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Reviews: Gamemastering Secrets 2nd Edition
by Joe G. Kushner

Game Mastering Secrets coverGamemastering Secrets 2nd Edition
Written by Aaaron Rosenberg
Published by Grey Ghost Games
176 b & w pages

So what does Aaron Rosenberg have to say that takes up so many pages? A lot.

Between Rosenberg's efforts and those of numerous guest writers, Gamemastering Secrets covers a lot of ground. While won't appeal to everyone, the book touches on nearly every subject in roleplaying and the social situations that happen outside the game.

The book starts off with some basic tips for first timers. This list of eight tips includes the number one rule, "You are God," and ends with the most important rule, "Have fun!" In between, the book touches on many subjects that GMs need to be aware of, at least in the back of their minds. However, one of the first things readers will note isn't the text, but rather, the Dork Tower comics within it. These are all old favorites (except perhaps the one on the back cover) and are usually arranged to be well in tune with the theme of the section they appear in.

The first "deeper" section, if you will, is Before the Game. This covers basic terms, different genres, game systems, advice on reading the rule books, changing the rules (and of course, letting everyone know which rules you've changed before starting the game), and the perils of selecting a setting, which means making your own up or going with a store-bought one.

Out-of-game events are also touched on, like getting your players together, selecting the proper time and place, and running the adventure. The parts on running the adventure go deeper into tailoring the game to the characters you've got, as well as insuring that the characters themselves are appropriate for the setting. This whole section is great for new GMs and will provide a solid foundation before they even pick up a regular game book. It's a primer on how to game without actually having a game system behind it to learn at the same time.

The next section is Starting the Game. Here the GM is provided with some ideas on how to get the characters together that goes beyond the standard bar scene. Advice on setting the tone, and on insuring that the party gets along without killing one another, helps the GM keep the game flowing smoothly. One of the elements I haven't seen named before but have used myself is the "PC Stamp." Here the GM usually allows the other players to know which characters are player characters and that it's okay to trust them, hence the term "PC Stamp." I like the idea of a PC stamp as it starts the game on the right foot but it might not be appropriate for all campaigns.

Once you've got the adventure up and running, any GM worth his salt knows that the trouble's just starting, and the section on running the game helps with that task. It provides details on daily preparation including the sacred duty of keeping notes, using different narrative styles, trying different dialogues and dialects, and using different props. These props can be as simple as some Conan and Excalibur soundtracks, to sessions where miniatures took over the room. Along the way, the author manages to tackle the important subjects of having a food schedule devised ahead of time, and what to do with characters when their players can't show up. The material here is straightforward and easy to read, but as an experienced GM, there's nothing here I haven't read before or thought of at one point or another. Newer GMs may want to take notes and try out some of the ideas in their next couple of games, but do so slowly. You don't want to go from a regular game one day to an extravaganza of sound effects, special lighting and walk-in actors.

Some of the more difficult decisions a GM has to make are covered here as well. Have a player who, intentionally or not, has character interests that are taking too much time away from the group? Are there times when only a certain character has specific information? Running characters with proper power levels for their enemies? All these topics are covered in a manner that's easy to understand and use immediately. Game rules to solve problem situations aren't provided though, which follows the standard of the book: you get good advice, but no d20 rules.

Other issues are touched upon. Should you, the GM, cheat? How do you handle character death? How much experience and what type is good for your game? What happens when you have players that cheat? Is there ever a time when you should ask a player to stop coming to your games? While the information isn't a walkthrough solution ("do this, then do that"), it does point the reader in the direction they'll have to take and point out the issues involved. No one can force a GM to tell a long time buddy who's ruining his campaign not to come over again, but the book does point out that this long time buddy is messing up everyone's fun and perhaps isn't enjoying the game himself. If just one group sits down to talk about their gaming problems, this book has served its job well.

The next section, "Secrets from the Masters", covers a wide variety of "guest" articles that are mainly open game content. Authors like Steven S. Long, Mark Simmons, John Nephew, Frank Mentzer, Steven Marsh and others provide their insights. Of these, one of my favorites is "Joy of Research" by Kenneth Hite. Here he asks the reader several questions that help guide the reader toward the right steps. How much information do you need? Why are you doing this research? What resources do you have available to you? How soon do you need it? What exactly are you looking for? His list of resources includes not only his favorite web sites and search engines, but the books and reference guides he commonly refers to.

Another good article is "Creating Memorable Villains for your Campaigns" by John R. Phythyon Jr, which reinforces several points on the topic. The only problem here is the specific competition. The article provides a lot of information in a few pages, but there are whole books like AEG's Evil and Kenzer & Company's Villain Design Handbook. If you don't need a full book devoted to creating a bad guy, the information here is vital to creating believable campaigns. Make the villains personal. Make them characters your players hate. Make sure that the villains aren't just sitting around doing nothing and are active on their own even when the players aren't around to stop them.

