GMing advice books by hyphz
Robin's Laws - 1Original SA post
Hi. I'm hyphz. I'm a bitter non-GM who annoys people by asking questions about improvisation. As such, I also have a tendency to collect GMing advice, and it struck me that actually examining published advice isn't too popular a topic in this thread (or any other).
And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, come with me to the year 2002, when the most recent version of D&D was 3.0e, OWoD was still current, and GURPS was still a thing you heard about. And if you asked about how to GM, well, someone would send you to..
Robin's Laws, by Robin D. Laws (I see what you did there), published in 2002, was for a long time the de facto standard for published GMing advice. It's still available from Steve Jackson Games' site as a scanned PDF, with an additional front page that - oddly - has the GURPS banner on it, and claims it to be a "electronically rebuilt copy of the last printed edition of Robin's Laws". Which I can tell you it isn't, because the scanned back cover has "first edition, first printing" on it, and my ancient physical copy has "first edition, second printing". Either way, it's definitely an artefact of its time. So let's jump in:
The first section, titled The Great, Immutable, Ironclad Law is probably what you'd think it is: Your goal as GM is to make your games as entertaining as possible.. That's a pretty good law, but it's also the ever-popular darling of bad teachers everywhere: the obvious, unexplained, dead positive. You might as well say it should be a good game is an ironclad law too.
However, there is some other interesting stuff in this section, which goes a long way to date the book. First of all, it states the designer's admission that only about 30% of the RPGing experience is ever accountable for by game design. This is a tricky one, because it's hard to say it's wrong, but if a designer believes it it potentially justifies them writing weak or incomplete systems (5e anyone?). Secondly, it states that roleplaying compared to regular media trades off polish and strong narrative properties for active participation, but then comments that "someday we'll probably find ourselves making regular terks to our local multiplexes to see movie versions of our favorite roleplaying properties.." Well, of course, that didn't happen except for the most popular ones, but podcasts did happen, and it'd be interesting to see how this section would be written in their light.
The second section, Knowing Your Players contains probably the most well-known, and enduring, part of the whole book: the list of player categories. You've probably heard these categories even if you've not heard anything else from Robin's Laws. The author actually credits "many of the categories" to Glen Blacow, a name I'd never heard before. A bit of Google revealed that this refers to an article written for the 1980 edition of RPG fanzine Different Worlds, titled Aspects of Adventure Gaming. Thing is, as the title implies, that wasn't a list of player categories; it was a list of "aspects" that could all be part of the experience in different degrees. Blacow only defined four aspects, while Laws defines seven categories. Furthermore, at the time Laws' list was more commonly compared to another list that appeared in Champions: Strike Force by Aaron Allston in 1988.
As with almost all category-based GMing advice, the book acknowledges that many players won't fit in just one category or in any categories at all, and that they're only vague grouping.. and then ignores that and fills the rest of the book with advice rigidly divided into those categories.
So, let's go. First of all, The Power Gamer. We all know what a power gamer is. They make a character to be as powerful as possible and play to gain more power. Blacow listed "power gaming" as an aspect too; oddly, Allston didn't, with his nearest equivalent referring to abusing the rules to min-max as much power as possible (which, to be fair, is pretty much what power gamers did in Champions). Unfortunately, he used an awful, horrible, inappropriate term to describe them: Rules Rapists, which is changed in most reprintings, but still seen on fora as late as 2018 and could get you banned from RPG.net in 2016.
Next up, The Butt Kicker. This is the guy, or gal, who just wants to fight. Now, how on Earth do we distinguish from the Power Gamer? Laws writes: "He may care enough about the rules to make his PC an optimal engine of destruction, or may be in different to them, so long as he gets to hit things." Could this be the mythical player type that inspired D&D 5e's Champion path? The problem is, in most systems if you don't care about the rules enough, you don't get to hit things; you miss them.
And the problem is pretty plain from that: the power gamer's definition is about having power, but the butt kicker's definition is about a particular way of using power, which requires you to have it. Nonetheless, these are treated as different and separate categories throughout the rest of the book. Blacow didn't consider this an aspect separate from power gaming or tactics (which we'll see later), and Allston divided it in two: the Combat Monster who enjoys fighting as part of the regular game, and the Mad Slasher who seeks to create violent mayhem by attacking out of turn. Whether the latter should just be dismissed as assholery is not really considered.
Next, the Specialist. The example of the Specialist is the player who always wants to be a ninja. Or a cat-person or a fairy princess or whatever (Laws' examples, by the way) They favor a particular character type, play it all the time, and want to get to do the cool thing that's associated with that archetype.
I don't like this definition. I don't like it at all. Why? Because I've played ninjas, I've played knights, I played a fairy princess the one time I could get away with it without being laughed at; and you can bet that when I was a ninja I wanted to be sneaky, when I was a knight I wanted to be strong and honourable, etc. Yet by the definition given here, because I don't play any single one of these character types all the time, I am not a Specialist and doing the cool thing associated with my archetype doesn't matter. If that seems pedantic, then consider what happens if you remove the "all the time" rule: you're left with the player who just wants to do the cool thing associated with their current character; and that category covers almost everyone! This is especially weird coming from Laws, who wrote Feng Shui, which specifically uses classic cool archetypes as classes.
Blacow never mentioned this category, and Allston spun it in several different directions: the Copier who copies characters from other media (again, showing the Champions bias there, since copying superheroes is almost de facto for that game), and the Pro From Dover who plays a character who is the best in the world at something. Allston also listed The Showoff who wants to show off their cool abilities, but suggested that they did this antisocially at the cost of other players' spotlight time, implying that this is another thing that shouldn't really be a category of anything except assholery.
The Tactician is our fourth category, and one of the oldest: Blacow listed the Wargaming aspect. The Tactician is the player who wants to plan and think and come up with involved solutions to problems, usually fighting ones; and as such, particularly values strong rules and an internally consistent world. The nearest Allston got to this was the Mad Thinker, who tries to solve problems, fighting or otherwise. Unfortunately, Robin's Laws shows a kind of suppressed disdain for the Tactician; they usually show up at one or other extreme of the recommendations and the advice for what to do is often in a more resigned tone. I don't know if this is the influence of Vampire or general frustration.
The Method Actor wants to get into their character's head and experiment with aspects of their personality. Blacow listed this as the "role-playing" aspect, and Allston divided this into several again: the Plumber who explores their backstory, the Romantic who focusses on interaction with other characters, and the Tragedian who wants bad stuff to happen to their character to see what happens.
The Method Actor is distinguished from the Storyteller; while the method actor is about exploring characters, the Storyteller is about the flow of events in the game, and making this have positive narrative properties and keeping the story moving. Blacow listed Storytelling as an aspect; Allston - very vaguely - divided it up (again) into the Builder who wants to change the world, and the Genre Fiend who wants to follow fictional tropes.
And finally, the last one, the one that actually makes me angry to read. The Casual Gamer. Look, I get what he's saying here. He's saying that some people just aren't necessarily that into gaming, or the current game, and trying to push them beyond their comfort zone is a bad thing. They're still valuable: they fill out background characters, provide an audience for those who needs them, and often act as social moderators who keep the gaming activity is perspective. That's cool. But then we get:
"You may think it's a bad thing that he sits there for much of the session thumbing through your latest purchases from the comic book store, but hey, that's what he wants. The last thing you want to do is to force him into a greater degree of participation than he's comfortable with. (Of course, if everyone in the group is sitting their reading your comic books, you've definitely got a problem...)
Ugh. That last sentence shows the problem: that there's no way of providing any distinction between the actual Casual Gamer, and the player who isn't involved in the game because they don't like it, but would like to be if it matched them better. The only way the author can give for distinguishing this is, apparently, numbers. Why can't you have a group of Casual Gamers? Well, apparently you can't. And the real problem is that throughout the rest of the book all the advice to do with the Casual Gamer is basically "don't worry about them, unless they start to show signs of greater participation". Which is carte blanche to, if someone's not into your game, just stick a Casual Gamer label on them and proceed to ignore them. Ugh. Allston called this type the Buddy, using a slightly better definition of the player who's there primarily because of friendship with the other players rather than the game.
The rest of the section is just suggestions on finding the individual motivations of the players in more detail (Laws calls them "emotional kicks"), and on spotting the types of new players. Some of these examples are telling: the Specialist is spotted by having created a character that matches a particular well-known type, without consideration of how often they create that character. And the Casual Gamer is spotted by, bleaugh, having been given a character friend by the friend who got them into the group, which makes them.. well, just a beginner, really, not someone who deserves to be disregarded in consideration of play style.
There's another odd omission here. It's mentioned multiple times throughout the book that the GM's enjoyment is as important as the players'; and yet there are no categorisations for the GM, nor do any of the tables based on those categories adapt to the GM's preference. I presume that's just because the author assumed the GM can sort out things for themselves, which is understandable, but then again they did buy a book of advice.
The second main chapter is Picking Your Rules Set, but it's not all that deep. It starts with a few fairly basic points about the need to adapt to the local popularity of gaming when picking a system, but to allow for your own enjoyment as well; and a section on Winning Converts which goes through the categories and talks about how each might feel about changing system. That's a fairly typical structure for the rest of the book. Power gamers resist change because they identify wit the cool powers; Butt-Kickers want it simple (apparently?) and prefer what's familiar; Tacticans don't mind as long as the new system has enough logic to puzzle out; Casual Gamers don't care about the rules as long as they're simple; and "Method actors and roleplayers" see the rules only as a necessary evil. Yea, he switched "storytellers" for "roleplayers" there for some reason.
This is followed by sections on the properties of game systems. Theme And Tone covers the style of games, although it tends to focus on the difference between power fantasies and the inverted powerlessness fantasies (in games like Cthulhu). Accessibility covers the game's support for stereotypes and recognizable imagery that can allow the players to quickly identify their interests. An especially interesting point here is a discussion of the interaction of local culture with expectations in RPGs. For example:
British audiences, on the other hand, view the power fantasy with greater suspicion. The English concept of heroism is less about victory than endurance in the face of seemingly impossible odds. U.K. game masters therefore can assume a greater license to make things rough on their players.
I've never seen any sign of this in the UK, to be honest, but my gaming group experience is limited. But the most popular games in the UK tend to parallel those in the US. Ditto, Laws writes:
Unique, highly distinctive settings dominate the French RPG market. North American audiences, on the other hand, will give up their beloved archetypes when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers.
I couldn't find that much about French RPGs in 2002, but the games I could find - which are basically the ones on Wikipedia: Agone, In Nomine, Malefices, Nephilim, Polaris and Reve de Dragon - all have the standard settings with twists on them, letting a player quickly latch onto something they want to play (a wizard!) but then adding a twist to it (hang on, I have to have a supernatural spirit crucified to my chest?).
The final section, Power Balance, covers the well-known (and at the time well-believed, although it may be less so now) statement that "crunchy" RPGs favor the players, and "light" RPGs favor the GM. It then gives us one of several tables which lists the importance of crunchiness to each of the seven categories:
Average the players, and that gives a guideline on how crunchy your system should be. Yea, that.. doesn't really work. As written, a single Storyteller in a group tilts the entire system away from everyone else, among other things. Heck, by this logic if you have two exactly opposite players in a group they cancel out and everything is fine, which is totally the opposite of what would actually happen. Trying to reduce this to something as simple as an average is a bit of an unfortunate choice. There's an interesting sidebar, Homebrew Rules, which covers playtesting or modtesting and how the different categories react to it - but with a general warning that it's of more interest to the GM than the players.
Next up will be the sections on campaign and adventure design.
Robin's Laws - 2Original SA post
I should mention, by the way, that the full version of that diagram shows a group of Indiana Jones-style explorers discovering.. a d12? Not entirely sure how a joke about die popularity relates to GMing, but there we go.
Campaign Design is our next section. It begins with a discussion of the benefits of planning the campaign in advance versus evolving it on the fly, which - just like so many other things - is divided up by the player categories. These are fairly predictable, except for one claim that was fairly common at this time and responsible for a ton of internet drama: that "storyteller" players "enjoy the grand sweep of a thoroughly-planned story". In other words, they're not story tellers but story hearers. This confusion isn't mentioned here, but it's recognizable as a mismatch that may have kicked off GNS and assorted theories.
Genre is likewise a fairly standard discussion on picking a genre based on player preference, but with the additional note that fantasy's popularity can be explained by the ability to fit almost any other genre into it. The Setting, however, is definitely another artefact of its time. It begins with a full page discussion of the wonders of published setting books, and the statement that you should use them, and should allow and encourage the players to read as many of them as possible, even "GM-only" ones, with the exception of prefab adventures. Why is this? There's actually a bunch of good justifications given:
- Players can watch movies, read books, read supplements, etc, over a period of years and start the game with that familiarity, rather than requiring a massive infodump at the start of the campaign.
- By the same logic, they'll have developed their own emotional assocations and reactions to parts of the setting which save you from having to stop the game at dramatic moments to explain the reactions their characters "ought to have" (imagine having to stop a Star Wars game to explain why the guy with the black mask and cloak is a big deal)
- Settings with big secrets tend to be incoherent or confusing without them, and ability for the players to engage with the setting is much more important than big surprise reveals - which are easy enough to work into any adventure anyway.
- Published settings have art, which the vast majority of home-grown ones won't.
- Most classic genres have published settings, so writing your own that matches one is just doing a ton of work only to throw away all the advantages above.
- This was published by Steve Jackson Games, who had over 100 setting supplements published for GURPS. Oh, wait, it doesn't list that in the book. Well, actually it does, just not in this section, but just hang on a moment..
These would all be good, except for the practical reality that most players don't actually read much setting material either. But certainly at that time there was a vague assumption that they did (thus the hundred setting supplements) so it probably makes sense.
There's then a section on Home-Brewed Settings which reiterates the line above. If your setting is too familiar, it's probably just duplicating a published one and costing you a ton of work. If your setting is too unmafiliar, the players won't be able to connect to it easily and you'll have to start depending on infodumps. The recommended solution is to just pick two existing genres and blend them, then check that they can be explained reasonably in a single sentence; or:
Blindfold yourself, take any two GURPS sourcebooks off the shelf at random, and combine the results.
There's also a sidebar section on Tone covering the broader scope of emotional tones in the games, which mentions that everyone tends to have a particular tonal habit that might be hard to break, and at least requires conscious effort to do so. There's also a rather curious admission that Laws didn't consider Feng Shui an innovative design, but a game with an unusual tone and "a few unusual pieces of GM advice".
Mission covers the broad scope of the PCs goal, whether it's a general ongoing theme (like "raid dungeons, kill monsters, and steal stuff") or a more specialized long-term goal ("restore the old Elvish empire"). There's a brief discussion of the balance between these two - the risk that a more specialized mission implicitly excludes a player's favorite activity or becomes too repetitive; the suggestion is that if you can't think up a dozen basic adventure concepts easily the mission probably needs to be wider. Finally, there's a section on Headquarters and Recurring Cast, which basically says it's important to give the PCs a base and recurring allies because otherwise a campaign can be ruined if the PCs suffer too much attrition and need to regroup; without an established way to do so, they may end up just fleeing from all plotlines unless they're saved by fiat.
The next section is Adventure Design. The first section, Plot Hook, covers the now well-known advice to make the goal of an adventure fairly straightforward and to not worry about making things too complicated. It does, however, give a much better expressed justification for this: that if the mission is to find out, say, who killed the Sultan, then as GM you know who killed the Sultan, but the players don't, and so for them the adventure includes all the possible killers, motives, methods and techniques of investigation already without them needing to be included in the plot hook.
The next section, however, is another artefact of its time. Structuring Your Adventure. What's meant by "structure" here appears to be "story structure", as defined by a couple of properties: established action, building excitement, divided exposition, and varying rhythm and mood. There's then yet another one of those ghastly average-based tables for determining your "structure quotient", but this one is, well, just look at this:
Yea, just look at that spoilsport of a Tactician, ruining the structure that obviously everyone else wants. Keep that in mind when we go forward and we learn that structure may not be what you think it is, either.
And our first clue to that is: Dungeons and Other Unstructured Adventures. It essentially states that most players started with "plot-free" adventures such as dungeons, and if that's what the group enjoys, then just go with that - although it can be a bit boring for GMs and a bit unchallenging for players. There was similar text in GURPS itself as a justification for the superiority of adventures over dungeon crawls, and it totally misses a key point, one that anyone who's played BioShock knows (oh, wait, it's 2002, nobody ever has, Deus Ex then) - that a well-done dungeon or dungeon-like adventure can embed a narrative structure in its geography, possibly making the layout a bit weird but at the same time creating an easy way to manage structure without visible manipulation or railroading. This book doesn't even consider that technique.
So, let's see what the structures are. The first is Episodic. This is what most people now would call "a railroad", although "railroading" seems to be a term with mixed usage (it's sometimes apparently used to refer to just directing PC action badly). Guarding a caravan, or otherwise encountering a series of scenes with little or no influence on how they play out. It does, however, present some justifications to this: players have the flexibility to engage with or flee/skip encounters without fear for long term consequences; method actors can express their character's personality as they wish without knocking everything off the rails, and tacticians, power gamers and butt-kickers may not care all that much what the episodes are as long as they're fun battles. Which is fair enough, but unfortunately I then have to remember that Laws also wrote Four Bastards, an obviously episodically written Feng Shui prefab adventure that's probably the second worst prefab adventure I've ever read or owned (just for the record the first is Target: Mega-City One)
The second is Set-Piece. This is what Ron Edwards would later call Roads to Rome or Romeroading: there's a set of standard prepared events and the players transition between them, with the difference being that how the PCs get between them is much more open and there's more opportunity to change up what happens in the set-pieces, but they're still going to those items in that order. Oddly, there's no discussion of player types or preferences or otherwise for this, but that's possibly because of the next entry.
Branching is a very peculiar entry. First of all, here's the diagram that goes with it. The PDF makes this a full page diagram and states it was "previously only available as errata on the website", which isn't true, because my second printing print copy has it included in the text flow, and you can also see from below that it's been badly scaled up to fit on a page.
What makes this doubly unusual is that in spite of this diagram being there, the main focus on the section is saying not to try to do this. Essentially, the section states that actually having a structure like this is an unreasonable player expectation; what you're supposed to see from the diagram is how much material exists and isn't used, and how the diagram is incomplete. It seriously slams down any division between them:
If you're going to work out all of the scenes in advance, you're entitled to minimize the amount of work you must do by instead using the set-piece structure, where choices the players make determine how major sequences play out but not whether they occur at all. If the players want a greater number of possible storylines, they'll have to let you improve and accept the drawbacks of on-the-fly adventure creation.
Oddly, it doesn't state until the end of the book what those drawbacks actually are, but hey.
Enemy Timeline is another one that's only in the book so that you can be told not to use it, but at least it gets only one paragraph instead of a page and a diagram. It basically says "don't use rigid enemy timelines even if they're in your published adventures because the PCs will inevitably disrupt them and/or drop out of sync with them and ruin the structure". This seems to miss the option of the less rigid enemy timeline as seen in Monster of the Week, but that wasn't too common at the time.
But the last suggested structure, Puzzle Piece is an intruging one that I haven't seen described in these terms anywhere else. Essentially, it's very similar to the ideas of "standard NPCs" and "fronts" that pop up in modern games; you set a bunch of standard places and NPCs and events, and the players connect them together via their actions in whatever structure seems most appropriate for what they're doing. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the description of it is just a bullet-point list of the characters on the diagram, and the note "it gives you much greater when running the game, but requires that you know what to do with that flexibility". The book, sadly, isn't going to tell you.
The final section, Adventure Worksheet, essentially means going through the list of player types again and making sure that the adventure hits something that will satisfy each player's type and emotional kick
There's then another major chapter called Preparing To Be Spontaneous but I'm going to largely skip over it because it's really just an incredibly long-winded way of saying "make lists of stuff". NPC names, personality traits, lines of dialog, and so on. In fact, it focuses way too much on NPCs when they're initially only briefly mention as something you often have to create.
Next up are the sections on what actually happens at the table.
Robin's Laws - 3Original SA post
Onto the final two sections now. Confidence, Mood, and Focus is our next major chapter, and the first to actually focuses on what happens at the table - although the book does say that this is much harder to analyze. Confidence doesn't even get a major header; it's just mentioned in the section forward that "you're doing a better job than you think". As pure emotional reassurance this would be meaningless in a book, but fortunately it's not presented as such; it's follewed with an explanation that players generally want you to succeed, and tend to be low-key even if they are enjoying themselves. Players who have also GMed know how difficult it can be and are probably sympathetic; players who don't GM tend to overestimate the difficulty too.
Mood is covered by sections called Reading The Room and Fun Injection! Stat. These, basically, say to pay attention to the mood of the players and react if things are becoming negative. If they are, throw in something based on the emotional kicks and player types that'll draw the largest number of players back into the game, even if it varies up the storyline of tha adventure to do so. Alternatively, it might be that people are just having a bad day or a conflict within the group, in which case it might be better to just end the session early. There's a single paragraph on Your Own Fun Quotient which basically says that the GM being bored will show through in the long run, but in the short run you should basically ignore it and focus on the players. Which is, well, rather awkward since it points out a problem without a solution, but hey.
The vast majority of the section is on the topic of Focus, which is essentially who is speaking at the moment - not quite the same as spotlight time, but certainly a similar idea - and what they're doing. And here we have something I don't recall seeing often anywhere else: an attempt to categorize, not player types, but actual time allocation between activities at the table. The categories given are:
Dialogue between PCs. By and large, this is a good thing to be focussing on; intervening as GM is generally not a good idea because doing so prevents the players becoming more comfortable with character dialog and advancing the group dynamics. The except is when it gets stuck in a loop, and the two most common loops are identified as related to tactics and morality. The author actually argues that the GM should straight up give OOC advice in order to break tactical deadlocks, whether it's reminding the players of the tone of the game that might not require massive tactical consideration (although big ouch there if you have Tactician players, which isn't addressed) or pointing out wrong or missing information. Moral impasses are harder, because they're the most common sign of a player who wants to define their character by a mismatch with the group; you can mark this as antisocial if you want, but it can add colour to play if it's done well. Unfortunately, the book's suggestion for this is to offer an alternative strategy that avoids the moral impasse, which might be difficult.
Dialog between PCs and NPCs. Again, usually good, but is problematic if it becomes repetetive or irrelevant to the main storyline. The recommended way to deal with this is to make sure most NPCs are in the middle of doing something when the PCs meet them, meaning that there's an implied time limit on the dialog and the NPC can potentially just leave any time the group is flagging.
Dice Rolling can be a problem in two circumstances: a) your group just aren't into it that much, in which case the author says you should avoid the rules codified aspects of the game (although "use a different system" would probably be worth considering at that point; mind you, in 2002 most systems followed the dice=combat rule pretty rigidly). b) is that your group are into it but it's getting boring, and the book makes a great point that this tends to be a natural occurance for many GMs, because when dice and combat come into play the GMs role becomes much more mechanical than it otherwise is; and, if there's a tactical subgame, the GM knows that they're probably "supposed" to lose, so they're more limited in tactical engagement than the players. The suggestions here are: if you're numbers heavy, imitate a bingo caller in calling and reacting to them. Descriptions of combat and the world are always good, and you can make a list of cool combat descriptions if you like; and finally, try adding unusual elements to fight scenes that the players and you can engage with (Laws would go on to make this an essential part of the Rune RPG).
Description and Exposition can cause boredom problems if either the GM has bad delivery (for which recording yourself is recommended, although it's mentioned it can be stressful) or the descriptions are too long and wordy, usually including too many minutiae.
Dialogue between NPCs, well, the author states most GMs know to avoid this anyway.
Bookkeeping, that is character building, shopping, etc, can actually be a positive and fun thing for some groups and player types, but can be problematic if it's unbalanced (one player is holding everyone else up) or slowing everything down. The only advice given here is to ask the player in question to do their bookkeeping before or after the session. Hope the system supports that.
