Robin D. Laws is one of the best-known names in gaming, and an icon in the arena of game mastering advice. He’s the author of Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering (portions of which were revised for the recently released Dungeon Master’s Guide II), as well as the designer of the RPGs Feng Shui, Heroquest, The Dying Earth and others. His LiveJournal is one of my daily reads, and I was very excited when Robin said he’d be happy to do an interview for Treasure Tables.
I interviewed Robin via email, and asked him about his current projects, GMing strengths and flaws and the prospect of Robin’s Laws II.
Treasure Tables (TT): Robin, thank you for giving me the chance to interview you for Treasure Tables. Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering has helped tons of GMs over the years, and that was one of my inspirations for starting this blog. I’d like to kick off with a question related to that book.
The player types you outlined in Robin’s Laws — power gamer, butt kicker, tactician and so forth — are a useful shortcut to more meaningful play. When you sit down to run a game with a new group for the first time, what are some of the ways that you quickly identify which approximate type each player fits into?
Robin D. Laws (Robin): Think of the players’ character sheets as orders for the type of fun they’d like to have. It’s pretty easy to spot types from a sheaf of character sheets.
The butt kicker has a very simple fighty character, while the tactician has carefully minimaxed a range of power combos into his character. Ninjas and flying cat faeries are tip-offs to the presence of a specialist, and so on.
Even players who are a mix of types or switch styles from one series to the next will reveal themselves from their character sheets.
TT: As a GM, I get a lot of mileage out of a variety of non-gaming sources in terms of inspiration, and even GMing advice (see Robert’s Rules of GMing for one example). Apart from your own work, what other sources of GMing advice and inspiration are on your shelves?
Robin: My shelves are extremely spare as far as game stuff goes. For space reasons I’m pretty ruthless about deaccessioning items I have no pressing use for, as hard as they might happen to rock.
On the other hand, my shelves groan with the weight of a serious DVD collection. Story-oriented GMs can derive a ton of good tips about narrative construction from well-done DVD commentary tracks, particularly those from directors, writers and (especially) editors.
TT: I’ve never thought of using commentary tracks in that way before — that’s a great idea! What are your three favorite DVD commentary tracks from a GM’s perspective?
Robin: I’m not sure how directly applicable any single commentary is to GMing. You tend to get little nuggets here and there, strewn amid other details of filmmaking, praise for collaborators, shout-outs to family members seen in the background of crowd shots, etc.
That said, three good commentaries for story construction are: Lord of the Rings extended edition, any of the three films, the director/screenwriter commentaries; Pirates of the Caribbean – writer commentary; and to go a little bit off the geek-genre track: Dark Blue.
TT: I feel a bit odd even asking you this question, but I strongly believe that all GMs — even great ones! — have their faults. Along the lines of a recent post here on TT, Write Your Own Naughty List, what would you include in a list of your own faults as a GM?
Robin: I tend to focus more on specific errors than general faults. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and one part of my hydra-headed agenda is to get GMs to stop beating themselves up and muster the confidence to move forward.
Confidence is a huge contributing factor to GM success, and I hear a lot especially from beginning GMs who are overwhelmed by what seems to them like a daunting task. In a way I fear that excessive online theorizing and self-criticism by good GMs can be, in certain instances, counterproductive, particularly insofar as it discourages newbies. “If that guy’s been GMing for years, and he’s still worried about his faults, what hope do I have?”
So rather than put oneself down by generalizing about flaws, I’d advise folks to look at games that went wrong and see what specific problems occurred, and work to be aware of the reasons for that. Then you can head off problems at the pass without ever admitting the deadly thought “I suck at X”, or “I’m no good at Y.”
Before my previous campaign, I made a list of my mannerisms as a GM — not necessarily good or bad things, but stuff I tend to fall back on reflexively while improvising solutions — and decided to actively pledge to avoid them. That seemed to work out extremely well. For more on this, see: http://www.livejournal.com/users/robin_d_laws/84900.html.
Everybody has flaws. The worst flaw is to be crippled by one’s shortcomings.
Here’s an exercise for ya: Make a list of the scenes that went really well, pause to congratulate yourself for ’em, and then see how you can repeat the feat in a fresh and satisfying way.
