5 Schools of GM-Fu

I’ve been playing D&D for about a decade. That’s rounding up and an uncertain number, but it’s close. And during that time, I’ve always been looking for ways to up my game. Buying various books on how to be a better DM. I read one recently that caused me to reflect on my journey, and well, here we are, I guess.

But just talking about books is going to get annoying. After a late night of being snowed in at work, I had the brilliant idea to compare them to styles of kung fu. Thus was born the five schools of GM FU

Xtreme like the Tiger!

I’ve had a cartoonist’s crush on Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary that is only just starting to fade. And so when he mentioned he had illustrated a book about GMing, I was like “sign me up!” And so I was introduced to Xtreme Dungeon Mastery.

This was a fascinating book. First, it was probably the first serious book about RPGs I had read. Second, it was probably the most comedic book about RPGs that I’ve read. There is so much in there that is just… not worth being in there, but is anyway. They were faking a cult following, mocking up a history in the complete sense of the word, then they got into actual advice and it was chock full of good things.

The reason I ascribe it to the Tiger school is that it’s brash and offensive, like you would expect from the tiger, but it is also always in disguise. The tiger never removes his camouflage. in XDM, amongst the advice on how to shut down rule lawyers and enforce role-playing, was on the role of the GM. He (or she) is not there to oppose the party, nor is he there to support them. The core job of the GM, in any system, is to entertain the players for the session. That’s it.

Now, your players might be entertained by opposition, they might like being supported, maybe they like winning, maybe they’re in it to get scared. They might also be looking for a tactical experience, or a social one. Players are complicated sometimes. But you’re there to provide a service, no matter what the specifics of that service is. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to give solid specific advice to other GMs; Not only do we not know your table, we can’t even know what your job actually is!

Now, remember that the GM is also there to have fun. If you’re trying to run a tactical game, but the players want a social one, no one is going to have any fun. Be aware of your roll, be flexible, but also stand firm. That’s why my Oriental Adventures game this Saturday will have very rigid options. That’s the game I want to play. This isn’t a game for the players, it’s a game for me. And I’ll fight for that.

XDM came to me at an odd time. Actually, I think it was written at the wrong time. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think it was written for 3.5e GMs, but we were 2 years into 4e, which changed how GMs and Players interact, somewhat. The problems of the game had shifted. I don’t think I’ve EVER been at a table with a rules lawyer (or at least, none that could top me), and I’ve not had much fight from the party as to following the plot. My table in ND was very docile through 4e and then most of the players I’ve had for 5e were new to D&D in general, so trained by me. I don’t think the book helped me as a GM.

As a player, though, I took great inspiration. Tracy Hickman had sprinkled his wise and clever words with anecdotes that made me long to be at those tables and I think I tried to be a better player because of what I had read. I should go back and read it again, now that I’ve begun my D&D archeology and stuff. And grown as a DM and all. And have run Curse of Strahd, as Tracy Hickman invented Strahd. I’ve also found in my searches that there was a second book, an adventure or something. That’s a thing I need now.

Lazy as a Snake!

I should probably point out at this point that I don’t really know the schools of kung-fu. I’m using the Kung-Fu Panda versions, as they’re how my comparisons worked the late night I built this outline. My ideas of kung-fu are also heavily influenced by the Jackie Chan Adventures Cartoon, which isn’t even real mythology. So take all of this with a grain of salt. Well, the parts based on the kung-fu, at least.

The Snake strikes suddenly, unseen until unleashed! Which makes sense, as I can’t remember where I came across the Lazy DM. What probably happened is I was googling one of the 4e rogue’s At-Will Powers, Sly Flourish, hoping to double check my recollection as I was building a character, when I found a blog, read it, and bought a book.

This book was a game changers. It addresses a problem that GMs all eventually realize, that takes the form of two statements. “Preperation takes a lot of time” and “What you prepare is rarely what happens at the table.” Taken together, you end up with the thesis behind the book, “Most of your preparation is a waste of time.” Working off of that premise, the book works to identify the most important bits of preparation, and steps on how to “prepare” a game in just a few minutes.

I… loved this book. More than I should have. I began to epitomize the Lazy GM. I think it made me a stronger GM, in that my times running games required more and more improv. Some of my best stories came from this time. Like the Death of the Dragonborn. That was done here.