Rules Arguments can actually be considered fun by some player types, especially power gamers. The solution offered is the well-known one - listen to the argument then make a quick ruling and move on, leaving any later argument for out-of-session - but it is also mentioned that you should go ahead and allow a well made rules point to derail any plans you had if necessary, because it shows respect for some of the categories that might enjoy this most.
Also, this section ends with the statement that a power gamer who can't argue about the rules might "look once more to in-character events to increase his overweening might". At first I thought "overweening" was a misspelling of "overwhelming", but it turns out it's a real word meaning "being too proud or confident in oneself". I'm not sure if that's a wrong spelling correction or a hidden sick burn on power gamers.
Disputes on GM calls. I'll just leave this here:
I really want to see some of those character sheets. Especially for The Hat and his super-speed ring.
Anyway, sadly this section doesn't have a lot to say other than ensuring that descriptions are clear (resorting to the use of props if necessary), and being prepared to rewind if there are genuine misunderstandings. This is probably 2002 striking again, since there's the implicit assumption that given full understanding there is an objective answer to every possible question like those above, which isn't the case in all situations and systems (although in 2002 it may have been seen as a goal of a rules system)
Digressions are a bad thing, and the only suggestion given for them is to delay the start of the game if necessary so that people can talk themselves out. Unfortunately, I can tell you right now that I've never known that to work. People stop talking when they see they are delaying the game, but then once it starts, feel free to digress internally because others are busy playing. Owell.
Dead Air is considered the worst of all, and the book makes the surprising step of blaming the GM exclusively for it - it's described as "when you stop the action to perform tasks". There's a few ways around listed, including better prep, doing extra last-minute prep during PC dialog, or just faking it. But there's no way of dealing with the awkward dead air when the players can't decide on actions or are doing similar things.
Finally, there's a short chapter on Improvisation, which is one I'd be particularly keen on - and the foreward for it does mention that many GMs find it intimidating. It's followed by offering an actual process for improvisational choices, which is this: imagine the most obvious result, the most challenging result, the most surprising result, and the result that would please the player most; pick one the feels best, consider the consequences to make sure it's not going to create problems down the road, and go with it. It's a pretty nice idea, but for me at least it doesn't help a lot with my own fears; in particular my nerves are always about getting stuck in a loop in the "consider the consequences" bit, either racking up dead air with rejected ideas or missing a consequence that I didn't think of at the right time.
This is followed by a section on Improvising Adventures which follows the common theme of assigning something to each player - in this case, a plot hook or agenda that they want to persue, and their Player Type which tells you what obstacles they're probably going to enjoy facing on the way. It's suggested that as a result, in an improvised game it can be a much better idea to "cut away" between PCs and allow them to potentially pursue different goals rather than trying to prepare an overarching run for all of them. This is followed by a section on pacing - although the first sentence is "how do you make a completely improvised session seem to have structure?" when pacing was only a small element of structure. It's then followed by "only storytellers really care that much about structure anyway" - after that chart which assigned "story structure" a positive value to everyone except Tacticans. Anyway, there's only one actual suggestion: "try to make the dramatic thing happen at the end of the session". The book does, fortunately, admit that this isn't always possible but it isn't necessary to hit it every time; the impliciation is that it's only a target to reach within sensible constraints, rather than allowing the wallclock to determine significant changes to the world, which is refreshing.
There's then a very brief section called A Final Word on the Ultimate Dilemma, which simply says "if players' preferences are disparate, you might have to negotiate with them or just abandon the group". Actually, a literal quote:
A fun game tries to balance the competing desires of its participants. To many folks, including those whose tastes are so pronounced that they've turned them into a philosophy of what gaming ought to be, this is not obvious at all.
I don't know which of those philosophies were actually around in 2002, but this probably stands up even better today. A brief section on If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It, then brings us to the end of the book (with ads for GURPS adventure and setting books, and Pyramid magazine).
So, Robin's Laws is an odd bird. Some parts of it are eternal, and some are very dated; and the obsession with categorizing players is perhaps a bit overbearing, although it was quite common at that time. What makes it remain interesting, though, is that it's really well written, and extremely well structured. It's actually pretty rare for a single author to write an entire book of GMing advice - most other GMing advice books are collections of essays or columns, which have their own problems, which we'll get to when we actually look at one - and to own that advice to the extent that Laws does here (ok, it's mainly a pun, but still he named it after himself, which is pretty remarkable when most other articles feel the need to insert "or maybe everything I say is wrong" disclaimers).
It helps that Laws is a good conversational writer to start with, and the editor was Steve Jackson himself. It also helps that the single author focus enabled the underlying messages of the book to be much more clearly expressed. Robin's doesn't have to have lengthy introduction paragraphs explaining the importance of adapting to your players, because it's literally what the whole book is about, and it includes justifications and reactions for most of its claims; a tutorial version of "show, don't tell". In fact, after Robin's, reading most other GMing books can feel like an exercise in frustration just because they're generally so badly organized compared to it. But, it seems we shall be doing so..
It's also worth mentioning that this wasn't Laws' last word on the subject, although his follow up was a bit stranger. Hamlet's Hit Points, published in 2010, describes itself as a GMing guide but is actually a guide to narrative analysis, focusing in particular on detailed analysis of three stories - with the argument that being conscious of this kind of thing will make storytelling and thus GMing better by osmosis, which is not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily what you wanted when you bought the book. (So much so that in 2018 he released a Beating The Story, an extension of the same techniques, but this time targetting authors.) I'm not going to go through Hamlet's Hit Points because it's mostly just literary analysis, but it's worth mentioning the forward which includes an interesting discussion of the involvement of narrative in RPGs and in the role of GMing, including things such as GNS. It also does reflect a bit of Laws' experience which may have made him a bit grumpy, as in the following footnote:
Never Unprepared - 1Original SA post
Let's continue our theme, with..
Now, I'm going to sigh at the moment. Because I'm getting hacked off. See, I've gone through a bunch of other books that are not Robin's Laws: and all of them have a bunch of problems which I'll summarise below.
Unnecessary padding. The amount of verbiage in many of these books is just insane. There are entire unnecessary chapters, and explanations of simple concepts multiple times. Several standard GMing books are actually collections of essays and the authors apparently didn't talk to each other, so there's a ton of repetition. Hey, do you know what an "offer" is in improv? Unframed will tell you.. four times. But that ties into..
Not knowing the level. For any teaching book you really want to know the background of your reader, and many of these books either don't consider that or don't allow for it at all. This especially applies to the essay collections, where an essay on your first session can be back-to-back with one on the merits of adding narrative contradiction to a plot. And finally,
Not knowing how to teach. A GMing book can't be a technical reference or walkthrough book like an RPG book can be. It has to be actually written to teach, and that's not easy. There's a reason there's a flood of god-awful self-published textbooks.
So, Never Unprepared - one of a series of three books by Engine Publishing, the others being Odyssey and Focal Point - tries to be a tutorial on how to prepare for sessions. And good grief, it's a slog. I don't like copying and pasting text, but seriously, just look at this stuff from the first two chapters.
When you say “session prep” to most GMs, they imagine a pile of handwritten notes spread across a table; a kudzu of loose-leaf and ink attempting to consume any free space it can find. They have blood-chilling visions of sitting at a desk like a monk penning a copy of the Bible, writing endlessly in silence. They have flashbacks of high school and college term papers, pulling all-nighters to get them finished in time, and the fatigue and the low-level self-loathing that comes from making yourself stay up all night for nothing more than homework.
Wordcount padding technique one: unnecessary examples or metaphors for things that the reader already understands. Pretty much nobody is buying a pure GM advice book before GMing their first session. If the reader doesn't understand this, what's the point of teaching them a negative image of prep that allegedly other GMs have, just to try to tell them it's wrong?
Session preparation is the act of preparing oneself as the GM for an upcoming session where you will run a game for your players. Session preparation (which I will call prep from now on) is related to campaign preparation, which is the act of organizing information for a campaign, or series of sessions. This book addresses session prep, but some of the concepts presented are applicable to campaign prep as well.
Thank you for telling us that preparation is the act of preparing; that being a GM involved running a game for players; and that prep is short for preparation, and for taking 71 words to do it.
We do take a brief moment to say something useful, in terms of the benefits of prep in terms of types of stories that have problems when run improvisationally, such as mysteries; and the fact that many GMs do not like prep but this may be because they are doing it wrong.
Every GM, experienced or new, has been in this situation: on the spot, facing your players, when something unexpected has
happened in the game and you are searching for what to do next. It could be that the players have attacked the king, or the party has decided to explore the hex to the west and not the one to the north, or the mage attempted to bluff the villain into revealing his master plan and succeeded.
Drink for wordy, unnecessary examples.
GMing is in many ways like radio, where silence is death. When I was in college I was a DJ at the college station, rocking out metal at 10:00 in the morning. The first lesson they teach you is that having dead air is the worst thing that you can do. If someone is listening to your station and the song ends, and another song does not start right away, people reach for the dial and move to the next station. You’re taught to do anything to avoid that silence, from timing your songs so that one flows into the next, to jumping on the mic and jabbering away until you can get the next song going.
GMing is no different: Silence is death. When a session is in full swing and you are narrating the scene, judging the players’ actions, and playing the roles of the NPCs, your players are hopefully following you. When this is running at its best, there are moments when the walls of the gaming space melt away, when you see your players as their characters and they see your narrative as the world around them. In those moments you have reached true immersion, the zone of RPGs. When you reach that zone, you want to stay there as long as possible; those are the moments that we all—players and GMs alike—remember for years to come.
The last thing you want to do in one of those moments is to fall silent because you’re unprepared.
Silence is bad. Got it. Now seriously, let me rewrite this in like 5 minutes:
Every GM, experienced or new, has been in this situation: something unexpected has happened in the game, they have to search for what to do next, and while they are doing so the table goes silent. During that silence, immersion breaks and the table slowly devolves into building dice towers and sidebar conversation. The longer the silence goes on, the harder it will be to recover that immersed state. The more prepared you are, the less often those moments of silence will occur in your game, and the better your chances are of reaching that immersive state.
That is 97 words. This book? Takes 502 to say the same thing.
We now get to a more useful statement: that ideally, prep should be accessible, organized, effective, and reliable. While true, this means that the author has now switched to using "prep" to mean the result of prep, not the activity, which would be more forgivable if he hadn't defined it like 3 times by now.
What I just described are the high-level requirements for any database system from a recipe app on your smart phone to the most complex banking servers.
Another unnecessarily comparison. Anyone who knows about database design knows this. Anyone who doesn't will get nothing from the metaphor.
The First Rule of Prep Is: We Do Not Talk about Prep
Which is the header of a section on how we absolutely should talk about prep rather than leaving it as the elephant in the room, which is a damn good point, but hey. Who cares if we have a header that means the exact opposite of the underlying text, if we can work in a Fight Club reference?
My own style of prep was conceived largely without input from other GMs. Some of the tools I use were suggested by friends, but the contents of my notes, and the system I use to plan the time to write them each week, were discovered by trial and error—a lot of errors. Over the years I evolved a style of prep that I became comfortable with, but I never really understood why it worked. I just stuck to it because it did.
When I became a father, something wonderful happened: Being a dad is insanely awesome. Something terrible happened as well: My free time vanished. Suddenly my tried-and-true approach to prep was falling victim to a massive time crunch. With no real resources to draw upon, I started to work at my prep and find ways to make it fit into my new, much tighter, schedule. Along the way I learned some valuable lessons.
You are great. Now tell us stuff.
The next section attempts to address the common errors that GMs make when preparing. The first one of these is writing too much. The irony is palpable.
This is the most common reason that GMs dislike prep: They are simply writing too many notes. They often do this because when they first learned to play, they took copious notes to make sure they were well-prepared for their sessions. Over the years they have grown as GMs and their skill at handling the game on the fly has improved, but they are still writing volumes of notes.
A common question that I’m asked when I am on GMing panels at conventions is “How long should my notes be for a session?” My answer for this is always the same: As long as you need them to be to comfortably run your game. Less experienced GMs often need more (and more detailed) notes because it makes them feel comfortable GMing. More experienced GMs often require fewer notes because they fill in the gaps with their improvisational skills. What GMs often fail to do is to review their skills and attempt to trim down their notes as they grow in experience.
Gaaaaaah! Ok, not only is this wordy (why does it matter where the author gets asked that question?) but it's a fundamental error in any tutorial. Obviously, if the reader is writing too many notes, then their belief about how long they need them to be is incorrect. Telling them to fall back on that belief is not teaching them anything. The final sentence, about reviewing skills, has a point. Ok. So, how do we do this review? Dunno. There's nothing about it in the book. There are skill reviews, but they're to do with the prep skills the book presents, not the underlying GM.
Second reason: prep can be found boring because you are using the wrong tools. Now, damn, I'd love it if there was a sufficiently inspiring semantic system to make prep for every system fun. I've even just found it fun to transcribe bits of the Spire setting into Realm Works and that's by no means an ideal tool. But unfortunately, you don't always get to choose. Although hey, if anyone wants to try to write a prep tool together, I'm up for that.
Third reason: you either don't leave enough prep time, or try to prep at times when your creativity isn't great. Again, it's a fair point, but you don't always get to choose, given that preparing an RPG is not going to be a high priority compared to most other activities for an adult.
Now we move on to "The Phases Of Prep".
A common misconception is that prep is the thing you do when you write your notes or draw the maps for your upcoming game.
Actually, that's exactly what you just did when you referred to prep as a database.
There's then a section called "How This Came About", which describes how the author wrote the chapter. Nobody cares. The only time this stuff is useful in teaching is if it gives a concrete example of the teacher's experience in doing the thing being taught, and this book isn't about how to write GMing books. Moving on.
What this chapter eventually gets to is to break the prep process down into five steps: Brainstorming, Selection, Conceptualization, Documentation and Review. We then have an overview of these five, before a chapter covering each. Technically this overview shouldn't be necessary, but anything to add to the page count, I guess.
Brainstorming is having ideas. The section reminds us that ideas are incomplete and that it can happen almost anywhere. We spend 35 words on how important the ability to have ideas is in the advertising industry.
Selection is choosing which of them are good ideas in terms of quality and fitting into the tone and world of the game. This makes sense. Ok.
Conceptualization is actually fitting the idea into the game in terms of the world, the need to make sense, and the game mechanics. That makes sense too. Cool.
Documentation is writing up the results, which is commonly thought to be the whole of prep. We spend 78 words explaining different ways in which to write and store your documentation, because we needed to know that it's possible to hand write documentation and put it in a binder.
And finally Review, which is reading through the documentation to make sure that it passes muster, and getting into the mindset of being ready to run the material.
There's then a bit of reassurance that this is just a summary of a natural process, and that it doesn't represent a ton more preparation work (which, you will recall from the last chapter, we are doing too much of and do not enjoy).
Next time, we'll get into the actual chapters, but I hope this has shown some of the issues I have with this and many other such books I've slated to review in this theme. It might mean that things get decidedly shorter later on.
Never Unprepared - 2Original SA post
So, we now get onto the actual chapters covering the steps of prep. These are somewhat better than the overview chapters were, in that they do actually contain some reasonably organized content. Unfortunately, they still contain a ton of extra verbiage. The first paragraph on Brainstorming, for example, is a list of florid metaphors for ideas.
Cutting through the cackle, Brainstorming means starting from a question, seeing what ideas it inspires, and writing them down. There's intended to be no selection of ideas at this stage, and here we get the first piece of really good advice: not rejecting ideas for smaller scenes because you're trying to think of a Big Idea for the session. There's also a good list of inspiration questions; the default is "what should I do in the next session?" (I might switch that to 'we do' but hey), and others include "what did the players want to do?" "what would the major NPC be doing right now?" "is there an event that's due to occur?" Brainstorming is best done in a quiet room when you're starting, but as you get more experienced it can be done anywhere, and oh god he's actually listing brand advertisments for notebooks and note-taking software, pull up!
Signs of too little brainstorming are feeling that the well is dry when it comes to developing ideas, or retreating to safe and established ideas or those lifted from other media. This makes sense as a statement, but I'm not quite sure of its accuracy, given that "ideas lifted from media" is a pretty comprehensive set by now (please refer to the "Simpsons Did It" episode of South Park). Doing too much brainstorming is unlikely, but usually means that ideas are being forgotten or not fully exploited. There's then a section on how to improve, but it doesn't say much except "practice" - although that's kind of inevitable with a topic like this - and then reiterate for the third time that you can brainstorm anywhere.
The section ends, as all the section do, with two scales to "rate your frequency and skill level" at performing the task the chapter is about. Ideally the two scores should be similar and as high as possible, but in practice there's usually only like a single vague sentence about what to do with the score once it's calculated, so it's mostly just a pointless mental exercise.
Selection is about picking from the list of ideas, and oddly is framed as picking one to be the basis of the session (rather than just filtering multiple ones to use). Four perspectives are listed to consider: the players, the GM, the game (system), and the campaign.
Players is considered only in terms of whether or not the players will enjoy what the idea will have them doing in the moment (not what it leads to, which makes a certain amount of sense). The author cites Robin's Laws for player categories, and then lists three aspects of play - Roleplaying, Combat, and Problem Solving - perhaps unaware that he's actually leapfrogged Robin's there and jumped right back to Blacow's 1980 article that Laws cited, except that Vecchione's list conflates Roleplaying and Storytelling together, replaces Wargaming with Combat, removes Power Gaming, and adds Problem Solving. I suspect that Blacow's list would have considered problem solving to be a "wargaming" activity, but honestly this just shows a lot of problems with these definitions, since wargaming is not necessary combat (tactical solving can apply to other things) and combat is not necessarily wargaming (see any game with a more drama-focussed combat system)
"The GM" as a consideration is about what you, as GM, prefer to do. What do you prefer to run? Do you give a lot of detail, act out NPCs gregariously? Do you prefer to present challenges to be overcome or collaborate with them? Are you good at managing a lot of things? They're all good considerations, but they're not given a great deal of detail beyond asking the question. Also to the author's credit, there is a paragraph on how you shouldn't necessarily let your pre-existing beliefs about what you like or are good at define all your future games, and that you should prepare in the areas you're weaker in, which is good. It does, however, then say that this is best avoided at the start of a campaign when you are "laying the foundations".. which I'm not too sure about, because it potentially inflicts a bait-and-switch on the players.
"The Game System" is a similar section, in that it mostly consists of a list of questions to ask about your game system, but unfortunately in this case they're much weaker, mostly focussing on what the system has rules for (rather than, for example, what it does well); and the text is heavily padded with questions of the form "does it have [incredibly specific thing]" (with the set in question being aerial combat, a sanity system, mass combat, and kingdom building?). The example is awkward, too: it suggests that if you want to run a treaty negotiation, then AD&D 2e would have no rules for such, and D&D 3e might be a better choice because it offers skill support. But that skill support, as any OSR player will tell you, is not necessarily a good thing: it's just one skill, and you then have to deal with questions about what's covered by a single roll, how actions modify the roll, what role-playing is required to justify the skill roll's usage, and so on and on and on..
And finally, The Campaign is, does the idea fit into your campaign. But alas, there is no discussion of continuity or anything similar here! Literally the only example is that space aliens probably wouldn't show up in a fantasy game (unless it's Expedition to the Barrier Peaks).
Too little selection, and you invest too much in ideas your players won't like, your system won't support, or that you can't run, and lose interest. Too little consideration of selection, and you end up running a game just for yourself rather than the people you're playing with. Too much selection traps you in your comfort zone and also delays everything else, meaning that later prep phases are weaker. That's an excellent point, but unfortunately, there's no clear guidance on getting over that. The only "improvement" section here is about introspection and establishing exactly what your filter should be, which is a good point, but not for that aspect.
Conceptualization is probably the weakest section so far, as it's where things seem to start to fall apart. Essentially, the author describes the process of considering an idea from brainstorming and expanding it into a story. There's a bunch of lists on the standard questions to ask (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How), some story integration prompts, and on the rising action structure of a story.
Unfortunately, there's no allowance whatsoever for anything but taking one brainstormed idea and converting it into a story - there's nothing mentioned about combining multiple ones together. Also, there's nothing about what to do if you don't want to write a story in advance - there's a sort of statement that it shouldn't imply the players have no choice, but not really anything about how to structure things so that they do, or how to "conceptualize" anything other than a story (there's a very short section on a scene, but nothing else).
Too little conceptualization, and one of three things happen: plot holes destroy the flow of a session, lower level aspects of play become boring because they haven't been looked at enough, or documentation becomes garbled because it was written too soon. Too much and you spend time preparing a ton of material the players won't use.. but unfortunately, the only advice given on this is to try to predict the player's actions better. Again, the methods for improvement aren't particularly insightful, and unfortunately the section go in circles just advises iterating conceptualization as a method for improving (whereas, for example, my problem here is iterating it infinitely until it becomes unresolvable) It's also notable that in the earlier overview, Vecchione mentioned that it might be necessary to throw out ideas at the conceptualization stage, but that's never actually mentioned here.
Documentation is probably the most pointless section so far. It basically says, you have to do a bunch of things during the game, make notes that you're comfortable with about the things that you need them for. Try different ways of note-taking, and try doing conceptualization first.. but at the same time don't be afraid to go back to conceptualization if you realise something's missing while you're writing up. Ugh.
Too little documentation and either you forget things or.. well, ok, here's a nice controversial quote: "There will be times when [your players] do the unexpected.. if you don't have a written version of the adventure on hand, then you're much more likely to be at a loss about how to move forward." That's.. well, pretty much the opposite of most things I've heard on that topic. There's also a section on how having notes makes it less likely that you'll lose important rules, but that actually turns out to be telling you that it's a good idea to look up rules based on what you think is going to happen, which is true but not really in the base category of "too little documentation".
Too much documentation either causes railroading as the "missed" documentation is forced to be used; or, more likely, kicks off a death spiral where the GM never believes their notes are adequate no matter how much time they spend writing them, and ends up losing interest in running the game because they always feel they should have done more beforehand. I can definitely relate to that. Shame there's nothing here about it other than "don't over-document" which falls into the exact same fallacy this did in the overview: nobody in this position thinks they themselves are over-documenting.
Review is checking everything over. This is divided into three categories. Proofreading is checking for grammar and spelling errors (in notes just to yourself? Well, maybe, I suppose), but more importantly rules errors. Director Review is checking that the story will flow properly, there's no plot holes, and that the bits that are supposed to be dramatic will be. And finally, Playtester Review is checking that things will work when actually played. Too little review, and things become disorganized and stumbling, have errors, or are blindsided by players. On the other hand, too much review means.. that you question things too much and are full of doubt when you reach the table. What's the right amount, then? As usual, no attempt to define this.
Also, this section several times refers to the GM's "psychic RAM". You're allowed to just say "memory", guys.
Chapter 8 is Tools for Prep but.. it's more or less just more filler. Use a notebook or a wordprocessor or whatever makes you comfortable, switch tools if you need to, get used to using the ones you pick. The book's third name-drop of OneNote. The book's first name-drop of Getting Things Done, the infamous management guide to complex to-do lists. And the author's bizarre description of themselves as "an office supply geek".
Likewise, the chapter on Mastering Your Creative Cycle is actually just a bunch of cookie-cutter time-management tips about drawing up a weekly schedule to identify how much free time you have (for doing prep, of course) and identifying times when you're feeling more creative. Probably the only really interesting bit is a chart of which prep activities need more creative inspiration, in order that you can divide them between times; but let's face it, time to prep a game probably isn't something you're engaging in a complex organizational framework in order to obtain.
Your Personal Prep Template encourages customizing the steps above for what's appropriate to you, which is good, but in practice repeats a whole ton of material from earlier, including the definition of prep (fourth time, now), and adapting to the GM, game system and campaign. There is a bit of useful stuff here, such as different things you can do to cover weaknesses in GMing (although predictably enough, they all come down to "prep that thing") and what fields to include in a template if you decide to build one.