TT: Maybe I’m just odd, but I find acknowledging my general faults to be liberating. Once they’re out in the open, I can work on them without worrying about them. It’s more of a “never stop learning” thing than a put-down, in other words.
Robin: Here’s a thought experiment for you. Transpose your proposed exercise to any other field of endeavor with a performance element to it.
“What are my flaws as a musician?”
“What are my flaws as a comedian?”
“What are my flaws as a writer?”
“What are my flaws as a basketball player?”
For most people this is an invitation for a crisis of self-doubt. And that leads to choking, either on the ball court or at the gaming table. The trick is to find a way of attaining self-knowledge without the risk of paralysis.
“How can I do this better the next time?” is to my mind a much more powerful and useful question, because it’s expressed in a positive way. Inherent in it is the implication that you will do better the next time, given a bit of thought and consideration.
We’re talking about the same goal, but using slightly different tactics to get there.
TT: In terms of looking at specific things that didn’t work during a game session — which sounds like a very good idea — would you recommend doing so with your whole group, or on your own as the GM?
Robin: In my experience putting the players on the spot and asking for feedback elicits little useful input. Instead you have to keep your ears open for hints and sidelong comments, doled out over time.
Players are generally reluctant to offer even constructive criticism, because they know how much work goes into GMing and don’t want to put you on the defensive. Of course when you’re lucky enough to get direct feedback you should take every advantage of it.
TT: On the flipside of my earlier question, what would you rate as your single greatest strength as a GM — and how can other GMs work to improve in that area?
Robin: I guess my strongest points would be improv, particularly in the area of characterization. You can explore the world of theatrical improv; many of those techniques can be imported into GMing.
Watch a lot of movies, TV shows, read a lot of books, and then ask yourself how they present characters, keep the pacing moving, and present a satisfying structure.
TT: I know that you’ve been writing a lot of fiction lately, including the recently-released Warhammer Fantasy novel Liar’s Peak. What are some of your current projects?
Robin: As usual the very most current projects haven’t been announced yet.
I contributed some material to the upcoming Vampire: the Requiem Chronicler’s Guide, along with various other projects for the Wolfies.
Fiction-wise, the big news would be Freedom Phalanx, a novel set in the world of the City of Heroes computer game. A publisher called CDS is bringing out three novels detailing the backstory of the CoH world, with mine as the middle one of the three. That’s scheduled for a fall ’06 release.
The much-awaited Rhialto book for the Dying Earth roleplaying game, which allows you to play ultra-powerful magicians, and does so by adding a competitive element to play, is now in playtest.
And of course there are some very cool things I’m dying to talk about but can’t quite yet. To keep apprised of my upcoming releases, pop in periodically to my blog, located at: http://www.livejournal.com/users/robin_d_laws.
In addition to the occasional burst of self-promotion, the blog also features thoughts on gaming and the hobby gaming industry, as well as an experiment in play by blog called “Angels and Operators.” And thoughts on other topics from movies to prose snapshots of life in my groovy Toronto neighborhood.
TT: I would love for there to be a sequel to Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. Is there any chance of seeing Robin’s Laws II on the shelf someday — and what topics might you cover this time around?
Robin: There was some talk of a followup after the success of the original but unfortunately I was too booked at the time to do anything with it.
A companion volume aimed at players, or a more in-depth approach to a narrower topic, such as world building, might be fun. Maybe I should poke my compadres at Steve Jackson Games with a stick and see if they’d still be into it…
In a way, my contribution to the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide II was an updating of the Robin’s Laws approach, with less emphasis on types and more on identifying the particular experiences given players are looking for.
TT: Thank you again for taking the time for this interview, Robin. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or that you want to mention to TT readers?
Robin: The hobby depends on its enthusiasts for survival, and right now the roleplaying business (if not the activity itself) is going through a decidedly rocky phase. So I’d like to express my gratitude to all the GMs out there who keep the flame burning, by running games, bringing in new players, and polishing their skills.
If you’re not running a game right now, why not go out and start one? You have nothing to lose but your dice. And those are inexpensive to replace.
TT: Thanks, Robin!
What did you think of this interview? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments!