REVIEW - Focal Point - The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions


Focal Point

The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions


Phil Vecchione, Walt Ciechanowski, John Arcadian




Engine Publishing (2015)




Ian Bruntlett


July 2023



This book takes the role of the DM/GM/Referee and uses the metaphors of film production. It is split up into 19 chapters spanning three parts: ‘Lights…’ (GM as Entertainer), ‘Camera…’ (GM as storyteller), and ‘Action…’ (GM as facilitator). I’ll work my way through this book, chapter by chapter. The authors are experienced GMs who specialise in one of the major GM roles: entertainer, storyteller, and facilitator. John and Phil contribute to the Gnome Stew blog ( The goal of this book is to share the authors’ experience and skills of running TTRPGs. In this vein, the end of each chapter has a challenge section for the reader to practise. The biggest drawback of this book is the ‘Contents’ section. It lists everything from the point of view of film making, making it much harder for a GM to jump in to specific chapter from a GMing point of view. This is a key requirement for a tool that a time-limited GM will use.

Part 1 Lights… GM as Entertainer
Written by John Arcadian

Chapter 1, ‘The Studio’ (i.e. the gaming space), examines the impact that the game play location has on the actual game and how, where practical, to change that location to improve the game. The gaming space sets the basic atmosphere and tone and can be subtly altered to increase player immersion or even dramatically changed if the situation calls for it.

Chapter 2, ‘The Set’ (i.e. the table in the gaming space), is about the gaming table, everything that is on the table, anything the players look at. It discusses an additional role for GM – that of Assistant Director – where you look at the gaming space and materials, how to avoid clutter (‘kipple’), why a central focus is important.

Chapter 3, ‘Special Effects Scenes’, takes ideas from memorable moments in special-effect blockbuster films (like the opening starship chase scene in the opening of Star Wars) and translates them for TTRPGs. There are three key recommendations: Engage the senses; Make it different from the usual fare; Go big.

Chapter 4, ‘The Props Master’, is all about making your own props to set the mood for a TTRPG. It focuses on building terrain and sets, with a view to immersing the troupe into the adventure. It acts as a brief primer about crafting – the tools that will come in handy, along with suggestions to repurpose everyday items to use as props. This is old school stuff – 3D printers and CAD packages would be worth looking at.

Chapter 5, ‘Green Screens and CGI’, states:

When you get down to it, however, most of the game is built on the interactions between you and your players and the words you all use during those interactions.

It is all about things that the GM in particular can do to enhance the game – verbal descriptions and body language vocabulary, the use of prepared word lists and collections of likely to be useful descriptive phrases, and writing up NPCs using a casting sheet.

Chapter 6, ‘The Soundtrack’, is all about the many subtle cues that set the mood of a game – especially lighting, mood music, and evocative music clips. The website is recommended as a source of special effects.

Part 2 Camera… GM as Storyteller
Written by Walt Ciechanowski

Chapter 7, ‘It Starts With a script’, is where a script provides the blueprint that you’ll use to guide your players through the scenes that make up a game session. It helps you evaluate the suitability of your adventure. It has lists of script related things: 4 key attributes of a good shooting script’s elements and 9 typical plot holes to avoid. It discusses scenes within a script and how scenes can be inserted or removed (‘dropped on the cutting room floor’) whilst running a game, so as to satisfy time constraints.

Chapter 8, ‘Preparing the Shoot’, is all about preparing for and running a particular gaming session , having an envisioned goal for the session, using one of three methods – cheat sheets, flow charts/storyboarding, and insurance. In this case, cheat sheets provide concise information about certain rules subsystems that will be used in the next gaming session. Flowcharts are a useful tool that a GM can try to predict the actions of the PCs (and cater for a few different outcomes) – this can help the GM decide which rules subsystems need to be prepared for before a session starts. Insurance in this chapter is essentially where a GM plans ahead for things going wrong:

  • Never plan on every PC being present at the session.
  • Have a plan in place for absent PCs.
  • Set a quorum.
  • Keep a backup of your notes handy.
  • Similarly, keep backups of character sheets.

