Stuffed Crocodile

Mazes, Martians, Mead

[Tools] Warming up before a game

I wonder if anybody else is doing this: Warming up prior to a game.

For a bit of background: I was an amateur thespian for a long time, mostly just doing some drama stuff in school and university, sometimes when working with children and adolescents. So I was not actually doing anything really close to real acting, even if a lot of effort went into it.

So it was kind of natural for me to use some of the techniques from acting for my games.

Now, both are not the same. As other people do as well, I tend to get a bit annoyed when someone tries to go full armchair thespian, acting out everything, hogging all the spotlight with his one character. But I noticed that it sometimes helps me as a DM, especially when doing adventures with a lot of different NPCs. I normally try to give every one of them an at least marginally different voice, most likely due bad experiences with some DMs who could do exactly two different voices (one funny, one earnest).

Leading by bad example: you don’t want to be THAT DM, do you?

One of the main ‘tricks’ (well, it’s not really a trick) is to warm yourself up before the game. You will be playing something akin to improvisational theatre for three to five hours, and the DM is the one who has to get into multiple roles. Yes there might be a lot of dice rolling involved, but even then fights will be with NPCs (…hopefully).

So why not get yourself in the mood for that before?

Now, warming up sounds terribly proactive, but I am not talking about going out, doing some stretching and some laps on the track and then sinking to the ground with a heart attack. That actually might be bad considering your players would be waiting for you while you are so selfish to die somewhere on the race track when you should be dungeon mastering.

No, I am talking about some basic things that help you to get into the mood for acting. Something like making funny voices, twisting your tongue around so it doesn’t feel like it was glued into your mouth anymore, and, maybe, even getting up and stretching yourself in a few ways.

That’s not too hard, is it?

I noticed that doing a fifteen minute warm up improves my performance in the game quite nicely. Sure, at one point during the game I might reach that level of ability without a warm up, but it will take time, and when working a full workday before a game it will end up with me already falling into this dark hole of braindeadness that follows 13 or 14 hours of thinking on my feet. (player: “So, I am attacking the orc.” me: “huh?” player: “I am attacking the orc!” me: “oh, right… right… I need to roll for that orc, don’t I?”)

The idea about warming up exercises and games before playing theatre is simple: getting people out of their comfort zones into a mood that allows for quick thinking on their feet, getting voice and body ready for acting. This of course means that in many cases it is not necessary for DMs and players to do a full program of exercises before. When I was playing theatre it was about 30-45 minutes of warming up, and that was before practice, with basic exercises, and then going to short impro pieces and, yes, even some roleplaying. According to professional actors it is not really possible to really act without these exercises, but of course, no matter what people think about the artistic merit of roleplaying: It would be too involving to do all of this just for a quick session of D&D. But at least a few quick exercises help me as a DM if I get myself out of my comfort zone and into a mood to do a spontaneous goblin impersonation when need arises.

Further information (theatre-related):

Some nice videos about this from the Royal National Theatre: Breathing, Resonance of Voice, Opening up the Voice, and Articulation.

A short guide with more explanation on how to do a Physical Warm Up from the British Theatre Guide.

Improv Encyclopedia has a whole lot of Warm Up exercises. These are mostly for real theatre groups though. I think there might be a bit of sense in doing a short teambuilding exercise as is described here, but which group is seriously going to do that? In my opinion it might help people to gel with each other a bit better. Maybe I should think about some similar ones that can be done in 5 minutes around a table. Short session of Mafia before the real game maybe?


8 responses to “[Tools] Warming up before a game

  1. CreativeCowboy March 19, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Interesting. We share a theatrical background. Whether it’s in front of a microphone or for an audience in an auditorium, voice exercises were very useful in my profession and continue to be so in my hobby. Playing with the shape of my mouth, twisting my tongue (manually and using articulation exercises like tongue twisters) and voice scales are important warm ups before sitting down at the table, especially with a group that role plays. The abdomen and back stretching exercises are the equivalent of tuning a pipe organ – especially when the voice performance originates from a seated position for hours on end but the NPCs are not seated and active.

    If all the exercises are for a hack and slash dungeon party, however, the prep is pretty well wasted and unappreciated.


  2. Geoffrey March 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I think these are even useful for Hack and Slash. It’s not just about getting yout voice right for the occasion, but I noticed that it’s also easier to think in game terms if one tried to do some warming up exercises before.
    Also one has to remember that even in a hack and slash adventure the GM is still the one person most likely talking all the time. It helps having a voice that is tuned for that.


