A little while back, I bought a book called Robert’s Rules of Writing, by Robert Masello, on an impulse. I’ve been a freelance writer for the RPG industry (alongside my day job) since 2004, and this book of tips looked like it might come in handy.
And it did — but in more ways than one. The more I read, the more I found that this book was full of tips that were directly useful for me as a GM.
First, a few more details about the book itself. The full title is Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know. Most of the tips (and there are actually 102 — the last one is “Break the Rules”) are about two pages long, though a fair number run to three or four pages. They’ve got catchy titles, like “Skip the Starbucks,” “Strip Down to Your Briefs” and “Pass the Scuttlebutt,” to name a few.
It’s written in an engaging, conversational style, and combined with the brevity of the individual tips this makes it a very easy read. Even when I didn’t have a whole lot of time to devote to it, I could learn something useful by spending a few minutes reading a tip or two. It’s very much not a textbook, which is a good thing!
So why am I reviewing a book of writing tips here, on a blog devoted to GMing? For two reasons: first, most GMs do a fair amount of writing, from character backgrounds to adventure prep, and Robert’s Rules can show you how to get more out of that aspect of the craft; and because many of the tips can be applied directly to improving your GMing, as well as to your writing.
How many of them? I made a little list as I was writing this review, and I counted 24, or about a quarter of the tips in the book. (There are others that can be applied indirectly, which I haven’t counted because your mileage may vary.) Twenty-four tips might not sound like that many at first, but consider this: how many gaming books devote 25% of their conents to giving you tools to improve your GMing? In my experience, not many — which is one of the reasons I think this book is so neat.
Let’s look at a few specific tips, so you can see what I’m getting at. We’ll start with #46, “Go for Broke.”
This tip was one of the seeds that grew into a previous post here on TT, “Lead With the Cool Stuff” — in a nutshell, it warns against saving your best ideas. I have a bad habit of hoarding ideas for my games, waiting for the perfect time to use them — and unfortunately, more often than not that time never comes. If you’re excited about an idea, use it before that excitement fades.
I’m also quite fond of tip #29 (“Call ‘Action!'”), which suggests that you visualize what you’re writing — an adventure, for example — as if it were a movie, imagine what the characters would do, and let it surprise you. You’ve got a pretty good sense of what the protagonists (the PCs) might do in a given situation, and a very good idea of what the other “actors” (the NPCs) would do — so stop writing, or typing, and let the action unfold in your head. Every GM knows that their players rarely do what they expect them to, but this is a nifty technique for mapping out some of the more likely possibilities, and keeping things exciting at the same time.
“Perfect Your Villain” (tip #36), is also a great one for RPGs: as in novels, TV shows and movies, three-dimensional villains are a lot more interesting than cardboard cutouts. We’ve all run into the anti-paladin who wears spikey black armor because he’s eeeeeevil at one time or another, and that kind of thing gets old quick. This tip suggests that you put yourself in the villain’s shoes, and try to think the way she might think, in order to create much more believable, memorable villains — which is great advice.
That’s the good — what about the bad? Honestly, there isn’t much of it. The only thing that bugged me about this book was the layout: to be “edgy,” the tip titles are written on little scraps of paper, and these are never in the same place twice. Some of the pages are black with white text (in “Perfect Your Villain,” for example), which can also be a bit distracting. On the whole, this is a pretty minor quibble — bothing about the layout detracts from the quality of the advice, which I found to be very high overall.
I also didn’t find any stinkers among the tips themselves. There were a few that I didn’t really agree with, but even in those cases I found Masello’s perspective interesting.
In short, I liked Robert’s Rules of Writing, and I’m quite comfortable recommending it to you. Even though it’s not designed to be a book of GMing tips, that’s one of the ways that you can use it — and in my opinion, it makes a very handy tool for GMs.