Golden Scrolls – Becoming a Better Player
by Ben McFarland
First, let me thank Expy for his kindness and consideration, permitting me to indulge in my series of exercises over the last five months. This time, though, I don’t want to talk about what to do in a game to make it better, but rather some things you should go read outside the game to make it better.
Why? Why bother with this? As I found myself hunting for a topic, for something to get people thinking, I realized I could offer a New Year’s Resolution.
Sure, you probably consume a lot material already, all kinds of topics and materials—movies and TV shows, nonfiction and fiction, textbooks and graphic novels, youtube and whatever viral meme is circulating, but I’m telling you to go read more. As Dungeon Masters, you probably read anything you think might benefit your game, and there’s a lot out there that can help. But specifically, you ought to go read these things, because nothing’s going to help your game more than this list. This is a list of the greater compiled wisdom of our hobby, the texts guarding the secrets to Dungeon Mastering gold, a sort of cross between secret Kung-fu wisdom and a mad Alchemist’s recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone…but I won’t mix my metaphor, let’s call them Golden Scrolls of Dungeonmastery-fu—read them and make your technique strong.
First, I offer Game Theories, a column in Kobold Quarterly by Monte Cook. This isn’t a book, but it will be, I can bet you a beer on that. Find me at Gencon in two years, and if I’m wrong, I’ll buy. Monte’s got the design chops and the reputation, from his time at TSR to his participation in the birth of d20 to his work creating Malhavoc and dungeon-a-day.com. Monte Cook knows this game and his column shows it. Game Theories has covered topics from creating verisimilitude to the evolution of the gaming “schools,” to reminding us to keep the spirit of the rules in mind as we play. This column has brought up some great points and it’s not going to stop any time soon. I note it for the quality of its start and the strength of the author. Pick it up now and don’t wait for them to compile these columns before you get the chance to incorporate this material into your style. These are pieces for your Dungeonmastering philosophy, and a year’s PDF subscription at Kobold Quarterly (http://www.koboldquarterly.com) runs $16 (US).
Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, by Robin D. Laws, comes next. It’s 33 pages, soft cover and nearly legendary. Taking a quick peek on Amazon right now, I find that reputation has translated into a price tag of $75 (US), but you can pick up the PDF at warehouse23 (http://e23.sjgames.com/) for a much more reasonable $8 (US). Phil, the Chatty DM (http://www.chattydm.net) talked this up last year over a few posts and at least two Dungeon Master’s Guides partially (or mostly) incorporated the concepts in this book. Having read both of those guides, I can tell you the original is superior. It covers ideas drawn from many different game systems, with useful checklists, charts, and examples discuss not only what to do, but what not to do. Specific topics include (the most commonly cribbed portion of the book) “knowing your players,” “picking your rules set,” (also often heavily remixed) campaign and adventure design, spontaneity, “confidence, mood, and focus,” improvisation and finally, finding compromise between play styles. At its heart, this is a book about your DM-fu, and making your technique strong.
Play Dirty, by John Wick, is my third recommendation. It’s 118 pages, but you can only pick it up on PDF right now at Indie Press Revolution (http://www.indiepressrevolution.com)—though the $5 (US) price tag makes it completely accessible. I am unabashedly telling you I am a card-carrying convert to “Wick-ed” gaming and John Wick is my enlightened master. This book can’t be pushed hard enough. It should be the second thing a new DM reads after the rules. You hear those stories from people who tell you about the games with waitlists and reunions while running for years and years? This shows the path to making the stories that make those games. I’ll give you the kernel of it: There are no rules. Cheat anyway. This book is the practical application of your DM philosophy, helping integrate it into your DM-fu by way of strong examples. Wick discusses how to go after the things players and characters value, making the game mean more by taking things away. Find this, buy it. Read it. Steal it if you can’t buy it, but read it. (Author’s note: Don’t steal, kids. It’s wrong!)
