Unframed Review

Hello everyone, once again I am a bit more delayed than I would like but I like to think setting the time frames keeps me from getting stuck in an endless cycle of procrastination.  Before I begin talking about this fantastic book, I want to mention that I will have another Resources article this week featuring a number of podcasts that I think everyone should give a shot listening to.  I also want to warn anyone interested in more monsters that my fly beast will be delayed a little while, but is coming soon.  I will also be purchasing another resource suggested by the good folks on the Paizo forums since this one was so great.  A review will be sure to come on that!  For now we can talk about Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters.

Unframed is a book by Gnome Stew, a blog for Game Mastering that I had not discovered until I was suggested this book.  Edited by Martin Rayla (owner of the site), this book is just over 100 pages of essays written by a great mix of people.  Some of the names will be known or recognized by you if you read the book.  If you don’t recognize the folks who wrote the essays, you will certainly recognize some of the games that they have worked on.  From Fiasco to Trail of Cthulhu, the representation is well varied.  This is, perhaps, what makes this little book as remarkable as it is, and I cannot emphasize it enough, everyone should read this book.

That’s right.  Not just GMs, but players too.  This book goes beyond the subtitle, but lets start there: the art of improvisation for game masters.  You couldn’t ask for a better outline of what is laid out in Unframed.  Each essay addresses a different method of Game Mastering, different techniques and shortcuts, or different viewpoints on how to prepare.  Most of the time the entry addresses multiple parts of this, linking them as they inevitably are for the GM running the game.

Because all of the authors come from some kind of gaming background, not one of them has experience limited to one game or even one genre.  They have played with different mechanics, different settings, and different styles.  Techniques have been used, thrown out, and tweaked over time.  It is something we have all done, but it can often be hard to describe what we have learned and why we have changed our methods, let alone teach it to someone else.  In 3-5 pages each of the authors does this and more.  They not only recognize the failings of certain methods or the reasons for those failings, but also what brings the need for change in your way of GMing.

Invariably, this is centered around the idea of improvisation.  Improvisation is more than coming up with names and staying on your toes, though.  It is at the very core of tabletop RPGs, the reason people play them.  When it comes right down to it, these games allow us to do ANYTHING we want.  There isn’t a set story or  invisible walls and programming limits.  Games like Dungeons & Dragons allow you to do what you think is the best thing, in any situation, in any way.

The authors of this collection understand this intimately.  They know that foundation is there and they understand that the game is about the group.  Often they discuss interactions and how to handle them as GM or how to be prepared for them.  This is the reason I believe players should read this book too.  GMs will benefit from decades of collective experience, but players will benefit from explicitly and personally explained GM point of views.   Players will then be better enabled to help their GM and their fellow players work together for a great experience.

If anything can describe how good this book is, perhaps its personal effect on me.  I have tried or am trying many of the methods described.  Others I have heard but never really looked into.  Still others have been like sudden sunshine through days of clouds.  Among all of these, the essay on the “yes, and…” rule of improvisation had its greatest impact.  For the longest time I was adamantly against it.  As it was often described to me the “yes, and” technique basically allows any idea to be allowed by the GM (the ultimate suspension of disbelief), and despite my many situations to say maybe or no, my opponents claimed I was squashing my players dreams and verging on tyrannical.  Much to my chagrin I could not convince them that a no can keep the game from descending into anarchy.

Emily Care Boss’s essay in Unframed changed my mind.  She described how the method works in improv groups and why it works well there.  For the game table, though, she carefully puts it in that light.  Perhaps the greatest point she makes for me is that it is equally up to the player to make “yes, and” work at the table.  It is up to them not to go over the top for the character or situation, not to try and end what could be epic scenes with over-the-top and one-step-beyond unbelievable acts.  The use of terms, such as offer and endow, also really helped me gain a grasp on the philosophy.  It’s not about saying yes, its about allowing and directing what players come up with and something as simple as “ok, but” or using narration of the action to limit it to “realism” empowers the player to come up with great contributions instead of making them feel defeated.

It is with this change of heart, and the exact cause of my change of heart, that I believe every single RPG player should get this book.  It will help you recognize what causes trouble at your table and ways of improving upon that.  Players will find inadvertent advice on dealing with each other and their GM.  Game masters benefit the most, of course.  It was written with them in mind.  Unframed will lay out the things you have been teaching yourself or absorbing from other GMs for years, give you words for them, and help you change the way you think.  I cannot imaging anyone reading this book and not becoming a better GM.