Pros: A great store of information; variety of viewpoints
Cons: One author’s obsession with the “authority of the GM”
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 2/23/2004
“Game Mastering Secrets” is a book for game masters (GMs) – people who run roleplaying games for the people who play them. Almost every tabletop roleplaying game is designed such that one person runs the game, adjudicates the action, and designs the adventures. That person does everything from telling people what happens when their characters try to do something within the game, to overseeing character creation by the players, to writing up whole adventures for the players to enjoy.
Acting as game master can take a lot of work, and many people find the idea intimidating. They have no idea where to start, much less what to do after that! Unfortunately many roleplaying books simply aim to present a certain game, and do little to address roleplaying as a general activity. Any given game book might include a few ideas and suggestions here and there, but they’re unlikely to do anything resembling a thorough treatment of the subject. GMS is meant to fill this void. Until now, the only thing people had to turn to were several web sites on the subject – and few of them were designed to tackle it from start to finish in an organized manner.
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for quite a while now. As evidenced by the number of articles I’ve written on the subject, I have some strong opinions on the matter of gamemastering (GMing), and I wanted to see what an industry company would have to say on the subject.
GMS starts off with a run-down on the basics written by Aaron Rosenberg, for those who are new to GMing and aren’t quite sure how to start. (This takes up a little over a third of the book.) This is followed up by quite a few essays on specific topics by experienced authors and designers in the field of roleplaying. Finally we’re presented with bios for the various authors involved. In addition, “Dork Tower” cartoons are sprinkled throughout, and there’s a thorough index. Examples are largely pulled from the “d20” and “FUDGE” game systems, although the authors do not ignore other roleplaying systems.
The book is hardcover, which surprised me given that it’s only 172 pages, a bit thinner than your average hardcover rulebook. In general, most RPG companies only put out main rulebooks in hardcover, and even then some of them stick with softcover. The idea is that a main rulebook will see enough use that a softcover would probably fall apart too quickly, but of course hardcover books cost a lot more. By this metric, it does make some amount of sense that this book is hardcover. After all, it’s certainly likely to see plenty of use. It covers enough topics that most GMs are likely to refer to it over and over again during their gaming career.
While the background of the cover art is quite nice (a sort of golden/orange/red pattern with some nifty little symbols worked in), I was kind of turned off by the central image of a squished, flat-topped head with a light bulb over it. The only internal artwork belongs to the “Dork Tower” comics, which I love (it’s simple but amusing).
The layout is quite attractive, with nice, easy-on-the-eyes fonts, a couple of simple frobbies around the pages (a faint gray rendering of the associated web site URL at the bottom, a simple gray header at the top of the pages, and imbedded quotes), and so on. Simple, clean, easy-to-read. In terms of typos and mistakes, the only one I noticed in the entire book (and I’m pretty nit-picky) was one paragraph break in the middle of a sentence. It’s literally been years since I saw such a typo-free book of any kind!
The basics are… well, they’re the basics. They’re written in a conversational tone (as is most of this book), which I like. To be honest, much of the material was familiar – I’ve seen it in other people’s words on web sites or in e-zines. Of course, when you’re covering the basics it’s kind of inevitable that you’ll be covering ground that’s been covered before, so this is hardly a deficiency on the author’s part. And to be fair, there definitely were some good suggestions in here that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
There were a number of things I liked: bits about how it’s the players’ game as well as yours; thoughts on being flexible; suggestions for how to go about changing rules in games; ways to give your players a game they’ll enjoy; instructions to not pre-determine the outcome of an adventure; ways to tailor the game to the player characters (PCs) and players; and so on.
I particularly liked the section on balancing “number-crunching” (the rolling of dice) and narrative use during combat – it had some well-thought-out and useful suggestions to offer. Similarly, a section on dealing with the characters of players who don’t show up for a night of roleplaying had helpful, concrete suggestions that I plan to make use of. That said, however, there were definitely some things I didn’t like as well.
My Pet Peeves
Different game masters (GMs) have very different styles of GMing. Something that simply doesn’t work for one GM will work perfectly for another. Much of this is due to the fact that roleplaying is a social activity, and different people act and interact in different ways. In other words, my opinions on GMing aren’t universal. I’ll let you know what bothered me, and you can decide whether it would bother you as well. Most of them are small issues.
