Let's get right to it.
|The book being discussed.|
Part 1: The Art of Presentation
Part 2: Managing Yourself as DM
Part 3: Managing Your Players
Part 4: Worldbuilding
Each section is composed of several chapters relating to specific topics. In addition, each chapter ends with a "Keys to Success" section that emphasizes or elaborates on specific points raised in the chapter. It's a handy trick for remembering what was discussed, and lends to the overall "textbook" feel of the book.
The introduction nicely lays out what the book is about. How to Run is both genre and system neutral; it does not discuss specific rules or editions of D&D, and though it refers to GM position throughout as "Dungeon Master" or "DM," Smolensk is careful to note that the outlined principles can be used in running any table-top RPG. I know that for his own game Alexis uses heavily modified (1st edition) AD&D in a campaign setting firmly rooted in the historic 17th century Earth. He mentions little (with regard to the specifics) of his campaign setting in How to Run, and nothing at all of his house rules or system...the text really does strive to be applicable to any RPG a person might try to run.
Which reminds me: while it is never specifically defined, contextually Mr. Smolensk uses the term role-play to simply describe the act of playing a role-playing game. In other words, if you are playing an RPG you are engaging in "role-play," pure and simple. For the purpose of his book and its concepts that's just fine.
PART ONE: The Art of Presentation
This is the largest section of the book, and (in my opinion) the meatiest part in terms of presenting real tools that can be of use to folks wishing to run a game. It provides excellent advice and checklists for even experienced DMs, and raises a lot of questions for self-examination in us "old-timers." I found myself nodding quite often, noting the things I had done that worked well and likewise the areas where I had stumbled in my own games; the codifying of these things (always with an eye towards the goal: facilitating engagement of the players) is well done.
Chapter 1: The Early Days discusses Alexis's own initiation into running games, and gives the young DM an idea of the attitude with which the task needs to be approached (it's not as hard as it looks, but it does require time and effort, even effort outside of learning the game). Chapter 2: The Carrot and the Donkey discusses how to motivating and enticing your players, providing the best environment for them to succeed at the goal (of engagement); note, there's no "stick" for the donkey, only carrots. Chapter 3: The Players describes some stereotypical personality types one might find at your table, how to recognize them, how to work towards their strengths, and how each can be used to build a strong gaming group (these are interesting "types" based on Mr. Smolensk's own experience and perception, not the usual archetypes found in Jungian psychology or whatnot). Chapter 4: Drama offers a method for creating a traditional three-act (play) structure for folks who want to create "stories" with their game sessions, but the author has come to the conclusion that such is a weaker form of role-play than long-term engagement and immersion (or, at least, more difficult to sustain over time). In dispensing, with the idea of "story creation," he begins to discuss cause and effect, and ways to empower the players by allowing their actions to matter in the campaign, outside the plot machinations of a story-minded DM. Chapter 5: Continuity discusses several tools for gripping your players, making them care about participating (i.e. engaging them emotionally) beyond simply offering them missions, as well as elaborating on the discussion of cause and effect and how it contributes to the ongoing participation and enjoyment of the gaming experience.
I want to pause here for a moment to discuss Mr. Smolensk in relationship to another respected (if sometimes controversial) game designer, Ron Edwards. I personally find the two remarkably similar, something like flip-sides of the same coin. This shouldn't be too surprising considering similar personality archetypes (both are Virgos born in 1964...no, I won't get into astrology right now, but with my own background that's a tough lens for me to ignore). Both have their detractors and admirers. Both are very intelligent and thoughtful. Both can be be prickly hardliners when it comes to their own beliefs. And both are extremely devoted to the service of the players at their table. Both seek to walk that line of using mental focus to bring about emotional engagement...but their approach to the same is very different. Edwards is devoted to the principal of "story now:" creating game mechanics that requires players to step up and engage with the narrative being created around the table. Smolensk would seem to be a standard-bearer for what the old GNS model called simulationism, or "the right to dream," creating a world one can escape into and experience. However, he has a ready answer for Edwards's "hard questions" regarding what it's all for and how long it will last: bluntly, all the work the DM does is for achieving an emotional engagement from the players, and goes beyond simply allowing players to explore an imaginary world as wizards and warriors (or whatever). It lasts for as long as the DM has the energy to devote to facilitating this process (in one blog posts, Alexis postulated having to retire the DM chair in the next 15-20 years). In many ways, the "Tao" of Alexis Smolensk is the antithesis of Ron Edwards, though I'd say both have a devotion to the hobby and an incredible ability to "think outside the box" when it comes to pushing gaming in new directions.
Chapter 6: Pomp discusses actual presentation and the logistics of running a game...how to show up and make arrangements, and how taking care of real world issues can create a better (more engaging, less distracting) game environment. It talks about ways to facilitate engagement through your appearance and movement, and the benefits of preparation, as well as how best to set breaks and ground rules...things often left out of most RPG game manuals.. It's good stuff for anyone who plans on running a game.
All in all, I found a lot of good material in this section. It certainly gave me a lot of food for thought with regard to self-examination (as both a DM and player).
PART 2: Managing Yourself as DM
This section is only composed of two chapters, a total of 55 pages. For me, it was the first section that I found challenging. Not because it was hard to read or too abstract in concept (that comes later), but because it challenges you on what you really think about role-playing games and being a DM. While Part 1 requires you to approach the running of an RPG with a serious, non-casual approach, Part 2 requires you to approach idea of DM'ing almost as a vocation. It is not explicit in this, does not require you take any vows, but if you plan on following the prescribed course, you're basically committing yourself to making your game much more than a "mere game."
Chapter 7: Vigilance discusses how your game must always be "on" when you're at the table. Even when you are acting in service of your players (remember, that is one of the main thrusts of the book), you can't let little things like, say, "friendship" get in the way of your focus or attention to the task at hand. The vigilance Mr. Smolensk prescribes (with regard to oneself) is a near ruthless stance. He discusses stress in the game (both for players and DM) as a product of an engaging role-play experience, and its chemical effect on the brain and decision-making process.
This particular part did not ring true for me (perhaps because I tend to compartmentalize stress)...but then perhaps it's been a while since I had a truly engaging immersive role-play experience. I have to think back to my youth for examples of events that propelled extreme emotional outbursts in myself...though I have observed it in others to greater and lesser degrees over the years. Perhaps my decades of experience of telling myself "it's only a game" has done a bit to dull the shine, or perhaps I am simply out of practice when it comes to full-on emotional commitment in the last 15 years or so. However, I can see how my own response to players who "just want a fun night out" has caused (in the last couple years) a downward spiral in actual gaming quality, as I too forgot focus and allowed myself to lounge in the easy camaraderie and laissez-faire attitude of "dudes blowing off steam at the bar."
[that's something else that I don't have enough of in my life!]
But that's what I mean by "challenging." Without asking it outright, Alexis is posing a question: how seriously do you want to take your game? And what quality of play do you want to have? It's a valid question. I can do the indie one-off gaming thing very easily...I can likewise run a simple "dungeon excursion" with minimal effort...but is that satisfying? It's a hard question. If I'm being honest, the answer is: probably not. Certainly not always.
If you decide to buy into the effort described in Chapter 7, then Chapter 8: Decision Making provides additional practical tools to help with your game, from non-attachment (rolling with the unexpected), to anticipating patterns of behavior, to using checklists and worksheets (goes hand-in-hand with the management of stress-related mental slips).
Once again I see I'm running long, so I'm going to have to continue this till tomorrow. Sorry!