Game Library: “Word at a Time Crime”

Players must work together closely to overcome the inherent challenges posed by Word at a Time Crime. This game shares a great deal with other word-at-a-time short-form formats, but its utilization of narrative and predisposition towards action make it a particular fitting pairing with Postponing as there’s little time to waste if the scene is to make it satisfyingly to the finish line.

The Basics

A non-violent or petty crime is obtained and two players volunteer to serve as the featured criminal. They link arms (or connect in a way that is comfortable) and narrate their actions in a word-at-a-time fashion, taking extra care to speak in the first person singular. Other team members populate the scene as characters or obstacles, adding complications for the narrating criminal and engaging in dialogue as the scene requires. The scene may incorporate a strict time limit to add urgency, and the story culminates in glorious success, abject failure or some interesting combination or alternative to these unequivocal results.


Player A and B are working together as the criminal and are given the prompt of “stealing a garden gnome.” They put their arms around each others’ waists and begin the scene crouching on the ground. Player A, with their outer hand, is holding a mimed flashlight and scans the horizon as the criminal begins to crawl all-the-while narrating.

Player A: “Crawling…”

Player B: “on…”

Player A: “the…”

Player B: “neighbor’s…”

Player A: “lawn…”

Player B: “I…”

Player A: “quickly…”

Player B: “eyed…”

Player A: “their…”

Player B: “pesky…”

Player A: “garden…”

Player B: “gnome.”

Both players have begun crawling awkwardly on the ground, retaining their physical connection as best they can, while Player A continues to direct the flashlight. Character C quickly assumes the role of the porcelain gnome by adopting a suitable pose. Their narration continues…

Player A and B (continuing to alternate one word each) “Your… days… of… watching… my… every… move… are… over… little… man!”

As the criminal lunges towards the gnome, Player D can be heard from offstage.

Player D: “No, something has definitely triggered the motion sensor in the front yard. I’ll be back in a second sweetie.”

Player A and B frantically look around for somewhere to hide and leap behind an imaginary bush…

The Focus

Imposing a one or two minute time restriction on the game serves well as it pushes players into action and discourages long criminal preambles or planning sessions. Despite the language restriction, players should make strong verbal and physical choices trusting that their fellow players will join and justify anything that is unclear or clumsy. When the criminal encounters other characters the paired persona should utilize word-at-a-time dialogue as well.

Traps and Tips

Many of the core features of this game resemble Double Speak so those tips (which you can read about here) apply to this short-form game too. The significantly unique quality is the narrative device so that serves as my primary focus for this entry.

1.) Avoid passive language. The criminal will quickly discover the hindrance of passive or intellectual verbs. If they “thought” or “decided” rather than “lunged” or “climbed” the scene often becomes bloated and inactive. Use your words to spur action and discovery rather than to muse and reflect. Even if you are utilizing a rather silly or mundane crime as your inspiration, imbue your language with intensity and conviction. Embrace the delightful turns of phrase and unanticipated details as they emerge.

2.) Avoid just talking. It’s foreseeable that the language restriction will create communication challenges so don’t rely on your words alone to advance the story and give it interest. Make assertive physical choices that define the space in dynamic ways. Why walk if you can slink? Why open a door if you can kick it down? Why just grab the gnome if you can meticulously place it in a custom-built bag with an intricate locking mechanism? Do your best not to rush through or approximate complex actions but rather savor the challenge of completing these with your scene partner. Furthermore, craft environments that will provide suitably rich physical playgrounds and opportunities rather than stand idly in the void.

3.) Avoid prolonged conversations. Word at a Time Crime can move between descriptive first person narrative and dialogue with other characters – which is “normal” for the partner but also constructed in a word-at-a-time fashion for the criminal – but be cautious of not allowing sufficient space for the criminal to return to their narrative device. Brave narration serves as the center piece of the format so supporting players should be mindful that the criminal needs ongoing opportunities to craft narrative asides. Supporting players can certainly quickly set the scene to provide context for the criminal, but it’s generally wise to let this titular character have a little free rein initially so that they can find and strengthen a word-at-a-time rhythm.

4.) Avoid imbalance. I refer to the supporting players in this game as the “To Make Matters Worse Squad” as their main function is to playfully pitch challenges to the protagonist. If an obstacle becomes too difficult or too omnipresent, the criminal can find themselves stumped without any path forward. For example, while Player D could come out and check their lawn, remaining on their well-lit porch for the remainder of the scene would probably prove unwise. Assuming the role of important props (such as the gnome) providing environmental elements (lawn sprinklers) or sound effects (a lighting bolt) are other helpful ways teammates can contribute. It doesn’t ultimately matter if the criminal succeeds or fails, but the crime shouldn’t feel so impossible that they are discouraged from making any progress towards their goal.

In Performance

And speaking of things to avoid, I actively avoid violent or physical crimes in the set up as they can just make a rather silly game feel unnecessarily icky. If you are uncomfortable with the crime frame altogether you can easily substitute it with a prompt calling for a physical problem to overcome – instead of “stealing the coins out of a parking meter” the word-at-a-time character might need to “escape from quicksand” or “rescue a beached whale…”

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Postponing

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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