If you're a GM with a map hunger, than Ann Dupuis has an excellent article, "Here Be Dragons: The Science and Art of Map Making." We're provided with numerous types of maps, their symbols, their iconography, and sample symbols that are great for helping to design your own maps. Some of the terminology is above my head from a casual reading as it talks about how maps themselves tend to suffer discrepancies due to the rise and fall of the planet's surface, but I got the idea: maps aren't always that accurate. The great thing about this article is that it's not just for Earth-like worlds either. It covers galaxies and just about any sort of map you'd want to mess with as well as giving a quick summary of numerous software tools that can be used to help craft maps on your own, including Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, among others.

Another important article for new GMs, and even experienced ones, is "Winging It: The Fine Art of Making It Up as You Go Along" by Jean Rabe. Now I know there are several GMs out there gnashing their teeth in agony because they just bought The Sunless Citadel for their first module and the players skipped right over that crater with the sunken castle to look for something else to do. This chapter helps the GM look confident and work with the flow of the characters to insure that interesting things happen and that each event works with the continuity of the campaign. The essay provides advice that helps push what the players expect to happen into the forefront of the game itself.

Look and Feel
In terms of layout, the book uses the standard two-column page format. At the top of the pages, the logo and chapter headings take up a fair amount of space but the margins are a good size. The cover illustration is faded into the background in the center of every page with text going over it. The Dork Tower comics help break the monotony of the text, and pull quotes in large text break things up even more. In 99% of the Dork Tower strips, they're in an appropriate place in the book, with only two looking to be out of sequence. For those keeping track I'd say that the Dork Tower on 79 with the good old quote "Ales and Whores!" is a little off in a section about villains, and the full page Dork Tower on 83 is appropriate but doesn't end where it should as this comic is supposed to go on another page. By cutting out the last panel, some confusion could've been avoided.

Without the Dork Tower illustrations, this book would be fairly barren of any artwork whatsoever. There are some symbols and illustrations in the mapping section, but that's it. And while I love Dork Tower, I'd bet all of the 40 or so strips have seen print before.

Because each chapter is on a particular subject, and the book boasts a massive index, Game Mastering Secrets makes it easy to find specific advice on anything from NPCs to genre and theme. In many ways, it can function as a troubleshooting manual for new GMs.

Some of the advice in Game Mastering Secrets is advice I've read before, and some of it's just not aimed at me as the target audience. That's fine. I'm not interested in GMing for children or at conventions. That's okay, I expect that from a book that covers a field as large as GMing, and some wisdom is bound to be common wisdom that other sources have already imparted. But I do have two problems with Game Mastering Secrets: it's too expensive for what you get, and the use of the D20 logo is misleading.

My gripes about the book's content aren't that the advice isn't useful, but that needless extras crowd the important bits. While it's good to have five pages of biography on the different authors who contributed to the book, is the book itself the place to host that information? Put it on the website. While its important to counter costs with advertising, there are four pages of ads here and the book is still over thirty dollars. While it's nice to have scratch paper to take notes, does the book need to include five blank lined pages? Something's got to go. Take out the blank pages, take out the biography section, and take out the ads.

The second problem is that the D20 system logo is a lure. You see, there is really no "crunch" in this book. Certain articles are declared Open Game Content, but if you're looking for tables, flowcharts or any tools to speed up your game outside of the advice itself, move on. I don't fault the game company for using the D20 logo and qualifying it by making some of the articles OGC. However, there will be gamers that consider buying the book because it's got the D20 logo on it. Those gamers will expect a minimum of usefulness that is specifically tailored to D20 sessions, and Game Mastering Secrets doesn't deliver in that regard.

The price particularly bothers me because there are many products from other companies that are larger and cost $5-$10 less (and not just from good old White Wolf either). Fantasy Flight Games, Fast Forward Games and others have hardcovers out that are all less expensive. Cost, especially for the audience this book is aimed at (new GMs) is a huge factor. Do you want to buy the Dungeon Master's Guide in full color or Game Mastering Secrets? Chances are if you're new, the D20 logo on GMing Secrets isn't going to mean much to you until you're well into the game, at which point the practical value of the book is less and the cost is still prohibitive.

Which GM advice book is best? It all depends on what you're looking for. If you have specific needs, then the GM Mastery series by RPGobjects, including NPC Essentials by Johnn Four, is probably for you. If you want a small handbook of concise wisdom, then one of the very books advertised in this manual is probably more your speed (particularly Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, which is less expensive and more precise without claiming to be d20). For those who hunger for game advice at greater length and want some entertainment from Dork Tower as well, Gamemastering Secrets is for you.


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