Review: Roleplaying Game Book: Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering

Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering Cover

This book is a worthwhile read for those looking for sound, fundamental principles of Gamemastery and practical advise for improving at the same. For some (especially advanced gamemasters), much of the information contained within may be very familiar. However,  there will likely be a few “that makes sense, I understood it on some level, but never would have thought of describing it that way…” moments. Even 30-year veterans of the gamemastery trenches should be able to appreciate the collected wisdom this book offers; this is likely the book you wished you had way back then, when you started.

 Overall, and taking into account my perception of the book’s goals and intents, I have rated this book a 9 out of 10: 4 points for style and 5 points for substance.

This 32-page (plus  printed cardstock covers), staple-bound pamphlet was written by Robin D. Laws (2002) and  retailed for US $9.95 when it was in print. It is now available as an electronic file (pdf) from Steve Jackson Games’ electronic warehouse e23 for US $7.95 (a preview is available). Print versions can likely be found via used sellers without too much trouble (i.e., it is not a hyper-collectible item). 

The only art in the book is the color, Indiana Jones-esque cover piece which is functional, though not spectacular. Since this is a short, system-agnostic book without any specific genre or feel in mind, the lack of art makes sense. The book does contain a number of tables, flowcharts, and other illustrative figures.

The editing of the book is above average; I did not note any problems with grammar, typos, etc. (Note: My copy is the second printing. Apparently, the first printing was missing one of the supporting figures which was covered in an errata on SJG’s website and made it into the second printing). The book contains a table of contents (always appreciated). The lack of an index is understandable considering the small size of the book.

The content of the book is divided into nine (9) major sections, each with as many as three (3) sub-sections. A short, paraphrased summary of each main follows.

Section 1: The Great, Immutable, Iron-clad Law (1.5 pages): This section describes the purpose of the book (To improve the readers GMing). It talks about the point of roleplaying games being to provide entertainment (fun), concedes that game designers are only responsible for maybe 30% of that fun (the other 70% emanating from the GM and other players), and provides typical disclaimers that this book assumes you already know rpg terms and that the reader should feel free to ignore the advice in the book if doing something different is working.

Section 2: Knowing Your Players (3.5 pages): This section proposes a general classification system for players, their preferences, and their “emotional kick” (the main reason they come to the table to game). The categories are very general, but cover most of the bases. In any case, the author takes the trouble to say that some players will defy categorization or display traits of more than one category. He also provides a nifty chart that a GM can use to remind him/herself of his players’ categories and preferences. This chapter is a strong tool primarily in that it is supportive of the idea that the game should revolve around player preferences (including the GM as a player).

Section 3: Picking Your Rules Set (5 pages): As a game designer/rules junky, I found this section to be of great interest. It  presents some ideas for consideration when selecting a rules set. These ideas include winning converts to your selected rules set, crunchy bits (items that empower characters/players), Theme/Tone, Accessibility of Ideas/Useful Cliches, GM-to-Player Power Balance,  and Homebrew Rules (vs. comercial). Note that it stresses the fact that the rules set should be selected for the specific people who will be playing (again including the GM). Player types are related via text, chart, and basic numerical scales/fomulas to these various game concepts. This is very useful fodder for any GM, more so for GM’s who like to use Houserules, and especially for those who have moved from Houserules to entirely Homebrewed systems (aka, Game Designers).

Section 4: Campaign Design (4 pages): There have been numerous treatments of this subject; many system-specific GM texts have done so much more elaborately. The author takes a step back here and provides (in 4 pages) the elements of a successful campaign.  He addresses both campaigns that are designed “On-the-fly” and ” from the bottom up” as are the decision making process for genre, setting, tone, etc. Established vs. Homebrew Settings considerations, and the importance of appropriate fluff, illustrations, emotionally involving the players, and balancing originality with accessability are covered to good effect. They all serve to stress and build towards a vital piece of advice that seems self-evident, but often isn’t:

“You must know, and clearly communicate, what it is that the PCs are expected to do.”

Knowing what one is expected to do, what one should avoid, and how much freedom there is inbetween can be critical to a campaign. The author reminds the readers that taking the  players (and GM’s) preferences into account, both in terms of their “type” and by talking with them, is of primary importance when designing a campaign. This section is a very good general primer for things to consider when one begins to design a campaign.

Section 5: Adventure Design (6.5 pages): There are many examples of well designed and poorly designed adventures. This secton takes up a large portion of the text in what the author clearly feels is a “Core Activity” for GMs. The method and degree of Structuring based upon genre is discussed, as are their relation to player tastes (both verbally and in terms of a formula-derived “Stucture Quotient”).  The “plot-free dungeon” is discussed as a great stepping stone/learning tool to more elaborately structured adventures, but care is taken not to overly disparage this style of play:

“If you and your players like the dungeon-crawling style of play, let no one convince you that there’s anything wrong with it.”

Then five more elaborate adventure structures (Episodic, Set Piece, Branching, Puzzle-Piece, and Enemy Timeline) are described, complete with flowcharts and fleshed-out examples of their use. These are particularly well done, as is the sidebar advice on transitions.

Its all capped off with the “Adventure Worksheet”. This is a planning/tracking tool intended to remind the GM to make sure that each of his or her players/player types is getting their fix (in terms of their “Emotional Kick” being satisfied by a specific “Adventure Element”).  This rounds out nicely this chapter on tailoring your adventures to your players.

Section 6: Preparing To Be Spontaneous (2.5 pages): This section presents some advice on having some tools ready for that time when the players do something unexpected; names, personalities, prepared dialogue, and the right frame of mind.

Section 7: Confidence, Mood, and Focus (5.5 pages): This section is full of lots of good advice that most GM’s will know (but may forget from time to time). “Reading the Room” is heavily stressed. Questions like: “Is everyone having fun (including the GM)?”, “Is the focus where it should be (based on game/taste/etc.)?”, ” and “How can the Focus be fixed in situation X?” are all covered.

Section 8: Improvising (2 pages): “Choices, and how to make them when you are Improvising” could be the title for this section. It described several options (all in one place) on how to go about making choices on the fly. Some discussion of pacing is also included. An example on Improvising helps to illustrate the major points of the section.

Section 9: A Final Word on the Ultimate Dilemma (1 page): A reiteration of the themes in Section 1. Essentially, “If you and your players are having fun, you’re doing it right”.

All in all, I think this book is pretty top-drawer. It is an outstanding tool for the begining-to-intermediate GM, while still being very useful to those who are advanced in the Grand Craft of Gamemastery. It is chuck-full of sound advice…..some, most, or all of which may be known to a seasoned GM on an intellectual level. However, in practice, I feel that many GM’s neglect one or more of the principles of Good Gamemastery. For them (including yours truly), this book will serve as a reminder of what they already “know” and help them to more fully “internalize” it.  I heartily recommend any GM or Game Designer to pick up a copy.

~Adaen of Bridgewater, High Adventure Games, Original Review Link on the HAG Blog, Also published on RPGnet.

Note: A while back, I took an online quiz that was designed to help determine what type of player you were based upon the “Player Types” in this book. Here is the post where I divulged my slant(s)….

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