I caught up with one of my favorite interview subjects, Martin Ralya of Gnome Stew, to talk about his most recent project, Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters which is available for preorder today. Edited by Martin, Unframed collects advice from renowned game masters on how to improvise in role-playing games.
Michael Tresca (MT): What's your background as a game master?
Martin Ralya (MR): I started GMing in 1987, after picking up a copy of Avalon Hill's Lords of Creation at a Barnes and Noble in New York City. I didn't know what it was, or how to use it, but I was intrigued. A year or so later a friend introduced me to Basic D&D, and in 1989 I started running AD&D 2nd Edition. Since then, I've run all sorts of things and experimented with lots of different GMing and play styles. I've run one-shots, short campaigns, long campaigns, solo games (with one player), online games, terrible games, and good games. These days I tend to be heavily improvisational in my GMing. I try not to do more than an hour of prep for a session, preferably much less.
MT: What is the goal of this book?
MR: Unframed has two goals: to teach GMs a plethora of tricks and techniques for improvisation, and to expose GMs to different approaches to improv by tackling the subject from lots of different angles.
MT: What type of gamers will be interested in this book?
MR: Like Engine Publishing's other books, Unframed isn't aimed at a particular type of gamer. It's intended to offer something to just about every GM, from newbies to grizzled veterans, old-school to indie, regardless of play style, favorite game, or skill level.
MT: How is it different from the other GM advice books that have been published?
MR: There aren't many books about improvisation, and to the best of my knowledge there aren't any -- other than Unframed -- which tackle improv from multiple perspectives. One of the things I like about the anthology format, and one of the reasons I wanted to publish Unframed, is that it presents multiple approaches and takes on improv without feeling scattered, and even if every essay doesn't resonate with you, some will -- and some, ideally, will change how you look at gaming.
MT: Who contributed?
MR: Unframed features the work of 23 authors: John Arcadian, D. Vincent Baker, Meguey Baker, Wolfgang Baur, Emily Care Boss, Walt Ciechanowski, Stacy Dellorfano, Jess Hartley, Kenneth Hite, Jennell Jaquays, Eloy Lasanta, Robin D. Laws, Michelle Lyons-McFarland, Don Mappin, Scott Martin, Alex Mayo, Jason Morningstar, Martin Ralya, Kurt Schneider, Ken St. Andre, Monica Valentinelli, Phil Vecchione, and Filamena Young.
MT: How has the art of game mastering changed over the years?
MR: I think that question presupposes that GMing, as an art, has progressed from one state to another (old-fashioned to modern, for example), and I don't see things that way. There are as many ways to GM as there are GMs, and while you can break things down into broad categories -- running a published module as-is is quite different from playing a zero-prep game with shared narration rights -- there's room for all approaches. If your table, your group, is having fun, you're doing it right. What I think has changed is our awareness of other styles and approaches and possibilities. When I got started as a GM, I knew what my friends were doing, and maybe anecdotally knew what a few other GMs did based on stories my friends told; I knew what convention GMs I gamed with did; and I knew what magazines told me GMs did. Now I can jump online and learn about what thousands of other GMs are doing, read transcripts of sessions, get advice from hundreds of different places, and be exposed to a multiplicity of ideas I never would have back in the day. That's a big change.
MT: In putting this book together, where there any advice that surprised you?
MR: Yes, there were lots of surprises. To pick one example, Meguey Baker's advice about using children's stories and nursery rhymes to come up with adventure plots was surprising. Not only is it a great idea, but it crystallized something I (and lots of other GMs) already do -- pull plot inspiration from weird sources -- and gave it a structure that made me think about it critically. Reading her essay, I could see the path she was proposing and the path I was on, and they were pretty close to each other; getting to her path made perfect sense, and it will make me a better GM.
MT: Is the art of improvisation on the decline with the advent of game masters who come from a video game background?
MR: If it is, I haven't seen that decline. I assume you're driving at packaged, tightly controlled play experiences -- something video games do very well -- and their possible impact on gamers' expectations, and I don't think that's new or unique to video games. Novels, movies, and TV -- all of which inspire and inform gamers -- all do that, as do many games and gaming products. There's plenty to steal from video gaming that translates well into gaming, but I don't think the prominence of video games has had any impact at all on how GMs improvise.
MT: Where will the book be sold?
MR: Right now Unframed is available for preorder at http://www.enginepublishing.com/online-store. Preorders include immediately delivery of the DRM-free digital edition (PDF, epub, mobi, Amazon native, and text versions of Unframed), with print books shipping in July. After preorders close, our web store will stock the print+digital and standalone versions of the book and it will be available through online retailers like Amazon and DriveThruRPG, and later this year it will be available in retail gaming stores.
MT: Where can readers find out more?
MR: Unframed's product page on our website is a great starting point. It offers a more detailed overview, a free 10-page sample PDF, and links to reviews of the book: http://www.enginepublishing.com/unframed-the-art-of-improvisation-for-game-masters
MT: Anything else you'd like to add?
MR: Happy improv! And thank you for giving me a chance to talk about Unframed, Michael!