    • CreativeCowboy March 19, 2012 at 5:38 pm

      True enough for cardio. I usually have that rush while I prep the room (for 5 – 10 people). The better the cardio, the more the oxygen flow, the better the thinking. I tend to speak very little as a GM. (Maybe a throwback to 20/80 English conversation…) I get prodded for physical data and play NPCs but it’s usually the players themselves that move their characters forward in story, discuss their thoughts about clues I give, and carry on the game. If they wake from a bang on their door and rush to the door, down the stairs… they’re naked. I hit them heavy with this at the beginning and this lesson gets repeated to new players (by mindful players). So they go into exposition mode early because I do not cover their ommissions. When talk peters out between the players, they call me back into speaking mode. I highly encourage peer pressure at the table to stay on topic; focus on my description to create mood, and improvisation to pace.

      Apart from that, I tend to react to players. For me, hack and slash is a dice game and can be very deadly for players. Being animated at the table, including vioce and cardio exercises, translates to player excitement and increased energy flow in my experience.


      • Geoffrey March 19, 2012 at 6:56 pm

        Hmm… I guess I don’t really have the group to do it like that. I noticed a long time ago that the sweet spot of player group sizes is somewhere around 4 or 5 players in a game. Less and the DM has to fill in a lot of the other interactions to keep the flow of the game moving, more and the game slowly becomes too cumbersome to play.
        This of course depends a bit on the ruleset as well. The biggest games I had so far were around 10 players in either Shadowrun or D&D 3rd, and in both cases the game was terrible for me. I think it might be easier with my current favorites, meaning my own D&D houserules or Traveller. But both these games are so rules light that it might be easier keeping all the rules in my head.
        Anyway, my current group is 3 players. I would love to have one or two people more in there because I know that this would create more chances for roleplaying. It just seems that nobody really wants to play. At least not in English.


      • CreativeCowboy March 19, 2012 at 8:28 pm

        Poles seem to like the safety of crunch. When I tried to link RPGs to language conversation, Polish players were confused. I only ever had one player play with me that way. They seem not to understand. They ask how the crunch/system mechanic would improve their vocabulary. They’re very wargamish. Most of the interested were non-players. As now, with my group for expats, the non-players (meaning noobs) are the better match to my style. We are a rules light group similar to D&D With Porn Stars. I use AC, BAB and Saves because this is easier for all to grok and we forego the charts in AD&D 1e DMG but our game is retro-cloned House Rules. I do not think Polish gamers, who describe RPGs as Monopoly with attitude, would/could trust a game that was not entirely rules written.

        I intend to use the blog to write the rules as we go.


  3. Geoffrey March 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    So far I did not experience that. One of my players is my girlfriend, and she knew Warhammer before, but she only learned to play with me. The other two are Warhammer players, so they are in the usual scene for Poland, but they don’t seem to have a problem with my GM fiat and a rules light game. On the other hand both are very open to new games and willing to try new things whenever I get into the mood to do so (and that is often…), so I don’t know if it isn’t just because my players are just like that.
    I guess I need to play with a few more people outside of that group to get a blast of Polishness.


    • CreativeCowboy March 19, 2012 at 9:09 pm

      It could be I was just lucky. The comments were made on local forums to my girlfriend where I/we advertised in Polish. I also did the convention circuit giving talks on RPGs in language practive. You can find stuff about me on Google – includiong a con pic. Two Forums I recall were: and Paradox Cafe. I tried to sell the idea to language schools as a summer language activity. I was called a Satanist (one was a PhD scholar of education!) and had Director of Studies actually back away when I mentioned RPGs. As they say: your mileage may vary. It might be that this is only a Warsaw attitude. 😀 I have seen many unusual things in my 11 years here.


      • Geoffrey March 19, 2012 at 9:29 pm

        I think I am sheltered in my environment here. All it’s failures aside Łódż is a very young city with a lot of modern people. And I think I said it before: in my job there are a lot of roleplayers (which I know is not usual). One of my colleagues and me once did a little survey in our team: of 24 people we have 11 who have played until recently or are still playing, including my manager.
        I never actually tried selling it as language practice, although it might be a nice way to practice a language if done right. I think I did that to myself, not with playing though, but by reading rulebooks and supplements in English.
        About that PhD of Education: in my experience people who stay in academia in an educational area (and I am talking only about people here who teach people who want to become teachers) are often a very… odd kind of person. Many of them just couldn’t bear the stress of being a school teacher and decided to go back to uni. At least that’s my experience with people like that in Germany.
        I think I never was seen as a Satanist by anyone because of my roleplaying, I even was encouraged to do that by my priest when I was still working with teenagers. But that was another country… Poland can be difficult in these things.


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