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Thanks to Martin Ralya for the image. And the book!

If you’ve done anything more than dabble in the RPG hobby, you probably know that there’s a long history of advice books for GMs. Part self-help book, part recipe, part gaming story, these books have widely variable utility – especially given the wide range of styles in which we play.

In the past several years, the Gnome Stew blog has been one of the leaders in taking these kinds of advice online…and then, with their Engine Publishing, bringing it back into the traditional book sphere. Their latest entry is Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters. It’s a collection of essays from an all-star cast, including not only several Gnome Stew regulars but also more than a dozen well-known game designers, from all segments of the RPG hobby.

Each of the 23 essays attempts to offer some insight into improvisation – an essential tool for any game, but one that we use in a wide variety of ways. Do they succeed?

The Product

Unframed arrives as a perfect-bound digest-sized volume. Other than the very purple cover, the interior is black-and-white with the occasional small art piece. The 113 pages include 23 essays, averaging a bit over four pages apiece. The pages feel a bit packed – the margins are slightly small – but other than that the layout is good, with callout boxes etc. I also appreciated the short author bios that precede each piece.

As usual with Engine Publishing, the index is excellent!

It’s also available in the usual pdf form as well as various ebook formats. I used the latter (through iBooks) and it worked quite seamlessly.

The Essays

In this section, I’ll provide a quick summary and evaluation of each of the book’s 23 essays. Skip to The Bottom Line if you’d prefer to understand the general themes and get an overall evaluation.

First up is celebrity RPG designer Robin D. Laws with Improving Dialogue Sequences. The main idea here will be familiar to those who have followed Laws’ recent Hillfolk: to identify the person asking, the person being asked, the tactics each use, and what’s being asked. This seems like a nice framework for generating specifics from the general situation, and especially as a good way frame and end the scene as tightly as you can. This was a good one; my only gripe is that it actually seems more useful to me as a guideline for efficient prep (identifying tactics to be used by NPCs) or even the skeleton of a social combat system than it does advice specific to improvisation.

Yes, And: A Recipe for Collaborative Gaming, by Emily Care Boss, appeals to improv theater for some inspiration. This is largely a lesson in the language of improv, and it won’t be new to anyone who has followed the story game movement. But the “Yes, and” technique is so fundamental to collaborative storytelling that it’s nice to see it explained clearly.

D. Vincent Baker follows this up with Coherence and Contradiction. Baker’s argument is that a GM’s job is made easier by clear principles for the setting and game, which material for riffing during the game without introducing confusion, and that the way to inject interesting color upon which the players will want to act is through “A but B:” that is, introduce a secondary detail that contradicts the primary impression. It’s a useful technique, and Baker provides some good strategies to develop these skills.

Getting Off the Railroad and Onto the Island, by Gnome Stew contributor John Arcadian, describes a method to build flexible plots that provide the player freedom to choose their path from inciting incident to climax. It’s an interesting strategy, and one that may enable improvisation even in high-prep games, though also one that seems subject to charges of illusionism. Still, that’s probably inevitable if you want to have an underlying plot.

Filamena Young adds Gaming Like an Actor, which starts off pretty similar to Emily Care Boss’s contribution but then veers into a description of some specific minigames/exercises that you can do to encourage your group to improv collaboratively. I was particularly inspired by a game that has the players build gossip about their own actions.

Another Gnome Stew blogger, Scott Martin (I), discusses Scaffolding To Support Improv, reviewing some types of RPGs the author has found useful in developing improv skills and his approach to prepping such a game. This was fairly basic stuff – not bad, per se, but I didn’t find anything new for me.

Just In Time Improvisation: A Procrastinator’s Tale, by Jennell Allyn Jaquays, is similar, describing Jaquay’s method for prepping her games. Interestingly, this one feels like an (accidental) synthesis of many of the ideas from earlier essays and so was more interesting to me than most such stories (including Martin’s), because it provides an example of how to make the advice more actionable.