Chapter 11, The Prep-Lite Approach starts off by sounding like it's introducing a whole new technique (or "philosophy", as he calls it), but it quickly turns out not to be. Instead, it's four principles for reducing prep if you feel that the need to do it is reducing your ability to run games, but two of them are duplicates: focussing on playing to your strengths, and covering your weaknesses. The third and fourth are "They can't see your prep" and "Abstract mechanical elements", and basically come down to "fudge it". Steal maps and ideas from elsewhere, reskin NPCs basically on the fly, and use standard simplified values instead of fully engaging with mechanics. You know, all those things that were actually described as failure conditions earlier in the book.
Prep In The Real World is.. oddly, a chapter about risk management and how it affects prep. This will come up in other Engine Publishing books as well, and is a bit of a sign that Vecchione is copying material from standard business management strategies and rewriting it in gaming terms. (That's because, as mentioned on his bio, he's actually trained as a project manager and did a chunk of that work for Gnome Stew, too.) What do you do if you get sick? If something comes up abruptly? If you just don't feel creative enough to proceed? If there's a sudden plotting catastrope (the book calls it Hard To Starboard) what should you do? Uh, try your best to fix it and remanage your time if you can. That's basically all. Huh.
And the Conclusion is just authorial background and a "thank you".
The list of References and Inspirations at the back of the book does however confirm some of our earlier positions. They cite Getting Things Done and the other stuff from David Allen (yea, he loves this guy. In fact "Allen, David" is the first entry in the index with six references, inspite of the fact that nobody's likely to be looking up his name), Lifehacker, Time Management for Creative People and The War of Art - all fairly generic management books with no particular relevance to gaming, but generic enough that they don't really need it added in. Also cited is the author's own writing on Gnome Stew, which oddly includes a number of statements about the "Prep-Lite" method - "wireframes" and "skins" - that were never actually mentioned in that chapter.
Never Unprepared is.. well, it's not awful. But it's not even close to Robin's Laws in terms of information level, with almost the entire foreward and a number of the later chapters either relatively obvious or just straight up duplication. The same thing actually happens in all of the Engine books, Focal Point possibly being even worse, although Odyssey does a much better job of avoiding it because of its wider scope. The Brainstorming and Selection steps are a pretty good idea, if not exactly earth-shattering revelations, but from Conceptualization forward a whole bunch of assumptions are made about the structure of the game or system used, that don't necessarily fit in with all systems, especially not more recent ones.
Basically, it's a common problem: anyone who could really learn a lot from Never Unprepared probably wouldn't buy it. It'd be stuff that'd go well in a starter RPG if it could avoid bloating the page count too much, but it won't have a huge lot of interest from someone who's been involved long enough to want to make a conscious decision to improve GMing. It's not a bad try, but ultimately it's a swing and a miss.
I did, however, look up Gnome Stew - the site which is connected to Engine Publishing multiple times in the book. It turns out it's a group blog, which might explain the rather bumpy comparison to writing learning texts. There's a "top 30 game mastering articles" on the site, but the author of Never Unprepared (under the name DNAPhil on that site) has only three of them; only one of them is vaguely about prep; and it's actually about not prepping the ending of a campaign - something which was implicitly advised against above if you intend that the ending would be dramatic. To add even further irony, in Focal Point - two books down from Never Unprepared, and written three years later - the same author writes that he hardly does any prep and usually only writes a page or two.
There's one last thing. Any goons interested in actually trying to write a better guide to GMing? I know that Fuego is setting up a new wiki for TG, which could be a good workspace for such a thing. I'm only floating it as an idea because for obvious reasons I wouldn't be able to contribute much myself!
D&D and HoLOriginal SA post The GMing advice from that one game..
It's difficult to write reviews of this kind of material without considering the GMing material that actually appears inside the games themselves. However, as PurpleXVI said, most GMing advice in actual RPGs is kind of generic. Nonetheless, it would be remiss to ignore it completely, so let's consider what, by rights, should be the most influential GMing advice in the world.
A Twitter user called Talen Lee referred to "why don't you just not play D&D" as the "just use Linux" response of tabletop gaming, which got 35 likes. The metaphor is apt in a whole bunch of ways. Just like Windows, D&D is limited in its amount of innovation by its userbase's addiction to older material; used by many willingly, and many more because the trust that software/players are available now and will be available in the future is an overwhelming tradeoff against any number of other failings; and while you don't have to like it, you can't ignore it. So I'm not going to.
I say "by rights" above, because I doubt very much the GMing advice in this book is actually the most influential or indeed that influential at all. Very few people I know who play D&D have ever read even the D&D Players' Handbook from cover to cover, and many of the GMs I know have never even opened the Dungeon Master's Guide at all except to refer to magic item descriptions when running published adventures. (I've seen GMs be totally gobsmacked at certain optional rules existing in the DMG.) But maybe, at some point, someone might have read it for what it says about DMing? Who knows.
One thing I do want to make clear is that I am not going to review the entire Dungeon Master's Guide. It has a ton of game specific rules which I'm not looking at. It also has a fair bit of material on world-building, which I've deemed out of scope for these write-ups since it's a whole separate theme that's shared with fiction. But there is, nonetheless, some agnostic stuff in there.
For example, I was as surprised as many of the GMs I described above to learn that D&D 5e has a player categorization scheme.
Well, ok. It's actually an "aspects of play" scheme like Blacow's was. But a little more digging reveals that it's almost entirely copied from a player categorization scheme that appeared in the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 for Fourth edition - which was in turn based on one that appeared in the DMG2 for 3.5 edition. 3.5e gave each one a couple of paragraphs; 4e gave them even more paragraphs with headers, including some odd things such as where they should best be seated at the table; and they're massively shortened down to single paragraphs and bullet points in 5e. But I can't necessarily blame them for that, given that a Dungeon Master's Guide 2 is a rather niche supplement while a core DMG has to contain a ton of rules, items, and so on. (That said, there was more DMing advice in the Fourth edition Dungeon Master's Guide than there is in the fifth edition one, too.)
It's also worth noting that Robin Laws was a cover credited author on the Dungeon Master's Guide 2 for both 3.5 and 4th editions, which explains that, at least in their form in 3.5e, the categories are almost the same as his original ones from Robin's Laws - especially not surprising given that the DMG3 for 3.5 was only three years after Robin's. 4e also has several quoted paragraphs from James Wyatt's Dungeon Master 4th Edition For Dummies, a book I don't have, but that apparently used the same categories because they're specifically mentioned in the quotes. 3.5e, however, also added a bunch of new categories which don't necessarily fit as well as Robin's originals do. So, let's look through and see how they've evolved.
Robin's first category was the Power Gamer, and this appeared in 3.5 as Accumulating Cool Powers. 3.5e claims that this is almost always popular, and that they're some of the easier players for a GM to deal with; as long as you keep the XP and loot flowing, they'll engage even with encounters balanced for other types. 4e, on the other hand, names them as the Power Gamer and suggests giving them moments to exploit their strengths but also attacking their weaknesses and having villains aggressively adapt to them - which can be a good idea, but can also result in a system-based arms race that turns out to be no fun (especially in a world with minmaxing forums). It does add that if you want your Power Gamer to engage with pretty much anything in the setting, just make it a source of power, and bingo. 5e, however, renames this motivation Optimizing - a rather awkward term given that optimizing tends to be something that happens away from the table more than during the game. As with most of the 5e versions, they've essentially just taken the paragraph headers from 4e and occasionally 3.5e and turned them into bullet points, although the ones about targetting the weaknesses of the power gamer are gone; it's only suggested that encounters highlight their strengths.
Next up was the Butt Kicker, which becomes, oh look, Kicking Butt in 3.5e; they're all about the thrill of combat. 3.5 emphasises that unlike power gamers, butt kickers tend to want more interesting and/or visceral fights, and suggests holding a fight or two in reserve to break up non-fighting play if they're needed. 4e instead names them as the Slayer, and has similar advice on interrupting other items with fights, plus making use of minions (yes, 4e had mook rules) to give quick kills and making sure that villains are strong and easy to hate. 5e simply changes this to fighting but ditches the advice on strong villains, but oddly does keep the one about large numbers of weak foes - which are much more awkward in 5e - and the ever popular advice to interrupt other activities with combat if you lose the players attention.
Robin's Tactician becomes 3.5e's Brilliant Planning; encouraged by giving players mapped, determined set-piece encounters with routes for planning to lead to victory. Even unlike the original Robin's Laws, 3.5e addresses the big issue of planning causing an anticlimax which is unacceptable to other players; the suggestion given is to big up the positive consequences of victory, so that there's a victory party for the method actors, some magic items for the power gamer, and some future effect on the world for the storyteller. Unfortunately, the Butt Kicker kind of gets it in the shorts.
3.5e introduces Puzzle Solving as a category - which I still think was rolled into Robin's Tactician, but there we go. Most of the text in 3.5 on the topic of this is how to deal with introducing puzzles to the game without stalling the game for everyone else, which is perfectly fair.
4e rolls the Brilliant Planner and the Puzzle Solver back into a single category, the Thinker, but with similar advice - although since 4e's combat system was more intrinsically tactical, most of the advice is to do with making sure that interesting features exist and that their consquences are visible to the player and PC before the fight starts so that they can be planned around. It also suggests adding extra clues to provide information for planning. Puzzle solving isn't so directly addressed. 5e, on the other hand, changes this back to Problem Solving and mentions unravelling motivations, solving puzzles, but only uses the "tactics" word once and not in a combat context. Which might be an admission that 5e combat without optional rules isn't all that tactical.
The Specialist gets retitled as Playing a Favorite Role in 3.5e, this time claiming that while ninjas are the most common, bards are the second most common, and even calling out Drizzt Do'Urden specifically as a character that's copied. Unfortunately, the advice given for this guy in 3.5e is rather week - basically, just hope they attach to a class, and then focus the adventure on that class's signature abilities.
Supercoolness is added to 3.5e even though it didn't appear anywhere in Robin's Laws, but 3.5 attaches it specifically to the "favorite role" player, saying that they also often want to be "icy cool, masterful, in command, formidable and intimidating". This is more or less just a lengthy preamble to the advice to be aware that RPG characters fail more often than movie characters, but that the failure can be made progressive rather than humiliating.
Fourth and Fifth edition both just left out the Specialist, in both of the forms above, presumably counting that class based play naturally encourages them.
The Storyteller appears as the Story motivation in 3.5e, and warns that these players are double-edged swordss; they love creating story material to work with, but it can also take things in unexpected directions that require improvisation than a new GM, or a published-adventure GM, might not be sure of. There's also the assumption that a story-driven player will provide a detailed background (which is my experience is not always true, but there we go) which can give you some advance warning of what to expect. 4th brought them back as the Storyteller but with a different focus on advice: that encounters should be tied together to larger goals, that player actions should have visible consequences, and that opponents could potentially have their own stories. I actually like these a fair bit less, because they're desirable for all player types, not just storytellers. Storytelling in 5e gets almost exactly the same as 4e, but stripped down to bullet points.
Likewise, the Method Actor appears in 3.5e as the motivation for Psychodrama - in other words, they want to be presented with difficult choices and think through how their characters would react to them. The good news is that this can add a ton to the table. The bad news is that one of the easiest ways to kick off difficult choices and psychodrama is to defy the rest of the PC group, and the GM is warned to ensure there are other reward moments to avoid this. Also, there's an explicit warning about players using PCs to act out their own emotional issues, but the only response suggested is that the GM simply freeze or even halt the game until the player separates their personal issues from the game.
The psychodramatist becomes the Actor in 4th edition, where there's advice to use their character backgrounds (which was assigned to the storyteller before), and to add roleplaying elements to combat, allowing skill checks to affect combat, the spotty support for which was one of the big complaints about 4e. So for those folks, well, there you are, 4e explicitly said they should be allowed, although it was an a supplement and the only guidance is "you must determine an appropriate skill check and assign a DC". The last 4e advice for actors, sadly, is that they love Skill Challenges. No. No they don't. No-one loved Skill Challenges. Again, in 5e, Acting gets a stripped down version of the same advice from 4e, although without the skill challenges being mentioned.
Irresponsibility is an unusual motivation that hasn't appeared in anything else I've reviewed so far - essentially, the desire to play an anarchic or unusual hero who can break the rules. On the one hand, it's a nice fantasy, on the other hand it can mess up plots if a PC does something like attacking an authority figure; so the advice is to make sure there are opportunities to break rules or do mischievous things in the setting that actually advance the plot or interest rather than screwing it up.
This fellow made a rather bizarre change into 4e, becoming the Instigator - who doesn't actually even get that good a definition, but the advice given is to allow them to have lots of things in combats that they can play with to change things up, like braziers to knock over, oil to pour, and so on. Unfortunately, it then mentions that if the instigator is actually overriding other players by causing trouble that redirects onto the players, or wanting to rush ahead faster than the actors and storytellers would prefer, then they should serve the drinks. No, seriously, it says they should be given the group busywork to do so that they're distracted, including serving drinks, adding up XP, and clearing away the Wizards Of The Coast Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Official Dungeon Tiles(tm) that were used in the encounter. (No, it doesn't give that whole title, but it tries.)
The Instigator shows up in 5e too, but it's suddenly terribly written - as the character who "would rather rush headlong into danger and face the consequences than face boredom", thereby bringing OOC boredom and pacing into the matter which no previous definition did. The advice is similar except that 5e explicitly says that you should allow the Instigator's actions to put the other PCs "in a tight spot", causing exactly the drama which 3.5e said should be avoided.
Setting Exploration is another new one in 3.5 that wasn't in Robin's. As the name implies, 3.5e focussed very heavily on the idea of geographic exploration, and the need to create interesting areas to visit. 4e, however, united the Explorer rather bizarrely with the Thinker, arguing that their "exploration" can be in terms of uncovering general information rather than strictly geographic. The advice given does overlap rather heavily with that for the Thinker, including the suggestions for secrets that set up encounter tactics; although it also suggests that combat itself could imply secrets about the monsters. 4e gives very little about geographic exploration. 5e, on the other hand, mixes these together; it suggests both geographic and informational exploration, with a mix of the advice on both, although since it's just bullet points there's much less given.
3.5 lists The Outlier, which is the player that plays the oddball. These players get a savage burn:
Outliers enjoy playing oddballs for the same reason that some people embrace eccentricity in real life. By rejecting the rules that most people follow, they define success on their own terms - terms they can more easily meet... Some players.. create incompetent or mediocre characters to immunize themselves from the emotional consquences of failure... Failures are not only expected - they become victories according to the outlier's self-defined, contrarian criteria.
So, the only suggest about outliers is to first check they're not outlying because things are too difficult in the campaign or they're otherwise bored, and then to give them isolated situations in which they can do weird stuff without screwing things up for the other PCs. They don't show up in 4e or 5e, except possibly rolled into the Instigator.
Lastly, there's there Lurker, which is Laws' Casual Player very closely - in fact, some of the text in 3.5e seems to have been copy-pasted from Robin's Laws. 3.5e does go out of the way to define that they mean Lurker in the old Usenet sense rather than anything horrific. 4e calls them the Watcher, and suggests trying to draw them in with detailed descriptions when they do act, but not worrying too much about it. 5e doesn't list them, but since it's presented as an "aspects of play" list rather than a "player category" list, that's understandable.
Wow, ok. That took a lot longer than I was expecting and I've only covered one page of the 5e DM's guide. But I'm going to throw in an aside regarding a totally different game (sorry to indexing folks)..
So, I'm going to storytell a bit here. This came up only because a user on the goon TG Discord mentioned that they were inspired by the GMing advice in HoL, which seems a bit odd. HoL is a parody game of essentially 90s RPG tropes which unfortunately doesn't do well due to the simple fact that it's not particularly funny. It's handwritten as scrawl on the pages, there is no contents page or index or page numbers, and the GMing section is only about a page in this weird font, so what the heck. Here's all the GMing advice from HoL Second Edition. By the way, this originally came out in 2002, the same year as Robin's Laws.
As for actually running the game, again, you do whatever you want (although we wouldn't suggest anything that required can openers and gauze). But we do have a few *****. Not only that, but we have some hints, too.
1. Ignore any rule any time you think it will fuck up the game.
2. Ignore anything you don't like.
Part III: Act out everything! Make up weird voices! Role-play to the stem of the asparagus! Use recurring NPCs! Think melodrama! Parody everything!! Slapstick!! Let your imagination sprout into something firm yet soft.. I.. I.. excuse me.. I have to get some Kleenex...
Okay, okay, I'm better now. It's just that we here at Dirtmerchant are way big on that roleplaying thing. For us, the dice are just there to give us something to do with our hands so we don't scratch ourselves too much. Personally, I like plots thicker than bad mayonaise [sic]. About a week into the campaign, one of the players will come to me with a sheet of paper so heaped with scribbles and lines that it looks like a web constructed by a spider who's just polished off Al Pacino's coke stash from Scarface. This, says the player, is the NPC/event chart so far.
Now, I'm about to contradict every RPG I've ever read on the subject of adventure creation. Are you gripping your armchair appropriately? Good. Don't make maps. Don't write down NPC's stats. Don't plan out every square inch of ground you want your PC's to go. Don't plan their actions. In general, don't plan much of anything at all. An entire epic campaign may kept moving [sic] at a sweaty pace if you just spend six minutes making notes before a game, and scritch a little during it. There is no need to lose sleep and turn your brain to sometheng resembling the guacamole in the aft of the fridge in order to maintain a storyline that will make your players grovel to continue. It's easy and doesn't require any evil addictive substances or thumbscrews. Here is an example of notes for a six-hour game:
[Third-of-a-page diagram of scribbled garbage]
Think of images, keep 'em in mind, and pick a good one to start with, then use the others if you can. If you don't, save them for the next game. The thing is, let the players go where they want from the start you've given them, and draw the adventure from what they do, occasionally stoking the fire with some major event. But always keep everything dramatic -- not necessarily serious -- just acting-wise. HoL is a game of performance, not number chowing. That's why experience is given for role-playing, not roll-playing.
If you want the campaign to last - don't kill off the players. Yes, unless drama dictates you should for the purpose of the story, it's best to let them keep kickin'. Let them develop into their characters -- torture them all you want, tease them with the scythe - but if your going to dice 'em, do it in a way that wants them want to spew epic poetry (or whatever). Remember, fuck rules, the play's the thing.
(Astute - yet again - shoppers will likely, in the near future, pick up full length adventure "modules" and send hateful letters accusing us of being disgustingly hypocritical. That is a misnomer. We are disgustingly GREEDY. Ed.)
Now, when I mentioned this again on the Discord, some of the folks there replied that obviously I'd been punked. HoL is a parody game and therefore, its GMing advice must also be a parody, of GMing advice given in games at around the mid and late 90s. And it fits perfectly:
- Multiple assertions that the dice do not matter and that the world and NPCs shouldn't be set in advance, in a book that primarily presents a dice system, NPC stats, and a defined world? Check.
- Personal examples and a total failure to depersonalize advice, such that statements like "it's easy" come across as bragging, not encouragement? Check.
- Advice not to kill the players in a system with harsh damage rules, where the sections of the book are specifically called Killing Things and Things That Kill You? Check.
- "Experience given for role-playing not roll-playing" when, in fact, HoL has no formal rules for when experience is awarded at all? Check.
- The editor's note? Check. (No adventures were ever published for HoL.)
But at that point, the original poster returned and said that no, he/she was straight up. They genuinely found this advice helpful, in particular the part about building around images.
So, I leave this to some extent open to more experienced GMs than me. Is this section a parody, or not? I'm honestly not sure anymore.
D&D continuedOriginal SA post
"Probably the most influential GMing advice in the world."
So, as I previously mentioned, a lot of the material in the DMG is either very system specific or to do with world-building, which I don't want to get into. But there are two sections of general GM advice in the DMG. The first covers adventure design, and kicks off with a "list of traits that make up a good adventure":
- A credible threat - something that gets the heroes attention and makes the heroes want to stop it - specifically stop it. There's no consideration, at this stage, of the PCs trying to achieve something - although it is addressed later.
- Familiar tropes with clever twists - this is presumably their take on the Robin's Laws issue of the line between unoriginality and incomprehensability. It does specifically mention that starting adventures in taverns is cheesy, but do it anyway, because it's classic D&D.
- A focus on the present - a slightly peculiar one, but the idea is that the PCs should be dealing with things that are relevant right now, not managing things that happened in the past.
- Heroes who matter - or, rather, that the plot should let the heroes matter. The example given is that the adventure should allow the PCs to defeat the villain, if they show up prior to the end of the adventure. I do not know a single published D&D adventure that did this, and many break if it happens. Still.
- Something for all player types - and yes, it does say all types, with a side note that if you're creating an adventure for your own campaign then it only need be your own players. Which seems an odd thing to present as an exception, as if they were primarily encouraging the creation of adventures for the public?
- Surprises - which isn't so much about surprises as interesting content, and especially unusual twists in fight scenes.
- Useful Maps - yea. A critical part of a good adventure, apparently. I'm not saying any more. I'll get my coat.
This is followed by a section on Adventure Structure which is.. stuff your primary school English teacher told you about writing stories. But it was passed down to them from Aristotle, so it's probably pretty sound. It's literally: "a beginning, a middle, and an end", but it's the standard three-act structure. "Beginning" is a hook to get the players involved; there's a few suggestions, but the section ends with an odd paragraph saying "you want the players to go home looking forward to the next session" when none of the suggestions are likely to be things that would take up an entire session (such as "an assassin atacks the PCs"). The Ending should be a climax, although it need not tie up everything; and the Middle should be a series of challenges, each affecting the outcome of the adventure, and changing the circumstances or their understanding of the adventure as they go.
Sounds good. But again, I've never heard of a published adventure doing that. Still..
We now have definitions of the four "standard" types of D&D adventure.
Location-based adventures are "go to unusual place and explore it to achieve X", thus encompassing pretty much every dungeon crawl. The creation process is five step: work out a goal, work out a villain, build out the location where it happens, then top and tail with an introduction and climax. Then, actually design the encounters, which they advise doing the XP budget system which we're not getting into.
Event-based adventures are "this is happening, what are you going to do about it". The steps are: identify the villain, work out what they want and what they're going to do, work out what the party should want to do about it in general terms (but there isn't a whole lot of allowance for if that's not what they do), identify other important NPCs who might be involved, work out how the bad guy's likely to react, then design all the possible locations - although in less detail than for a location-based adventure (although remember that useful maps is still on the first list). Top and tail with introduction and climax, then design encounters.
By the way, all these things have random tables! Let's try a few for fun. Location-based first:
The PCs are going to a dungeon to (6) retrieve a stolen item hidden there.
They also want to (2) defend something from attackers.
The villain is (1) a beast or monstrosity with no agenda.
Their ally is (2) an inexperienced adventurer.
Their patron is (7) a temple official.
The introduction is (7) A town or village needs volunteers.
The climax is (4) a race to where the villain is completing their plan. Um, but it's a beast with no agenda. That's going to be tricky.
Now, how about an event-based adventure?
The villain is (9) a humanoid cultist.
The structure of their plans is (1) a big event. The stars are right, I guess.
The PCs want to (19) make sure a wedding goes off without a hitch. Wait. WHAT!? Ok, I guess we're stuck with the cheesy kidnapped bride, but the idea of a cult just crashing a wedding for the lulz made me smile.
The third adventure type is mystery, which is a variant of event-based, except that three extra things are considered: the victim, the suspects, and the clues. There's a few techniques suggested from detective fiction: make sure that the victim is tied to either the villain, the suspects, or the PCs; make sure some set of circumstances limit the suspect pool; and make sure that the murderer is not the only suspect who has secrets they don't want to come out. This is good stuff, but apart from that there's not much else, and there's still a focus on the location and encounter structure - which is understandable for D&D which runs on that, but it's not necessarily ideal for this type.
The final adventure type, and the one that gets the least detail, is intrugue, which means some kind of power struggle or decision to be made. This type doesn't have to have a villain, or it might have multiple villains, and it also suggests that you.. might want to give the players Influence points over the factions. That's more or less all, though.