Things We Think About Games, by Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball, is a book of delicious RPG koans. It weighs in at …well, I can’t tell you how many pages, because they didn’t number the pages. How Zen is that? These are short sentences of wisdom, followed by a slightly longer paragraph of explanation. Real “there is no spoon” sort of stuff you will write on the cover of your campaign notebook so you never forget it. The biggest concept, in my opinion, is the idea of identifying “the core minute of play.” When you unravel that particular knot, many games reveal their secrets to you, creating the stories becomes easier, but it still requires you to remember that rule and avoid falling back into old habits. You may not agree with all of the thoughts in this book, but they will keep you thinking about your own outlooks on RPGs, and that’s the greater gift of the text. I picked up my copy at the Atlas Games booth at Gencon, and you can also order it at Gameplaywrite Press (http://www.gameplaywright.net) for $20 (US). For one Andrew Jackson, you too can walk away at Gencon with a treasure trove of insight while enjoying the Atlas Booth Staff’s cheer for exact change. Ah! And there, on the website, I see it’s 160 pages long. Don’t worry, there’s a lot of white space. ;)
Open Design, Wolfgang Baur, and a number of his partners in crime bring you the fifth offering in my list, The Kobold’s Guide to Game Design, Volume 1. Don’t let the title scare you away. This is seventy-five pages of jam-packed quality; equal parts technique and philosophy adding definite muscle to your Dungeonmastery-fu while covering topics like worldbuilding, pacing, misdirection and monster hordes at the elbow of an industry veteran who has seen it all and edited it for monthly publication. Sure, not everyone needs to remember to keep things concise in encounter creation—no, scratch that, yes, we do need to remember it. What makes good, publishable material makes for good, entertaining material at the weekly table, and Wolfgang helps remind us of that fact. Ed Greenwood, Keith Baker and Nicolas Logue bring along different vantage points discussing their particular specialties of stagecraft (and its kissing cousin, improvisation), laying the foundations of urban adventuring and adding a touch of noir to the campaign. These additional authors really juice up the practical material, and their experience means it’s advice you can trust. You can find this book at Kobold Quarterly (http://www.koboldquarterly.com) for $15 (US) in the PDF and $19 in print—personally, I prefer the treeware, and with that difference, there’s little reason not to splurge on the paper. Unfortunately, like all of these books, there’s no bargain, combined option.
Last, but certainly not least, I offer you Master of the Game, by Gary Gygax. Did you even know this one was out there in the world? Had you even wondered if it had been written? This is the font from the wellspring, the tidbits of the man at the heart of the hobby, and while it shows its age from time to time as you read it, there are truisms within that time doesn’t alter:
· Teach others to become a Master
· A Master never comes unprepared for a one shot session.
· A Master runs games in public, bettering the reputation of the hobby.
Other aspects, like running a convention, creating a fanzine, or becoming published are handled better elsewhere—in particular, The Kobold’s Guide, Vol.2, by Open Design, does a better job at examining the more current business of breaking into the business, there are particular gems which don’t see a lot of discussion. Topics like “why campaigns fail,” or “what are the worst problems game masters face,” or “mastery and modification of rules and systems.” This 174-page time capsule is pragmatic philosophy with crunchy bits of how-to technique, an excellent view into the heartfelt counsel of the man who helped birth the hobby. It’s out of print, but searching Amazon, I found used three copies at an inexpensive $9 (US).
There you have it; the Golden Scrolls of Dungeonmastering (as proclaimed by me, with all the weight that carries as one of your peers) can be yours for the paltry sum of $63 (US). I tell you to go read these six books because we don’t say that to each other enough. We figure we can get enough from casual discussion or game experience—and don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly possible. However, these books represent the collected experience of decades of our designers and leaders, the pure, concentrated Awesome, ready to be internalized and made second nature. To paraphrase The Matrix—now you know the path, why not come walk it?
-Ben McFarland has been gaming in some form since 1980. He’s only (relatively) recently started publishing gaming material since 2007. His two most current projects are Halls of the Mountain King and The Breaking of Forstor Nagar.