Review: Unframed – The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Product: Unframed – The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters
Author: Multiple – Edited by Martin Ralya
Publisher: Engine Publishing
Summary: Unframed collects the wisdom of 23 top designers and gaming industry veterans, and offers 23 perspectives on improvisation. Running the gamut from old-school to indie, and featuring tips specifically for game masters as well as techniques any gamer can use to master the art of improvisation, Unframed has you covered. Whether you want to create a social sandbox, get better at doing voices, or harness the power of “yes, and,” you’ll find the improv advice you’re after in Unframed.
Snap Judgement for Busy Wyverns: The best book, hands down, for learning how to improve your improv as a GM. We’ll take no questions at this time.

What is it?
A 116-page book of 23 essays, plus an introduction, specifically targeted around using improvisational skills and techniques in game-mastering role playing games. That’s pretty much it – exactly what it sounds like. It is entirely system neutral.

What makes it good?
You get perspectives from 23 extremely experienced and diverse game masters. People like industry legend Jennell Allyn (nee Jaquays), Kobold Press founder Wolfgang Bauer, and critically acclaimed indie RPG designer D. Vincent Baker. Some essays are better than others, but all are worth reading.

How do I use it?
Read the essays. Probably read no more than 2 or 3 at a time – let the ideas and lesson sink in a little. Take notes if you find something particularly useful or actionable. If you don’t like an essay, think about why. Practice the techniques in your next session.

You might waste your time reading an essay that doesn’t really resonate with you. We predict that will only be one or two of them, at most. This is not a massive investment of time or effort here. But the potential gains are huge.

Final Thoughts
In our Generating a Short Adventure post we talked about how fast it was as a prep method – but that you’d need to be comfortable with GM improv to make it useful. This critical skill can cut hours off your prep time, because you won’t feel the pressure to plan out every scene. Additionally, improv scenes tend to come across better when played well. It’s one reason why Critical Role is so engaging – you have trained, professional actors doing what they are most talented at. You don’t have to be that good – but even a little bit of skill and effort can go a very long way into making memorable NPCs and scenes.

Many GMs struggle with improv though. While there is a large segment of “theater kids” who play RPGs, there is also another segment – the more socially anxious nerds. We say that because that’s the segment we are in. Early in our GMing career we would prep, prep, and prep some more to try and plan out every scene in detail. It was entirely overwhelming, and ultimately ineffective. We knew we had to become comfortable with improv – something terrifying to us. But there had to be a way, right?

The internet and many GM veterans recommend a single book as the best one – entitled Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley. In fact, the book we’re reviewing here – Unframed – recommends Play Unsafe in the introduction! So why aren’t we talking about Play Unsafe?

Because it’s a just not a great book. It contains some absolutely terrible advice – especially so now in 2023, but even when we read it in 2014 it was terrible and stuck out to us. Don’t get Play Unsafe. It does contain some basic advice about forcing yourself into improv situations and letting go with your creativity. And that’s all good – but then it takes a really discomforting turn. Suddenly you have a section called “Screw with Each Other”

Soon followed by “Do Things you Don’t Want to Do”

These go a few steps too far for me. We play now in a more enlightened time, where safety tools are becoming more common, and for the better. You don’t have to do things you really don’t want to do to be better at improv. There’s a difference between simple nerves and trauma responses. You will have to try new things, but don’t feel like you’ve failed if you stop short of something that really, really bothers you. And don’t screw with others unless you already have that kind of relationship. It’s too easy to go too far and ruin a session – or even a campaign.

And that’s why we’re talking about Unframed. It has excellent advice and well-written essays. You’ll learn why most RPG scenes fall flat – because the participants don’t actually know what the goal of the scene is, or what the motivations of the characters are. And if you don’t know that – you won’t know when its over. This is why actors are good at this, and many of us are not.

Our favorite essays were “Getting off the Railroad and onto the Island” by John Arcadian – talks about a smart, efficient and fair way to use a Quantum Ogre prep strategy, Hitting Rock Bottom by Phil Vecchione, and It’s Okay to be Weird by Martin Ralya. That said, we found value in every single essay, and this is a book we come back to every few years to refresh our improv muscle memory. We think you will too.

Recommend or Not?
One hundred percent recommend. Any GM can benefit from improving their improv skills – and if you have none, this book will absolutely give you a solid foundation to start developing some. Having better improv skills will cut down on prep time, make your NPCs and sessions more memorable, and lead to more fun for your players AND you. RPGs are all about discovering the hidden and experiencing the unexpected – and that’s not just for the players! The GM deserves to be pleasantly surprised too, and to play in a sandbox of hidden treasures. Once you master the art of improv, every game will be way more fun – for everyone. That’s when the true collaborative story-telling aspect emerges from underneath the rules and mechanics of an RPG. That’s when the magic becomes real.

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