Beyond that, there's some rather system specific stuff on creating individual encounters, a random event table, and one of the more intruging aspects: a random table and categorization of moral quandries; and they're all terrible! Seriously:
- Ally: the PCs have to choose between two allies, but they hate each other and won't work together, so the PCs must choose the right one. Does the GM feel like running an adventure which is already lost because of a choice the PCs made at the beginning? I'm guessing not.
- Friend: a friend or other connected NPCs makes an unreasonable request of the PCs. Some of these are reasonable, like "they might plead with the characters to spare the villain's life", but some are just dense, like "a love interest might say they shouldn't go on the adventure".
- Honor: Ugh. A paladin or cleric has to break their oath or faith to accomplish the adventure, but the GM should make sure there's a way to atone. So there's no real choice at all.
- Rescue: The hero's choice. Catch the villain or save the innocent? It's a classic device in literature, but I'm not sure it goes well at the gaming table.
- Respect: two allies or patrons give different advice, and will be upset with the PCs if they are ignored. Could be interesting, but could backfire or just not be cared about.
Much later, there's a section on linking adventures.. but sadly, it only has rather weak ideas. The first is to just treat the campaign as an episodic TV show where a different thing happens each adventure and there's no real connection to them. The other two actual structures presented are "achieve an overarching goal in steps", or "agents who do stuff for an ongoing duty". There's a few better suggestions on seeding or foreshadowing the next adventure in a previous one, though.
Unfortunately, the section on actually Running the game doesn't have a whole lot of interesting material at all. It includes mostly obvious social things, like moderating table talk, when to hide dice rolls, how to avoid metagaming or manage missing players, and awarding inspiration. But there's nothing at all about how to handle unexpected situations or anything similar, even though the earlier section on adventure design says explicitly that that's something you ought to do.
So, a double-edged sword. While this advice is all good for a beginning GM, and will work fine for D&D, it also has the problem of.. well, the infamous issue of having structural components that are highly specific to D&D, and make assumptions about what "page" the reader is on (in terms of the Same Page Tool) with regard to what a GM ought to do. Everything is very focussed on locations, and maps are mentioned a ton of times (there's a much of statements that say "you can use a map", but nothing about if you don't want to). This could easily be a holdover from the earlier D&D games and their wargaming background, but it's not necessarily ideal for every situation - even the situations that D&D is often used for.
Sly Flourish - 1Original SA post
So, a brief digression first of all. Why am I doing this?
Well, it's because of multiple things. It's because I'm frustrated by my own inability to GM some systems with mechanics that intrigue me. (This is one of the reasons why I'm having to not comment too much on things - because I don't want to argue that I know better than anything being written, since that would be me claiming I was a great GM, and I don't claim that. Heck, if I believed that I wouldn't have all these GM advice books..)
It's also because our group's current GM is trying to do plot improvisation and finding it hard, and I sympathize, and I'm looking for things that might help him.
But the second reason is that once you get into the world of GM advice, you suddenly realize that there's a ton of grog in the area, and a ton of propagation of fixed assumptions, many of which are also associated with D&D. When freakin' Venger Satanis is writing a DMing book (and it's actually not the worst one I've read) you know there's a potential tilt in representation. The only "modern" RPG author I know who's written a GMing guide is Greg Stolze, and his How To Run Roleplaying Games is fairly brief and low-level.
The third reason is the infamous UKGE 2019 scandal. Just in case anyone reads this after it's forgotten, this revolved around a GM who ran an adventure in which the PCs were gang raped by fiat. It was one of several games he ran at UK Games Expo 2019, the UK's largest hobby games convention, and he was the Room Captain of the section. In a later article, he summarised his prep for a Tales For The Loop game as follows:
Kevin Rolfe posted:
When I came up with the adventure I had two scenes in mind.
One, the lads, drunk or high outside a kebab shop at 1 am trying to get enough money together to buy a kebab and two, the lads naked, handcuffed, covered in poo being chased by men with guns, which seemed funny.
So, while GMs who're genuinely trying are being put off by grog, overprep, or lack of confidence, people like Rolfe are representing the hobby nationally - with that. Am I the only one who thinks this is a problem? I mean, sure, I'm self-interested, but should I really think I'm wrong? Should I really be assuming he's just remarkably talented?
I've had quite a few pointers to this one on the topic of improvised gaming. The author at least uses his actual name - Michael E. Shea - on the metadata, even if we have the strange "Sly Flourish" moniker on the actual book. This is actually the most recent book I've reviewed so far, as late as 2018 - but the "return of" is a clue that this is a sequel to the original book The Lazy Dungeon Master from 2012, although it doesn't say you need to read the previous one. Before that, Shea wrote 2 books on GMing 4th Edition specifically, but other than that, most of his output has been novels.
But ok, let's not talk about the author. Let's talk about that title. I still come from the world where lazy is an insult (unless you're a programmer, and even then it's just a code word for smart evaluation and code generation which is excellent and let me tell you about LISP for a couple paragraphs, where are you going?) even though the book argues that reduced prep actually results in better games. So shouldn't it be The Better Dungeon Master? Even though the argument is repeated throughout the book, it constantly uses the word lazy to refer to the strategies it encourages, and it feels a bit jarring.
Secondly, Dungeon Master, not Game Master. The book admits it focusses on Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, and while it correctly states there's nothing system specific in it, there is quite a lot that is structure specific to that type of game.
We also have a weak start. The Way Of The Lazy Dungeon Master says that the core philosophy of the book is: Prepare what benefits your game, and omit what does not. Ugh. Yes, this is pretty obviously true, but how are you supposed to know if prep benefitted your game without hindsight? If you didn't prep something, and it went fine anyway, how do you know it wouldn't have been better if you had prepped? Blech. Still, the chapter does mention that it's not advocating not preparing at all - although this is on the basis of a survey of D&D GMs from 2016, and doesn't address those games which pretty much tell you not to as part of the rulebook - but that prep should be down to 15-30 minutes for four hours of play.
The Lazy Dungeon Master's Checklist is just a list of the following chapters, so we'll pass on that and move onto the first of the steps: Review the Characters. This doesn't mean looking at their character sheets; it just means noting their names, backgrounds, and motivations, in order to prime your mind before preparing anything else - so that the PCs will be front and centre in anything you set up. Fine. The chapter's 2 pages long, by the way.
Create a Strong Start is about a strong hook for the start of the session, which is divided into What's Happening? (ie, keying the adventure to an external event gives life to the world) , What's The Point? (what makes the PCs get involved), and Where's the Action? - how quickly can you get the PCs involved in doing things, rather than having to start with a lengthy exposition. In fact, the next section advises that every session should start with a fight, because it does all those things together, and inevitably invites follow-up investigation. There's ten examples, and a note saying that continuing an existing adventure shouldn't abrogate the need for a starting hook for a session.
Outline Potential Scenes suggests coming up with a few single outlines for stuff that might happen, even if you don't know it's going to. The idea of this is, first, to inspire thought; and second, to stave off any feeling that you've been taken completely by surprise. Keeping them short means that you don't get upset if you end up not using them. Another 2 page chapter.
The next one is a bit more controversial, and its foreward indicates that it's the main difference from the previous book: Define Secrets and Clues. It's a good idea, but it does internalize the common assumption - which I'm just not sure is right - that every scenario must present investigation and unknown information as the primary obstacle to time the PC's advancement through the story. Anyway, the suggest is: write down 10 potential secrets, and as many clues to them as you can think of. Don't note down where they're found, though - that will come up during the session. Also, the secrets don't have to be true - if the PCs never find them, maybe just decide they don't matter.
Develop Fantastic Locations is the kind of title that makes me cringe, but - thank goodness - it's not actually a dead positive. The author actually provides several items for what makes a location "fantastic". Start with a groovy name, and then come up with three aspects for the location - and yes, the book actually calls out Fate Core as the source of the term "aspect". If you can't think of anything that makes it remarkable, just make it really big or really old. Try to make 1-2 locations per expected hour of play.
There is a section on building fantastic dungeons.. but it's kind of weak. It just says, try to get 5-8 chambers which are built as miniature "fantastic locations", then just grid map them or lift a map from a published adventure. I mean, it's not too bad, but it might not satisfy dungeon crawler players, which presumably you have if you are building dungeons.
Outline the important NPCs is another short chapter; define the important NPCs, give them names, give them ties to the story and/or PCs, and come up with an archetype or description for them. A slightly odd piece of advice here: if you're stuck for an NPC archetype, just take a fictional character and gender flip them. Huh.
Choose Relevant Monsters is our first clue as to the D&D focus of the book, although it does start with a hilariously ironic quote from Mike Mearls admitting that he doesn't use the encounter building rooms he signed off on. There's a bit of text about not using challenge ratings or similar too precisely (although it avoids saying "because they're rubbish anyway"), and then suggests preparing to improvise combat encounters.. but oddly doesn't actually say what that means actually doing, which is odd for this book, which has been doing pretty well so far. There's a subsection on preparing boss fights which has some really good considerations, though, including the fact that the PCs shouldn't gank the boss in one round but should also not be perfectly countered, and an explicit discussion of managing the action economy by making sure there's other concerns in the battle and the boss isn't fighting alone.
And finally, well, the one that really gives away the Dungeon Master aspect of this book. Select Magic Item Rewards, yes, that's the specific title, it identifies exactly that the PC's reward should always involve magic items. Perhaps we were headed to the Cipher System and got off at the wrong station?
So, that's the steps presented, and the next chapter Our Preparation Notes So Far goes over them. And I have to say, I kind of like them too, but as I mentioned there's a bunch of structural assumptions in there which are very D&D focussed. That mystery will be the main guard on PC progress. That visiting multiple locations will be key. That combat will be especially engaging and a focus. One even odder thing is that the review contains a sample set of notes for an adventure, but it actually gives specific numbers of each monster types - like "there are 24 hobgoblins". Is that one encounter, or spread out? Well, who knows. Maybe it's meant to be adapted, which is understandable, but that's a big action economy issue..
Reduce The Checklist suggests that prep can be reduced even further with experience, and that the only critical steps are the strong start, the secrets and clues, and the locations. Scene outlines tend to be a security exercise; you always have to improvise NPC reactions; you get more familiar with monsters and magic items over time. Also, the chapter opens with a quote from Never Unprepared, but unfortunately it's one of the empty ones.
Other High-Value Preparation Activities gives 4 quick things that you might find that apparently deliver good results at the table: handouts, maps, art, and music. Again, there's a lot of assumptions about the style involved here.
The Lazy Dungeon Master's Toolkit isn't really much to do with improvisational GMing at all; it's a list of things to use when GMing. A GM screen, a dry-erase flip mat, maps and terrain if they're your thing, and a lengthy love letter to 3x5 index cards as mechanisms for taking notes and tracking initiative (there's that D&D again). I mean, it's ok, but it doesn't really fit with the theme of everything else.
That's most of what this book has to say on prep, but it's not the end - there's a whole section coming up on actually running, which we'll take a look at in the next post.
Sly Flourish - 2Original SA post
The second part of the book somewhat changes things up, starting to focus on the actual running of the game, and becoming somewhat less organized as a result. Also, the already-short chapters start to become ridiculously short at this point. At least one of the chapters is probably less than a page after removing the space taken by the chapter header and the ending artwork.
Building A Lazy Campaign.. ugh.. ok, have I already mentioned how much I dislike the use of lazy in this book? I can understand lazy Dungeon Master as kind of ironic, but who wants to play in a "lazy campaign"? In fact, as soon as we get to the first page we discover that the author prefers to call it a "spiral campaign". That's because the focus on the world starts with the PC's immediate location, and then spirals outwards as they visit locations and explore and learn about the world. But it also gives a better idea of the starting points: a campaign hook (some kind of overall goal), six "truths of the world" which define the setting, and three "fronts" right out of Dungeon World (which is specifically mentioned - together with a Mike Mearls quote about how great he thought they were and how much they improved his D&D games. Strange he didn't put them in the book).
Running Session Zero is about the concept of Session Zero, with no connection to "Lazy" techniques. Describe the world, set up expectations, make the characters and get them together, and maybe do a test adventure.
Top Traits of Good GMs is a seriously confused chapter to start with. The actual traits in question are: flexibility, creativity, and improvisation. Not entirely sure how "improvisation" is a trait, but OK. The bulk of the chapter is not about the traits, though, but about methods for attaining them: "Relax", "Listen", "Trust Your Tools", and "Sharpen Your Skills". "Relax" is a fair point, although a little difficult to do on demand. "Listen" naturally refers to listening to the players. "Trust Your Tools", however, is really odd; it's encouragement to use the preparation that was described in the previous section, and then a note about using a player's suggestion for their background that probably belonged in the "Listen" section. And "Sharpen Your Skills" says the usual thing - "practice" - with no addressing of the classic problem with this advice (do your players want to tolerate you practicing?)
Summarizing the Previous Session is the aformentioned chapter that's only actually one page long. It says: at the start of the session, have the players summarise the last session. That's it. Why? Because you can listen to what each player has remembered, and that tells you what the highlights were for them. Well, unless one player remembers everything or is just unusually loud, which is sadly more common than not.
Three Tricks for Group Storytelling has an introductory section that's already going to have any OSR people rolling to sharpen their whetstones. It states:
We want to work together to elevate our games from mechanics-focused simulations into action scenes worthy of any good novel or movie. Moving players into creative improvisational thinking isn't easy, though. We're all familiar with how society pushes people to leave imagination behind once childhood is done, and it's that imagination that we need to open up once again.
The transition from the first sentence to the second - that the way to move a game away from a mechanics-focussed simulation requires the players to engage in world creativity - and the techniques in this chapter take it in ways that might be even more disliked by some players. The first is to ask players to describe their killing blows against monsters, which is not too bad an idea, but my experience is that it doesn't go that well - funneling all the player(s) creativity into the act of killing with swords gets tedious quickly, and it rubs into the players the idea that their descriptions don't actually make any difference, which shouldn't be the case in a good game.
But we then go right to shared world with the next three questions - "What's an interesting physical characteristic of the monster?" "What's an interesting characteristic of the tavern?" and "What happens along your journey?". Just to rub it in, the final header of the chapter is "Taking Baby Steps into group world building and improvisation", but group world building hasn't been mentioned deliberately so far, and some players are just not going to like doing it.
Improvising NPCs is another very short chapter. Choose a name from your list, write it down, give them an existing stat block, then "put yourself into the mind of the NPC". This is then followed up by a rather strange suggestion that "maybe this town simpleton is a lot smarter than anyone else thought". If you're putting yourself into the mind of "the town simpleton", how would you distinguish being smart as a character twist from failing to connect with the character?
Improvising Scenes and Situations is short again, and even worse, the vast majority of the chapter is a single example. The only generic advice is in two sections: "Imagine a living world" and "Let the world react to the characters". The example then involves thinking about what a villain would do with their monster forces around a fortress; but although it shows what the notional GM comes up with, it gives nothing on how they did so. Worst chapter so far.
Using Multiple Combat Styles divides combat into three styles: theater of the mind, tactical grid, and "abstract map" (effectively zone-based), and gives some suggestions about when each ought to be used; for example, theatre of the mind is better used for quick combats, ones that favor the charcaters, or ones defined by massive environmental changes. There's also a few notes about trust: theater of the mind requires the most trust of the GM, abstract map the next, and tactical grid the least.
Another sentence that'd definitely rile our group's grognard no end: "A game that focuses too much on tactics can easily go from collaborative storytelling to an opposed miniatures war game if you're not careful." Never mind the suggestion that a player might enjoy a game which includes both of those alternatively.
Maintaining the Pace is our next chapter. Ah! A topic I could do with help on. And beginning with a quote from Monte Cook saying how important good pacing is, which is a bit much from Mr. GM Intrusions, but never mind. The first two subsections are about avoiding dead air at the table - "ask the players what they do", and "if there's a deadlock, clarify good options".
The next three subsections, however, ae more interesting - they're about story beats (in fact there's an explicit reference to Hamlet's Hit Points).It begins with suggestions that rotating the three standard play modes - exploration, interacting with NPCs, and combat - naturally creates action and relaxation beats over time, and the reference to Hamlet's Hit Points is to Laws' categorisation of beats as Fear or Hope. Unfortunately, what follows is a list of possible events to drop into the campaign to make things easier or harder over time. This is unfortunate for several reasons, one of which is that it contradicts something said later.
Priming the GM's Brain is.. kind of weird. It's a list of books, movies, games and TV shows you might consider watching or playing, together with the advice to read the sourcebooks for your chosen game and to "take a walk". The lists of material vary rather widely, too. The list of TV shows has a ton of modern fantasy (Angel, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but the video games are pure D&D style (Baldur's Gate, Diablo, Pillars of Eternity).
Conducting GM Brain Exercises is a slightly peculiar title for a chapter about things that a GM might want to run though to make sure they have in memory: the names and backgrounds of the characters, what the villains and NPCs are doing right now, and "what fronts are on the move?" (which is not clearly distinguished from the question of what the villains are doing right now)
Embracing the GM's Truths is much better than most of the previous chapters. It's about standard facts and how to respond to them. Those facts are: "Everyone's here to have fun", so there's no need to worry too much if performances aren't great. "Players don't care as much as you think" means that you don't have to have everything perfectly right, or indeed care that much more than they do. "Players want to see their characters do awesome things" makes the good point that the game should be focussed on allowing the PCs to do this, but then also adds that "the real fun of an RPG is being able to act within a fantastic world with an empowered character" and I can already hear the grognards pointing out that group world building, as suggested earlier, disrupts this experience - and for some players it indeed does.
"You are not the enemy" is the standard reminder that you aren't supposed to be trying to kill the PCs, but without addressing the key difficult problem of how you ensure challenge at the same time. But it then does much better in the section "Players love breaking the game", which describes how a sudden trick or unintended event can be actively enjoyable, but that GMs often fair these then become the PCs new routines. The suggestion is that the world evolves to accommodate the new strategy, which is one of those things that sounds good in practice, but in practice has a ton of issues with how opponents know or how those can be worked against or even what to happen if the game actually was broken and there's no response. Yes, I've seen the D&D 3e encounters where every random monster was swinging a spiked chain and noticed how ridiculous they felt.
Lazy Dungeon Master Tactics is a list of miscellaneous suggestions, some of which are good and some fairly terrible. On the good side, "Award Levels Instead Of Experience Points" is essentially just the suggestion to use milestone advancement - and there's the D&D focus again. "Improvise Ability And Skill Checks" basically just suggests making up DCs on the fly, and I have no idea how you could ever run anything without that. "Delegate Initiative Tracking and Other Tasks" and "Assign a Rules Lawyer" are really variations on the same thing.
But then there's several I don't like at all. "Skip Initiative And Take Turns Around the Table" is potentially a big issue for players who've invested chargen resources into initiative related values. "Use Static Monster Damage" starts with "Some roleplaying games provide an average of the monster's damage roll..".. yea, ok, we know you mean 5e, and using those frequently does change the nature of the game. And lastly, bleaurgh, "Run low-level campaigns". The idea is that low level games are easier to run. Which is true, but it misses one of the biggest points about creativity and improvisation, which is that it becomes more and more necessary the higher level games get - and here's the book basically advising the GM to avoid them.
Lastly, there's the final chapter, Developing Your Own Style. It actually does something worthy of a great deal of merit:
The quotations and statistics that appear throughout this book has been chosen to support the hypothesis that less game preparation results in a more entertaining game. Other self-help books do the same thing - choosing studies that support their premise, while conveniently leaving out studies that contradict that premise or support an alternative hypothesis. So let me give you some alternative statistics and information to avoid this trap.
Well, that's a kick-ass attitude to start with. The alternate data they give is this: 83% of GMs spend an hour or more preparing for a game, and Matt Mercer stated that he regularly spends 3 hours and that it would "spike his anxiety" if he had to improvise all his NPCs. Sadly, there isn't any real response or addressing of those - especially the idea that a professional actor saying he'd have trouble improvising can kind of pull the rug out from under any reader's confidence at that point - other than saying "ignore this book if it bothers you too much".
So, this is probably my favorite of the books we've looked at so far. The suggestions all fit together well and a decent number can be acted on without extensive fiddling. Unfortunately, the second section starts to break down a bit, and it could really have done with being better organized rather than having the large number of tiny chapters that it has. Plus, of course, there is the issue that it's very specific to the structure of D&D, and doesn't really cover running other game systems which entrench the low-prep attitude. But it's probably the one I'd recommend most so far.
Your Best Game Ever - 1Original SA post
A curious fellow named Cook
Wrote a Black Cube instead of a book;
So it sold for more cash,
But it crumbled to ash
As soon as Walpole had a look.
So, at least three people on the Discord and elsewhere pointed me at this book; Monte Cook's take on a GM advice book. And I could hardly refuse them, now, could I?
There is, however, a small catch. I don't think it's necessarily the done thing to be fully F&Fing a book that's this new. As I write this the book has still been out for less than 24 hours, so this is going to be much more of a review than a content overview. (Not that there's really a lot of non-obvious content to overview, but still.) Also, I'm not going to do the whole book. It's actually in four sections; an introduction to Roleplaying Games, Being a Great Player, Being a Great Game Master, and Getting the Most Out of RPGs. And I'm only going to do the bits related to DM advice, since that's the theme of the review chain.
Your Best Game Ever was a Kickstarted project released in July 2019 which previously only had a "free preview" available. The free preview attracted some interesting feedback, not least because it included a Recipes section. Yea, a Monte Cook Cookbook. The recipes section is still in the final published version but it's considered "back matter" and only a few pages long, so it's not quite the same weird balance as it was in the free preview version. On the other hand, it is an exceptionally Monte Cook Cookbook. Here's the recipe from the free preview:
* 2 cups plain yoghurt, mayonnaise, sour cream, or a mix
* 1.5 cups chopped fresh herbs of choice
* 1 tablespoon lemon juice
* 1 clove chopped garlic
* salt and pepper
* olive oil (optional)
* chips, veggies, pretzels or any other dippable
* blender or food processor
1. Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend or pulse until smoothing. If mixture is too thick, add a bit of olive oil.
2. Taste. Add more of this or that until you love it.
3. Put it in a serving bowl with your dippables on the side.
So, yea. Three basic dip bases, no clear description of the flavor profile of the herbs, "add this and that", instructions that technically tell you to put the dippables in the blender - it's basically GM fiat, the recipe. (Also Walpole pointed out on the Discord that it's really bland as a dip recipe and is much more like a chicken salad base, but even Jubilee Chicken had a stronger basis (https://web.archive.org/web/2008020...ut/Page1206.asp)
But here's what makes it great. When I read that and was thinking about this F&F, I thought of jokingly adding my own recipe for "Food" (Ingredients, 1 Food, 1 Other Food; Method: Serve) as an example. But it turns out that I don't need to, because that is actually in the book too.
You All Meat (And Cheese) In A Tavern
* Some or all of: meats, cheeses, grapes, pears, apples, fruit, nuts, pickles, eggs, chutney, crusty bread
Put everything in rustic dishes and set it on the table. Feel free to tear the bread, break the cheese into hunks, and use cloth napkins to complete the feel.
Wow. "Get a bunch of food and put it on the table" is certainly something I'm happy at having paid part of my $19 for.
The other recipes are:
* D20 Rollups - tortillas with "a filling of your choice" and "a dip of your choice". Uh. Isn't this just "wraps exist?" Oh, yea, maybe put some cream cheese in them, and "don't overfill them or you won't be able to wrap them enough to keep their shape", a fact you'd notice about 30 seconds after attempting to close an overfilled wrap.
* Magical Whip - a dip made of peanut butter, yoghurt and honey.
* Salty Meaty Goodness - hey, you can put bacon and cheese on top of crackers then melt the cheese!
* Cyberpunk Street Noodles - buy some pre-made noodles and follow basically the recipe on them, but maybe put in some hot sauce.
* Monstrous Mac And Cheese - mac and cheese, but put spinach and green colouring in it to make it look
* Root Cellar Stew - uh, ok, it's a stew, not a remarkable one but at least it seems to know what it's doing.