Some definitions and explanations seem a bit narrow – as if the author has forgotten that his personal view on things is also not universal. Some sections are a little muddled – While many sections are well-ordered and structured, a few are less so. When the author forgets to use sub-headings he tends to meander a bit.
His tone is discouraging and off-putting in places – Many people who approach GMing find it a bit intimidating; that’s why a book such as this can be so useful. In my experience, what people need is a bit of reassurance that things will be okay. Instead, the author gives dire warnings almost guaranteed to frighten some of the audience off. Prepping for a game is like having homework, and if you don’t do it you’ll “flunk the course.” You should never ask your players for their opinion or ever let them see you make a mistake. Likewise, never let them realize they’ve surprised you. Wow, that’s just so reassuring (sorry – inadvertent sarcasm slip). But then, this brings me to my last problem…
The Authority Obsession
Dire warnings about how doing such-and-such will “undermine your authority” as a GM pepper this section of the book liberally. I just have to say that, in my opinion of course, you should take these bits of advice with a boulder of salt.
The truth is that these warnings are useful if you have a very specific sort of difficult-to-deal-with player and you have self-confidence problems that manifest in certain ways. Many GMs will never have to worry about this, and many of this author’s suggestions can seriously backfire in different situations. This author’s obsession with authority says much more about his particular gaming group(s) than it does about roleplaying in general.
I’ll run down the list and give a brief summary of what each article is about. For those articles that particularly left an impression on me, either positive or negative, I’ll include some information on what worked (in my opinion, as always) and what didn’t.
Genre and Setting Simulation: Perils, Pitfalls, and Possibilities by Steven S. Long: This is a fantastic article on the peculiarities of roleplaying games (RPGs), particularly when compared to mass media entertainments. Many people have no idea that writing a roleplaying adventure, for example, is very different from writing a book, and so they do things that would be fine for a novel but can really screw up a game. Once you’ve read this article you won’t have nearly as much of a problem with that.
The Joy of Research by Kenneth Hite: This is one of my favorite four articles in this book. It not only presents some great suggestions for why, how, when, and where you should do research, but it gives a great list of “reliable standby resources,” and it’s hilarious to boot!
Did I mention the Internet yet? This is a great way to harness other people’s disturbing obsessions for your own selfish purposes.
Here Be Dragons: The Science and Art of Map Making by Ann Dupuis: This is a long article, and with good reason – Ann really knows what she’s talking about when it comes to map-making, and she approaches the issue with a wealth of detail. Some parts were a little technical for me and moved a bit fast, but then this is a topic that could take up an entire book. She provides plenty of neat details – organic vs. planned cities, city sizes, levels of detail, impossible geography, stellar maps, world maps, regional maps, city and town maps, floor plans, topographical symbols, and computer tools used for mapping. You’ll even find URLs to web sites that provide mapping software (both free and commercial).
Campaign World-building, One Step at a Time by James M. Ward: This is a simplistic article that has little to offer anyone who has experience with the subject, but might serve as an extremely basic introduction for beginners. It is aimed at fantasy Dungeons & Dragons-like worlds (major portions of the article are devoted specifically to dungeons and kingdoms), and won’t be terribly useful to GMs of other systems.
Harems and Harpies: Women at the Gaming Table by Hilary Doda: Although recent research has shown that roughly 1 in every 5 roleplayers is a woman,* many gaming groups are still all-male, and many of them aren’t quite sure how to comfortably bring a woman into the game. If you aren’t sure how to handle having female players in your group, you’ll find this a very handy overview of the issues you never knew were involved. There’s good material on stereotypes, gamers who have kids, types of games, and the sorts of things many women find threatening (and why, so you can better understand what’s going on).
Winging It: The Fine Art of Making It Up as You Go Along by Jean Rabe: This is another of my four favorite articles. Normally when I see an article on gaming that includes long examples from the author’s games, I cringe. This time I had to read them aloud to my husband because they were that entertaining! They were also very useful as concrete examples of the author’s suggestions. I strongly agree with the author’s belief in the value of improvisation – far too many GMs try to stick to some pre-scripted plan for how an adventure should run, and this is rarely enjoyable for players.
