1.5 – Help Desk Games


Two players meet in the middle of the stage and focus on figuring out the scene together.

I want to return this vacuum.
What’s wrong with it?


I want to see a manager.
Ma’am, he’s on a break.


I bought this and it won’t work.
I’m going to need to see a receipt.


That’ll be five ninety-nine.
Okay, I have ten eighty-eight.

I don’t want to see improvisers question, oppose, negotiate with or engage in transactions with each other. Even written, honed, acted and edited these scenes can prove tedious. But we can salvage these boring scenes with our good friend, the pattern.

The Help Desk dynamic is named in reference to those scenes defined by one player needing assistance and the other player responding to the request. Improvisers are taught to avoid “transaction” scenes because they are often stagnation by players negotiating – instead of declaring and heightening – their reality. Inquisition, opposition, negotiation and transaction are counterproductive on stage to our doing what the audience came to see: improvisers exploring an invented reality. The Help Desk dynamic may start with a self-contained emotional statement but rather than heightening the progression of moves, it persists in waffling over the same material.

These scenes bore us all. But utilizing patterns, we can leverage the Help Desk dynamic for collaborative exploration and satisfying laughs. Remember, we’re on stage to make each other look good. We lead by following. We don’t sweep a bad scene under the rug, we commit to it.

In a Help Desk Game, the progression of the scenic games establishes the pattern, and that pattern’s evolving repetition serves to heighten a personal game.

Here’s how…

Player One – Welcome to J. Bish’s Fishes. How can I hook you?
Player Two – Um, well, uh…
Player One – You want a carp? A trout? A marlin?
Player Two – I want ah…
Player One –We got a red snapper that’ll knock your socks off.
Player Two – Uh, give me one of those that does like this (makes his open hand move like a fish)
Player One – Oh, you want some salmon.
Player Two – Yep.
Player One – Okay, here you go.
Player Two – Um, thanks. Okay. Bye?

Not a great scene. Player One is a steamroller who thinks he’s hilarious. Player Two is overwhelmed and has trouble committing. It’s stuck in an unemotional premise. And everyone wants it to be over.

But Player Three can make it look good by initiating a Set move for a Help Desk game.

He enters the stage and either…

Intercepts Player Two’s exit through eye contact and says, “Welcome to F. Hitchen’s Chickens. How do you like to be clucked?”


Enters stage as Player Two leaves, engaging Player One through eye contact and saying, “Um, hi,” in an awkwardness that heightens Player Two’s demeanor.

By clearly assuming a role from the Offer dialogue, Player Three signals to the group that the pattern is going to be repeated and indicates the direction for heightening.

Player One or Two might be surprised but they should know their role. All they have to do is what they just did.

The Set dialogue proceeds with both players seeking to recreate and heighten the Offer dialogue.

Players on the wings should really be paying attention now. They need to track the progression of the Set dialogue so as to be able to participate in the Cement move. They need to pay special attention to what changes between Offer and Set dialogues and what stays the same.

Player Three – Um, hi.
Player One – Welcome to J. Bish’s Fishes. How can I hook you?
Player Three – Um, well, I uh, gosh, um…
Player One – You want a carp? A trout? A marlin?
Player Three – I want ah…
Player One –We got swordfish steaks that’ll impale you.
Player Three – Uh, give me one of those that does like this (shakes his arms indicating an octopus)
Player One – Oh, you want some giant squid.
Player Three – Sure do.
Player One – Okay, here you go.
Player Three – Ummmmm, thaaaaaaanks. Ohhhh, kay. (backs slowly toward the door.) Bye. (runs off stage)

It’s time for Player Four. She wants to keep everything the same that stayed the same between Offer and Set dialogues so as to further heighten through repetition. She wants to continue the progression indicated by what changed between Offer and Set dialogues so as to cement the direction of heightening.

Player Four – Um, hi.
Player One – Welcome to J. Bish’s Fishes. How can I hook you?
Player Four – Um, I, well, I uh, well, um…
Player One – You want a carp? A trout? A marlin?
Player Four – I want ah…
Player One –We got crabs that will…give you crabs.
Player Four – Uh, give me one of those that does like this (bends over and wiggles her whole body with her arms against her sides)
Player One – Oh, you want some sperm whale.
Player Four – That’s exactly right.
Player One – Okay, here you go.
Player Four – Ummmmm, thaaaaaaanks. Ohhhh, kaaaaay. (backs slowly toward the door.) Bye! (bolts off stage)
Player One – Oh, shit. No body paid.

From Offer to Set to Cement, what stayed the same stayed the same and what changed was progressively heightened. Players Four builds on Player Three’s heightening of Player Two’s awkwardly furtive character. Player One heightens his dialogue with both simple repetition and progressive references.

Clearly, being written-out this Help Desk example is easy to keep confined to the pattern of dialogue. But clarity and rigid repetition are as beneficial here as in the To The Ether games. The clearer the pattern, the easier it will be to heighten. And the audience loves seeing the pattern develop. When the audience “gets” the game, players get laughs for simply sticking the pattern – the third iteration of “marlin” can get a better reaction than any joke.

Don’t rush the pacing. Lines that came out naturally the first time can be hurried once they’re known. The cadence of the dialogue is part of the pattern. Stick the dialogue’s natural rhythm – it’s part of the pattern and you’ll be rewarded in laughs if you try to match your fellow players’ delivery as well as their words.

Don’t skimp on the emotion. Player Two was simply overwhelmed during the Offer dialogue, but Player Three and Four heighten the emotion of being overwhelmed characters. Emotions connect players and audience, and heightened emotions will ensure an earned edit even should all else fail.

Don’t ignore what you perceive as “bad” moves. Make them look good through repetition. By employing the mechanics of a Help Desk game, you can make a boring scene exciting, you can make a unfunny move hilarious, you can make an uninspired character the star of the show. Trust the pattern. The player initiating the Set move is most important to the mechanics of a Help Desk game, but s/he is also the least rewarded. The second iteration of any pattern is rarely as funny as the first or third. If the Offer dialogue was especially awkward, the audience might regard a player attempting to recreate it warily. But that third player wins the audience because of his/her commitment to the pattern. Most importantly, the Set move allows for the Cement move. And that fourth player should feel very lucky to have all the ducks lined up. If Player Four abandons the pattern because Player Three didn’t get huge laughs in the initial repetition, then he’s an idiot; if he’d also trusted the pattern he would have looked brilliant to the audience and have been drowned in laughter.

But Help Desk game mechanics aren’t only valuable in turning turds into gold; repetition of a scenic pattern can also turn gold into plutonium.

NEXT: More from our friend the Help Desk game