There's also a couple of cocktails - Magic User (a Purple Rain variant), Death Served Cold (a Madras with "creepy" red coloured syrup on the rim), Crounge Hound (a Bee Sting with herbs and scotch), and, ugh Green Goo - another totally generic recipe ("something orange, something blue, something bubbly, squeezed lime" - he really missed the opportunity to make a rhyme there)
There's another issue, too. The book is called Your Best Game Ever, right. Thing is, according to the introduction, that's a total lie.
It's a how-to book for all the things that we take for granted... Sometimes I feel like rules on how to play our games fill our bookshelves.. but rules on how to actually participate in the hobby are just gained through experience. Sometimes, they're passed along by word of mouth.
"Your Best Game Ever" implies that it should be better than other games of yours. Based on that introduction, the book should be called Your first game or even just A game. And there's little reason for this other than a weird bait-and-switch because no actual beginner is going to buy a book called Your Best Game Ever. That would be like someone who's never fished before buying a book called Catching More Fish.
The roleplaying games section begins with So you want to play an RPG? which is, yea, bare minimum beginner stuff. I'm not going to go throgh it because everyone's heard it a thousand times before, although it is updated enough that it suggests watching streaming games online if you're not sure what an RPG is like (hearing the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Critical-Role-as-RPG-porn in the background). There's also a few guidelines for getting involved in a game if you're unsure, some of which are a bit dubious like "Anything is possible" (ok, I jump over the Sun!) and "There are no wrong answers", which has the caveat ".. as long as you're doing something that's fun, that's a part of the story, and that doesn't hurt anyone else at the table." But how do you know what is or isn't a part of the story, as a beginner?
Understanding RPGs start with a section on "why play?", which claims that RPGs develop problem solving skills, communication skills, math and reading (which I suppose might be relevant for young children, but not so much for adults). "Three entities" starts to show the Monte attitude, though, by stating that play style is defined by the balance of the GM, the players, and the rules and how much they contribute to "making a story", whatever that means.
There's also a peak Monte sidebar on "asking the Game Designer rules questions" which says that asking the designer to clarify rules is a "waste of time" because no RPG has a single defined way it's supposed to be played and there is no right answer. That should be attached to all of his books as a warning. By the way, just 14 pages later there's a sidebar by Luke Crane saying that actually you should never assume you have more insight into the game than the designer did.
I should mention, mind you, that this is the least D&D-focused of any of the books I've reviewed so far. Even ones that start talking generically have usually defaulted to D&D by about halfway through the first chapter. And no, it doesn't just shill Numenera, either; the opening section refers to Blades In The Dark, Mutant Year Zero, Apocalypse World and Pendragon among others. Granted, it doesn't really say anything about them other than the names, but it's nice to see.
What's next? Why, it's time for a categorisation of play styles! Oh, we do love those. Let's see:
* RPG and chill: casual gaming, everything's just an excuse to socialize. It's unusual that this is the first book that has considered this to be a whole group style instead of insisting that it's just one or two players in a group that's mostly more involved.
* By The Book: is Monte's version of the Tactician or Wargaming play. Focussing heavily on rules and solving problems by using them.
* Rulings Not Rules: this is a kind of vaguely stated version of the OSR? Maybe? It starts by saying that these are games where the GM makes rulings and is thus (apparently) more likely to be able to adapt to creative solutions. But it then adds that this ties the game heavily to player skill, meaning it's harder to get into character.
* Story First says that the games tend to be about storytelling, but completely fails to define that, and then reiterates the old fallacy that storytelling play can include "going through a whole session without rolling a die". In fact, it says that storygamers might spend the whole session "researching the history of an important location by reading in a library!" Now, that to me sounds like a pretty uninteresting story and a massive pacing failure, but what do I know about storygames?
* Fun First - AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH what an utterly terrible category! Thank you for implying that all the other categories make those things more important than fun! Anyway, it basically says it's a time of group that flip-flops between the styles based on what's fun. Gee, it's almost as if these should have been categories of experiences in the moment, not entire groups. Huh.
Complex Versus Simple Games is.. actually not bad. It's a reasonable overview of systems, mentioning that more complex systems tend to mean that the rules give greater weight to player choices and create more emergent gameplay, but also slow down play. It also points out, quite rightly, that "realistic" does not mean a complex system and it's a bad standard for RPGs. Unfortunately, there's no conclusion other than that "many gamers find that a game that falls in the middle of the [simple/complex] spectrum is right for them". Which would be much more useful if he had actually defined the ends of the spectrum.
Genres of RPGs is.. a list of RPG genres with a whole bunch of extra text attached to them, which mostly relates to.. how much real life research you might need to do to play them? Really? Oh, and, of course
Magic is at the heart of the fantasy genre.
Next, we tell the reader what one-shots and campaigns are. There's then a rather odd section on finding a game group if you're an experienced player. Hey, did you know that the best way to do that is to ask your friends?
Finding or creating the right group is a longer section, and perhaps a more useful and important one, although not a terribly interesting one to review. It's about the value of making the RPG group a comfortable and safe space for people to be able to express themselves as fictional characters, to accommodate people with different needs and personalities, to insulate IC and OOC and to be able to handle things if negative issues bleed through from one to the other. Unfortunately, it doesn't say a whole lot about how to do this, other than adding that there should be a "pause button", and that you should be prepared to leave a group if it's not working, or ask someone to leave.
Choosing the right game unfortunately doesn't give an overview of any particular games. It says to "look at the longest chapter in a book to see what it's about", or to just ask in your FLGS. Which is rather silly, since most FLGSes only stock a few of the most popular systems, and the longest chapter in Blades In The Dark (for example) is the chapter on the Duskvol setting, which is interesting but not the unique feature of that game. Finally, there's a weird section on Gamer Life Away From the Table that basically says that GMs do prep, players build characters, and you might get involved in side social things related to gaming. Hm.
Next time, we'll get into the actual GM advice. Uh, yea.
Your Best Game Ever - 2Original SA post
So, as I said previously, I'm not going to review the player advice section of the book, because it's still been out for less than a week at this point. There is, however, an entire section on GMing, and a seperate one on Getting the most out of RPGs.
Game Master Basics is our first chapter. After the common advice to start by being a player if possible, it gives a summary of what the GM does:
1. You tell the players what their characters see and hear.
2. One at a time, the players tell you what they want to do in response to what you told them.
3. You determine their chance of success or failure, one at a time, usually expressed as a dice roll.
4. The players roll dice and together you determine what happens as a result.
5. Based on what just happened, you tell the players what their characters see and hear (including, perhaps, what actions the NPCs take, which might involve you rolling dice yourself)
6. The players tell you what they want to do, and so on.
This is the kind of thing that rings alarm bells when I put on my "teaching beginners" hat. It's a very common trap to fall into: not writing text for beginners, but writing text that seems to be for beginners when read by an experienced reader. Taking off your experience hat and reading as an actual beginner can be very difficult, and it then requires a really tricky balancing act of writing text that's actually useful for beginners while not making it too complex by writing without the assumptions an experienced reader would make. Let's see a few here:
- "You tell the players what their characters see and hear." A recent forbidden discussion may have raised that, but I'll just mention the first game I ever ran (Over The Edge if anyone cares) where the PCs visited a friend in hospital, and I went into a panic trying to describe every corridor in the hospital, every side conversation, and every other patient in the ward. Because after all, the PCs would be able to see and hear them, right? What's worse is that this also entrenches D&D assumptions, because dungeon crawling games are very commonly set in simple or restricted environments where this isn't an issue.
- The implication of 2 that the players must all act in response to every prompt, when this often isn't the case or even appropriate.
- The implication of 3 that every action has a chance of failure. Yes, I know you can argue that "it just says the GM determines their chance of success or failure, it doesn't say the chance of success can't be 100%" but that's loopholing the wording to fit in something you know as an experienced person. A beginner doesn't do that if not told.
Next up is a section on What to do first. Except, again in a horribly common error, it's not what to do, it's what to achieve. Have an idea for how things start; have some basic ideas what the PCs might do; have some basic ideas for the NPCs/monsters they're going to meet; and decide what the PCs are going to discover because apparently "in every adventure or session the PCs should discover something". Ugh, Numenera peeking its head through there. But there's nothing about what to do to work these out, just a statement that they should exist.
And How to start a session is just kind of disasterous. It basically says "set an initial scene", but in three paragraphs. Oh, hey, you could also play some music, or show some art, or show a scene from a TV show which certainly won't derail anything. And then,
Once the players start taking actions in the setting you've provided, you're off.
.. and draw the rest of the fucking owl.
Your Relationship With The Players is another lengthy section explaining that the GM isn't the "god of the game", and it should be seen as a group activity. While PC actions should have consequences, you shouldn't actively punish characters for actions you don't like (again note: that's one hell of a distinction for a beginner). Also, the GM's fun matters too, which is cool. Try to be impartial between players. There's a section on not being adversarial that repeats the old saw that "being adversarial doesn't make sense because you can just have a meteor hit the planet any time" (I thought we weren't the god of the game?), but it then says that you can introduce challenge and that the attitude in doing so should be playful, a word I don't think I've ever heard in that context before, which could be appropriate or possibly somewhat disturbing. There's a final, valid note, that the GM isn't the group counselor and doesn't have to resolve issues with players.
The next section of the chapter is really just an overview of the coming chapters, so I won't go through that, but it does include this cartoon which I kind of relate to:
Although bonus points for not removing the "Congrats on your kickstarter" message from the artist in the bottom right corner, even in the published version. *sigh*
Chapter 9. Bulding a World. As I mentioned when I did the 5e book, I'm not going to look at world building advice here because it's a whole separate topic and is shared with writing fiction.
Chapter 10 is more our style, though. Creating Adventures. It starts with a few relatively useful notes: that the term adventure is used instead of story because saying story would imply a pre-prepared plot which isn't a good idea, and that an adventure shouldn't be seen as a "chapter" in the campaign because adventures are far more likely to overlap with each other and run in parallel or at different speeds and so on.
We then get onto types of adventures. These are Location-Based, Event-Bas.. hang on a second. That seems a bit familiar.
Yes, it's the same categorization as in the D&D 5e Dungeon Master's Guide. Understandable, since that probably evolved from the Third Edition one which Monte Cook was involved in writing. Here's the thing, though: they don't actually match.
Location-Based is more or less the same - the idea of adventure based on exploring or otherwise interacting with a place. Unfortunately, again, YBGE more or less just defines this instead of giving a set of steps for creating one like the 5e DMG did. Doubly unfortunately, YBGE states that the choices a player makes in a location-based adventure are "usually directional; do we take the left turn in the corridor or do we open the door here?" Which is bloody disasterous. It works in a dungeon, but not in a city (or my aformentioned hospital) and beyond a few sessions it quickly becomes boring if there's no background information involved (if we have no idea what's round the corner and/or behind the door, might as well just roll for it, right?)
Event-Based is really mixed up, though. The 5e DMG defined these as a particular event occurring (an invasion, "the stars are right", etc) and the response of the PCs and the world to it. YBGE, however, defines it as the structure of having events in the adventure which occur in response to the PCs actions - basically what Robin Laws called the Branching structure, you know, the one that he said not to use. So this is a really confusing distinction, and what makes it worse is that the 5e DMG one is a lot more inspiring.
Time-Based is.. ugh. It's basically the idea of having a timeline of events that happen in the background, which again Laws said not to do because it will inevitably be disrupted, and even Cook admits that if you take it as a literal timeline then probably the PCs will miss most of the events that don't involve them, because heaven forbid we try to explain narrative timing. Oh, we also add that all these three categories of adventure can overlap, so presumably you have to prep all of them. Thanks a bunch.
(There's also an odd side essay here called Nobody Wants to Die in a Tunnel which encourages players to define a small hobby-based goal for their characters, such as a rogue who wants to be the lead in a community dance recital. That seems to be.. an unusual tone shift to me, but I guess it could work, maybe?)
A better categorization comes up next, though: defining adventure goals. The suggested goals are
- Exploration - find out what's in an unknown place, Hi again Numenera;
- Find the MacGuffin - find out where something is, rather than just gaining information as in Exploration. There's a sidebar (on the next page for some reason) called The Moving MacGuffin which suggests not putting the MacGuffin in a particular place, to avoid the game getting stuck if the PCs don't look there. That's fair enough, but it doesn't at all address the actual difficulty with that, which is avoiding contradicting any previous information you gave out about the location.
- Infiltrate - get into a known place that's difficult to get into, and making the extremely good point that the PCs need some advance information or it's just a broken Exploration adventure)
- Rescue - a combination of Infiltrate and Find the MacGuffin, since you usually know where the victim is, they're just difficult to get, except that the section on infiltration already covered infiltration in order to retrieve something. The only suggestion here is that it might involve getting the victim out safely, except that hits another category later;
- Defeat a Foe - which doesn't seem like an adventure so much as part of an adventure;
- Diplomacy - ugh. "Talk to someone". It mentions that the danger of this is that probably only one PC can talk at a time. It doesn't mention that diplomacy isn't just talking to one person, and that it can involve gathering information, finding circumstances, engaging with multiple people, etc; instead it jumps both feet first into the "if you say the right things the King will marry the princess to the town drunk" fallacy. Is this a Geek Social Fallacy somewhere?
- Survival/Escape - get out of an area. Fair enough, except a) it emphasizes resource management, which most game systems can't handle that well; and b) the vast majority of the section isn't about writing a survival/escape adventure but about a warning that players hate PCs getting captured or running away and may well have them fight to the death to avoid either. Both are good points, but pretty much irrelevant.
- Protect - protect stuff. It's mentioned this is a good way to have a small-scale sandbox if the thing being protected is in a single place and the PCs have time to prepare. Or the PCs might not know what's happening in which case.. um, apparently the adventure is "filled with tension"? Rather than, you know, just boring because the players have so little way of judging what they do?
Next step: the Hook. Ok, you know what a hook is. There's some examples of how to create one. It's pretty good. Moving on.
The acts is a note on the three acts of a story: the problem is introduced, the problem gets worse, and the problem is resolved. It makes the wise point that you need to be careful with the second act, because it usually counts on the PCs either failing or discovering something problematic, and if the PCs have no choice but to do that then the players will get frustrated. Unfortunately, the advice given is just "sometimes don't do that". There's also a note that you could use other structures if you want. So, not quite drawing the owl, but very noncommittal.
Plots and Side Plots and Weaving Adventures both have similar themes: side plots is on introducing small plots, especially involving single PCs, and introducing multiple plots based on the objectives above nested inside each other. Again, not really a bad idea, but it makes the classic creative-tutorial mistake of mistaking a list of already created examples - without any real discussion of their merits or origins - for instructions on how to create your own. Which makes me sad. (Unless the topic is programming, in which case it makes me want to bludgeon the tutorial author)
And our next step is Adventure Pitfalls, which is another list:
- Railroading which is defined here as either the GM telling the players what the PCs do, or the PCs having only one choice that's viable. Unfortunately the example it chooses is of PCs exploring the woods, where the PCs say they go north, the GM says there's mountains; the PCs say they go west, the GM says the woods are too thick; and so on until they guess the right direction. I dislike this as an example of railroading because it implies that the GM just can't make a world in which there's a wood that actually has those properties, and the book doesn't go into more intelligent ways of dealing with this (for example, not making that a choice point at all and just saying the PCs travel through the woods). It also doesn't mention my old saw of romeroading, where the PCs can go east or west but end up in the same place no matter what.
- Bottlenecks is a restatement of the Moving McGuffin issue, where the adventure stalls because it depends on something that the PCs either didn't notice or somehow failed to do. Again, the advice given is not to plan too much, which would be OK if the book had really given much in terms of what to plan, which it hasn't.
- Repetition is, well, repeating the same things over and over. The same monsters or missions or even the same events, like the PCs being betrayed by someone they rescued. If that happens too often, the players will start to metagame by expecting it to happen. Fair enough. The only problem is that the given advice is to use a published adventure at least once or twice in a campaign. Which could help, but my experience is that published adventures - when run in sequence - tend to trigger exactly this problem because the authors weren't aware of each other and always think their twist is unique. Still.
- The Wrong Stakes means that the PCs either don't get involved because the stakes are too low, or that you lose the ability to increase narrative tension because they're too high (and can't get any higher). What do we do about this? Um, vary the stakes. Example example. Groan.
What follows is a list of "Sample RPG plots" which are incredibly generically defined (example: "crime is on the increase in a community, and the PCs must help the victims and perhaps discover the reason"). Honestly, they're not really too bad, and a beginner could do well by picking from these. The only problem is that, as Monte actually himself said in the previous chapter, they're hooks or scenarios, not plots. They could definitely have benefitted from some extra guidelines on how they're actually run. For example, one is: "Two rivals compete to reach the same goal, and the PCs can attempt to help one or the other, but will they choose the right one?" Well, how does that work with the Moving MacGuffin? No word.
Next time, we'll move on to the later GMing chapters.
Your Best Game Ever - 3Original SA post
So, we're on to actually running the game, which is closest to what I've been trying to look at in these posts. It's an interesting take; it's lower level than in most other books, which does mean it skirts obviousness at times, but at the same time some points that are made are perfectly valid.
The first section is on conveying information, but oddly the first subjection isn't about conveying information, it's about asking questions. The first tip is on the use of leading questions by the GM; that leading questions should be used to make the players curious and activate, rather than making them overly cautious. Unfortunately, there's no actual methods for doing this, only a bunch of examples; and while it's correct that questions like "does anyone keep an eye on the prisoner?" can encourage caution, examples of positive questions include "do you look in all the drawers?" and "does anyone activate the device?" which could easily be just as bad. What makes this more awkward is that the next section states "leading questions aren't the best way to interact with players" (so maybe don't put them front-and-centre in your section on the topic?) and that open ended questions are preferable, and multiple-choice questions and confirmations should usually be avoided. Fair enough, although multiple-choice is sometimes needed in quieter or more thoughtful groups.
Answering questions has again some good basics: if you don't know the answer to a question, consider how important the answer is and how long it will take to look up, and decide to either look it up or make up something and record it for consistency. If the players ask questions which their PCs wouldn't know the answers to, ask "how do you find out?" Cool. There's then a rather odd one, though:
When describing actions or events, you want to be on top of the conversation. It shouldn’t be triggered by a player question. In other words, you want a player to say, “We walk down the corridor” with you replying, “When you get halfway down its length, an alarm sounds! Suddenly android guards start shuffling out of the now-open door.” What you don’t want is for a player to say, “We walk 10 feet down the corridor. Does anything happen?” And then repeat that over and over. Stay ahead of the players. Tell them what they experience before they feel like they have to ask.
On the one hand, that's a fair point. On the other hand, I've very rarely known any new player to talk like that. That's much more likely to be a player who's massively on the defensive because last time they walked down a corridor they ended up way closer to the androids than they thought they would be, which is a whole different ball game. Likewise, the following section on Interacting with one player versus the group basically says that if you end up with a group caller for the PCs, just go with it because if the other PCs don't like it, "it's their duty to pay attention and interject". Which ignores all the social and game ability factors that could end up preventing that, which again can be a minefield. If it was clear that the advice was for new GMs not to jump into that minefield, then fair enough, but it doesn't read like that.
There follows a lengthy session on pacing, which is one of my biggest weaknesses and points of confusion so I'm always keen to read it. It begins with the reasonable advice that you should always know what the ongoing goal or theme of the game is, and then a section on pacing within an encounter which says that if you want to spend extra time on an important event, that's cool, but you need to make sure there's enough detail to fill that time. Again, half true, half false - it can run into big problems if the PCs don't agree that the event is important, and there's a lot of missing depth in dealing with that. Even Alas Vegas made the point that, in spite of all the careful preparation of the final scene, some players would just straight up shoot the Chairman the second they step out of the elevator and to some extent that makes sense, so spin out the lead up to that scene. But that's making the key point that this section misses, which is that the players can easily override your decisions on how important a scene is.
Pacing within a session is closer to this - it actually still covers decisions on what encounters to play out in detail or skip over, but does it within the context of the overall session - as does the next section, err, pacing encounters and sessions together. The objective is to avoid players thinking they didn't actually get much done in a session (although unfortunately there's no mention of what happens if the players end up thinking they did too much). But what it doesn't address, and what no such section ever manages to address, is the issue of optimal pacing potentially removing agency from the players and giving it to the clock. The constant claim that player creativity should be rewarded, but apparently not by any means that involves actually accomplishing a goal more quickly. There's a similar one on pacing within a campaign which says more or less the same thing, and also asks the GM to manage the bizarre feat of breaking a campaign into sessions without plotting out what will happen in advance, because the players should be making those choices.
There's a brief section on ending a campaign, which essentially says you should plan for a reasonable ending and that if it looks like OOC circumstances are going to force the campaign to end, at least tell the players that explicitly and try to discuss with them what should or shouldn't be wrapped up. That could work in some circumstances, but probably not others (depending on how long the campaign lasted and how far it got).
Ensuring player agency is our next major section.. but unfortunately, we're again back to the habit of taking a large number of words to say something fairly simple and covering it in wool so that its meaning is reduced. What the section comes down to is to make sure that players have enough information to choose between options meaningfully. There's then a section on avoiding routinely taking away the PC's cool stuff, which is a good point, but not necessarily to do with agency, and then the awkward:
Rather than negate their abilities, require them. If a character can phase through walls, don’t set up the villain’s fortress so that the walls prevent phasing. Instead, make it so that phasing is literally the only way the PCs can get in.
Yea, we need some more detail on that Mr Cook, like what the heck the other PCs do, or how that's set up while still letting the villain get in and out, and so on.
There's then another overly fluffy section on Nonplayer characters. Do we really need to define what a "one-time NPC" is, beyond knowing what NPC stands for? There's the usual advice to run NPCs based on their own interests rather than as game pawns, which usually falls down unless a game is very well balanced and PCs are very well integrated, and then a note on villains and how they should use all their resources to get what they want. Which is again, not really helpful without advice on switching between the "GM" and "villain" hats and how the villain should be limited by game concerns when the GM hat is on. Plus, it advises that villains should be "the heroes of their own stories", which sounds like a good literary trope but as anyone who's watched Maleficent can tell you, it can also make them a less iconic character and lower the satisfaction in defeating them. Plenty of players want to defeat the bad guy and feel that justice has triumphed over needless cruelty and chaos, not that the villain maybe had a point but we had a point too and we had bigger swords so might made right.
Even a Simple Game is Fun is another excellent point - that you don't need to write a long and complex plot, because players will have their own ideas, and also (big groan coming up) there might be memorable moments that come up and take you by surprise. Ron Edwards readers will groan at that one, with his comments on "ouija board playing", and while - as with a ton of stuff Edwards wrote - it's a bit overgeneral and sledgehammered, it is a legitimate concern. Plus, he also forgot how back in the pacing section he mentioned we need to have a bunch of extra encounters ready to allow for things going too fast.
Finding Inspiration. Read newspapers, rip off classic fiction, move fiction from other genres into yours, and take examples from life. There we go; that takes Cook 3 pages. There's then a much more interesting section, though - what happens if there's a surprise and you need ideas and development suddenly in the middle of a session. Cool! What do we do then, Mr Cook? Ok, you're telling us that it's a good thing. Next you're telling us that we can take a break if need be. Ok, but what do we do in the break? Ah, now we're having a list of tools that we could use to help. Well, that's interesting, but help us do what? What do we do with the tools? Oh.. the section ended. Huh.
And the tools are a bit cheesy. Number one is a Tarot deck, oh, hey there again Alas Vegas! It also suggests using a Magic deck if you don't have one, but we're obviously really thinking of the Sooth deck from Invisible Sun at this point, even though it's not listed by name. Other tools: an artbook; a list of random words (that goes right back to Robin Laws and Weather The Cuckoo Likes at least), or a random published adventure. But nothing about integrating these. Ugh. There's also a sidebar on using Chandler's Law, but it casually mentions that introducing a sudden unplanned danger can result in dead PCs or an unbalanced encounter, and so you should.. uh, hang on, it doesn't say what to do, it just says it can happen. Nothing on Chandler's Flaw either, although that's probably a bit grognardy.
