Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Focal Point: The Complete GM's Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions Reviewed

Have you ever read a Help/How To book and found yourself shaking your head: basic, I know that, c’mon with something new…

And then find yourself unconsciously using that advice within a day or two. Doing something different and only afterwards realizing where that’d come from.


Well that’s my experience with Focal Point.

And that’s the crux of my difficulty in writing this review. And I suspect one of the biggest hurdles facing books like these. Because for myself and GMs like me I KNOW IT ALL. So when a volume like this goes back to basics, I don’t like being told I don’t already know everything.

Even though I don’t know everything. I know that.

Focal Point: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions is a 230-page, trade-sized guide to what GM's actually do at the table. It brings together the advice of John Arcadian, Walt Ciechanowski, and Phil Vecchione. They split the work pretty evenly, with each penning several of the book’s nineteen chapters. The book breaks those chapters into three sections. “Lights” covers the more physical aspects of GMing; “Camera” looks at preparation and at-table work; and “Action” also covers at-table matters but with some important intangible issues (like safety). Each chapter has a little game-fiction-like example from an ongoing gaming group. Focal Point has consistent artwork, often connecting with the stories and ideas. Each chapter also has a set of exercises and “achievements” which the reader’s encouraged to try.

Focal Point is the third in a trilogy of Gnome Stew guides to GMing. The first, Never Unpreparedoffers Phil Vecchione’s project-manager inspired approach to session prep. The second, Odyssey by Phil Vecchione and Walt Ciechanowski, covers campaign management. All three of these books work together. While there’s some overlap in material, by and large they have their own feel. All are useful and work together. Gnome Stew’s released several other GM toolbox products, including Unframed, an anthology on GM improvisation (which I dug).

I’ve tried to think how useful this book would have been at different points in my life.

Just Starting Lowell: I came out of D&D and TSR games in the early days. Let’s leave aside that games had different goals back then. Would this book have helped my just-starting out self? Maybe a little, but I also would have found it intimidating. On the one hand it would have been great to realize others existed who’d assembled advice on gaming. On the other, there’s so much here and I don’t know if I could have processed this as a starting GM.

A Few Years In Lowell: With a few years of GMing under my belt, this book would have been excellent. I remember the first time I read Aaron Allston’s Strike Force, where he suggested new ways of handling the table. This book presents many different options and approaches. It explicitly talks about common problems and how to work around them. At this point I would have been flailing around, so this would be great. GMs who’ve run a few campaigns can benefit hugely from it.

Twenty+ Years Lowell: By this point I’m an ossified asshole. Seriously. I was pretty sure I knew it all- juggling 5-6 campaigns simultaneously. I skipped GM advice in books and rolled my eyes at new techniques. There’s part of me that suspects I’d have given Focal Point a pass, putting it in the same bin as Gygax’s Role-Playing Mastery. But there’s a chance I might not. The book opens with concrete advice: on space, table set up, miniatures, etc. That might have been enough of a hook to pull me through to the more abstract considerations of planning and player involvement. If I could have managed to beat down my ego, I might have saved myself from years of painful lessons.

Today Lowell: This Lowell would try to figure out what he would have thought of this book at various times in his life. And he would have gotten some good ideas from Focal Point. It made me examine my play space & consider how isolate the table center for focus, it gave me new ideas for seizing attention at the table, it asked me to sit down and inventory my own technique. Overall I found it useful, cheering on my approach for ideas I’d already taken to heart.

  • A great chapter on “set dressing” and making the table work for you. I especially like some of the on-the-cheap ideas for framing the map and adding new elements.
  • Some solid discussion of style and suggestions for how to analyze your own. I’m not overly fond of the “achievement” activities at the ends of the chapter. But here the suggested project feels useful and informative.
  • Ideas on scripting, and more importantly problems to keep an eye out for when you’re planning an adventure or session. I plot pretty loosely these days, but the checklist offered is worth going back to when doing even open planning. That’s complemented by a later chapter on pacing and railroading.
  • Discussion of endings, of sessions, stories, and campaigns. Good advice throughout.
  • An excellent chapter on personal issues and safety at the table. Smartly presents where our assumptions of play need to be checked with the group as a whole.
  • Some discussion of improv. It echoes Unframed a little, but it’s nice to have that advice reinforced. I’d have liked maybe a little more discussion of games like PbtA which turn much of the movement and creation back on the players. New GMs may find that diceless GM and Move-based approach challenging.
One Lowlight: I would have liked a chapter on running online and those challenges.

I have two reservations about Focal Point, and they’re pretty minor. My first problem seems like a backhanded compliment. There’s almost too much stuff in this book. Focal Point covers a huge range of ideas and topics. That meant it took me some time when I went back to hunt for particular advice. The organizing structure (Lights, Camera, and Action sections) plus the chapter titles (Keep Filming!, Lunch Break) don’t always point in the right direction. On the other hand, there is a solid index if I can narrow down what I’m looking for.

The other problem’s more of a missed opportunity. As I mentioned above, the volume has three authors. They have overlapping interests, but some difference in approaches. Icons representing each author mark out who wrote which one. But there’s almost no dialog between these GMs in the book. I’d have loved to see commentary from one author on another’s material. Tweaks, changes, other approaches. That’s one of the details that makes 13th Age awesome: really seeing different approaches close together. Instead there’s a real effort to smooth things together in Focal Point. While that creates a coherent whole, I can’t help feeling some back and forth would have made the book stronger.

We’ve seen more and more books on gamemastering in the last decade, beyond Gnome Stew’s library there’s the Kobold series, Johann Ford’s work, and many others. I dig reading those. But three problems get in my way often: repetition, system-specifics, and tone. Some books, especially anthologies, end up ringing the same bells over and over. Others bore down into numbers and game concepts for specific systems, usually d20. A few put me off because they yell, admonish, and claim right-wayism. None of these problems afflict Focal Point.

This is a solid smart book with focused chapter topics. It’s definitely worth picking up if you’re open to advice on GMing. Right now I'd say this series of three books, plus Unframed, offers the best GMing advice from multiple voices and perspectives.