James D'Amato interview: Why the Ultimate RPG Game Master's Guide author is sceptical on the Matt Mercer effect (2024)

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Adams Media are extending its strong Ultimate RPG Guide series with another book from the talented James D’Amato.The Ultimate RPG Game Master’s Guidewill be one that fans of the series are looking forward to. It’s also a title likely to draw people into the popular collection.

James D'Amato interview: Why the Ultimate RPG Game Master's Guide author is sceptical on the Matt Mercer effect (1)

In this interview, as we sometimes do, James and I debate GMing: What’s the attraction? What’s the future?

I started out exploring whether guidebooks and tips are helpful compared to just diving in and running some games. James had some good views and curveballs. The first one swings in straight away!

The thought in James’ answer to my question about the Matt Mercer effect is my favourite curveball, though. There are certainly lots of questions to consider.

Q) How many hours of real-life gaming experience does it take before someone can call themselves a practiced GM?

I hate to do this right off the bat– as I feel it’s little stinker energy to dismiss the premise of a questionbut… I don’t think there is a specific timestamp you need to hit before your GM status is “official.”

It’s understandable to crave validation when you are learning something new. Many of us started roleplaying with GMs we grew to admire. I know for me there was this profound gratitude I felt towards the people who welcomed me into this hobby and inspired me to run games of my own. I wanted to live up to their example. I also wanted the people at my table to have a good time. I just wanted to feel like I was doing a good job!

Looking back, there wasn’t a specific number of hours I put into the GM chair before I was “experienced.” I am still learning and growing. I still make mistakes or think of ways I could improve all the time. Heck, for ten years I was learning multiple game systems in a month. Despite all my experience, I was in many ways always doing things for the first time.

If you need a threshold to cross to think “wow, I’ve really made it!” I think you should look for the first time you can relax, have fun, and do something creative. Once you hit that moment, you can really use the role to express yourself. That could come in your very first session. Heck, it could even happen before you sit down at the table.

Q) Do you think GM Guides can reduce those hours at all? By how much, do you guess, on average?

I think the real value in GMing guides is being able to see the game through someone else’s eyes. No one can tell you the “right” way to run a game. It’s a form of communication and self-expression, it’s too subjective to work like that. However, it’s always valuable to learn from new approaches. Every time you play or watch someone else GM a game, you are refining your craft.

I think guides specifically are valuable because they are an opportunity to meditate on different styles intentionally. Someone explaining how they approach a game will necessarily help you think about howyoudo it. Even if you read a GMing guide written by someone you completely disagree with, it will help you refine your style.

I wrote this book andThe Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guidefor people who care about honing their craft. I tried to break down my approach to games and provide tools I find useful so readers can think about their style in new ways and refine what they are hoping to do at the table. The insights and tools in this book are meant to make it easier for someone to develop their skills, but of course, once you have a clear idea of theory it’s up to you to put it into practice!

Ultimately, I do really believe if you care about the craft of GMing my book will help you grow. Even if you hate everything I have to say. So probably are shaving at least some time off the path of simple trial and error.

Q) How would you define the “Matt Mercer effect” and is it here to stay?

Okay, I am not deep in the paint on this topic but I’ll do my best. According to some people on the internet “The Matt Mercer Effect™” happens when people in general– but especially folks new to the hobby enjoy a high-level actual play production likeCritical Role,Dimension 20,or dare I sayCampaign: Skyjacks.These shows have big budgets and they are full of really talented performers and storytellers.This is supposed to be detrimental for two reasons:

  1. Viewers come to expect that style and standard of performance from every table they join.
  2. Viewers get really anxious and judgemental about their own GMing skills because they want to be as good as their heroes.

I have a good deal of skepticism regarding this phenomenon. I got into actual play specifically to make TTRPGs more accessible. In 2013 it waswaymore difficult to get into RPGs than it is today. You kinda needed a friend or family member to drag you kicking and screaming into a new experience andD&Dwas one of the only games even close to being a household name. These days every person is seconds from being able to pull up an AP podcast, video, or stream and using it to understand RPGs for the first time. I think shows with talented and engaging performers are a great introduction to this hobby. I think the whole hobby is better off for it.

I will say that most AP productions focus on a particular style of play. People brought in by shows likeCRorD20are probably more interested in having character arcs and dramatic plotlines than they are in hex crawls and power gaming. I see that as an entirely value-neutral thing. People got excited about a particular playstyle because it was easy to engage with and it spoke to them. As a result, there are a ton of new players who are hoping to get those experiences out of their games.

To an extent, I understand why this bothers some people. It feels like the hobby is being dominated by a playstyle that doesn’t match their own. It’s harder to find a game if you feel like most people want something different. As a guy who devoted most of his career to indie games, I understand that struggle. But I also don’t really think those new players would be interested in the hobby at all unless the APs they love brought them in, so my advice is to brush those feelings off.

