Thursday, June 12, 2014

Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters Reviewed

INTO THE FRAME
Like many of you, I’ve been gaming and running for several decades. I manage five campaigns in parallel, with a minimum of three sessions per week right now. I’m also on record as not altogether taken with some highly-praised Gnome Stew products. Last week I worked my way through their new collection, Unframed. This weekend I tried out several of the concrete suggestions.  Each one strengthened my games.  I think of myself as an experienced and veteran GM, but this book had new, exciting, and most importantly useful things to teach me.

Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters is the fifth Gnome Stew book and the first essay collection from the publisher. It’s shorter than their other volumes, coming in at 114 pages trade-sized. It reminds me a little of the Kobold Guide series, a point I’ll come back to a little later. An essay collection seems like an easy approach, but it’s actually difficult to do well. When I worked as an acquisitions editor, I dreaded these kinds of submissions. More often than not, collection editors would throw things together- not giving any thought to arrangement or shape. Or worse they’d clearly include weaker or off-topic essays to fill page count or help a friend. The Open Game Table series from Nevermet and The First Person series from MIT Press both are weirdly uneven that way. Unframed’s editor, Martin Ralya, has clearly spent some time thinking about the shape of the book. It isn’t perfect but it’s better than many other similar books.

Unframed is also the first gamemaster guide aimed explicitly at improvisation. That alone grabs my attention.

A LONG DIGRESSION
Consider this a sidebar to the review- skip as needed
It’s useful to make a distinction between the kinds of improvisation which go on at the table. (I’ve seen some lump together all of these forms in their response to the concept of improv and rpgs). At the first level we’re always improvising at the table through description and discussion. Even the most highly scripted and prepared GM is translating and presenting those ideas like an impromptu speech. And they’re responding to the players Q&A: as they ask for clarification, as they poke the environment, as they head off the expected course. Players have an even more reactive and freeform role- they’re always responding to something new. This kind of improvisation is present at every single rpg table. That responsive play can be more or less backed by notes and detailed mechanics, but confidence, experience, and technique shape it even more highly.

Gamers can also focus on improv as collaboration. Most rpgs have a dialogue between players and GMs. Obviously we’re already doing some of that in the back-and-forth conversation. In the most classic sense, collaboration is about the improv of building from the ideas and suggestions of others. But some games and approaches explicitly mechanize this. The ability to use Fate points to change the scene in various Fate games, the dramatic editing option of Adventure!, voting and competing declarations in Hillfolk, and flexible backgrounds/Icon relationships in 13th Age all put more power and authority in the hands of the players. This requires both GMs and players to more actively engage and improvise ideas. Meta-approaches like Dresden File’s collaborative city-building put everyone “in charge” of the game at the table.

Then there’s Improv as minimal prep or no prep. Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe is the exemplar for this approach. He works without a net, going in and building completely on what has happened before and what the players suggest. In a less extreme approach, many modern games limit what the GM ought or can do as preparation. Burning Wheel restricts GM interventions and choices. Dogs in the Vineyard allows the GM to craft a situation, but beyond that they leave everything else to spin out at the table.

Behind some of this lies the question of railroad, sandbox, or something in between. There’s a concern with improvisation purely as it relates to the “plot” of the game. Plot here simply means the series of connected events. Gamers usually worry about how much one side (players/GM) steers the order and choice of those events. For some GMs questions about improv purely focus on what happens when the players go “off script,” when they don’t match the expected plot sequence.

Why make that distinction? Because it’s worth stressing that Unframed covers all of these aspects. The multiple essays help to untangle what’s actually a huge part of our role-playing, even if some gamers dismiss a portion of those approaches. I’ve seen several commenters on G+ vociferously dismiss improvisation, but what they really seem to take offense to is the idea of no-prep gaming or the devaluation of preparation. I find that odd because the very existence of a book like Unframed suggests preparation: thinking and laying the groundwork for how you handle things flexibly at the table. But I can understand that pushback -- when gamers talk about new techniques, it is easy to read in dismissal for the kinds of effort and energy you sink into your games. I saw some of that in thereaction to my panel on collaborative world-building. On the flip side, I’ve also seen gamers object to built-in systems for player empowerment and improvisation because they mechanize what ought to be an organic process.

WHAT WORKS HERE?
Unframed contains 23 essays, plus an index and editor’s introduction. Of these, I’d say 14 essays are top-notch and must-reads. Simply put: they’re dynamite. I’ll be back to read and reread these for many years to come. A few in particular stand out. Vincent Baker’s essay “Coherence and Contradictions” blew my mind. He offers simple and easily applied advice: suggest contradictions in your descriptions. I’d heard something like this before, but Baker demonstrates the power of it. That’s one of the techniques I played with last weekend and it opened up amazing moments at the table. Jason Morningstar’s “Agreement, Endowment, and Knowing When to Shut Up” takes some of the common improv advice, but makes it more solid and real than anywhere else I’ve read it. He gives an example that will resonate with any GM who’s worried about giving too much power away at the table. Robin Laws “Improvising Dialogue Sequences” offers the best summation of the Petitioner and Granter concept from DramaSystem. More importantly he talks about the way those ideas can inform playing out NPCs in any game.

These essays work best when they take up a narrow theme about or specific context for improvisation. Meguey Baker takes up the question of why we do improv at the table and what implications that has. Ken Hite considers improvisation in Horror Gaming. John Arcadian offers a mapping technique. Alex Mayo uses David Lynch as a lens to consider game stories. Phil Vecchione illustrates his personal journey into improv gaming through a series of great anecdotes. These essays are concrete, full of great advice, colorful, and fun to read. Just as importantly, they don’t always agree- and several give conflicting suggestions. These parts of Unframed are among the best I’ve read in any multi-author gaming collection.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK HERE?
That being said, a few essays aren’t nearly as strong. There’s some serious repetition of the basic concepts of improvisation. While that’s worth repeating a couple of times for emphasis, some could have been trimmed or reshaped to reference earlier essays. A more conversational approach could have made the volume even stronger. But that’s not an uncommon problem with collections like these. Some of the Kobold Guide series are weakened by the same flaw. More troubling are the several entries which just present shopping lists of suggestions. They bounce around without a coherent theme beyond improvisation, or worse they set up a theme and then don’t carry it through fully. These essays feel especially weak given the depth and richness of the others.  Luckily these represent only a handful of the nearly two dozen works on offer.

IS IT WORTH IT?
Yes. I think it is.

This book’s solid and specific advice make it a go-to volume for me from now on. I have a few books I reread from time to time when I want to think about GMing: Villainy Amok for supers, Play Unsafe (or Impro by Keith Johnstone) for approaching things loosely, GURPS Horror 4e for that genre, Hamlet’s Hit Points for ideas about pacing, Things We Think About Games for play in general. I’d also offer this book to new or veteran gamemasters. Some classic rpg sourcebooks (Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, John Wick’s Play Dirty) work best with a GM or player with some experience under their belt. But I’d offer Unframed to GMs just starting out. It has specific and useful advice from multiple perspectives. Most importantly it focuses on giving GMs license to be free. They don’t have to prepare everything, can change things in midstream, and shouldn’t worry if the players “go off course.” That’s something I spent years learning. 

Gnome Stew provided me a free review copy of Unframed. Currently you can pre-order it from their website here