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Pop quiz, hotshot: what’s the first rule of improv comedy?

It’s “Always agree,” or sometimes it’s written “Say ‘Yes, and…’.” In our house, we call it ‘playing along.’ (I’m going to get a little geeky here, so please forgive me.)

I’m a gamer, and I’ve seduced my wife into gaming with me regularly. Nary a day goes by that we don’t spend at least fifteen minutes describing the lives of fictional characters that exist only in our heads and in vague notes on pieces of paper.

Sidenote: This is what Fantasy Looks Like
In our current game, my wife is playing Sable Ann Svaligiatore, nee Prestwick, of House Misericorde — an otherwise-normal recent college graduate who happens to live in Portland, OR, with four guys. Guys whose souls house both the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel, as well as their ‘mortal’ selves whose destiny is to bring these eight powerful immortal spirits to Judgment. The hope, naturally, is that they’ll live good lives and the Horsemen will be added to the ranks of the angels, for a huge win all around.

Her character’s job is to make sure that they stay more or less morally good and emotionally happy. Their job is to have extraordinary things happen to them because, naturally, the forces of the Underworld want to mess up the plan in any way they can, so life is always interesting and there’s just oodles of personal drama dripping off of every available plot hook.

So why is all of that relevant? Simple — because the first rule of excellent roleplaying is the same as the first rule of improv: always say “Yes”, and if necessary, “and…”.

For example, Sable started the game knowing a bit about Tai Chi, and was adequately capable of protecting herself. As she learned in the first part of the game that the guys she had fallen in with were more than they appeared, she made the assumption that if angels and demons must be real, there is probably other stuff about the world that must be real, too. So, she started studying Tai Chi’s natural partner, Qi Gong, which teaches practitioners to do things like heal people and, at the highest levels, do this:


Now, there’s no real logical reason why, if angels and demons are real, Eastern monks throwing energy balls around should be real, too — but the first rule of awesome RPGing is “yes, and…”. So sure — today after a few months of regular gaming, Sable has learned to fend off major demons (currently they’re under attack by the Seven Deadly Sins) with the power of her martial arts.

Geek Talk: “Railroading”
The other option would be either “yes, but…” or “no.” But can you imagine what would happen on stage if one actor ran on and said “A policeman just stole my penguin!” and the other actor said, “No, he didn’t.”

Game over. End of improv. Role-playing is kind of the same way, but it doesn’t end as definitively. It just sucks when you’re playing a game and you come up with an awesome idea, and it gets slapped down first thing.

I remember an RPG I played in college where everything the players tried to do was told “no” unless the guy running the game had already written down that that’s what they were going to do. Barbarians are attacking from the north? Can we go west? No, the swamps to the west are overflowing with Flesh Melting Disease. Can we go east? No, the mountains to the east are overflowing with Knott Yeti and they’ll eat your face. Can we go south? No, the ocean to the south is being overrun with pirates and all of the ports are closed. Can we hide? No, the barbarians have dogs and somehow they all already know what you smell like. Can we fight? No, all of the blacksmiths in town have been poisoned and all of the weapons have been stolen. Your only choice is to get captured, because that’s what the plot that’s already been written down demands.

That’s not fun. That sucks. It’s hopeless, and it’s helpless, and at the point where your decisions don’t matter, it’s not even a game anymore. Who wants to ‘play’ that?

OK, so you’ve blown seven hundred words talking about something that doesn’t seem to relate to parenting at all. What gives?

In geek talk, the whole ‘game with no choices’ thing is called “railroading,” and it’s the role-playing equivalent of being an authoritarian dic…tator. Or, as it was known around here until I had my big blog-starting epiphany, “Daddy.”

Today, I hope, things are mostly different.

So this morning my son walked past me in super-slow motion as I made breakfast. I was curious, but he wasn’t trying to get my attention, so I just waited. He walked in super-slow motion up to my wife, who was doing her morning toilette while playing Candy Crush Saga on my Kindle. (Thanks, Cody.)

He suddenly collapsed onto the floor and said, “I…am…a…Kindle…powered…robot…that…talks. May…I…have…the…Kindle…please?”

My wife, naturally, gave him the Kindle — because what else are you supposed to do? She was laughing too hard to play regardless. How can you say no to such a brilliantly clever request?

And that’s when it occurred to me that there’s an incredible amount of power in playing along with your child. Or your spouse, or anyone else, actually. When my son wants something or wants to do something, by far the easiest way to get him back on task is by agreeing — and then adding an element to the agreement that puts him on task.

The Power of Playing Along
For example, a few days ago, we were at the hardware store. We had a sweet Culligan under-the-sink water filter we were installing because we were tired of paying for Brita filters, but the Culligan kit had 1/2 inch inputs and outputs, and our kitchen’s water supply pipes were 3/8ths of an inch.

So while my wife and I were hunting for adapters, my son starts wandering around the hardware store. I’m fairly disturbed by this, and I’m starting to crack down on him. “NO. No. No, no. No. NOOooo. No!”

Then he starts screwing different connectors together, and I’m like “No…,” but my wife is all “Yes, and…you should see if you can hook these six together in a hexagon!” I started to get all “Umm,” and then I realized that she was right. He wasn’t hurting anything by screwing together a bunch of objects that were designed to be screwed together, and it kept him from doing something like going and pulling a display of weed whackers down on top of his head.

By taking his existing inclination to do something and adding to it, she took his behavior instantly from dangerous and annoying, to safe and acceptable. “Yes, and…”

Similarly, the other day, my son started repeatedly saying the word “ass” in the growliest, most evil monster voice he could. “ASSSsssss! AAAAASSssssssSSss! AAAAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSsssssssssssssssssssss!”

My wife and I were both trying to choke back our laughter, and we didn’t want to get mad at him, but we wanted him to stop. So, “Yes, and…if you’d like to keep saying that word, hon, you can go into your room and say it all you want. You can come out when you’re ready to be civilized and join us.”

He went into his room and kept “ass”ing for a good five minutes. When he came out, he was done, and it hasn’t done it again. If we had told him that it was something he wasn’t supposed to do at all, he would still be doing it right now, because five years old.

Looking for Ways to Play Along Makes Everything Easier
Since I’ve had this epiphany — about seven hours ago now — I’ve used this trick at least three times. I haven’t been in the best mood today because we got all into deep housework (rearranging the boy’s bedroom), and I’m not a fan — but everything went fairly smoothly, because when you look for an excuse to say “Yes” knowing that you can add “and…”, you keep everyone less confrontational and more willing to help.

So I’m going to try to keep this in mind. I read somewhere that all teenagers lie to their parents, but that the teenagers who lie least are the ones that are given the least reason to lie — because their parents don’t try to micromanage. In my mind, that’s a perfect example of playing along.

“Mom, can I go to XYZ with P and Q tonight?”

“Yes, and…remember to leave your phone on and text us once you get there, and just before you leave.”

I hope when my son is a decade older this is still around and I think to read it. Until then, I’ll keep exploring the beneficial effects of agreeing with a five year old, and I’m certain that a few good quotes will end up on GODzookery along the way.