As for the anxiety thing… I understand what people are trying to express with this. I have spoken to a few people in the industry I deeply respect who expressed this concern. However, I think they are misplacing their worries.

We have plenty of examples of people first encountering activities by viewing high-level performers before trying that activity for themselves. People watch professional sports broadcasts before they have the coordination to throw a ball. People watch Hollywood movies before they act in their first school plays. The existence of high-budget productions does not prevent people from learning something for themselves. In fact, I think if you talk to folks in amateur sports leagues or regional theaters, you’ll those high-level productions made them fall in love with their hobby in the first place.

I believe actual play is intimidating to some because it is new, and it’s having a clear impact on a hobby we are all passionate about. Whatever you think the Matt Mercer effect is, I think it will be here to stay as long as people enjoy watching each other play games. I also think that’s a good thing.

James D'Amato interview: Why the Ultimate RPG Game Master's Guide author is sceptical on the Matt Mercer effect (2)

Q) Matt’s had years of voice acting experience, of course. Do you think people can learn to act from a book?

There are plenty of textbooks about the craft of acting and performance, so yeah. Should these resources be the entirety of a performance education? No. You need practical first-hand experience too.

The Ultimate RPG Gamemaster’s Guide is more focused on structural advice than performance tips. I believe I gave more attention to engaging through performance inThe Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide. However, acting technique isn’t my expertise as much as improv is.

Q) Okay, thank you… you’ll have seen this noodle I’m trying to untangle from the first question I asked. I’m interested in the contrast between learn by reading and study compared to learn versus doing. Do you think the question applies to GMing? Do you try and get the best of both in the book?

I think GMing is one of the most beautifully complex forms of self-expression there is. There is so much that an individual can bring to the table that will affect the game. From a strong understanding of plot structure, to doing silly voices, or painting minis and assembling elaborate battle maps, GMs have tons of opportunities to put themselves into the game.

I mentioned inThe Ultimate RPG Worldbuilding Guidethat all creation for an RPG is collaborative. Even when you are alone dreaming up the dungeon you want to run for your players next week, you are collaborating with your influences. You are drawing inspiration from your favorite, media, historical events, and the materials game designers created for you.

This means thateverything you doin some way affects how you run a game. Every novel you read, fact you learn, and conversation you have will impact your approach to GMing. That’s because they all contribute to who you are as a person and GMing is an act of self-expression.

I absolutely believe study can play a role in refining craft. Like I said, I can’t tell anyone the “right” way to GM. I did try to break down my approach in order to invite readers to adopt what might be useful for them or to help them refine their own contrary philosophies. If you love GMing as a craft, I think you will get something out of that.

You can learn a ton by doing and there are plenty of people who will do just fine by sitting in the GM seat and learning as they go. That doesn’t make study valueless. I can tell you that as an improviser, I learned a ton on stage. I also greatly improved my craft by attending classes and learning from more experienced people trying to explain themselves.

Q) The front cover says “Advice and tools to help you run your best game ever!” and the word ‘tools’ caught my attention at something that leans towards the ‘learn by doing’ side of the equation. I imagine the tools might be tables, perhaps safety tools, cartography techniques and that sort of thing. Can you say?

In addition to being a GM for actual plays, I’m a game designer. Having learned hundreds of systems as the GM forOne ShotI learned how useful game mechanics are for organizing thoughts and shaping behavior. The “tools” in this book are structures that readers can actually bring to the table to make some aspects of GMing easier. All of them use game mechanics to break down a technique or solve a problem.

As you guessed, we devote a chapter to explaining a range of safety tools and concepts for readers who might not be familiar with them. I think one of the most popular safety tools, Jon Stavropoulos’X-Card(which I included in our safety chapter) perfectly demonstrates what I mean by “tools.”

The X-Card is an external game mechanic that allows players to avoid and communicate around situations in-game that make them uncomfortable. Technically, any player at any time can say “hey this isn’t fun, I want to do something else.” The X-Card takes that sentiment and makes it a rule. It gives players a structure to communicate in situations where it might be difficult. Having the X-Card at the table doesn’t so much allow you to do something you couldn’t already do, but it makes doing so way easier.

My original tools are found in the “GM Toolkit” at the end of every chapter in section two. They similarly use game mechanics to give readers easy access to new techniques. For example, in my chapter on Plot, I give readers rules for creating custom divination tools. I did this for my showCampaign: Skyjacksinspired by my experience playingInvisible Sun. I found that using a divination deck customized to the game world helped build moments that felt serendipitously poignant. Those divination tools are responsible for some truly magic moments. The structure from my toolkit will help readers take advantage of that magic in whatever systems they like.

