Occasionally I remember to update this...
Thanks to Martin Ralya for the image!
I’m kind of a sucker for GM advice books. It’s not that I GM all that much, nor that I worry particularly about my skills (though I certainly wouldn’t call myself an overconfident GM!). I just find analysis of the craft of this hobby rather interesting.
So I’ve picked up all the Engine Publishing books over the years. The latest (released in 2015) is Focal Point, which completes a “trilogy” of advice books from the team. The first, Never Unprepared, focused on preparing to run a game session, while the second, Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Management, focused on organizing a long-running campaign. The newest entry focuses not on preparation but on execution: making the game sing at the table. Of course there’s a lot of crossover with your prep there, but I was excited for this one because it promised to synthesize so much of GMing. I wasn’t disappointed, though I also wasn’t overwhelmed by the book - it’s not the best bit of GM advice I’ve seen, but it has a lot to recommend itself…other than the framing metaphor, that is.
Focal Point is available as a 230-page digest-sized softcover. It has a color cover but black-and-white interior; there is a reasonable amount of art throughout. The editing is excellent, and the layout is generally unobtrusive. It has a useful table of contents and OMG THE INDEX IS AWESOME. (Seriously, RPG professionals, why aren’t you hiring Martin Ralya to make indices???)
It is also available in electronic form - a purchase gives you the pdf as well as the book in several popular ebook formats, and you even get a plain text version. The pdf is fully bookmarked and easy to navigate.
The book itself is organized into 19 chapters in three parts of roughly equal length, each of which is named according to that movie-shoot framing metaphor - and each with a separate author.
First, John Arcadian takes on Lights, which focuses on the GM as entertainer. That includes props, sound, voices, etc.
Walt Ciechanowski presents Camera, which focuses on the GM as storyteller. That includes pacing, descriptions, the framing story, etc.
Finally, Phil Vecchione writes about Action, which describes the GM’s role as facilitator. These are the social aspects of GMing: keeping the group on task, managing players, and understanding the rules.
I’ll describe each of these sections in turn.
The chapters have some features in common. They are framed by a bit of fiction about a game group struggling with the chapter’s subject: in the lead-in, the group runs into a problem, and at the end they solve it using one of the techniques discussed in that chapter. I enjoyed these, even if I felt sometimes that the problems were a bit forced. It’s a good explicit example of how the ideas might work at the game table. Each chapter also concludes with “challenges” - basically homework assignments to implement in your game. The problem is these often felt like homework, so I didn’t find them very compelling, especially given that it’s very hard to practice GMing except as part of your actual game.
The first section of the book focuses on the “external” part of the GMing job. It includes chapters on the physical location in which you play, the game table itself (and its immediate environment), props (from maps to minis), and background music. These are all fairly clear nuts-and-bolts advice, but it’s also in some sense advanced - as a GM I rarely think about this kind of stuff, but when I see other people doing it I realize how much of an atmospheric difference it can make. The advice here is useful in laying out the why and how; it’s the kind of stuff that you might think is obvious once you’ve read it, but you probably didn’t think of it on your own!
Those parts actually fit the movie analogy nicely, since they correspond to the set, etc. Two other chapters in this section fit less obviously, but they are still good chapters. The first focuses on set pieces (called “special effects scenes” here). This chapter focuses on making the central scenes of a game “pop,” and it’s also good nuts-and-bolts advice on how to do so, including identifying the scenes and strategies for making the players really notice them, leveraging the sensory parts of the game. This is something I’ve never really considered but sounds like a lot of fun to follow through on.
The second of these chapters focuses on the GM’s presentation of the game, with a particular focus on descriptive language, body language, and effective NPCs. This is all good advice, but it bleeds into the later sections and I’m not quite sure why some of it is here. It’s strongest when it zooms into the specific sensory aspects of the GM (like body language).
The second part is about running the action during the session. Mostly. The first two chapters actually cover prepping a scenario - writing the story, etc. This stuff was covered much more thoroughly in Never Unprepared, but these chapters take a much lighter touch and provide a good overview. (Honestly, if you want a relatively prep-lite approach, stick with this one anyway!) It basically emphasizes “big-picture” tools for making sure the game runs smoothly, from avoiding failure points to having a rules cheat sheet.
