

Example One – “Orange,” “Red,” “Violet”
Example Two – “Orange,” “Lemon,” “Kumquat”
Example Three – “Orange,” “Blew,” “Read”

So now thanks to the Cement move we know we’re not just contributing Colors but Darkening Colors. We’re not just adding on Fruits but Sequentially Smaller Citrus Fruits. Not just Homophones but Color-Centric Homophones.

When the progression’s path is clear, everyone can come out and play…
“Orange,” “Red,” “Violet,” “Purple,” “Grey,” “Black”
“Shirt,” “Chest hair,” “Pectorals,” “Rib cage,” “Heart,” “Aorta,” “Blood,” “Cell”
“House,” “Neighborhood,” “County,” “State,” “Country,” “Continent,” “Planet,” “Galaxy”…

What if the direction is clear but the path seems to have reached a dead end? What if – using Example 2 above – no one knows another citrus fruit smaller than a kumquat? You can always reset the sequence, heightening the Offer, Set, Cement progression with another Set sequence.

“Orange,” “Lemon,” “Kumquat,” “Orangutan,” “Gibbon,” “Tamarin,” “Orange County,” “Onsville,” “KumTam Square”…
“Orange,” “Lemon,” “Kumquat,” “Tan-ger-ine,” “Hon-ey-dew,” “Can-ta-loupe,” “Wa-ter-me-lon,” “Pom-e-gran-ate,” “Lo-gan-ber-ry,”…

Resetting the sequence is always an option. If you’re ever lost, go back to what you did before, building layers of patterns, heightening with each subsequent sequence.

Resetting can be especially helpful if the initiating sequence does not establish a clear direction. Take this example: “Orange,” “Purple,” “Green.” There is no clear relationship between contributions. But if we attempt to reset the sequence, we can help clarify a progression.

“Orange,” “Purple,” “Green,” “Tangerine,” “Plum,” “Olive,” “Mango Tango,” “Mountain Majesty,” “McMinty,”…

Redefining which move is which can also prove useful. We establish rules by making each next move on the basis of everything that came before it. And – walking backward – we define our rules in retrospect. Defined in retrospect, each “move” needn’t be “one line” or “one player’s contribution.”

For example, Player One says, “Orange,” and Player Two says, “Peel.” When Player Three says, “Melon,” he is signaling to his troupe that – in retrospect – “Orange” and “Peel” together constitute the Offer move. And this should lead Player Four to say, “Rind.” So…

OFFER Orange + Peel
SET Melon + Rind
CEMENT Apple + Skin

The clearer a pattern is, the easier it will be for a group to heighten it through repetition. “Orange,” “Peel,” “Melon,” “Rind,” “Apple,” “Skin,” “Turtle,” “Shell,” “Orangutan,” “Fur,” “Melon,” “Skull,” “Bod,” “Duds,” “Ride,” “Rims,” “Crib,” “Bling,”…

But, and this is IMPORTANT, capital-letters-IMPORTANT, whatever happens…

There are no mistakes in patterns on stage. There is no “right.” There is only “what has happened” and “what’s happening now.” We work to make our partners look good. We accept everything that happens and work to integrate it. The group fails when we fail to integrate each individual contribution into the whole. Everything that happens becomes part of the pattern. “A” then “B” then “Y” is not a mistake. The next part of the pattern is “C” then “D” then “Z.”

Don’t judge. Accept. Remember, every player in a group is necessarily playing by their own rules, making their own connections with individual inspiration. But if every additional player is committed to accepting and building from what the group has established, then the group increasingly focuses behind a collective direction.

Group Mind is an individual choice.
Choose to help focus the group with an individual commitment to facilitating patterns. Even if you’re alone in this pursuit, the group will enjoy that much more focus.

Each individual is 100% responsible for the success of the group and we lead by following. If something is not clear, don’t ignore it or play it half-assed, make it clearer – by heightening it or otherwise emphasizing the move.

Prioritizing clarity and brevity in establishing rules will enable more people to participate on stage (and off). And the clearer a pattern the faster and better it can be heightened and expanded.