It will surprise few that Kenneth Hite’s contribution is Improvisation in Horror Games. This provides some practical advice that emphasizes maintaining the tension and action. I’d say about half of the advice is broadly applicable; the rest is aimed squarely at horror aficionados.

Jason Morningstar follows that up with Agreement, Endowment, and Knowing When To Shut Up. Morningstar loves to play with authority, and this essay is largely an argument for loosening the reins as a traditional GM in order to make improvisation easier and more effective. The basic point is to listen to the players and give them some authority to help the GM drive the story and generate detail. On a practical level, this doesn’t offer a great deal more than some of the other “story game-centric” essays, but it’s engagingly written.

Next up is Meguey Baker, who asks Why Improv?. Although it does answer that question, it focuses more on how to generate plots during improv-style play, with advice that boils down to: keep it simple, and follow the players’ lead. There are also several exercises suggested to sharpen improv skills. If you’re serious about putting in the time, these look quite useful.

Eloy Lasanta’s You’re in a Bar is concerned with setting up a group of PCs with strong connections through organizations. I’m not sure what this has to do, specifically, with improv – it’s really focused on the more general issue of starting up a strong campaign.

An Ear in the Grass: What David Lynch Can Teach You About GMing, by Alex Mayo, is not as weird as the title implies. It picks out a couple of threads from Lynch’s storytelling style and describes their usefulness for RPGs. One is to introduce a trigger event or object that pushes the PCs into action, even if you don’t know where that will lead them and the other is to let serendipity guide you toward a story’s conclusion, whether drawing from the players’ ideas in-game or from an exernal source. That’s a common theme in many of these essays, and I’ll have more to say about it below.

The next essay, by Kurt "Telas" Schneider, is entitled On the Herding of Cats. It emphasizes listening to your players’ perceptions and expectations about the game and using them to build the story or theme. It has some useful insight into how to draw out that information, which can be difficult if players aren’t in the frame to think about the game this way.

Michelle Lyons-McFarland follows up with I Say, Then You Say: Improvisational Roleplaying As Conversation. There are some interesting insights here about the parallels between running a good game and participating in a conversation, provided you buy into the cooperative storytelling paradigm. The actual advice is relatively limited, but it presents a nice way of thinking about how to manage a game’s flow.

Wolfgang Baur takes us back to the land of the purely practical with Names, Voices, and Stereotypes. Baur focuses on presentation techniques to make NPCs stand out. It’s partly cheerleading for the nervous GM, but the more interesting bit is the reasoning behind using these elements and shortcuts for getting similar effects to the funny voice without actually having to do them.

The next essay is probably my favorite in the book: Selling the Experience, by Don Mappin, takes inspiration not from improv theater but from salesmen. I never would have thought of that, but it’s a pretty compelling analogy to improv GMing in a traditional setting where the GM has a plot but wants to riff off the players’ choices. There are some really good strategies here for doing that while keeping the story’s goal in mind.

Building Worlds by the Seat of Your Pants, by Monica Valentinelli, is another essay that would probably be useful whether or not you’re actually interested in improv. The premise is that the game’s setting is an important point of inspiration for the game and shouldn’t be neglected. There’s some concrete advice for building quick settings, but it would still take some time for me. The most compelling part is a short section on using the setting to evoke mood – that seems like something that can, and very much should, be done on the fly.

Phil Vecchione next tells us about Hitting Rock Bottom. This is more personal odyssey than actual advice, describing Vecchione’s journey into improv-style games. It’s an interesting read (mixing a gaming story with his real life) but contains very little concrete advice.

Off the Rails: When the Party Jumps the Tracks, by Stacy Dellorfano, starts off similarly but works harder to draw lessons from the author’s experiences. The best part is a careful discussion on introducing hooks for your players to pursue.

Another of Gnome Stew’s regulars, Walt Ciechanowski, follows this up with an excellent article on The Social Sandbox. The basic idea here is to introduce lots of interesting NPCs to generate subplots and/or enrich the main plot. They aren’t essential to the game, but they are tailored to the players’ interests. Again, this is great “big picture” advice for GMs who still have an overarching story in mind.