Next up we get chapters on starting sessions effectively, keeping the game from getting derailed through in-game problems, taking breaks, making sure sessions end on high notes, and getting feedback. Aside from the second of these chapters, these are mostly about the practicalities of keeping the players entertained. That’s an interesting angle that distinguishes the material in Focal Point from many other GM guidebooks. Forcing the GM to think about breaks, for example, forces them to consider the pacing of the session rather than the game. The two are related, but the fact that the players are first and foremost people is often lost when you are immersed in the game world planning out an adventure. So I find this angle refreshing.
There is one important angle that isn’t discussed in Focal Point, however: player types. I first saw this kind of thing discussed by Robin D. Laws, but it’s popped up in many places elsewhere. The idea is that players like all kinds of different things - role-play, system mastery, exploration, etc. - and the GM needs to pay attention to those desires in order to keep the game compelling, and to keep players from competing with each other etc. This is such an important part of the sociology of gaming that I’m surprised that it’s barely even touched here, not even systematically.
The last section is a bit harder to define. Supposedly it focuses on the GM as facilitator, but I’d argue much of the Camera! section was also about that. There is indeed some overlap, but there are also new topics. Specifically, the chapters cover how to keep players focused, creating a safe environment, fostering collaboration amongst players, improvisation, learning the rules, and using the players to help run the game.
That’s a pretty wide range of topics (one reason the metaphor has completely lost me), but these are certainly important skills for a GM. Some chapters are stronger than others; the ones that stand out to me are the ones on fostering collaboration and delegating authority. That’s largely because these are the least obvious elements. While keeping people focused is pretty obvious even for a new GM, the idea of “tricking” the players into collaborating with each other is much more subtle but just as important. (In my view, and in that of the book, loss of focus is generally a symptom of another problem.) Similarly, I’m all for breaking down the walls between GMs and players, so the chapter on spreading authority around is very important.
Even though these are all important issues, this was my least favorite part of the book. That may have been fatigue at the mass of advice throughout the book, or my increasing skepticism of the framing device, or some repetition with earlier parts of the book, but I think it also has to do with the subjects of the chapters, which for me often have some fairly obvious solutions.
The Bottom Line
Focal Point tries hard to provide a wide-ranging trove of GMing advice, and it mostly succeeds. It covers a tremendous range of skills that a great GM should have. In fact it’s so wide-ranging that I’m hesitant to recommend it to new GMs. There’s so much here it makes my head spin, and I think a new GM would be overwhelmed reading it through - or they’d have to take it very slow, one chapter at a time between game sessions. I think someone who’s GMed a few times and has a handle on the structure of the job and can start to envision advanced techniques would definitely benefit, though.
The advice is almost comprehensive, as far as session management is concerned. The one element I’d like to see (a lot) more of is a discussion of player goals and how the GM can balance players who want role-play, exploration, power-gaming, etc. That’s a very tricky element of GMing, and I’m surprised it wasn’t discussed in Focal Point.
The writing is overall good. I like the informal but expert tone, the extended examples, and the specific examples from the writers’ own games. I don’t like the movie analogy, as it falls apart just a bit into the book. (On a more philosophical level, I also think it’s a bit dangerous to think of an RPG session as a movie, as the fundamentally collaborative nature of RPGs has no parallel in movie-making.) But it’s not so hard to get past that.
As someone who occasionally GMs and is far from having the time available to run a full campaign with a prep-heavy system, this is the most useful of the Engine Publishing guides for my needs. I’m very glad I’ve read it, and while I won’t implement all the techniques, it’s both broadened my mind at the problems I should consider and introduced some practical new ideas for solving them. It’s a good read and a useful book, so long as you aren’t looking at it as a primer for brand new GMs.
Engine Publishing (enginepublishing.com)
The Forgotten Bananas
Thanks for reviewing Focal Point, vestige!