I’m a big fan of anything that can make life easier for the person running the game. Players can put a lot of work into their characters, and a good group can alleviate some of the pressure on the GM, but as a general rule it’s the GameMaster that is putting in the majority of the work on game night.
I’m therefore always on the lookout for any book that devotes itself to improving the GM craft. Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Sly Flourish is a book that is regularly held up as a reference in the genre, and it’s one I return to often, notably when getting ready to prep a game. It’s a standard recommendation because it teaches a new way to approach an old problem. It’s a new take on GMing: a low prep, focus on the essentials, method.
Today’s review deserves to join the ranks of those GM “must-haves”. The GameMaster’s Guide to Guiding Actions by Uri Lifshitz isn’t a new method, it’s a new way of thinking about old methods, and it is incredibly powerful at doing that. It’s a new addition to my (virtual) bookshelf, but it’s already a staple that I love going back to whether to improve my skills or spark ideas.
Let’s dig in.
Uri, our author, presents the idea of a ‘guiding action’ as a “premeditated action that powerfully affects the game experience for some or all participants in a desired way”. While the author insists on the importance of the term “powerfully”, for me the key element here is the use of “game experience”, rather than “gameplay”. A guiding action isn’t something that changes the game itself, but the way the game is experienced by its players. (If you want more information on the concept of guiding actions, there is a helpful “Recommended Reading” section at the end of the work, however, a good starting point is this blog post by Michael Gorodin and Itamar Karbian over on Gnome Stew).
This definition is vast, and justly so, allowing it to encompass various acts that the GM might employ. It ranges from clarifying a rule to adjusting music and lighting or addressing a certain player directly (or ignoring other players). Each action briefly describes its goal (what the action is meant to achieve), followed by a few paragraphs providing more details and examples. It’s an efficient presentation that favours ease of use and helps present the work as it should be: a reference guide. This isn’t a book you sit down and read through (though you can) but which you dive in and out of to suit your needs and tastes. I tend to find myself returning to the book in two broad categories of occasions that I’m going to call Before (playing) and After (playing). I think people will find After more evident so I’ll be discussing Before after After, before moving on to Before. If you’d like to read Before before After then please feel free to invert the following paragraphs. On second thought, calling the cases Diagnostic and Prognostic might be clearer. Yeah, let’s go with that.
So firstly, Diagnostics. I always try to do an after-session debrief, running through what worked, what didn’t, what might need to change next time, etcetera, etcetera. Generally, it’s not hard to spot a problem, but diagnosing and solving it is another matter. Let’s say the party wasted half the session pointlessly searching a room. It’s a pretty obvious problem, but why it happened can take more time, and some introspection, to figure out. Having this toolbox available to flick through can help focus your attention.
Did you maybe place too much emphasis in a description on a detail that made the party think it was important? Perhaps you focused attention on the wrong players? Maybe it was something else entirely, but in any case, this book can be a great aid in solving problems and continuing to improve your technique over time. There are many guiding actions mentioned that I’m sure you already use, sometimes without thinking about them. If we accept the premise that guiding actions can influence your game, then that means that should you use them incorrectly, or simply inadvertently, they can be just as much the cause of a problem as a solution. Having this work to call out these actions can provide some much-needed space to reflect.
The second use is less on fixing errors, and much more proactive in improving the experience for your players (and yourself): time for “prognostics” (yes I know, this isn’t really what is meant by prognostics, but I enjoy the symmetry). If you’ve got a specific plot point that you want to go off well, or you’d like to push your style in a particular direction, Guiding Actions can provide you with the necessary tools.
In the same way, the book can also be used when designing adventures for others, with advice and tools you can provide to the GM in their own game. For example, in the adventure I wrote, I wanted the players to be friendly toward the goblins, rather than attacking them. I could propose guiding actions to GMs wanting to run the adventure. For example, advising the GM to play light-hearted, jaunty music when the goblins are first met, to highlight their good nature and lack of aggression.
The book covers 29 guiding actions (though some could probably be grouped) over 8 broad categories, not counting that some of them also have corollaries that are just as interesting to explore as the proposed action itself. It’s a long list, but not all of them will suit your style or your players. In the latter case, I’d definitely insist on paying attention to how a player reacts to certain guiding actions. Spotlighting one of your players can be an excellent way of pushing their story forward, or it might leave them feeling like their teacher has just called on them to show their homework to class.
Guiding Actions is a powerful toolbox, that you need to take your time over to fully get the most out of. Some of the actions are old classics (such as rolling dice when there is no need or playing music) and may seem like they’re not worthy of study, but taking the time to dissect and reflect on them can bring a new perspective to your play. It’s a work that will reward you greatly if you’re willing to open up to its lessons, and I highly advise that you do so.
Until next time, be more kind,
Update 19/07/2022 : A note pointing to this blog post by Michael Gorodin and Itamar Karbian on Gnome Stew was added. It’s a great read that goes deeper into what a guiding action is. Further suggested reading can be found at the end of The Gamemaster’s Guide to Guiding Actions.