Focussing on things other than combat is another potentially valuable section, but lacks a lot of detail. First, it says that you should consider awarding XP for non-combat activities to get the players interested in them, which is.. well, not entirely valid (Shadowrun doesn't give XP for combat, but it's still notorious for devolving into it), but reasonable. Then, there's a section on things that could take the place of combat, which is a good idea, but the first three - unfortunately - are too similar. Discovery, Mystery, and Horror. All of these essentially come down to "exploration" - another Edwards term - and how interesting it is can vary dramatically with how it's run and set up, which.. we don't have any data on. Why is horror a form of exploration? Because the section is rather oddly worded to imply that horror means working out a way to defeat the big horrible monster which you can't fight. Understandable, since being scared of the monster and running the heck away from it isn't going to be a major focus for advancing the plot, but still, a bit weird. The other two are Action and Interaction, and to be fair it does point out the issue with action scenes as being that most game systems don't document them as well as combat. Does it tell us how to rectify that? No, of course not. Just "use a skill check or whatever mechanic". And you already know what interaction's going to say - all the standard things that can happen in a negotiation.
Now it's time for something silly again. Practical Concerns - starts by saying you need notes and a campaign journal and oh look, although it's not mentioned in the text, here's a quarter page photo of the Your Best Game Ever branded player and GM notebooks. They were a stretch goal on the Kickstarter and apparently contained "room for all the details of your PCs and adventures and are system agnostic". So.. um.. blank paper then? Nothing's said it's not.. There's a more reasonable section on GM screens, saying that they should generally be used only if you need the information that's on the inside. There's a sidebar on dice fudging which basically spends a column trying to desperately say "yes, fudge your dice rolls" without actually saying those words and admitting the potential design problem.
So, there's a lot of reasonable statements here, but far too much frantically spinning to avoid actually saying anything positive. Plenty of lists to things to be concerned about with no statement about what to do about that concern, or statements of both sides of an issue without an opinion in either direction, or - much more importantly - the effect of taking one side or the other and the need to integrate that with the group. This is definitely the "dumb centrist" version of GMing advice, which is a little sad, but probably understandable if the main interest was just to sell to the mass market.
Your Best Game Ever - 4Original SA post
Our next chapter, The GM and the Rules is.. well, probably one of the worst so far, and that's saying something. It falls into the unfortunately-common pattern in this kind of book of having a long series of disconnected paragraphs, and many of them don't really say anything.
Knowing the rules says that the GM should understand the spirit of the rules in order to make consistent rulings, even if not the letter. Fair enough. Half a page.
Cheating is one of the worst written sections on the topic I've seen, though. It starts by summarising the point of view that the GM can cheat, but the players can't, apparently because "the players need to make decisions for their characters based on an understanding of how the world works". I thought that was more of an argument against the GM cheating than the players doing so, but nobody's paying me to make major changes to D&D, so hey. It then mentions that Numenera encourages the players to alter things in the name of the story and includes the GM intrusion game mechanic, and that this shows that Monte is on the side of allowing the GM to cheat, even though if it's been made into a game mechanic it's not cheating any more.
Unfortunately this is then followed by a paragraph saying that he "completely understands" the viewpoint that the GM shouldn't cheat because the players need consistency. In fact, it's expressed much better than the previous one: "if climbing up the roof of a house is easy one day and dangerously difficult the next, how can a player determine if that's something they want to do?... [The players] won't know how things work, and that will make them reluctant to try anything." You'd think there'd be a follow-up describing how to balance the two or find which the players prefer, but there isn't. The section just ends.
House Rules says that if you want to make house rules, make sure everyone knows them and make sure the players are down with them.
Logic and Believability takes a half-and-a-bit pages to say that when you have to make on-the-spot decisions about how things work, you should make sure they're believable. You can involve the players in this, but bear in mind that "players are motivated to have their characters succeed and be safe.. in other words, they're biased. Hopefully you are not." .. Um, aren't I motivated to that, then? And no, it doesn't address the elephant in the room of "what's not believable if you're a wizard?"
Game Balance starts with clarifying that game balance isn't the same as believability, and can't be read outside of the context of an individual game - for example, you can't say that a knife dealing 4 points of damage is balanced or not if you don't know how the damage scaling in the game works. It's followed by a discussion on your fly spell and my handgun about the issues involved in balancing two things that might be completely different. There's a brief discussion of mathematical balance which is immediately thrown out with the statement "as a GM, don't do this", and then the bizarre statement:
A player is likely to make the choice that appeals to them, pay whatever price is attached, and move on. Go with your gut, and if your decision proves to be problematic later, change it.
Whaaaaaaaaarrgh? Yes, the player may make the choice that appeals to them, but then they'll be upset if it turns out to be outright worse than the other choice. And if you're going to change choices later on that basis, then you're violating exactly the same consistency that was specifically mentioned as being important in the last section. Ugh. There's then a section on Fairness which basically says, it's completely subjective and it's not worth trying to balance depth against breadth and so we go for the cop out:
Think of it as adjusting the equalizer settings on your speakers when you listed to music. If it sounds to you and you're turning knows without hearing any difference, stop doing it. You're wasting your time.
And if it doesn't sound good to me, what then? Oh. End of section.
Instead, there's a section on Asymmetrical Gaming which mentions that actually you can play with wildly different power levels provided, uh, "no character equals or outshines someone else's strength". That's.. kind of.. game balance.. isn't it? Then, Balancing players and GM says that players and NPCs shouldn't have the same rules. This seems to be because NPCs and monsters are disposable, but the example given is one of an NPC being better than a PC, which surely isn't really justified by disposability? Um.
Balancing Challenges starts with the good point that there should be a balance between easy, regular, especially hard, and impossible challenges in order to make the characters have a chance to feel powerful and the world complete. But that's followed by:
In some gaming styles, the GM never gives any of this much thought. The challenges are what they are. If the PCs enter the lair of a powerful dragon and pick a fight, they all die. They should have known better. This is the "sandbox" approach...
I've never heard "sandbox" used to mean that before. Plus, of course, the GM would have to give this thought because they designed the sandbox; if there's a dragon then the GM put the dragon there (unless you're running from a module, I suppose). It's then added that every part of the encounter should be considered part of the balance - that is, an encounter where the PCs are ambushed at night is different from the PCs ambushing the same creatures during the day.. which means that you can't set the balance of a challenge without knowing what the players are going to do, or fudging it live, at which point you're just deciding on the fly.. look, I give up. This is totally the opposite of anything I've learned about this stuff.
Resolving tasks and determining difficulty is our next section. The first section, Don't Roll Every Time contains this gem:
Some GMs have a motto that says, “When in doubt, have the player roll the dice.” That’s a dangerous position, I think. You want to take more responsibility for resolving tasks than that. You want the ability to say, “Okay, that just happens” or “No, that can’t happen” using logic. To use a silly example, if the PC says they want to walk across the room, and then rolls the die but rolls abysmally, now you’re put in a position where you feel compelled to explain how they failed to walk across the room. Likewise, if they say, “I launch an arrow at the moon” and then roll as high as the die will allow, are you expected to say that the arrow struck the moon? And if not, why did the player roll?
If there's an easy logical resolution like that then why the flying fuck would the GM consider themselves 'in doubt'? I mean, that just seems like some kind of catastrophic misunderstanding of that phrase.
Graduated Success and Failure is something I'm sure I don't have to explain here. It says that you could maybe consider creating multiple difficulty thresholds and giving bonuses for rolls high above the given result, or giving partial successes for ones just below. The partial successes aren't in the form of PbtA style tradeoffs, though; the examples are that a PC who rolls a near miss to track some bandits could establish that something came down the path recently but they don't know if it was bandits (isn't that kind of useless then?) and a PC who rolls a near miss to build an electronic key to open a door might get an electronic key that works intermittently (in other words it now depends on GM fiat, thanks a bunch)
Encouraging player creativity gives the very common advice on allowing players' creative solutions to work, but "you don't have to let them succeed.. the not-so-straightforward solution might end up being as hard or harder than the straightforward one, but you have to be ready to adjudicate the idea no matter what". Fair enough, I suppose, but basically already in the GMing section of every mainstream RPG I've ever seen.
So... yea. More or less a chapter that makes some very well-known points that are correct but not really very valuable, and massively confuses some others. What have we to look for in the next chapter, Being a dynamic GM? We shall see. (I'll tell you what it doesn't contain, though: any statement of what a "dynamic" GM is, since everything in the chapter actually refers to being a "great" GM.)
Your Best Game Ever - 5Original SA post
Being a Dynamic GM is our next section. It's longer than the previous sections, and marginally better organized, but still has an awful lot of disconnection between its sections. It commits the ongoing and frustrating fallacy of many of these books of telling you that something's a good idea, but not how to do it. And as I mentioned previously, it never actually tells you what a "dynamic" GM is. There are a few references to it in the chapter, and they come down to saying that a dynamic GM is one who stands up and walks around the room while running.
So, our first subsection is How to Start a Campaign. Rather than talking about recruitment as the previous sections did, it's three specific techniques. Session Zero is the advice to have a character generation and expectations session, which is good stuff. Campaign Prologues suggests running one-on-one sessions for the individual players, which is an interesting idea, but I wouldn't want to try and schedule it in real life and there's no guidelines as to how those sessions ought to be structured - especially difficult given that a lot of the earlier advice about session structure might not work in this case. Player Adventure Seeds suggests.. well, asking the players for their own adventure seeds. That's going to be very player dependent, and there's not a lot about how to adapt it to different player types.
Check In With The Players basically means to ask the players how the game is going - again, a good idea, but I'd hope not one that many new GMs need to be told (although I might be surprised, I suppose..) Learn How Things Are Going gives the rather painfully obvious advice that you should act on player feedback, and pretty much nothing on how to do it, other than that for some reason you should ignore the players if they say they want more magic swords. No, really, that's an actual example.
Refresh Your Memory and Theirs suggests checking in with the players to remind them of ongoing campaign events, which is a good idea, but unfortunately the example given is one where a PC has a plot where they're searching for their brother but it hasn't come up for a few months (!), and the GM is supposed to just ask the player "Tell me what you've learned about your brother's disappearance." Not as in "what would your character have learned during that period of downtime", but "relist all the things your character learned from play several months ago". The theory is that the player will reacquaint themselves with the information and also they might mention things at different levels of importance to what you originally thought, which is a cue on how the plot is going. The only problem with this is that most players I've met will just tell you to sod off, having a brain primarily filled with several months of real life and work. Ah well.
Character Summaries suggests asking the players to summarise the events of the session from their characters' point of view at the end, which I suppose is potentially workable - except that the examples aren't really character summaries but player summaries. (The example is "I really like combat so I was a bit sad when Bill's technician deactivated the warbot from afar..." It'd be a kind of weird character who'd have preferred to risk their life.) Those are fair enough, I suppose, a bit similar to the previous suggestion.
Setting the Tone is our next subsection, and unfortunately it's another repetition of most common set of unworkable suggestions and unexplained tasks in these books. Mess with the enue: dim the lights, play music, use props, and even (groan) cosplay (there was an interesting thread on Reddit describing how the introduction of cosplay to an RPG session ruined the mood for everyone, but let's not discuss that possibility). Vocabulary says to use.. relevant vocabulary, but not a whole lot on doing this other than some painfully obvious ones like "don't compare magical items in a fantasy game to cars or smartphones". It also contains the suggestion to "inject words like troubadours, villeins, fiefdom, abbey, and so on" which would be good if it actually explained what they mean - well, ok, ok, that's only a Google away, but still, injecting those words doesn't mean much if you don't inject the things into the setting. And Impose The Tone.. well. "If the players are on a long trek, have them stand up and walk around the room."
Using your tools is a very brief section which is the one that tells us that standing up and jumping and moving around the table is "the very definition of dynamic GMing", and that it can be a good idea to do different voices as long as they're not racist stereotypes.
Advanced Description is a much more detailed, and therefore more interesting, section. It talks about using pre-written descriptions and avoiding making the game become a session of being read to, and that you should give more description to the important things in a scene - and then makes the very valuable observation that once the players are used to this, you can use it in the opposite direction, signalling importance by how much something is described - and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, for you or for the players. Unfortunately, next to it is the idea of giving general descriptions and letting the players ask questions, with this example:
By asking "are there a lot of books on the bookcase?" what they're actually telling you is "I go over and look at the bookcase."
No. No they bloody aren't. You can see if a bookcase is stuffed or has empty spaces from a distance. I mean, ok, it's not a bad suggestion, but somewhere there's a new GM thinking it's a good idea to follow up with something like "and as you walk towards the bookcase a mantrap closes on your foot..."
Describe Emotions says you should use emotive descriptions without specifically telling the players how their characters are feeling, and does actually give some examples of doing that, although they're not all that good (for example, describing something as "a thing of pure fear" technically doesn't tell the player that their PC is afraid, but it's a bit of an awkward description).
Don't Provide Specificity Unless Asked, however, is.. ugh. It basically says: don't tell the players how many crates are in the storeroom, don't tell them which way something came from, don't tell them the exact distance that the orcs are away because people are bad at estimating distance under pressure, and so on. One of the examples is the distance to a hill being "pretty far" away, which unfortunately completely ignores what the previous section said about tells and cues in GM speech. One time when I tried to run a game with that kind of description, the players started writing a chart with the different phrases I'd used to describe distance listed in relationship to each other. "Ok, so which is further? Pretty far, quite far, or 'a way away'?"
The summary gives away the problem: "eschew the idea that you're describing an objective reality". Now that's ok for some players, but it really isn't for others, with a heck of a lot of difference between players preferences based on environment interaction, visualisation, and so on. In fact one of the most interesting questions I found to ask players in recruitment or session zero is how they prefer descriptions: wargame style, movie style, book style or radio theatre style. Monte going for book style isn't too much of a surprise given the focus of his game systems, but it can be a very unpleasant clash - especially for a new GM - if it comes across wrong.
Oh, and Know Your Players suggests that a good description is "the temple looks a little bit like the big Methodist church on Maple Street". So much for not using modern references in fantasy games.
Next section. Advanced Timing! Oh yea, something good for me! Starting Things With Action suggests throwing the PCs into a fight at the start of a session, even if you skip over narrative to do so. See, I can see this working pretty well, provided.. and it's a big proviso.. that the fight goes well for them. If the PCs all get killed then, well, they're not going to be happy about having to work out the narrative leading up to it retroactively. (Yes, yes, you can fudge the fight, but that might be jarring too if that's not in PC expectations.) Flashbacks describes methods for using flashbacks, and - to its credit - does add that you have to make sure that the players are on board with it and prepared not to try to use them to create narrative contradictions or later problems. (It doesn't mention the need for one of the lower levels of descriptive detail to make it vaguely possible to avoid doing so, though.)
Fast-Forward might sound obvious, but it's actually a suggestion to use flashbacks but from the other direction - in fact, what it suggests is almost exactly the Blades In The Dark technique of skipping over the preparations before a big event, then letting them be filled in retroactively. There's a second suggestion too - which is basically a legacy campaign. Both are excellent ideas, but they did need more detail. Side Scenes suggests that scenes with individual players should be played out in separate one-on-one sessions instead of at the table while everyone else waits, but doesn't deal with how this is a nightmare of narrative timing and RL scheduling and probably isn't realistic.
And then there's advancing through foregone conclusions. Now, ok, yes, I can see the logic in "there's only two goblins left out of the twenty, do we need to play this out?" But it's a violent misfire with the previous bits of advice. If you're doing the "system-as-spectacle" thing where combats and similar are played out but heavily fudged, then yes, you should be playing that out because that's the height of system-as-spectacle. Let the players take their chance to use the weird ability combos and modifiers they can't use in risky situations, roll scadloads of dice and see how far into the negatives they can get those goblins. Again, what we have is a set of advice that's probably very specific to the kind of group that Monte likes to run for, but assumes a whole bunch of variables that can be significantly different for any other group.
Creating Tension is about creating narrative tension, and would really have better gone in a section on adventure or story planning than live table running, but still. It lists two ways of creating tension. Raising the stakes is a good one: things get more risky, opponents pose bigger threats, and so on. The Unknown, however, is a bloody horrible section. It says that tension and interest is raised by mysterious questions with unknown answers.
Now, to be fair, it does mention the big problem with this, which is that after a while it stops doing any of those things and just becomes a sign that you haven't been bothered to think something through. Unfortunately, its comment on this is that "that's a lousy assumption on their part and it usually comes either from having had a bad GM in the past, or from you inadvertently teaching them that you don't always do things for a reason". It doesn't mention the alternative interpretation - that they instantly recognize the mystery as a lazy way of creating interest and it runs off their backs; nor what that far more usually comes from - shittily written TV series shoehorned into a commercial model that actively creates lazy mysteries with answers no-one cares about because they'll only be revealed when the ratings are in freefall anyway.
Oh. "As soon as the players are absolutely convinced that they understand something, alter that thing." NO NO NO NO THAT'S JUST TEACHING THEM THAT NO LEARNED INFORMATION IS VALID SO THEY STOP EVEN TRYING TO ENGAGE WITH THE SETTING AAAAARGH
Ahem. Ahem. Wooo-saaaa. Ok.
Evoking Emotion. Oh, hey, you just managed that.. and you just have again. I'm just going to quote here.
There’s probably no greater moment for a GM than when you create situations that affect the players emotionally. I don’t mean in a weird, psychologically manipulative way, but in the way that a sad story makes someone sad or a horror story makes someone scared. We all know it’s not real, it’s just a story, but good stories bring out real emotions.
The dynamic GM who has the devious NPC suddenly betray the PCs gets the players (not just the characters, but the players) to react with real anger or indignation. The dynamic GM who describes the ghostly hand that suddenly brushes against a PC’s cheek gives the player momentary but literal chills. The dynamic GM who has a kindly NPC give the starving PCs their last bit of food causes the players to be legitimately touched.
What’s more, if you do this consistently, you’ll encourage the players to do the same for other players.
Yep, you totally ought to do it! How? Well, um, moving swiftly on! We also don't mention that there's two levels to this kind of stuff and if the players are genuinely angry and upset that an NPC betrayed them that might not be a reaction to the story, it might be a genuine upset with the game and something that was a huge mistake. Ok, it does actually mention this in the next section, but just says "make sure that it is only within the context of the game". How? Gumph.
Hooking Players says to get to know what the players (not the PCs) want from the game, and use it to drive them into the stories. This can work. It can also blow up disasterously, especially if the players feel that they'll never get what they want out of the game until the story ends - in the last session. That's not addressed. Encouraging Proactivity in Players is a full column of how great it is to have proactive players, but nothing about encouraging them except "use character arcs". What are they?
Oh, I didn't mention this. See, one of the chapters in the player section is the character arcs copy-and-pasted from Invisible Sun, but with the mechanics deleted. Ok, granted, that means that the startup cost and the XP rewards are gone, which removes some of the system messiness from it, but still. Yes, Build, Birth and Fall From Grace are all there exactly as in Walpole's F&F. And, yes, the Game Mastering Character Arcs section from Invisible Sun is there too in a sidebar (in the player section) but with "vislae" replaced with "PC" or "character" whenever it is mentioned.
Offstage Scenes is to do with running scenes with the standard PCs not present, and - well, it's fair enough, honestly. The next section, however, Two Games, One World is the rather bizarre idea of running two concurrent groups in the same world such that they can interact with each other. The main benefit of this appears to be that.. players can cross over between the groups. Geek social fallacy! I mean, it's an interesting idea, but I don't know why it's here - it's certainly not something a beginner ought to be taking on, and this is still a beginner level book. Co-GMing discusses ways to involve multiple people in running the game, such as dividing duties, and dividing up the players - either onto completely different branches of the adventure, or while in the same scene but in different parts of it (which sounds incredibly confusing).
Finally, Learning from your mistakes repeats the previous advice about player feedback, then suggests looking at your session in hindsight. If things didn't go well, it suggests "think about what you might have done, and then as a mental exercise, roleplay what might have happened if you had". But the example is weird - the example isn't about the GM making a mistake, it's about the PCs doing something that wasn't what the GM expected and oh god there's a chance that Monte actually considers that to be a mistake by the GM doesn't he. It doesn't mention, though, that GMing is a real-time activity and too much focus on "the wit of the staircase" ultimately only makes you feel bad. Finally, there's the idea of Recording the sessions - not to share online or anything, but just to watch back. I've never met a PC group who wasn't creeped out by this.
So, we have some very good ideas, but very weak implementations. And some massive assumptions about group style that aren't going to be borne out in every situation. Pretty much textbook for the weaker GM advice books, really, and it's rather sad that it's positive compared to the huge shadow of meh that's been most of this book so far. Still, there is a bit more to come.
(And hey, they're reprinting Robin's Laws! That's something neat at least.)
Your Best Game Ever - 6Original SA post
So, our next session is Getting The Most Out Of RPGs. Oh boy, that sounds promising! What things could we use RPGs to explore, what can we learn from them, how can they make people's lives better?
Well, here's an example of the kind of blinding insight you'll find in this section:
If you have three close gamer friends and you love playing with them, then your group size should be four (counting you).
Yea. This time we're moving away from anything to do with RPG design or insights and into social advice that follows the general theme of "vacuous and equivocal" perfectly. Honestly, there's not a lot to say about these, so let's just machine gun them.
Group Size: Pick a group size that's good for you, maybe play a lighter game with more players, bigger groups can handle absences more easily, you can split a bigger group into smaller groups if need be.
Scheduling: Scheduling is hard. If one player has a worse schedule that everyone else, maybe play multiple games when they are and aren't available.
Finding The Time: Most people can find three or four hours a week, so try and find the real problem and solve it, probably by playing online or by floating the play time. Ugh. That "most people can find three or four hours a week" bit is cringeworthy, like the infamous nerd who responds to you saying you don't have time for something by saying "well how much time did you spend watching TV?" There is one, small, maybe-good statement here, which is that you shouldn't have the impression that RPGs require regular 6-8 hour sessions because people may have played that when they were younger. There's also a sidebar where Monte mentions that when he worked for Wizards, they did a customer survey and found that the biggest competitor to D&D wasn't any other form of entertainment, but just "real life". Which has to be a pretty damn terrible survey if that's really true, because that just means it was losing the competition for entertainment time? Oh god, now I'm the TV nerd. Moving on.
Start Time: pick a time that's not onerous for anyone so that they don't have to rush. Then tell everyone to arrive half an hour early.
Session Length: pick a length that's between the minimum time it takes to do something in the game and the maximum time everyone can endure. Also, include a break.
Player Absences: Cancel the session if two out of six people can't show. There's no statement for any other group size, so I guess that's a third? Never mind that a cancellation threshold like that runs the risk of the players playing Prisoner's Dilemma with confirming. Make up a story reason why their PC isn't there. But don't use the reason "they mysteriously disappeared" or "they got captured by the bad guys" because that might prompt the other PCs to investigate and end up with the player feeling penalized. A much better reason would be "the PC had to return home for an urgent message" or "the PC decided to guard the horses" because there's no way the other PCs would want to know what the message was or find it strange that their badass barbarian would decide to guard horses while they fight a dragon.
Special Event Games: hey, you could run a game on New Year's or Halloween. If it's someone's birthday, you could let them have.. a mulligan on one dice roll.
Communication Between Sessions: make a group text or a social media thread to discuss scheduling and remind everyone of game stuff.
Who should be the GM? If no-one particularly wants to GM, take turns and used published adventures, or recruit a GM from outside (yea, there's no way that could go wrong). If multiple people want to GM, uh, take turns again I guess.
Table Rules: Make rules on: cancellation threshold, roll visibility, off table dice, cocked dice, bumped dice, digressions, OOC knowledge and player memory. Ok, the dice things are a bit nerdy but I suppose the last couple aren't too bad an idea? Maybe? Also, just for Jef, there's a reference to the GM's pizza.