The toolkits were important to me because I wanted readers to have something they could take with them to the table. I have a wealth of experience from a career playing hundreds of games. I know that most people are going to read my book and go play the most popular game on the market. I wanted them to be able to leave with some of the stuff I learned exploring the marvelous world of indie design.

Q) Tell me if I’m being especially grumpy in this interview but I also noticed the blurb offers help on making combat more interesting and I think a bit part of that is also player responsiblity. That spawns two questions and I’ll ask the combat one first… what’s your top tip on keeping long combat interesting?

Hahaha, part of what we’re running into here is the nature of having to collaborate with a big publisher. My books are published by Adams Media, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I love working with my publisher because they help me reach so many readers. (Also as a dyslexic author, I love having an editor.) However, one trade-off is I don’t pick the titles or ad copy for my books. You might be reacting to the marketing language which is writing some big checks. Totally reasonable!

As for your question, it comes down to structure. GMs should aim to create a diverse experience within the microcosm of combat. As you have so astutely observed, the PCs are a huge part of that equation. Ultimately it’s about creating opportunities for PCs to act. You want to set up the collaboration that makes RPGs so magical.

One thing we have to acknowledge is that “long” is an adjective formed by someone’s emotional experience of the game. Sometimes you are at the table for a one-hour encounter that really drags, others you are part of a three-hour combat that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. If your players only ever solve problems one way, then things get boring quickly and the combat will feel longer. People also feel like scenes drag when they don’t feel involved– when they don’t feel important to the events of the scene.

GMs can influence how feel based on how they structure a combat. There are plenty of ways to help your players feel good about what they do, but I needed two chapters in my book to discuss it, so I’m afraid I won’t have room to go into that here.

James D'Amato interview: Why the Ultimate RPG Game Master's Guide author is sceptical on the Matt Mercer effect (3)

Q) The second is whether you agree that player responsbility is a thing, that the pressure on GMs can sometimes be unfair and whether you tackle that in the book?

I absolutely think PCs bear responsibility and contribute to the overall atmosphere of a game!The Ultimate RPG Gamemaster’s Guideis actually mysecondprimarily instructional book. The first wasThe Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guidewhich I published in 2019. That book explored developing technique for both PCs and GMs.

Originally I saw that book as all I would have to say on the subject. I tried to cover the GM and PC side of things all at once. However, years later my editor Rebecca convinced me that it was worth writing about the special responsibilities of GMs. Despite thinking I said all I had to says I ended up needing around %25 more pages for this title than I originally proposed.

I consider the Gameplay and Game Master’s guides to be in conversation with each other. If you are looking for advice on the PC experience you should definitely pick up the Gameplay guide.

If you are looking for combat-specific player advice I’ll recommend Keith Ammann’sLive to Tell the Tale, which is sort of like an art of war for PCs.

Q) What’s the attraction in being a GM anyway? Why do you like it?

For me it just happens to be my favorite form of creative expression. Personally, I draw a lot of satisfaction from supporting my fellow players through worldbuilding and managing their storylines. Most games leave that responsibility to the GM. Of course, if you are looking for more reasons, I devoted a full chapter to that in the first section of the book!

Q) Do you think the rise of digital tools like virtual tabletops are changing what it means to be a GM?

I think they are simply another avenue for creative exploration. I remember when I first got on Roll20 I spent hours assembling dungeon maps for games I hoped to run. I was never too into terrain with in-person games, but digital tools really sparked my imagination.

These days I still use VTTs but mostly as a meeting place or when I am playing a card-based RPG online. In those cases, I’m not really using the platform to its full potential. It’s like an in-person game, just online. So ultimately I think VTTs present a new canvas for folks who are interested, but I don’t see them as fundamentally changing what GMing means.

Q) Can you imagine a future where virtual reality and it’s theatre-like immersion makes roleplaying even more like acting? Would that appeal to you?

Sure! Some sort of immersive virtual space sounds cool. I guess it would depend on how easy those tools are to use and how they work. I don’t think there is a single VTT that I have felt compelled to master. For me, it’s easier to just be descriptive. Having to manage an external tool is just time-consuming for me.

Also, I’d be immediately disinterested in a platform that uses “AI” in any way. Usually, these days when people talk about revolutionizing a creative space through technology, AI isn’t far behind in the conversation. I’m already dreading the VTT startups that purport to “enhance” the RPG experience that way.

Q) Speaking of the future – when does The Ultimate RPG Game Master’s Guide hit retail?

Readers will be able to pick this up wherever books are sold on March 26! You can pre-order it now though. Through a major online retailer atbit.ly/ultimategamemastermajor brick-and-mortar bookstores, and your friendly local game store or indie bookshop.

Folks can also look ahead to a new RPG coming out from the Ultimate line this September withOh Captain, My Captainwhich you can also preorder now!https://bit.ly/ohcaptainrpg.

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