Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Run Reviews

Feel free to write your review on How to Run, good or bad, here.  Feel free to write multiple comments.


Jeremiah Scott said...

I just finished reading my copy of How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games and, though I have a feeling I will be thinking about it for a long time, I want to express my immediate reaction to this excellent book.

I should first disclaim that I am a big fan of Mr. Smolensk's blog, "The Tao of D&D." Much ballyhoo has been made therein by commenters that the tone of How to Run is markedly different from the blog. Be that as it may, I think the voice of his writing in the book and the blog is rich and clear and filled with wry wit that is good for more than a few laughs. If anything, the book could've used more sarcasm, though I understand that would've run contrary to the author's mission. More on that in a moment.

Let me start with the few criticisms I have, so that the reader may see how insignificant they are compared to the praise I am ready to offer. First, the book is filled with at least a dozen typos. This was a nuisance to me, but I have seen industry published works with as many errors. Secondly, there is a section, I believe in Chapter 13 (I don't have the book in front of me--I already loaned it out), about players who cheat by fudging their rolls. This was in the world building portion of the book and seemed completely out of place with the subject matter. Thirdly, while the first half of the book feels finished, the second half seems to conclude just as Smolensk really gets going. The aforementioned treatise on world building feels half-finished at best and I was left wanting more. Finally, I felt that the book in general could benefit from a greater use of examples illustrating how to apply the outlined principles.

On to the positive. The book flows nicely. Though the subject matter is scholarship to be sure, it is no textbook--with harsh divisions separating chapters and subjects. How to Run flows like a lesson in stream of consciousness. And it is a lovely float down the river of Smolensk's considerable wisdom, hard-earned from three decades of mastering campaigns. Chapter divisions are hardly needed, except as an excuse for the reader to--at last--set the book on the nightstand and turn out the light.


Jeremiah Scott said...


Of particular interest to me were Smolensk's characterizations of player types. I found myself quickly categorizing the players at my table, past and present, and chuckling as I realized many personality traits are not unique, but ubiquitous. I will say, however, I think more could be said about how to deal effectively with each player type.

The section on world building was superb though, as I said, sadly too short. I found myself rushing for scratch paper to scribble out the creative exercises he recommends. His treatment on the failure of so many worlds because of improper construction--and DM commitment--had me nodding my head in concurrence. If only I had been able to read this a decade ago, how much wasted time and heartache I could've avoided!

What makes How to Run stand head-and-shoulders above every book about role-playing this writer has read is the effusive passion Smolensk has for the hobby. He makes no apologies for playing D&D. He doesn't speak of it as a minor diversion or a silly game to play with friends. He regards it seriously. This is unspeakably refreshing.

Furthermore, he is passionate about improving the game and increasing the ranks of competent DMs. And he defines improvement not as what dice are rolled when, but as what the game affords us as individuals and our collective culture. This is a sentiment long overdue for a community gripped by such deep-seated self loathing.

At the last page of many books, it is clear the author can do no better. This is not the case with How to Run. It feels like an appetizer for a coming meal, or a generous bite from a heaping plate. I sincerely hope to see a second edition of this book--perhaps divided into two volumes, instead of the one covering two topics. Furthermore, I hope there is a "More Advanced Guide" to come after that. I have no doubt Smolensk is up to the task.

Arduin said...

I have nothing but praise for How to Run.

I had the greatest of difficulty getting through it, because I was continually inspired, page by page, to use the material gleaned therein.

It became an ordeal to finish chapters because the material set every synapse ablaze with ideas for the game. I wanted to RUN.

Having at last completed the book, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It renewed my drive to improve my game, and I have no doubts it would others' as well.

VeronaKid said...

First off, thank you Alexis for creating this post. It was really bugging me that I couldn't review on Lulu, as I think that this book deserves its day under the critique lights, good or bad. Considering the staggering amount of work you obviously put into this work, it's only fair that you should get to hear some honest feedback from your readers.

"How to Run" is an incredibly important book for the hobby as a whole, and I can recommend it unreservedly to everyone, whether they are DMs or not. The book's real strong point, like Alexis' blog, is that it gets you thinking about things on role-playing's periphery that you wouldn't normally consider. Ideas like how different player types at your table affect your game are very valuable, but they are not things I tend to consider on my own. I believe that examining these things for the first time will certainly make me a better DM the next time I sit down to run, and for that reason alone the book can only be described as a success.

