by Joe G. Kushner
Gamemastering 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
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
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
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
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.Ê 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
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.Ê In many ways,
it can function as a troubleshooting manual for new GMs.Ê
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 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
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.