Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Run (Part 1)

Before returning to Paraguay for my "winter break," I made a point to order a print copy of How to Run by Alexis D. Smolensk, known throughout this neck of the interwebs for his blog The Tao of D&D. Fortunately, the extra I paid for shipping allowed me to get the book during my two week window in Seattle, and I spent about four days reading the thing cover-to-cover.

Writing the Tao of D&D
This is the first book by Alexis that I've read, though I've been reading his blog for a few years. Those familiar with his blogging will find the book to be a similar work, in that it is carefully and thoughtfully crafted, intellectual, and fairly no-nonsense. No, it does not contain rants nor inflammatory passages...this is a practical, working text not a blog (all bloggers are entitled to spew and vent and rail at times), but it shows the same attention that Alexis seems to instill in all his writing (here's an old essay of his from 2004, years before his Tao blog).

I've read the reviews of the book on Amazon, calling How to Run "invaluable," a "must-have," and "the most important RPG book around." That's all great praise, but to most folks it doesn't really describe what the hell you'll find in this "Advanced Guide to Managing Role-Playing Games" (the book's subtitle). It was my interest/curiosity in Alexis's work...and respect for his mind and passion for gaming...that prompted me to buy the book. This review (which, as usual, has an excessive preamble) will attempt to explain what the book contains, to better decide if you want to put it on your shelf. That's not a spoiler alert; this isn't a work of fiction we're talking about, after all.

This might get a little long...but what were you planning on doing this week anyway?

Oh, yeah...before I explain what's in the book, I'm going to take a couple-few paragraphs to explain Mr. Smolensk, his approach to gaming, and DMing in general; this will be helpful in understanding what's contained in the book. Don't roll your eyes at me. This book may not be the "most important RPG book" on the market, but I daresay it is an extremely important book to Mr. Smolensk. His own gaming world (what us Old Schoolers might call the ongoing campaign or fantasy milieu) has become tantamount to a life's work. I won't say it IS his life's work; I'm not sure if the world serves his game or if his game serves his world. Regardless, the book How to Run is an opus explaining how to create your game (as a DM/GM) and your game world in the same way as to approach them as a life's work, in other words.

This is valuable sharing. There are many folks who have decades of DM'ing experience...successful experience...floating around the tabletop gaming world. I'm one of them. But few of us, if any, have taken as extensive a look into the own inner workings of our imaginations, with as calculated and clinical an eye, as Alexis has. And none, that I know of, have taken the time to publish a work on the subject. Successful DMs - I define the term by those who run games that are enjoyed by all the participants and that instill a love of the hobby in the players - probably don't ponder too hard on what makes their games successful. Despite being growers of the hobby, we don't go out of the way to teach the art of Dungeon Mastering to neophytes. "Only DM'ing games will teach you how to be an effective DM" is the usual line.

But that's not the only reason we're not sharing our knowledge. In addition to probably not knowing where to even start (i.e. developing a curriculum...jeez), there's a sinister aspect to being a long-time DM: there is a feeling of power in being a world builder and absolute authority to the players who come to your table. And teaching others how to do what you do is akin to giving away your power...what if someone you teach should become a better DM than yourself? What if you lose "your players" to someone who is more creative or who spends more effort or who makes a better presentation? What if you're (O Horror!) relegated to the ranks of a mere player?

[the sad fact is, we all have attachments, especially to things like power and respect and even to "looking good"...some of us have sat the DM chair so long that we're rusty (or downright idiotic) when it comes to playing a PC in a game, and it's tough to go from being a first rate DM to a second rate player]

However, it's not just a lust for being top dog that prevents folks from dispersing their "trade secrets." Building fantasy worlds from scratch (even working off an existing model like Tolkien's Middle Earth or medieval Europe) can be an intensely personal experience as one must go inside one's own mind to build the imaginary construct for the players. Sharing such a process can be very difficult, especially outside of one's friends at the gaming table (who know, understand, and appreciate your work). Explaining the process is even harder.

So for Mr. Smolensk to do these things (which he does) is an exceptional accomplishment, and makes How to Run an unusual book. It's a book that some of us could write (or at least attempt), but few would have the balls to do so. In addition to requiring a hard analysis of your own gaming skills (and the skill to make that analysis and write it up in a digestible format), you have to have the "cred" to back it up. Alexis has been running the same game since 1986...through many different players of different ages, different skill levels, different degrees of RPG knowledge. The players enjoy his game and he has the proof in that they come back for Mr. Smolensk writes himself, the proof of a good game isn't whether or not the players say they had fun, but what they show in their actions (do they put their butts back in the chairs the following week). Alexis has managed to do that for nearly 30 years, and not simply with the same hoary grognards that he came into the game with back when he was a kid in the 70s.

To write such a book, you have to have (in addition to skills) a pretty solid sense of your self. You have to have a pretty concrete ideal on which to stand, if you're going to put out a unique work and share a part of your soul. Publishing a book is hard enough as is...that's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into something that might be derided and ridiculed...or, worse, ignored by the reading public. But when it comes to something of such immense importance to a person, the desire to get it right...or at the very least, respectably good...must be an intense burden. I say this as someone who gets incensed when I receive a one-star review (sans comment) on a book of mine that was anything but a magnum opus.

Alexis Smolensk has a concrete ideal when it comes to role-playing games, and especially to the DM's responsibility with regard to the game. For him, role-play is about immersion and escapism, for all participants, and this is accomplished through active engagement of the players. The DM's role is in facilitating the players' engagement such that they can do nothing but enjoy and revel in the fantasy; every action the DM takes - from hosting the game to world building - is in service of this. The book How to Run explains how to do this.

Now, just in case you're wondering, Mr. Smolensk and I don't see eye-to-eye on everything. In fact, in some ways we have diametrically opposed views towards gaming. So, if you think this review is going to be all flowers and sunshine being lauded at, that's really not the plan. There's a lot to like here, but...well, I'll get to all that tomorrow in Part 2. Sorry for being a tease, but my rambling preamble has used up my blogging time...for the moment.

More (and more specifics) later.


  1. Thanks for doing this review, and look forward to further instalments. I've been eye-balling Smolensk's work for awhile now, wondering whether or not I should invest in it.

    1. @ Stella:

      I hope it's helpful!
      : )