Rewards: ok, this is a bit better. First, it states that although a lot of games suggest or imply that XP should be tracked by the individual PC, in practice it's often better to track it for the group. If people complain this isn't fair, because people who don't turn up or don't participate get the same as everyone else, then you need to talk through what XP are actually for - pacing the plot, changing up the game mechanics over time, or rewarding certain player activities? That's pretty helpful, actually.
There's then a section on Treasure with the ironic beginning:
I've personally watched groups of hard-core conservative capitalists turn into absolute socialists when they divide up treasure, and I'm sure they'd be horrified to have someone point out that their plan to 'give each bit of treasure to the character who can make best use of it' is awfully close to Karl Marx's statement 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.'
Yes, Monte. There's also a thing called "optimizing return on investment" that you might be interested in. It's what people who bought Invisible Sun are not doing. Hmph.
Anyway, the point of this is that this allocation can end up with one character much better equipped than the others, and also favor player (not PC) persuasiveness. The alternatives offered? Determine randomly (hey, Sir Swordalot, have this spellbook!) or just sell it all and divide the cash (so much for games in which you can't just buy magic items). Which is immediately followed by a discussion of a "party fund" of in-game money. Again, every group I know has just pooled all their gold, but Monte says it should get only a restricted share. Huh.
Players Joining Or Leaving: if you have a new player, make sure they're friends with an existing player and possibly run a one-shot game with everyone having new characters so they can ease into the game and rules. Try to explain rules as you go, link mechanics together, and be prepared to repeat stuff when teaching. If they're new to the group but not to RPGs, it's much easier, but try to ease them into any group conventions or the current story. Make sure their PC has a reason to join the other PCs and give them a reason to trust them, or maybe even give them some unique power or item that would interest the group (yea, that could go very, very badly)
If someone's leaving, have something happen to their PC that takes them out but don't have them killed. And if someone's really a bad fit, you might have to kick them, and we have the following devastating sentence in the section regarding how to talk to them in that case:
Don't give them the hope that things might be different in the future unless that's actually true.
Being aware of sensitive issues: thing about topics that might affect people, including yourself, and if they should be avoided or not. Make your own preferences known to the group, but don't force others to do that if it'll make them uncomfortable.
Bonding with your group: ready for this? Two pages about how to make friends with your RPG players outside the game. Amongst these are "getting to know the player" by asking them.. exclusively questions about RPGs. Er, no. And the bizarre idea of giving each other holiday gifts in-game. No, not as a nice thing, as an actual replacement for a physical gift because they're expensive and there aren't that many gaming-themed gifts.
Now, a chapter on Hosting the game. Oh god, do I really have to go through this? How to leave a game store or public space tidy? Advice to make sure that there's toilet paper in your bathroom? (Just imagine that in the context of the title of the book: "It was the best game ever! The host had toilet paper!") Tell all your players where everything is in your house? If you order takeout, make sure everyone pays their share? Don't rush everyone out of the door and slam the door on them at the end? At least it's only 6 pages. I mean, look, let me be honest. If this book hadn't come out in the middle of this thread and it wasn't by Monte Cook I wouldn't have bothered doing it, because there's a ton of this kind of vacuous stuff and while it might be a sad inditement of the state of GMing advice it isn't really any fun to read about.
Playing Games Online is a bit better, but only because the online medium has less established social rules. To make sure people don't drift off as a result of not being around the other players, keep energy up, try to use something visual if you can that will take up real estate on their screen, and ideally dial up player agency in the game. In return, take advantage of the benefits - proper and transparent private communication, much easier visual aids, and a possible connection to modern games in which "Googling it" might be something the characters can do. There's a brief common-sense section on streaming - well, which ought to be common sense but I've seen plenty of clueless first-time streamers ignore it, so hey - leaving out only the actual most practical common-sense advice on streaming, which is "don't".
Finally, Solving Game Group Problems. Oh boy! Who wants to hear these kind of statements about resolving social conflicts? Actually, they aren't all that bad. Rules Lawyers should be encouraged to become Rules Experts by being asked not to interrupt or to get involved unless asked (although there's no mention of the one who plays the Bard). Don't feel that the GM has to arbitrate on all arguments, and if another player has to act as peacemaker in an argument with the GM, let that happen; and always reframe arguments in the context of playing a game to have fun. If a player is taking disruptive actions like stealing from the king the other PCs are negotiating with, ideally another player should warn them they're disrupting things (remember this is a player book as well as a GMing book) but avoid having the GM use the story to "teach them a lesson". If someone reacts badly to things not going right for their character, make sure that they know it's not a signal of their bad skill; doubly so if it's the GM.
But there's bad stuff too. Rules Ignorers, that is people who don't learn the rules, are bad. Yea, that's all that section says; it doesn't say what to do about them. If a player doesn't show up with their character sheet or dice, the GM should keep copies of them and you should ideally have community dice. If you don't want "community dice" then that person "should bring his own stuff". Uh, yea, we acknowledged that when we put this section in the "problems" chapter, now what do we do about it? If a player is bored, ask what will make the session more fun for them, and then press them when they deny being bored, and then act on what they say presumably even if it bores and/or annoys everyone else; or throw them out of the session. Distractions are bad, but try to keep things fast moving, and we don't know how. If players are preferring one other player then.. uh, they shouldn't. If someone is talking over everyone else then, um, they shouldn't. If someone is quarterbacking tactical subgames, they shouldn't, but maybe they could become a consultant to the players they're quarterbacking over but only if asked (I've seen that tried. It doesn't go well) If players are criticising how broken the game system is during the game then
If a player is taking too long to choose what ability to use regularly, give them a program to follow that tells them when each ability should be used. That has to be one of the worst suggestions I've ever read.
On the other hand, the warning that trying to get more introverted players to engage with the game by putting them in the spotlight has the risk of making things much worse for them is well appreciated. But the advice that the introvert player should be given a "buddy" in the shape of another player who involves them in their decisions could probably have that effect too.
There's also a section on how to get rid of a bad GM. By social means, not by some dumb passive-aggressive method, which is good. In a book that includes GMing advice. I'm not sure what to say about that.
Finally, there's a somewhat overlong and out-of-place section on Character Death which advises making clear what the rules on death will be from the very start (ok, that's good), then.. considering how being raised from the dead might affect a character's personality going forward, or consider if the other PCs might hold a funeral? I mean, that's a neat idea but it really isn't in the same category as anything else. I'll leave you with this:
Allow the player whose beloved character died a little time to grieve. Don't make jokes about it or marginalize their pain. The won't need weeks or even days, but give them a few minutes or even an hour.
Now, I'm not going to deny that a player might get that connected to their character, but whether or not that's a good thing I don't know.
And with that I can finally put this book to one side. Honestly, compared to the other posts in this series this one has been a slog, and as I mentioned earlier I wouldn't have done this book at all if not for the timing and the author. There's one or two good bits, maybe. But like Invisible Sun itself, for the amount of hype and publicity this thing attracted, it's the Emperor's New Clothes.
How to Run - 1Original SA post
No, no, I'm done for the moment. Look, work's starting again. Pretty much anything that's not looking at the bloody timetable would be appreciated at this point, but I can't really do more GM advice, can I? Hang on. Wait. You're telling me that there's..
Mean Mr. Mustard
What, you haven't heard of Alexis D. Smolensk? Or that it's an anagram of one's mad sex skill? Then perhaps you've heard of his decidently arrogantly-named blog, The Tao of D&D. No? Then perhaps you've heard of Mustard Smuggling. Yes, this is the author of the infamous blog post Seizing The Day in which he argued that rather than having PCs be drawn into adventures or discover them through cheesy narrative means, they should have to find their own opportunities in-world, with a sample suggested adventure being learning that there's a high tax on mustard and setting up an operation smuggling it into the city. I mean, I can't deny that it sounds kind of impressive as a pure world modelling exercise, but as a standard adventure? Umm. You'd have to be damn sure the players were all up for that very particular style.
The thing is, actually rereading the post, I'm not sure if he doesn't have some kind of point but it's just really not helped by Smolensk's writing style. Everything's written in first person, about "how I" might do something - but then the author finishes with "Running a world like this, as a DM, requires tremendous flexibility and a quick mind" thus paying themselves a pleasant complement. In the last paragraph, though, he implies that all he's actually saying is that the GM should adapt to what the players do instead of planning a fixed adventure in advance - which is totally the opposite of what's conveyed by the bulk of the actual post, which seems to be advocating mustard smuggling adventures as a paragon of good design.
And this is his DM advice book. This should be good.
Oh, by the way:
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form
With an e-book, that means you can never read it (possibly unless you're in Australia). Software licencing's a bitch.
Also, a heads up for the incredibly useful .epub index:
Well, that'll be nice and easy to find our topics in.
Chapter 1: Early Days is 7 pages of the author talking about his own background in GMing and how wonderful it is, with a few vague suggestions that you might do the same. This included spending hours running combats against himself. The chapter - as with every chapter - ends with a summary section called "keys to success", which in this case just says "confidence isn't enough, you need experience, so practice and experiment". Which is OK, if it wasn't for the fact that the tone of the chapter more suggests that you can never Git Gud unless you make a colossal time commitment (the author claims to have spent 11,000 hours DMing. That's a game night every night for 6 years, or 42 years with weekly game nights). While I do prefer this a bit to the "well I did an amazing game without any prep" reverse dick size wars that scare people without natural talent away, I can't think it's good to go this far and scare people without a ton of commitment away as well.
It also brings up one of Smolensk's other blog obsessions:
The rules are tools. Learn them. Keep at it until you know them backwards. Remember that the fewer role-playing game systems you play in, the less rules there are to remember and the less diluted your gaming experience will be.
Smolensk thinks that nobody should play anything except D&D. He actually compared asking a D&D group to play a game that isn't D&D as "like turning up to a baseball game and saying you don't feel like playing baseball". And it's not because D&D is the best game ever; it's because according to him all RPG rules systems are bad - yes, D&D included (he described D&D on his blog as "a lumbering hulk of cobbled-together crap") - and therefore all you can do is to learn to shore up the rules; and it's easier to do that for just one set of rules, and that might as well be D&D.
Chapter 2: The Carrot and the Donkey starts with several pages very florid prose describing how the author sets up a game session. Some choice observations:
At the start of the session, the players enter the 'theatre,' that being my living room.
If they need to tell a story about something that has happened, I must listen. However, I should not listen like a friend, but like a priest.
They are shifting from reality to fantasy. This is a process of melding, through which they reconnect with each other, and with me, after the period of separation betwene games.
A pattern will emerge that will tell me the players are ready to play.
Bear in mind that the whole book is written in approximately this style: first person, florid, focused to the point of sounding disturbing, and vague enough to sound boastful rather than instructive (what is this "pattern", oh mighty one of mad sex skill?)
What the reader's meant to do with this isn't quite clear, but we then get to something approaching a point, which is the use of curiosity to motivate players, and the suggestion that the GM shouldn't simply lay out a single target for the players to go to, but have them searching for something more abstract which can motivate all kinds of activity. Actually, I genuinely like this quote:
I came to understand that if the party is told where to go, they will go there. But if the party is told only that the destination is nearby, they will go everywhere.
There's then a section on rewards, which states that the players tend to value game-world goals and status above system-based upgrades, because of the feeling that system-based upgrades can be rewarded arbitrarily (the GM can give you as many XP as they like, after all), whereas an objective or status in the world will hopefully have a cause in the world that it can be traced to and history that the player remembers. Understandable, but very difficult and very old school. How do we do it? Oops, next section.
Participation. This begins with a statement that it's absolutely essential for all members of the gaming group to work together to support the imaginary world, because that's all that makes an RPG session endurable for upwards of five hours. A player who is not prepared to work together is being overly "autonomous" and has to be told they are wrong. Any player who makes jokes, doesn't react emotionally enough to game events, doesn't care about their character or points out that it's a game must be corrected or thrown out. Again, "scary intense" doesn't cut it. Here's another quote I genuinely like (when he's doing well, Smolensk reminds me of a Theodore Dalrymple for RPGs):
Successful wit is respectable. The difficulty with successful wit, however, is that it enourages attempts at wit, which tend to be less successful.
Division starts us nudging the grog dial upwards by discussing potential differences between players. A player should not favor one player or group of players over another - that's fine - but then there's instead this:
As a DM, I have often run my spouse as part of my party, and my daughter, so I have been occasionally accused of favoritism. I always address such accusations with the understanding that the player is probably having an off night, or that they are looking for explanations for a bad string of luck they have had recently. I will point out the instances where the accusing player was favored, as everyone receives special attention from time to time. I may also remind the player of instances where I was quite harsh to a close friend or family member. Usually, having offered a reasonable explanation, the accusation is rescinded and apologies made.
See, describing the importance of fairness and how to even out treatment of players is a good idea, but not couched in terms of how to smack down a player who complains!
Also, if a player has worse luck than everyone else, just let them because bad luck is part of life. Oh, and
The sacrifices that a character makes are imaginary - and a player that will not make an imaginary sacrifice for fear of not recieving compensation has issues with which I prefer not to play.
Aside from whether you actually mean you won't invite their issues into the game, that's.. kind of ignoring that you're a GM, not a world, and that there's a real sacrifice of time and effort involved. But hey.
But now we have the star. Chapter 3. The Players. Yes, it's a list of player categories. It's also the groggiest list of player categories you'll ever see, anywhere.
Uncomfortably, I'm.. not sure it's entirely wrong, but still..
So, as usual, we start with a section saying that actually you shouldn't categorise people and no-one fits into any single category, which is then followed by the list of categories and specific treatments for each one. Well, I can hardly hold Smolensk to a higher standard than Laws on this, but Smolensk goes a bit further by frantically denying that these are categories but instead "a set of mythical stereotypes.. that we can examine."
The Enthusiastic player is the one who just can't wait to play, and is super keen and excited about taking part in the game. Apparently only "new GMs" think that these are good players. Those with mad sex skill think that they suck.
Why on earth...? Essentially, firstly they end up being too loud and silencing the other players, and secondly they tend to flip sides very quickly if anything goes wrong, becoming actively sullen and draining the energy that the table has come to expect from them. They also tend to be too keen on novelty and short-term goals in play, breaking up larger objectives. Essentially, Smolensk thinks that enthusiastic players vaguely resemble puppies, which is grog to a ludicrous level. (But unfortunately does resemble quite a few I know..)
The Obligated player feels that they're obliged to identify and follow the DM's plan, possibly as thanks for their involvement in the game. They're over quick to trust and make friends, perhaps because of a constant drive for inclusion (yes, it says that in the book). They suck because they also feel this transfers responsibility for planning the entire game onto the DM, and thus it's the DM's fault if everything - or anything - goes wrong. Furthermore, trying to persuade them of anything different either fails (because they consider telling the player that their PC can act in different ways as just another part of the obligation) or makes them uncomfortable and they quit. However, they can be supportive and keep focus on a single topic, and "once they are settled, they are no more trouble than other players and often much easier to manage".
Yep, that's how Smolensk writes about a player category he likes! Are we doomed yet?
The Conditional player is the player who wants a particular thing and will focus their play on getting that. Everything else, including the GM, the other players, the in-character party, etc. are simply mechanics for delivering or not delivering their desired experience to them. These are presented as the rules and design lawyers, the ones racing for resolutions or guarantees of eventual in-character reward, and in parallel the over-planning and cautious players who take little action for fear of things going wrong. On the one hand, yes, I can see this for certain values of conditionality. On the other hand, pretty much all RPG play is conditional on properties of the OOC experience to some extent - "no gaming is better than bad gaming", after all.
The predisposed player is the one who's been in the hobby before and has too many assumptions. They've come in with a bunch of previous knowledge, especially in (shock horror) other RPG systems. If they don't adapt, boot them. Huh.
The disenchanted player is one that even this groggy book thinks is a grog. They've been in the hobby too long and are burned out on positive experiences. I mean:
They have fought their way through the bestiary, they've run every type of character, they've played every genre, they've been stabbed, shot, pierced, bolted, blasted, sizzled, fried, vivisected and decapitated into oblivion by every imaginable us-versus-them scenario that can be concocted. At this point, there mere process of playnig is an exercise in apathy; yet the player goes on because there remain memories of when the game was new, magical and full of unexpected twists and turns.
.. Excuse me. I'm just going to go and cry in the closet for a bit.
Anyway, you should basically not adapt too much to them and just try to run a good game through the ennui. Trying to change up things and throw in new and strange experiences results in an arms race that eventually results in a confusing campaign for everyone else. Also, the Unfortunate player is a subset of the disenchanted player, who's had amazing runs of bad luck in gaming and therefore gives up on succeeding at anything. All that can be done is to try and remind them that luck does change, but also make sure that the other players don't lay into them because of their "reputation", which they may make obvious by their behaviour even if it's not actually something they're known for.
The badly behaved player is the asshole who wants to constantly prove themselves or their character better than everyone else by whatever measure. Tell them off. Then boot them. Ok.
The social player is the classic casual player. They're pretty much ok and there's no real reason to worry about them too much, and they're perfectly capable of being good players. The only potential problem is if one of the other players is getting massively into the emotional side of the game, in particular where danger or loss is concerned, in which case the social player might try to calm things down and in doing so ruin what the other player actually enjoys. Smolensk calls the other player "fanatical" here, which kind of implies he things this is a bit scary and weird too, but.. hey, it's actually a good point, but it's easily resolved by gently reminding the social player that the "fanatics" just enjoy playing that way and it isn't a sign of a social problem. That's.. huh. I actually like this section. In fact it's probably the best section on casual players in the books I've read so far, because it doesn't basically make excuses for ignoring them. Nice one.
The shy player is, well, just quiet. They don't expect or say much. And here again I have to give this book a round of applause for making this a seperate category to emphasise the fact that a shy player is not necessarily a casual player:
The quiet player who unobtrusively sits at my elbow, blank faced, may be anxiously dwelling upon my every word, heart beating madly, fearful at the outcome of the adventure. I can't know for sure.
The trick, he argues, is to show appreciation for the shy player's participation but subtly - in terms of body language and attention, and not too much, because that makes them uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it also contains the dreaded "a non-player character encountering the party may run into the shy player first, seperate from the rest of the party". Which can very easily result in a deer-in-the-headlights moment (heck, I've been there and I'm not normally that shy a player).
And finally, the guest. This is the other kind of social player, the one who's invited along by someone else. Oh, and yet again this book does something good in this field by being the first book to point out that a guest may not actually know what a DM is. They're more interested in the person who invited them than the DM. By raw odds, they probably won't like the game, so you have to focus on avoiding two negative results: the inviting player leaving too because the guest doesn't want to come any more, or the guest being dragged there and becoming an uber-obligated player who isn't even interested in the game world. All the same, the section basically says, don't ignore them and try to keep them welcome. So, yea, a few good insights, but almost no actual advice based on them. And then the book writes off a bunch of the respect I was starting to have for it with:
A player, any player, even one who has no interest in the game at all, is a tremendous resource. They bring to the table years of experience at role-playing.. it is only that up until now, they've been roleplaying at school, at work, with their family, with their friends and their lovers.
Deep, man. Ugh.
Finally, there's a weird section titled Every Player which is actually an attack on two more types of player - players who constantly criticize, and players who game as part of acting on a grudge against the world outside the game. Apart from those, though, Smolensk assures us that "I have a responsibility to ensure all players to feel welcome and to feel free to express themselves." He does this very well, apparently, but does not feel it necessary to share with us how.
Next time, we shall encounter Chapter 4, which is Smolensk's take on narrative play. I bet you can't wait.
How To Run - 2Original SA post
Onward with Chapter 4: Drama! We start with about five pages worth of description of the three-act drama structure, interjected with notes about player manipulation and idea that the GM is acting like a stage magician; making sure the players think they are making their own choices when in fact they are not.
And as you have probably guessed, this is followed by a lengthy section stating why using it in an RPG is a bad thing. This revolves around essentially two points: RPGs don't have the strict timing requirements that dramatic performances do; and dramatic rise and fall isn't a necessary arc in an RPG, where the game structure is much more based on acquisition of more - more skill, more knowledge, or more goals to reach - which doesn't have any enforced purpose. Oh, and there's this charming sentence:
DMs shall perpetrate story arcs as a means of handling passive players in their campaigns. The best means to handle cows is to use corrals, chutes and stalls.
So, what's the alternative? It's what Smolensk refers to as "here and now DMing". There's then a section on this, and it.. well, it's very confusingly defined. It appears to refer to on-the-spot improvisation of what happens in response to the players, but at the same time, without any application of story arcs to guide the improvised content; the game should be allowed to become chaotic if that's what would happen. Which sounds like pure simulation, but we're then told that:
The purpose here is not to serve the game. It is not to fulfill some structure of role-playing that deserves "respect" or "should" be run in a particular way. The purpose is the enthusiastic satisfaction of the players. If they are feeling languid and lost then the moment must adapt and offer direction. If the party is excitable and motivated then the world may become less predictable.. if the party is getting too worked up, then the world can slow down.
So it's strict world simulation.. but responding to the player mood? I mean, maybe that's workable, but it's definitely a balancing act. This is followed by a discussion of how having a detailed and interesting world built in advance doesn't contradict any part of this, and it doesn't imply that the GM should be required to plan in advance what is happening; and then a very peculiar situation which appears to be saying that the GM should use terse comparative descriptions (for example, "it's a forest like the Siberian taiga") because not only does that give a stronger image than a lengthy description, but it's in the spirit of the game that the player should get to apply their own visualisation of the scene.
How on Earth any of this fits with the "everything is measured in hexes" nature of Smolensk's system is not clear..
Anyway, we then have the "keys to success" section, which - tellingly - begins with "It won't be missed that I've given the formula for creating a story-focused world. I encourage you to do so, if that's what you want." But of course, he hasn't. He's given a summary of the three-act structure with some criticism of the use of railroading to enforce it; nothing whatsoever about integrating it into the setting.
Chapter 5: Continuity addresses a topic that I'm genuinely interested in: how to allow the players to make significant differences in the world while keeping it consistent, and not scripting in advance the means by which they must do so. The key, explains Smolensk, is that any given series of events in the game must be explainable to the satisfaction of the players - not necessary to the GM - and that these explanations must be available to the players once consequences are revealed. Without this:
Otherwise, I've manipulated events. I've used my knowledge as a DM to the benefit of non-player characters. In my mind, I've cheated.
That sentence.. just really confuses me, especially the bit about "benefit of non-player characters". And the next paragraph emphasises than the DM should have no investment in NPCs anyway, and have them change or adjust as necessary as long as that change can be explained to the players.
This is followed by a series of sections on methods by which events are fitted into continuity. Shock refers to sudden surprise events, which aren't quite outside continuity - they may be foreshadowed or take time to take effect - but they're primarily DM initiated and therefore have to be used carefully, although ideally they should have effects beneficial to the party or put the party in at least a relatively advantageous position. "Jump scare" shocks that don't really change anything should be avoided, as should use according to a pattern - including an OOC pattern of using a shock whenever the campaign lulls. Most importantly, "shocks cannot be used too often". Yea, I scratched my head when I read that until I realized that Smolensk actually means that to mean "it will not be good to use shocks too often". Of course, the fact that using the word "cannot" in that context flips the meaning of the sentence completely is something that I'm amazed the author missed, and which shows it's unlikely there was any editing.
Rage - that is character not player rage - is a valuable emotion for role-playing because it is the imperative to do something, and.. wait, my honest reviewing fuse is almost about to blow. I thought we were talking about integration of events into continuity, not reactions to particular events. And this section is.. wow.