Trust at the Gaming Table by Frank Mentzer: I completely agree with most of Mr. Mentzer’s assertions regarding trust and the idea that everyone’s at the game to have fun (I’ve written a number of articles that touch on the subject), but I simply cannot recommend reading this article. It’s academic in style, pompous-sounding, long-winded, and abstruse in the extreme. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy the use of big words when appropriate. But there were entire large paragraphs in here that could have been expressed in a single simple sentence, and that way they would have been understandable.
Treasure by Steven Marsh: When I saw an article in here by Steven Marsh, editor of Pyramid Magazine, I was quite happy. I love his great ideas and his hilarious writing style. Here he discusses the relative values of different sorts of in-game “treasure” – monetary rewards, material rewards, nonmaterial rewards, and personal rewards, as well as what they’re useful for within games (both to you and the player characters!). He discusses the pros and cons of almost every type of treasure imaginable that you might hand out in your game, in very easy-to-understand and useful terms. As if that weren’t enough, he provides a simple, elegant system for handling characters’ monetary resources in a more abstract manner than simply counting gold pieces or dollars. (If you haven’t guessed yet, this is the third of my four favorites.)
Gamemastering for Kids by Sam Chupp: I honestly expected to be bored by this one. I don’t have kids and didn’t see the article as having any value to me. Instead, it’s the last of my favorite articles. The author addresses everything from dealing with parents, to picking out a game, to handling conflict in games, to dealing with problem children. The article has a very level-headed tone, and I was impressed with the depth and thoroughness with which the topic was addressed.
A brief overview of the rest of the articles:
- “Fiendishly Good: Creating Memorable Villains for Your Campaigns” by John R. Phythyon, Jr.: It’s a topic that gets covered all the time on the internet, but Phythyon does include some nifty advice, such as customizing tips to your own campaign.
- “Gamemaster’s Flowchart 101 (AKA ‘old writer’s trick for keeping track of a story’s characters’)” by Mark Simmons: A one-page article that could have some value if you find yourself utterly unable to keep track of the places, people, and plots that populate your game world.
- “Character Creation” by Ross Winn: A good article on the balancing issues of different means of character creation.
- “The Beginner’s Game: How to Attract and Keep New RPG Players” by John Nephew: A useful article that takes you from character generation to the first adventure, and beyond.
- “NPCs–Not Paper Cutouts” by Lee Gold: Handy advice on the creation of three-dimensional non-player characters (NPCs), from villains to allies, henchmen to victims.
- “Throw ’em to the Wolves!” by Larry D. Hols: A simple but good article on bringing excitement to the monotonous parts of your game by making use of crisis.
- “Campaign Troubleshooting” by Lester Smith: A short-but-sweet article on handling general campaign problems that makes use of an amusing gardening analogy.
- “Running a Con Game” by Matt Forbeck: A fabulous article on running games at conventions – detailed right down to the best cough drops to keep you from losing your voice!
I love “Dork Tower,” and some of the funnier DT cartoons I’ve ever seen are scattered throughout this book. Some of them are familiar from other places, but it didn’t matter to me – it was still a joy to read them! For those readers unfamiliar with this cartoon whose connections can handle large graphics, check out the website: http://www.dorktower.com/
The list price for this book is $35 – about on a par with many recent main rulebooks – which seems a bit high for a book on advice which some will feel that they don’t need. Some will feel that they’ve been GMing for a while and don’t need the basics that take up the first third of the book. Others will feel that they can find enough information on the web that they shouldn’t have to spend so much to get it in a book. Still others will simply think, “I’m a great GM! Why should I read that?” and not even realize that they could learn a lot from the book.
It’s quite an attractive book, and there’s a lot of very good information in here, as evidenced by the length of this review! I know that I tend to lose things I’ve printed from the web, so having a bound book is nice. New GMs will find this book of particular value; it touches on just about every major topic there is and then some, ranging from the basics to advanced techniques.
Ultimately, only you can decide whether it’s worth the price tag. But I do believe that if you can afford it, it is worth tracking down a copy to read. The only thing that kept my rating from being a full 5 stars was the worry that some of Rosenberg’s dire warnings might scare away the aspiring GMs who most need help.
*This statistic comes from a survey conducted by Wizards of the Coast.