Why Trollworld Has Two Moons…and Other Tales, by Ken St. Andre, is another “inspirational” piece, describing a seminal moment in St. Andre’s gaming career and recommending improvisation for other GMs (at least on some level). It’s an entertaining read, but again there isn’t really any concrete advice here.

Jess Hartley The Unspoken Request and the Power of Yes. This essay joins the chorus of “Yes, and…” but does add a bit of a new perspective in drawing on “innocent” questions from the PCs to let the GM add new details that will appeal to their tastes without explicitly throwing the storytelling responsibilities the players’ way.

Finally, Martin Ralya wraps up the collection with It’s Okay To Be Weird. This is part reassurance, part exhortation that taking the less obvious path makes for memorable games – which might sound obvious, but it actually goes against the rule of thumb of improv theater (at least from what I know), which warns against highly unusual additions that may disrupt the flow of a scene. Ralya does a good job explaining why they work for a GM…though it’s less clear how to distinguish good-weird from boring-weird.

The Bottom Line

Unframed is a strong collection of essays centered around the theme of improvisation. While you are unlikely to find all of them useful (and a few fail to offer any useful advice beyond, “I do it and you can too!”), the 23 distinct voices offer enough independent perspectives and approaches that you will very likely find some compelling new advice here. I would rate slightly more than half of the essays as “very good” and nearly all of the others as various shades of “good.”

The downside to a book of individual essays is that the big picture can get lost, and I think in some ways Unframed falls into this trap. The book would have benefitted from an extended foreword laying out a framework for the sorts of advice to expect and how they could slot into the game. After all, there are a lot of ways to use improv – from the very basic generation of dialogue in a pre-planned scene to collaborative story generation. The book bounces back and forth between these various approaches, some of which may appeal to you and some of which may be too elementary or irrelevant given the dynamic of your play group.

To help you navigate the flood of information in this slim volume, here are some of the sorts of advice you’ll find:

A few essays are basically just inspiration: cheerleading for improvisation. They’re well-written and entertaining (and short, as all of the essays are) but won’t improve your GMing in any specific way.

Some essays, especially those by the Gnome Stew regulars, focus on incorporating improv into a game with the traditional GM-player relationship: the GM has a plot, the players are navigating it (which is not to say it is a railroad!). These sorts of essays describe ways to cope with the unexpected or to introduce opportunities for improvisation in such environments. You can tell these guys write an advice blog – these essays are very good at offering actionable advice.

There are a number of essayists with strong associations to the “story game” movement. These generally appeal to lessons from improvisational theater and emphasize a different sort of GM-player relationship, one that is much more collaborative than the traditional power structure and ask for players to help build settings and even adventures. These essays center around two fundamental techniques, listening and “Yes, and…” that allow a GM to very directly incorporate story input from the players. (By the end of the book, “Yes, and” will have been hammered into your brain so thoroughly that you’re unlikely to forget it. I would have welcomed some more variation amongst these authors.)

Of course, there’s a continuum between these last two viewpoints, and it’s possible to incorporate “Yes, and…” into a traditional power dynamic. This is one area where an overview would have been particularly useful, in identifying these different viewpoints explicitly and describing how to identify the threads relevant for you.

There’s a fair amount of advice on game prep methods that enable “traditional” improvisational play (spontaneously generating NPCs, setting elements, etc.). The book acknowledges that improv is hard and can require substantial prep work. A lot of this is to recommend lists and such that allow the GM to pull elements as needed. (I was surprised that there wasn’t more emphasis on true randomness – no mentions that I can remember of all those books of tables available to buy!) These kinds of essays were usually only of marginal utility to me: there were some useful tips and tricks but too few offered a coherent philosophy or approach.

I expected to find more essays targeted toward generating better ideas during play. There are relatively few “technique” articles on what kind of elements produce a good story. I would guess this is hard to teach and generalize (I certainly have no idea how), so perhaps that isn’t too surprising. The strongest advice is to add elements that aren’t obvious and trigger questions in the PCs’ (Baker’s and Mayo’s essays in particular emphasize using contradictions to do this, and they are both very strong).