It's literally seven pages of justifying the practice of pissing off the PCs so that they take action in the world. Show them dead innocents, racism, slavery, artificial famine. If they're the kind of player who doesn't engage with that because it's all made up, attack the fantasy. Make their PC not matter, take away their cool stuff and power, have them tricked and humiliated, all of this is making them want to play your game, honest! Ok, there is a brief section saying that there should be at least thirty or forty times as many nice people in the setting as villains, and that if a player actually gets angry at the DM, it's time to stop and talk things through because that can mean you've gone too far. Oh, and there's also this:
The party encounters a situation that deeply offends their sensibilities. Racism, the death of innocents, slavery, waste and sickness, unendurable famine and so on . . . and in the face of this, the party finds an elite that has little time for, or patience with, the suffering majority. The party decides to take action – or an action may be thrust upon them. Soon, they learn they have taken on more than they can chew. Due to the party’s error, a half dozen perfectly innocent people are executed. The party blames themselves. At this point, they may do something heavy handed or not. Following the continuity of their actions, I ensure that they have opportunities to come face-to-face with the executioner. Again, the party’s rage is stoked. Things come to a head, but the party fears taking on the whole community. They retreat, in rage, and the adventure begins.
Hang on, isn't that just the Three Act structure you hated so m..
Note the similarities in the second case to the First Act of the three-act structure. The difference is that the party is carrying forward the adventure, rather than shrugging their shoulders and dropping the matter. I don’t have to create a story arc. The party creates their own.
First of all, that's blatantly part of the second act, not the first act. Second, what in the above distinguishes that the PCs created their own story arc? If you're playing "here and now" then what happens due to the party's error is totally dynamic, and while we know it must be "explainable" that doesn't mean it's determined by them. So what's the division here? More importantly, can we put John Wick in a game with Smolensk or vice versa?
Still, we do know that an effective ward against raging Smolensks is a copy of Golden Sky Stories. (I was going to say Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine but a whack on the head with a copy of the printed version of that would probably take out a medium sized dragon..)
Ok, pushing on we have a section on Distraction. Again, this doesn't mean players having their phones out at the table; it means distractions from the continuity - small events that disrupt the ongoing goals of the PCs and have to be dealt with. But instead we seem to have a section on attrition - how being brought down bit by bit is much more likely to create PC action and investment in a bad situation, than a single big opponent which they can establish is too big for them and then flee, and..
My favourite tactic is to drain away the party’s resources with obstacles and chance events whenever, while choosing consequences that restrain the party from resupply. The presentation is all about forcing tension and this works great. The party needs time to heal, but there’s no place that’s safe. They need provisions or tools, but the nearest depot is days away . . . and somewhere, out there, the enemy is waiting.
But that usually doesn't produce tension, does it? It just reduces the number of actions available to the PCs, and..
Small annoyances make the party less certain about my having engineered their predicament. The party will accept it when I say, “Things just happen. Nothing you can do about that.” As regards continuity, that is all the explanation a thunderstorm needs.
.. so you'll break the rule above about everything being explainable in order to do this, by creating excuses for yourself, but then when do you ..
..the virtue of distraction is that it can be used constantly and continuously. It works in tandem with every adventure type. In fact, the more often it is used, the better!
.. but then surely there must be some level of check on that, that you can ..
The multiplicity of distractions, heaped one upon the other, produces distraction’s cousin, desperation. A vision of complete desperation would be the player, face in a twist of exhaustion and strain, saying to me, “Make it stop... please, please, I beg of you, I’ll do anything, just let us rest!” Usually, however, I don’t bring that off.
Well thank god for that, because that player needs to be in a very unhealthy place to not just leave the table, at least you don't go that..
I’d like to.
That’s fine, because even low-level desperation produces curses, frustration and backbiting among the party. The hard part is not to watch this and smile.
Add to this the many, many ways that players can be disappointed, disillusioned, betrayed, met head on, teased, taunted or simply outgunned – slathered overtop with the ever-present threat that someone, anyone, might die before the night is out – and these little distractions offer the stuff of nightmares. It is a recipe for immersion.
IMMERSION IS THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES
AAHH I CANNOT TAKE THIS AND NOW WE HAVE A SECTION ON DESPAIR DEAR LORD HOW MUCH FURTHER I SHALL BE SLEEPING WITH GOLDEN SKY STORIES, CHUUBO'S AND THE BETA OF UNDER HOLLOW HILLS ON MY BEDSIDE TABLE AT THIS RATE STAY AWAY STAY AWAY
Wait.. ah.. ok. Ok, the section on despair seems to be saying that going too far does induce a situation where the players end up not caring about anything and that in those occasion, you should maybe give them a break, but OH NO YOU SHOULDN'T
These are friends. I should want to help them. I should feel bad for not helping them. Yet, there are benefits to a party getting nose-to-nose with despair. These are worth exploring.
IF YOUR PLAYERS JUST SULK AND DISCONNECT YOU SHOULD WAIT OUT WITH THEM
Players who have decided all is lost will withdraw completely. They may get up and shout, “What’s the point?” They may reinforce their despondency by sulking. Other players may say nothing at all, thinking the answer is beyond them, waiting for their fellow players to come up with something. Time, meanwhile, will stretch. I want it to stretch. I want the players to feel their situation.
.. AND KEEP ON ROLLING DICE TO SEE IF THEY DIE
This might happen in a hundred ways: the enemy host they’ve avoided finds them; the ship explodes in a fiery ball; the wall dripping with water breaks at last and drowns the party. And so on. In the meantime, I’m rolling dice to determine if any of those things happen.
AND ABSOLUTELY, NEVER, HELP THEM, BECAUSE TRAGEDY IS A THING
That would be the true cruelty. However anxious the party may be about the moment, they don’t want the game spoiled. No matter what they might say in the heat of the moment, the deeper revelation within their misery is that they don’t want help. They want to handle it themselves. As they shake their heads and threaten to quit, it’s hard to see that . . . but that is the hard truth. Not realizing this was a common mistake I made as a young DM. I could not bear the party feeling the full force of their condition. I was weak. I did what I thought was right.
It is hard. The temptation to let the cat from the bag will leave a pit in my stomach that threatens to burn through me. I can only bear it by remembering why, in our will to amuse ourselves, we seek tragedy. It is because there is something to be learned from watching a performance in which a child loses a parent; in which a couple’s marriage descends into a perfidy of accusation and pathos; in which an artist without recognition must inevitable die at the end; and in which illness or apathy tear a family apart. When we are a part of these things ourselves, we cannot view them rationally. We cannot understand our part in those events. But from the outside, where it is happening to others and we’re not subject to the outcome, we gain wisdom and understanding. We seek tragedy because we are compelled to look, in the examination of suffering there is comprehension.
THIS CANNOT BE RIGHT THIS CANNOT BE RIGHT OH WAIT WE ACTUALLY HAVE A SECTION ON TRIUMPH.. Triumph.. surely this must calm it down, right..
So we make adversity to scare the players into having fun . . . and sometimes that adversity becomes overwhelming. As bad as it gets, however, there must inherently be a way out. The party might miss that way; they might try something else and duly fail; but the possibility of success should exist because this is a game. I will not make a wall that cannot be breached. The party always has a chance.
.. ok, ok. We're maybe getting past the insanity.
To give triumph its value, adversity must ever appear insurmountable. The gulf between the two extremes is the measure. The greater the certainty that the party will fail, the more elusive the success, the more glorious the victory. I, too, enjoy that moment.
Ok, ok. This is becoming saner. Thank god.
Ok. So, how, within this basis of "here and now" do we arrange that obstacles appear insurmountable but actually aren't? How do we create this without too much pre-planning while not simply backchanneling the PC's actions to them until the players appear to be feeling a certain emotion or a certain amount of time has passed? What methods do we used to ensure the continuity of this increasingly complex developing world? Actually, hang on, wasn't this whole section meant to be about continuity, not about table emotions? How does having a fixed series of emotions that the players must feel at the table square with a sandbox world in which they may do anything, even the safe thing?
CHAPTER 6 IS ABOUT STANDING UP AND WAVING YOUR ARMS AROUND GMING, SETTING UP THE FURNITIRE IN YOUR HOUSE, NOT USING A SCREEN AND SITTING IN CANDLELIGHT
(The next update may be somewhat delayed)
How To Run - 3Original SA post
Ok. So, we unexpectedly tore the lid off Pandora's Box last time, can things really get much worse?
Well, yes. What we can do is to get into an entire section of the book that says practically nothing.
Chapter 7: Vigilance kicks off a section on "Managing yourself as DM". The first section, which doesn't have a header, states that the GM must be friendly to the players but must never alter the game world in order to make themselves liked - even if they end up losing friends over a PCs death.
Ok. Still down the rabbit hole, then.
The first labelled section, Overload, deals with there being a lot going on at once while GMing - looking up rules, answering player questions, trying to predict actions, and at the same time trying to keep up the tension of the session. If I am still charitable, this section is telling the reader than this is a bit difficult and intimidating at first, but it becomes easier with practice and later becomes second nature. I have to be very charitable about that because like everything else in the book, it's all written in first person, so it actually reads much more like the author bragging about their skills.
Next section. Stress. This, oddly begins with.. a description of the physical effects of being under stress!? And then, oh god, a description of why stress is a good thing because it creates exhilaration. Great. But there's then an at least somewhat insightful observation that when play is stressful, if anything goes wrong - especially if it's connected to player error, which is more likely under stress - then it's likely to blow it up into a full blown argument. This is followed by a very roundabout and confusing section which seems to end up with the statement that what's needed is the ability to step back and calm down, but it's very difficult to do this if everyone around is stressed, which they probably are. There's not a lot of actual resolution on this, though.. just a follow-up section called Thinking which deconstructs how stress affects thought, for no apparent reason, then discusses dealing with table arguments.
Smolensk's method for dealing with table arguments is to physically isolate the arguing players from the rest of the table and adjudicate. That's.. a bit drastic, but probably workable. It didn't need 10 pages, though.
Habits Good and Bad starts by.. not talking about good and bad habits, but talking about exhilarating and depressing stress, and then.. I mean. Ok. Look.
Habits produce routines, which can serve us well in producing default behaviour in times of stress. The lack of a habit is why, for so many of us, it is harder to do our taxes once a year than it is to dig the weeds out of our garden. Every year, the tax rules change, and so do our circumstances, so that though we’ve done our taxes over the years, it is always hard. Despite the fact that there are many different types of weeds, and we may plant new plants in our garden, the weeds don’t change and we consistently know what to do when we begin. We are better off with things when we are familiar.
Taxes are obviously not that difficult for a tax accountant, who is not driven to frustration, confusion and harsh words when forced to deal with a form asking for numbers. Many people would be afraid to step on a stage, but for a professional actor it can become as comfortable as the work done by a professional tradesperson. Some of us would find sales difficult, but once we had sold many, many cars, we would find it calming. The same is true of a DM. Once I had DM’d enough, the prospect of facing a circle of anxious, provoking players ceased to be a problem for me.
Did we really need this is a DMing book? And there's a ton more of this. Smolensk just generally rambling on the vague topic of human behaviour, and coming up with nothing at all. This is literally yet another long sentence saying that you get used to DMing with practice. There's also some discussion of bad habits, which apparently are "short cuts": not reading the right rule, making sure the players understand a situation, or "making impromptu decisions". Hang on, didn't you just say that "here and now" DMing demanded fairly short term decision making? Also on the list of bad habits are prepping too little, prepping too much, overjudging player decisions.. oh, wait, hang on, he's gone into talking about how he added insulation and dry wall to the walls of his basement to improve the acoustic.
The summary of Chapter 7 contains this gem, though:
If it seems that you’re not that ‘busy’ in your games, what I hear is that you’re only giving half an effort. That’s fine for you, perhaps, but do you really think your players wouldn’t want a game that speeds along like a mustang? Why won’t you let them have it?
And job satisfaction is the same as stealing from the company.
Chapter 8: Decision Making is.. just more of the same. Vague cod psychology and trivially observable but nonetheless heavily documented statements about human behaviour, again not going anywhere or making concrete points, with the only thing being "here's this thing I do and you can do if it you practice". Focus is a bunch of theories about concentration with the conclusion than you should do it. Foresight is the same about player predictability. Look, you want to know why I'm going quiet on this? There's just a bunch of this:
On the other hand, guessing can save us a lot of time. Knowing a few seconds ahead what someone else will do lets us prep ourselves. When we say “Knock Knock,” we don’t wait to see if the other person will answer, “Who’s there?” We know they will. Thus, we fill in the next response the instant they speak their part, as though this were a staged production and we were actors speaking lines. This is an experience we have all the time . . . but we don’t give it any thought, because it is routine. A great part of our conversations with others, particularly those who are strangers, follow a well-treaded pattern, so trod upon that we hardly realize we’ve spoken. This gives our minds plenty of free time to assess danger, study one another’s outward appearance – or recognize emotional displays in others.
Which is a nice bunch of truisms, followed by:
Earlier, I spoke of making mental models and taking ‘snapshots.’ As the game is ongoing, I am running instantaneous ‘films’ in my mind – perhaps two or three for any given moment in the campaign. As I say, these are mental pictures. They are unlike conscious thoughts along the line of, “They might do this or they might do that.” It is as though I am plugging each snapshot directly into my decision process. If the players follow through upon any of those expected sequences, then I can speed the game along fairly quickly, having racked up a series of answers that can be given as fast as the players ask questions or describe their actions.
If it happens that all my models are wrong, however, then I can slow the campaign down to a speed at which I can manage and innovate as necessary. Without missing a beat, I can locate the discontinuity, inquire about it, address it, identify any problems associated therein, adjust my thinking if the player has innovated something truly profound and then incorporate that into the cause and effect here-and-now framework that is my presentation. Then, once a familiar game routine begins to emerge, I will begin producing new possible models and the game speeds up again. All this I do without giving the matter any conscious thought. This is possible because I have made an impressive number of game patterns ‘routine’ over these last decades.
See? What am I supposed to say about that? Just a bunch of stuff about how great Smolensk is with absolutely no guidelines on how to do this ourselves. I don't know if this book is even trying to be a DMing guide at this point or just an extended rant at any DM that doesn't play in an old-school enough way for the author. Further Training is the same thing, except again it's about getting better over time and not getting stuck in a rut with exitsing assumptions, which is fine, but it's five and a half pages and wanders onto the nature of picture difference puzzles, how to deal with a player unexpectedly working out, and why no gaming environment is perfect. There's a section on checklists and worksheets which discusses what they are for, why they are valuable, but only gives one very brief couple of lines on what checklists you might use. And yep, we're still down the rabbit hole:
While I don’t need to write down every detail about what the party may need to know, having a strong outline allows me to build events more quickly and fruitfully, as the players watch. It doesn’t hurt, either, to have a running list for things that I want to ask the players once the game has started. We all need updates for the passage of time, quantity of the party’s food, what the weather is doing (generated ahead of time), wear and tear on the party’s equipment, fuel spoilage and so on. Written in a list, I will remember to ask them.
Honestly... we go on to Managing Players next, but there isn't a lot more better. It might end up being a very short review because this kind of thing just goes on and on and is endlessly saying nothing, other than "Smolensk is right and better", but taking page after page to say it.
How To Run - 4Original SA post
We’ll respect the captain of our baseball team, but only so long as we’re respected. If we win, all the better. We expect to be able to argue with the head of the community centre or with the members of the P.T.A. We want those positions to be rotated, to give everyone a chance at nominal authority and thus weaken the grip that any member holds. When it comes time to replace one of these figures, we know the whole group will decide. That helps set the tone for what our leaders ought to do – and what we’ll do if they don’t. In our careers, we rarely have such opportunities. From our perspective, those higher up the chain seem to have little concern for us. They appear to be wealthy or lucky. As such, we are a bit jealous. It is easy to think that they have obtained power through selfish means. We tend to think of leadership as something obtained through backstabbing, greed, dirty tricks or pull.
This is Smolensk's introduction to Chapter 9: Power Politics, in which he takes about two pages to say that the DM shouldn't be the sole authority of the game but should exist for the benefit of the players. Well, I'm out of steam. I'm just going to summarise the actual salient points made among the morass of awkward philosophy.
... Because oddly, there are actually some much better ones in this chapter. There are also some horrible ones mixed in, though.
We start with that just avoiding the things that are known to create a "bad game" doesn't mean that a game is good (half a page). Fair enough. Next: players want to be fairly challenged, which is difficult because the exact guidelines for what they'll consider fair and challenging are very unclear; but players want to be able to trust the DM and the DM wants to be so trusted (one and a half pages). Ok, excellent point. One way to build this trust is to give the players hints or involve them in discussion of what's happening, without spoilers; it's not so much to seek their consent as to assure them that there is a grand plan at work which is a contribution to fairness (one page). Could maybe use a few more actual instructions, but perfectly reasonable.
Having worked on a setting and a game for upwards of thirty years builds trust because the players are sure after that that it's not going to be just ignored or thrown away, and the DM isn't likely to quit the game.
Oh come on, Alexis. That can't seriously be advice you're giving to new people. You were DMing for all those thirty years, weren't you?
Ok, new section. Control. Half a page on how this isn't a section on how to deal with player problems because there's no sure way to change people's behaviour. Then two pages on how if co-operation between the players breaks down, it is because the co-operation is either not being rewarded, or is functioning improperly for some reason, such as because not every member is being respected. "Every player, regardless of ability or personal social skills, has the right to speak and be heard." Well, that could be a good message of inclusion, or it could be that the guy who suddenly showed up wearing a swastika still has the right to speak. And if there is an argument..
Parties should discuss, even argue. rom stress, these arguments will at times get heated. There’s nothing wrong with passion, however, and when I hear it, I’m on hand to guide it, to keep it healthy. Anyone listening can tell, however, when passion becomes anger and when anger turns to frustration. If I have let it go that far, I am at fault. I have failed to maintain a safe environment.
Better that my players join together to fight me!
Yea, believe me, there's all kinds of reasons why people might want to fight you..
The Vendor Theory discusses the perception of the GM as the vendor and the players as customers, and some contract of expectation - "the social contract" perhaps - existing between them, which the customers use to measure satisfaction with the product. Smolensk argues that this is inappropriate; the GM's role shouldn't be to sell the game because the GM has plenty of other things too. The players aren't mere consumers because their characters are involved in the world, and they interact with each other as well as the GM. Plus, the idea of the players as consumers implies they are "paying" somehow, which is wrong, especially if the perception is that their "payment" consists of participating and engaging in the game. If anything, the players should be "selling" their adventures and plans to the GM, who "pays" by supporting them in play and the world.
Huh. I genuinely like that. I mean, obviously there's nothing about how to make sure it is that way, obviously anyone who's read this far has given up on any hope there's going to be anything like that in the book, but it's an excellent point. Not one I can agree with, being one of those GMs with shelves of weird unused game systems who definitely feels they're supposed to sell, but I'm sure Smolensk would smack me and tell me to just run D&D.
Making Change Happen unfortunately returns to vacuity by taking two and a half pages to explain that any major changes to the game have to go through the DM, but this doesn't mean the DM has total control; and that if a change goes wrong it can be rolled back or tried again.
And we're then into Chapter 10: Bad Games. Oh, boy. After spending 1 and three quarter pages on how running a bad game doesn't make someone a bad person, we get to the first section.. Charisma!? Wait, why is that in a section on bad games? Oh, wait. It's actually yet another repetition of how you shouldn't make your game too easy in order to be liked. The title and some of the writing sort of vaguely suggests that the author thinks that if you're stuck not being charismatic then you're stuck having to capitulate to the players to be liked because you have no other merit, which I can sympathise with - and the author argues against this, although only in vague terms about "inner resolve". We round off with a full 1 page on how charismatic Alexis Smolensk is.
Exploiting Vulnerability starts with a terribly long and vague discussion of how players might end up on the other end of the stick - surrendering power and interest to the GM and enduring things they don't like simply in order to make the GM like them and thus remain in the game, for several reasons: a) it's what they've always done and is established habit; b) they're too linked to their character; c) they have social ties to the group, or d) they are borderline about the whole hobby but either have unfulfilled hopes or nostalgic memories, and feel that quitting one campaign would put them on the path to quitting completely. Very similar to the Obligated player, perhaps.
The section states that the GM shouldn't take advantage of this, and gives the example of a GM who convinced a player to play their rent with the threat that the shared play space would be lost if they had to move out. Well, ok, yes, that seems like a fairly bad thing. But we then crank the grog dial into overdrive with the statement that the GM asking players to "buy in" to a campaign is in the same category!
Look, I just can't summarise this..
Were I to pursue this tactic with my players – and were I particularly charismatic – I might even be able to assign them parts in my ‘play.’ I might give them pre-made characters, along with pre-determined characteristics, pre-established histories and so on; letting them know what to say and when, what to do, how they should feel when specific things happen, at what points in the campaign they should feel triumphant – and so on. I could encourage them to feel appreciated by praising them on their good behaviour as obedient players, giving them a reward and a kind word to encourage their further compliance as the campaign moved forward.
Such a process may even convince the players that they are ‘better’ players for so deftly knowing their places and stepping fully into their roles. As they ‘buy in,’ a symbiotic relationship soon forms, where I receive what’s wanted from the players, while the players feel ‘appreciated’ for doing their level best to fit with the DM’s game concept. That is precisely the sort of approval that uncertain, anxious-to-please players crave.
I am literally running the players, who then obey my cues by going through the motions to provide me with the game I want, receiving pre-ordained game awards that I choose for them, while they roll over and bark appreciatively. When challenged, I will always point to the player’s expressions of delight, proving that my world is exactly what they want. Thus goes my entitlement for continuing the charismatic exploitation of my players; who would rather please me than risk earning my wrath and be expulsed from the game.
And... that's all there is in the Bad Games section. And there's then a section on Worldbuilding. Hey, I already said I wouldn't cover this in GMing advice. Thank god I don't have to attempt to distil more of this writing.
The final chapter, Gaining A Level, starts with a full six pages of rambling philosophical text on the nature of work! This is apparently all to justify the idea that time spent developing a world should be seen as "work" and not "play" because, enjoyable as it may be, it has a tangible result and ongoing reward; and that players should be able to work in the same terms. Finally, At The End And The Start begins with this gem:
I began from a place where the art of being a DM was a mystery. I could run a game, but I couldn’t explain how and I couldn’t give others advice. In researching and putting together these pages, I had to teach myself what was going on and figure out a way to make that comprehensible to the reader. The process was humbling. More than once, I found myself reading and turning red from embarrassment as I realized things I had been doing wrong all my life. I haven’t written a book about how to run a game for others. I’ve written it for myself.
Aha. That explains why the entire book is written in first person and contains very little that's any use of anyone other than you. Yes, becoming aware of your own processes is a thing which can take practice and be uncomfortable when you first do it, but they didn't mention doing anything about learning to advise others.
In 40 years, no theoretical treatise of role-play, for use by expert role-players, has ever been written.
In 40 years, Mr Smolensk has not read Usenet.
I believe that when the subject of in-depth, investigatory book on role-play has been proposed, one that would talk about people and not rules, the answer has been that there aren’t enough smart role-players in the world to make the book marketable. This, despite the fact that role-playing is practiced throughout the world by college and university students. People who read!
And probably people who can't deal well with people too, but certainly people who don't want to follow your approach.
That is why I often find others who question if the game has any value or relevance beyond having fun. In reaching this point in the book, the reader should have repeatedly noticed how often the tools and skills to become a better role-player exactly reflect those needed to conquer the world.
Oh, right! That's what this book actually is. A supervillain origin story!
This book has been written to create change.
Now go change.
And finally, there's an index.
aesthetics, 241–51, 258
agency, 30, 61, 83, 88
argument. See player, conflict
assisting the DM, 36
attributes, 288, 294
auditory fixation, 137–38
authority, 125–126, 139, 143, 149, 175–76, 190, 195
... An index that's completely useless because .epub format dynamically reflows pages and thus these are meaningless unless your screen is somehow exactly the same size as Smolensk's.
So. Yea. There were maybe a few bits I liked. But unless you're really keen on reading a mega-grognard writing an extended rant on how they are a mega-grognard and wish to continue being one, this is not worth it. This is actually worse than Venger Satanis's GMing book, for god's sake. It's only the second one in this series where I'm actually glad it's over.