There is a fractal nature to evolution of patterns and there are often many interrelated patterns at play in an improvised game. These fractals can build so dense as to be suffocating, but with analysis and practice one is able to recognize and play to them. The more relationships between moves one recognizes, the more opportunity exists for heightening.

Here are some more contrived examples of Word Associations. What patterns/ progressions/ relationships do you see?

Example One – “Orange,” “Apple,” “Kiwi,” “Color,” “Company,” “Countryman,” “Carrot Top,” “Steve Jobs,” “Flight of the Conchords,” “Props to me,” “Stock up,” “I think I’m Jermaine to this conversation.”

Example Two – “Tree,” “Trim,” “Christmas,” “Excitement,” “Elate,” Santa,” “Cross,” “Crucify,” “Jesus,” “Ah, Christ” (frustrated), “Only ten shopping days left,” “Ah, Christ” (resigned), “Yeah, reindeer don’t fly either,” “Ah, Christ” (at peace), “Easter’s so relaxing”…

I like Word Associations. I find them a helpful exercise in flexing mental pattern muscles.

What else helps an improviser learn how to recognize and build game mechanics? By playing games – card games, board games, dice games (and – to lesser extent – video games). I love the game “Set” by Enterprises, Inc. that has players identifying patterns between cards. Cultivation of pattern recognition skills takes practice. Focus outwardly and open up your lizard brain to the patterns surrounding you in daily life. Slow down and notice the speedometer.

Get nerdy over patterns. Concentrated analysis builds rote memory. Learning takes work, but the goal of dedicated practice is being able to play reflexively in-the-moment on stage.

Establishing and identifying the Offer, Set and Cement moves that define a game’s pattern will help you with exercises spanning from Word Associations to Kick the Duck, Red Rover. The ability to track the relationships between pattern moves facilitates strong games in all our scenes, from the most structured to the most organic. Whether we’re on stage with one other player or twenty, our personal attention to pattern mechanics helps focus scenes and enhance their sustainability.

Learn rigidly to play free.


We’re improvisers; we’re leaving plot and exposition to writers. We focus on what makes our art unique among performance mediums. With detailed, emotional reactions we establish patterns that allow us to play games collaboratively and engage a participating audience.

We want to establish and heighten games in all our scenes.

In any given scene there can be many games at play. I find it helpful to distinguish between Personal Games and Scenic Games.

Personal Game – how you react to who you are, where you are or what you’re doing
* I love cake; when I eat a piece I’m overcome with joy and I sigh involuntarily

Scenic Game – how you react to who your scene partner is, what your scene partner is doing or how your scene partner is acting
* Greg is my hero; when he criticizes me I’m destroyed and flagellate myself
* We are scared of ghosts; when we hear a noise we freak and run around

The games represent a pattern of behavior established through evolving rules. While all scenes feature these games, when we extenuate the game’s pattern we often categorize the result as a Game scene.

When is it most important to play clearly and tightly? The more people on stage the clearer we have to be, the tighter we should attempt to be with our rules, and the closer we must stick to the pattern. In a Group Game scene, we establish focus behind patterns that unite all players.

The more people on stage, the greater the emphasis becomes on the scenic game. Or rather, the greater number of Persons on stage, the more emphasis falls on the unifying scenic game.

In our One Person Scenes, we all share a personal game, collectively heightening one – ideally emotional – perspective.

In Two Person Scenes – be they one-on-one, five-on-one, three-on-three, etc. – we have to balance the personal and the scenic games.

If we have nine distinct perspectives on stage, any single personal game is significantly less important than the scenic game that links them.

We track the relationship between personal and scenic games the same way we track the pattern of any single game, by identifying and establishing Offer, Set and Cement moves.

From one self-contained emotional statement, infinite scenes could sprout. But, similar to chess, while the possibilities are endless as to how a game might play out, history has highlighted particular trends in the progression of moves.

For focus sake, I find it easiest to learn to track pattern moves as they relate to three rubric Group Games: To The Ether, Help Desk and Hey Everybody games.

NEXT: To the Ether

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