There’s another thread of advice about generating plots themselves during play. With just a couple of exceptions, most of this advice boils down to “follow what the players are doing and make things interesting.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the players always happen to choose the correct solution to a problem – although I suspect in many cases it turns into “Oh, great, the players chose something way cooler than my idea – let’s go with that!”

I must admit to some discomfort with that style of play – a discomfort that is only barely acknowledged in the book. Many groups enjoy the challenge of navigating a dangerous plot with the world arrayed against them – a challenge that will be completely undercut by this style of play, where the GM is following the players’ lead rather than the converse. Allowing the players to lead the plot risks illusionism in one of its worst forms: fooling the players into thinking they are overcoming a challenge when in reality all they are doing is telling an exciting story with the GM’s guidance.

This is not to say there’s anything wrong with either the collaborative approach or more of a GM top-down approach: in my view that’s a stylistic choice that reflects why you play RPGs, and there’s no right answer to that. But it’s an important caveat to a good deal of the advice in this book: full-scale collaboration-inspired-improv is counterproductive for some groups, and it takes some thought (and most likely a discussion) to decide whether it fits yours.

But that's a quibble - though I could have used more of an introduction, Unframed is a great read chock full of useful advice for any GM. The breadth of viewpoints is refreshing and expansive, the writing is very good, and I see myself pulling out these essays for inspiration or some problem-solving in the future.

This is my seventeenth review in the 2014 Iron Reviewer contest.
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Oliver S
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Thanks for the review. I've been dithering on this for a while for no particularly good reason, but this review convinced me that I need to read it, so I finally picked it up.
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Martin Ralya
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This is the first essay-by-essay review of Unframed I've read, vestige -- awesome! Thank you for reviewing the book.
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Christian Leonhard
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vestige wrote:
I must admit to some discomfort with that style of play – a discomfort that is only barely acknowledged in the book. Many groups enjoy the challenge of navigating a dangerous plot with the world arrayed against them – a challenge that will be completely undercut by this style of play, where the GM is following the players’ lead rather than the converse. Allowing the players to lead the plot risks illusionism in one of its worst forms: fooling the players into thinking they are overcoming a challenge when in reality all they are doing is telling an exciting story with the GM’s guidance.

I share this concern to some degree, although I think there's a comfortable middle ground where the group's input shapes the overall course of the plot -- the broad strokes -- while the GM is able to provide genuine challenges to be overcome in the context of individual encounters. I agree that it's a fine line, though.
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Don Mappin
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Martin linked this in his G+ feed and I debated reading it as I tend to avoid reviews of my work. This is the first review of Unframed that goes essay-by-essay. I'm glad I did read it, not because the outcome was positive (thank you!), but because I struggled with how to provide worthwhile advice on improvisation that would resonate with readers. Riding the line between yet another "Yes, and..." essay and falling down the rabbit hole of regurgitating my own experiences that likely no one cares about was a real concern. So that at least one person found my contribution useful is a weight off my shoulders. Thank you!

My dirty secret is that I--I think like you--try not to lean on improvisation when GMing. I do it (we all do) and fortunately I do it well, but it's outside my comfort zone. In general I prefer structure where possible but every game requires you to "write on the fly" in a matter of speaking. What's enjoyable is, with that said, reading the essays enriched my own ability to improvise.

Thank you as well for reviewing the book and your insights. Feedback is always valuable for us find ways to improve the next product.
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Eloy Lasanta
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vestige wrote:
Eloy Lasanta’s You’re in a Bar is concerned with setting up a group of PCs with strong connections through organizations. I’m not sure what this has to do, specifically, with improv – it’s really focused on the more general issue of starting up a strong campaign.


The Idea behind that particular essay included with the rest was that if you start your campaign off strong, then it actually makes improvising during gameplay much easier, since there are already defined reason for the group to be together.

Cheers!

-Eloy
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