The one and only real complaint that I would have would be the lack of concrete technique examples included in the text. In the chapter entitled "Drama," for example, Alexis spends a considerable amount of time describing how a DM can create tension and conflict at the table; I found myself really wanting to read a simple dialogue of how he would perform those techniques. There's a paragraph in the text where he briefly describes a party disembarking a ship and seeing a town for the first time- I was dying to read, again, a dialogue of how he would describe the town in order to create the tension, and how and when he would use the dice to accomplish his goals as a DM. Alexis has many, many years doing this now- why not share a specific example or two from his runnings that illustrate the more esoteric concepts? A minor gripe. Perhaps an instructional "How to Run" DVD is in the cards. . .

The world-building section which makes up the second half of the book is incredibly inspiring, and demonstrates the depth of play RPGs can potentially offer only when the DM does their homework. I certainly finished the book feeling that I had a lot of work to do.

Overall, a smashing success and a must-buy for anyone, at any level, interested in playing roleplaying games better.

Jes The Red said...

Places you can put these so they are online for many others to see :)
and on Amazon (.whicheveryouuse)
and on
Personally I have often posted the same review on multiple websites. If you are comfortable with it go for it!
Which reminds me I need to finish writing my damn review... it Must Be Perfect!
Ahh ahha ahh! No comment from the peanut gallery on perfection Alexis!

Tim said...

How to Run is a book which demands reflection of its reader, and it's a tactic which works marvellously. At frequent points during the book - most often between chapters, after reading the excellent summary "Keys to Success" - I was motivated to grab my computer, smartphone or sheet of paper and jot down ideas. Though the book is system & genre-neutral, it nevertheless succeeds in conveying the essential information on how to manage a D&D game well.

The book is well-organized with clear introductions and conclusions to each topic, albeit occasionally leaving the reader wanting more. Of particular value to me was the worldbuilding section, as this area is one of divergent opinions and, to invoke a cliché, infinite possibilities. Other sections, like the opening deconstruction of presentation, were also extremely valuable, and the presentation of the book in these sections can help DMs identify their strengths and weaknesses - and how to improve them.

Alexis Smolensk is the ideal professor as he guides the DM through what amounts to a D&D 201 to 301 to 401 continuation of the DM basics outlined in the manuals and pamphlets that accompany the traditional game rulebooks. His tone is authoritative and informative: beyond his years of experience, he has consulted several sources in psychology and philosophy which bring a superior understanding to the nature of party dynamics and a game which ultimately requires a strong understanding of human interaction (this area being the necessary vehicle to run the game). The book is well-written and usually clear, save the infrequent typo - although pages 305-306 were missing from my copy, which is undoubtedly a printing error.

How to Run keeps the examples at a reasonable level, not boring the readers with trivialities nor inundating them with house rules, instead encouraging readers to think critically and find their own solutions. The book takes the tough stance that if the reader wants to improve, it is better to personally solve the problem - something which I struggle with adopting when I admire the rationale of Alexis' own house rules! Alexis Smolensk recognizes that each reader will pursue certain systems before others, and does not intervene in this process beyond telling the reader to go deep. This book is not for those who are happy with a shallow, miasmic roleplaying game, but for those who want to explore and plumb their hobby for its gems and its monsters, and improve the communal experience in doing so. The book "will ask its readers to strain their imagination," and while the commitment it suggests is by no means mandatory, both the reader and Alexis know that it is for the best. How to Run rallies its DMs to delve and labour, but promises great rewards through such efforts, an encouragement which in itself mirrors its own teachings on motivating the players and DMs and crafting a finer game.

Stuart Lloyd said...

I read "How to Run" to help me DM my first game which was an hour long demo game at Fighting Fantasy Fest. It was invaluable in giving me tips on how to make my game smoother and also give me things to think about that I would never have thought about before. Thanks to this book, the game went very well and I now have a taste for DMing some more.

If you want to DM or have been "volunteered" into DMing for a group (which can happen), then this book will give you lots of useful hints and tips to running a game and making it an excellent experience for all involved. And if you haven't had enough, you should look at Alexis's blog where he is providing this excellent material of a regular and frequent basis. I would love for Alexis to write more on the topic and I would eagerly buy anything else he does write.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Stuart and Tim, I ask you to add those reviews to the page at Amazon or at Lulu - the links are at the top of this blog. I need public sentiment that anyone can read.