Monday 2 June 2014

I got a sneak peak at Unframed The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

I have to assume that +Martin Ralya from +Engine Publishing liked my review of Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep. Or maybe it was my more recent review of Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Management. Heck, maybe he's just still happy I made him Geek of the Week back at a few years ago.

Whatever it was, I'm glad I did it. That's because, soon after announcing that Engine Publishing had a new book, Martin contacted me and offered me a chance to review a pre-release copy of it. This new book is Unframed The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters. (I don't know what it is with Engine and the really, really long titles, from now on, I'm just going to call it Unframed. Cool? Good).

I, of course, jumped at a chance to check out this soon to be released book. I really enjoyed Engine Publishing's previous Game Master 'self help books'. Both have actually changed the way I prep, plan and run my games. As expected, Unframed did not disappoint.

So what is Unframed?

Unframed is a 113 page anthology of essays by 23 of the best and brightest writers in the RPG industry. The list of authors is like a 'who's who' of modern gaming and includes some of my favourite authors. What's also very cool is that it includes a ton for great people that I interact with on a regular basis on Google Plus.

Each of the individual articles is rather short, with almost all of them only lasting only 4-5 pages. I realize this sounds a bit too short but these authors manage to pack a lot of punch in a short space. Due to the brevity of the articles I found Unframed to be great 'break reading.' I would finish up something I was working on and need a short break. I would pick up my tablet, read one essay, then move on to whatever it was I had to do next. I also found it worked well for another kind of break: it's a great bathroom reader. :)

What are these 23 essays about?

This page only lists half of the essays.
Well, as it says on the cover: they are all about the art of improvisation. You would think that there wouldn't be all that much to say, or that what there is to be said wouldn't require 23 different people to talk about it. I do have to say that is somewhat true. There is quite a bit of repetition in the book on a few key concepts. You are going to be reading about Offers a lot. Blocking comes up almost as often. And I'm pretty sure I could hit "yes and...." with a THAC0 of 20, it's in there so often. That said, each essay is very different.

Each of the different authors came to using improvisation in their games in a different way. Some in very different ways. Due to this each has a very different perspective on it. There are even sections of the book that contradict other sections. I think this is a strength though and not a weakness. Just like the authors of these essays, most of us came from different places. For example I started GMing with TSR Marvel Super Heroes and moved on to games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and I still find dungeon crawls odd and hard to run as I never really had that D&D Background. 

What can I actually learn from Unframed?

Each essay in Unframed takes a good look at one or more aspects of Improvisation and talks directly about how to use this to be a better Game Master. Some of these talk a lot about theatrical improvisation and walk you through all the terms and tropes before telling you how to apply them to your games. Others talk about how many hours the author wasted on session prep and what got them to start running and prepping their games in a different way. What's great to read is that they always get into the why. 

Some of the articles are very specific, like +Kenneth Hite's essay: Improvisation in Horror Games. Others are much more broad like +Filamena Young's essay: Gaming Like an Actor. Some of the essays are filled with tips and tricks, like Names, Voices and Stereotypes by +Wolfgang Baur. Others offer you new methods to try in your games like +Vincent Baker's Coherence and Contradictions. I loved that Vincent used Michael Moorcock for inspiration but I'm not sure I'm ready for his listless system.

But improv is for hippy story games!

A sample of the start of an essay.

I have to admit that a few years ago, the title of this section is something you might have heard coming out of my mouth. I'm an old school gamer. Maybe I didn't grow up with D&D but I did grow up with the GM sitting behind the screen, presenting a story to the players in a mostly adversarial way. That GM would have spent hours and hours preparing for the game and would cringe if ever things went off the track. I've been there, and well to be honest, I've still got one foot in that mentality. 

I'm still not 100% comfortable with all of the concepts suggested in Unframed. Improvisation is something I want to try more of though. What this book did is show me that there are lots of other GMs in the same boat. I found that Scott Martin's essay: Scaffolding to Support Improv really hit close to home for me. Especially his discussion about trying different game systems. I think he's inspired me to pick up a copy of Fiasco and give it a try.

There was one thing missing...

One of the things I really liked in the last Engine Publishing book, Odyssey, was the ongoing story that tied the whole book together. Even though you had a couple different authors sharing their advice there was the story of Gemma's game group and their new campaign that tied everything together. I wish there was something like this in Unframed.

What I would have really liked to have read is a tale of one Games Master, someone like me, still stuck in the old ways but willing to try the new ones, and how each of the articles affected them. How their games changed. What worked for them and what didn't. Something to tie everything together.

Overall thoughts.

Unframed The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters is a rather interesting book. It does something that I think every good RPG advice book should do: makes you think. I couldn't help but think about my own games and my own gaming style as I read through each of the 23 short essays. I wondered  how each of these amazing authors experiences and advice would apply to my games. 

While a bit short (it's shorter than any of the other Engine books so far), there is a lot of information pumped in there. There really isn't much artwork and I think I would have liked a full page spread or two. What I really would have liked through is one ongoing thread that tied all of the articles together in some way. Either a piece of fiction or even better a real life story of how these techniques changed one author's games. What is nice though, is that without this thread, each article stands on it's own. Actually you could read the whole thing out of order without really changing the tone or effect.

I'm an old school gamer. I've been a Game Master for many, many, years now. This is something new. Sometimes new stuff scares me, just like it sometimes scares everyone else. Unframed made me think about this. It made me question my old ways and offered many reasons why the new ways may just be better for me (I can't help but think of that Ikea Lamp Ad). I can't help but think that there are other GMs out there that feel the same way. That alone makes me think that this is a book well worth checking out.

If you are interested in checking Unframed out, the pre-order goes live today!


  1. Thank you very much for reviewing Unframed, Moe! I really appreciate it, and you've given folks who are interested in the book a lot to chew on here.

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to review another awesome book!