Sunday, June 21, 2015

How to Run review

Almost a year ago, I picked up How to Run, Alexis D. Smolensk's book on Game Mastering, specifically DMing a long-running fantasy campaign.

This 350 page "Advanced Guide to Managing Role-Playing Games" was one of the things that inspired me to write my own book on the art of Game Mastery.  Not because I wanted to write a book just like it or that such a topic appeared oh-so-glamorous, but because I realized that an author could share his experiences knowing that his will not be like another's.

In some ways, How to Run is the opposite of what I did with How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss.  It's well-organized, methodical, artless (even the cover is black and white), and champions the idea that GMing is and should be a lot of work.  Yes, some love to grind, toiling early in the morning, late at night, on weekends, crossing t's, dotting i's, vacuuming the curtains, and dusting the blinds.  They name an NPC who once talked to another NPC who is the brother of someone sitting in the tavern having a cold one... a tavern that the PCs might not actually enter, depending on how thirsty they are at the time.

I realized that if Alexis could write a teaching guide for Game Masters that didn't resemble anything I would say, then the door was open for me.  His (like mine) is a personal work.  The author takes the time to immerse you in his particular protocols and fancies.  His advice might start out general but in short order it moves past that well-trodden path.  The GM guides I've read (and I'm sure the author has, too) speak of handling certain situations and give readers a few paragraphs on the most obvious course of action.  How to Run does more than that.  It gets beneath the surface and ventures into uncharted territory.  That's an awesome thing, even if his teaching flies in the face of my own ideas on the subject.

The author's initial forays into DMing were fraught with peril, insecurity, and abject failure.  That's what he tells us.  Through hard work and determination, he began to conquer whatever it is that needs to be conquered regarding Game Mastery.  Below is a quote from page 13...

Make no mistake.  To improve, the reader will be asked to work.  No change can be obtained without working towards change.  This book will ask its readers to strain their imagination.  I will show how to structurally design a unique and meaningful world from the ground up - not with a set of checklists for what the world ought to contain, but by discussing how entities function and evoke player behavior.  Directions will be given that will require months of dedicated work in order to present ideas to players, so that the reader can settle on the content of their world and bring it to fruition.

It's funny that I found that paragraph while skimming the book just now, because "a set of checklists for what the world ought to contain" takes up quite a bit of space in my book.  I'm not sure if I unconsciously did the opposite of Alexis or saw a niche that needed to be filled.

It's obvious that Alexis takes his game, as well as, his role within it, very seriously.  His petition to work and work hard is admirable but, in my opinion, unnecessary.  While I value the effort it takes to do this, I would stop if it became tedious.  Yes, if it was a grind, I'd quit.  Maybe I'd go back to that other grind (no limit Texas Hold'em), or simply find a new way.  Luckily, there are other methods, less tedious ones that come naturally to me and thousands of Game Masters out there.  To clarify, I don't feel that paying attention and working on oneself a little bit at a time is tedious.  That's just self-improvement... just life.

I'm not saying my way is better, just that my way is better for me.  Conversely, Alexis' way is better for him and those who want to transform their inner-being can always go and do GM push-ups every morning at 5:30am.  And yet, we're all trying to reach the same place, that destination taking us to another world of sword, sorcery, and adventure!

That's not to say that How to Run is devoid of objectively good advice.  For instance, I wholeheartedly agree with the following on page 127...

I feel it is important to make friends with everyone who plays in my world.  This includes new players, those who I am meeting for the first time.  I want to put them at their ease as quickly as possible.  They should feel free to speak about what they wish without fear of reprisal.  At the same time, I want to explain my own perspective, in terms that can be grasped at once.  It's easy to be positive about my world, but it's just as important to be complimentary and congratulatory when meeting a new player.  

At other times, the author is able to breakdown the fundamental differences between roleplaying games and other forms of entertainment...

Therefore, we must dispense with prediction.  The DM must manage in the here and now.  The party enters a town.  The town reacts to the presence of the party.  People meet one another.  Things are said.  The party reacts to what the townspeople say.  The townspeople react to the party.  The gears and parts of the game work as conflicts build organically.  The party judges whether to exacerbate the conflict.  I judge, in turn, if the townspeople wish to exacerbate the conflict.  So it goes.  Throughout the process, I act as a 'regulator,' adjusting the attitudes and flow of the world, making faster or slower in keeping with the ongoing mood of the party.

That organic building seems to favor improvisation and I even think Alexis would agree with me on that point, yet several times in the book he mentions a reliance on months and years of drudgery in order to simulate what cannot be experienced, unless one decides to let go, feel the force flowing through you... and simply wing it.

Suffice it to say, there's a lot of material covered in the book.  A lot of it's good and, in my opinion, well written, even if the style or "voice" might be different than my own.  It's also virtually free of errors, such as typos, grammatical mistakes, etc.  I think I only found a couple.  For a book this size, that's an incredible achievement on its own!

Maybe How to Run is the other side of the coin?  I don't believe it's the antithesis, though a few readers may believe so.  It's all very subjective.  Even if you don't agree with everything the author says, it opens up lines of communication, creating a dialog so that these issues can be discussed.  It pushed me to write my own book, after all.

If you're looking for some summer reading on the subject of Game Mastery, give it a whirl... check out the sample pages if you need more convincing.