Chapter 9, ‘And… Action!’, is all about the importance of starting a gaming session well – it needs to hook the players and foreshadow plot elements to come. Need to 1) start with a social break 2) use a strategy to tell the players the game is starting – like a clapper board in film production 3) get a player/GM to recap last session and 4) start the session with a bang.

Chapter 10, ‘Keep Filming!’, looks at five common problems that can derail a session. It advocates that when a crisis hits the GM for them to pause, reflect, and think of a solution.

Chapter 11, ‘Lunch Break’, covers the importance of regular breaks for sessions lasting longer than 3 hours, typically at a convenient cliff-hanger at suitable points of the game. The GM is advised to use these breaks to evaluate the game’s progress and, accordingly, drop optional scenes if time is tight or even add them if the adventure needs a little padding. This time can also be used to handle times when an adventure’s plot needs a little additional work.

Chapter 12, ‘The Final Shoot’, observes that most sessions begin with everyone eager and ready to play – this chapter focuses on keeping that momentum going all the way through the game up to a final high note or a cliff hanger.

Chapter 13, ‘That’s a Wrap’, is mainly about getting positive and negative feedback at the end of the gaming session. Feedback (either verbal or non-verbal) can be usefully gathered in a session’s breaktime(s). Asking specific questions rather than open-ended questions is recommended.

Part 3 Action! GM as Facilitator
Written by Phil Vecchione

Is about the GM’s role as a facilitator.

Chapter 14, ‘Quiet on the Set’, is about managing distractions (both for players and the GM) – from its causes to strategies to counter it.

Chapter 15, ‘Safety on the Set’, is all about setting boundaries in the game – basically managing and catering for emotional conflict for sensitive issues that crop up in a game. Fundamentally, this chapter says ‘Be kind to each other and don’t be a jerk’. It recommends that the group establish a social contract about acceptable conduct in a game session – certain topics as comfortable/uncomfortable/forbidden.

Chapter 16, ‘Playing Company’, is all about how games are more fun when the players work together as a team and what the GM can do to encourage good collaborative behaviour. A productive group: shares common goals, respect each other, are candid (but not insulting), encourages active participation and the group collaborates as a whole. It regards the right attitude, teamwork and communication as reliable ways to ensure an enjoyable gaming session. The GM as facilitator, can guide (but not force) the players to be productive. For more detail, see the publisher’s companion book Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management.

Chapter 17, ‘Improvising Lines’, is about increasing the amount of Improv in a game, citing another of the publisher’s titles – Unframed: The Art of Improvising for Game Masters – because, as a session unfolds, the GM must be able to improvise. With an Improv approach the players and the GM collaborate to create the story told in the game sessions – this requires considerable skill, awareness and trust between all people involved.

Chapter 18, ‘Permits and Regulations’, covers the importance of the GM’s familiarity with the game rules and an ability to ad lib in areas not covered by the rules. Considers the duty of the GM to interpret the rules of the game in a session. The importance of the GM learning the rules is emphasised and the author lists learning strategies. As well as interpreting defined rules, GMs will get called upon to handle things that aren’t handled by the rules – this is called making a ruling which is a temporary rule introduced to keep the game running.

Chapter 19, ‘Film Crew’, is about managing the workload on the GM during a game, how delegating can involve players and improve the overall gaming experience. States that GMs are typically overworked and should delegate some of that work to players to make the game run smoothly. The key roles of a GM are to keep the game flowing and the group working to create an engaging story – many things can be handed over to the players. Some typically GM-specific tasks – defining supporting NPCs, describing minor locations and local customs etc. Even ‘scene framing’ – building a detailed description based on a rough explanation by the GM can be performed by a player. The problem of dealing with ‘Rules Lawyer’ players is dealt with by co-opting them to be the local ‘Rules Expert’. It covers the pros-and cons of having a co-GM.


This book is the third volume of Engine Publishing’s ‘accidental trilogy’ of GMs’ advice books (the other two being Never Unprepared and Odyssey). I recommend it unreservedly to all GMs.


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