I can never find my copy of Lazy DM. I would love to see how relevant it still is. It was written for 4e, so I’m sure a lot of it’s advice isn’t as useful, but it would still be nice to see. I’m pretty sure I’ve bought this book twice and still I don’t know where my copy is. I may have lent it to my ND friends, so its miles away, if they could even find it.

Mike Shea, the author, did update it to 5e and I recently acquired my copy of Return of the Lazy DM.  I flipped through it and saw some old familiar advice and some new advice. A lot has been curated from his blog, but plenty of it was new. And it looks more system agnostic than the previous edition, which is cool. My feelings on the book are mixed however. I know there’s good stuff in there, useful tips and tidbits, but I’m not lazy anymore.

I mean, I’m still plenty lazy, but I’m not a Lazy GM. I have no problem doodling up a map or a NPC while at work, even if they never get used. Maybe its the “at work” bit, where I’m not sacrificing my time, that makes the difference. But I have a very different attitude to preparation. I think there are bad focuses (like my focuses this week, let me tell you!) but preparation in and of it self is not evil. Knowing that there is less useful preparation is handy, I suppose, but I see prep as answering questions that haven’t come up yet. And when you know more than your players and aren’t frantically putting pieces together yourself, you can do some cool foreshadowing things with payoffs months down the road.

Angry as the Mantis!

In Mantis style, the return form is just as important as the attack! No idea how true it is, but as I was assigning schools, that’s what felt right. Game Angry is the book, but the Angry GM website has been useful to me for a few years. We’re solidly into 5e at this point, although angry started with 4e. I can’t remember how I found the blog, whether it was through twitter, reddit, or a google search.

Let me make this 100% clear. Game angry is the best book for teaching new GMs what the hell they need to do. My copy of Game Angry is on loan to a starting GM right now, and as soon as he feels secure, I’ll get it back and probably lend it to another that aspires to join the hip side of the screen.

I didn’t learn much from Game Angry, because I check his main blog every day and the book is basically a cleaned up, organized, spell checked, edited, and expanded on versions of various articles from the blog in a compact, easy to lend format. Your milage may vary. I still read it cover to cover, to know what I would be lending and make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The book is solid, based on Scott Rehm’s solid understanding of the game.

Small stuff but strong, all about the appropriate form no matter the circumstance, if you want to start you GM-Fu right, Angry Mantis-style it is.

Dirty like the Crane!

My most recent advice acquisition is Play Dirty vol 2 by John Wick. No, not that John Wick. The RPG one. The one who made 7th Sea? and a boatload of other RPGs. I haven’t been able to get my paws on the first one. These are also curated from a series of articles, this time from a magazine, not a blog.

I… Okay. Let me tell you where I found this book. It started with the RPG showcase. 7th Sea was recommended to me, I wanted to add some Pirates to my repertoire, and so I got the book and fell in love. The whole book is brilliant, but there is this part at the end, where he’s explaining some things to the GMs, that’s beyond that. His games are so alien to the standard thought, that’s why I gave him the Crane. He’s flying above all the others. And he makes me look up, as well. I can just tell he’s so much better at running games than me, it almost hurts.

I don’t agree with him every jot and tittle, which I think shows maturity on my part. I might be wrong, but I don’t think he’s 100% right and that’s how life works. But I still can learn from him. In flipping through his blog in writing this, I learned something about pro-wrestling that I think is a crucial part of understanding the world. I don’t think I’m a disciple, but I want to buy all of his books. And I think that’s enough for now. (Explaining exactly what Dirty Crane Style is will be it’s own blog post, I think. I can ramble about it for a long time, but it’s not going to fit here.)

Monkey style?

Our fifth style doesn’t have an adjective, because I haven’t decided on one yet. Awesome Monkey Style? Mad Monkey Style? Maybe flexible? Am I a monkey? (This is a good question. I went to Wikipedia and found there were WAY more than five animal styles. So I could do anything I want.

But I am developing a style of my own, slowly. No other GM faces my exact tables, has the story I want to tell to the people that I have a chance to. No one else reads the things I do, in the order I do, and has the thoughts I get from from what I read and run.

But I don’t know what my style looks like yet. I know there’s no difference between one and 15 player. I’m noticing that the rules don’t matter. But I still have a ways to go. They say mastery comes in 10,000 hours. I tallied up my time and I have an inaccurate number of 1300 hours at a table, running and playing. So call it 300 hours as a player, 1000 hours as a DM, and mayber twice that ore more in prep. Seven Thousand hours to go and then I might be qualified to write a book of my own.

I can’t wait for the Sequel.

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