Name one component to a role playing game that you absolutely need in order to play. OK, chips and pop are important, but that's not what I had in mind. Paper, dice, books, pencils, miniatures; yes yes, but there's something else more crucial. What's that? Um, I'm not even sure how that is even legal in most states.
No, what I'm thinking of is even more critical to role playing games, and it's probably the most overlooked component to any role playing experience. I'm of course talking about The GM: the one who puts together the scenario, crafts non-playing characters, and ensures that everyone at the table is satisfied with their playing experience.
Good GMs can make any game experience more satisfying, and conversely a poor or unprepared GM can sink a game.
Making the transition from novice GM to experienced GM takes practice and experience, and many guides have decent advice, but Gamemastering Secrets, 2nd edition goes beyond simple advice, bringing together practical and hard-won advice in this classic tome. Regardless of your game system, aspiring and expert GMs will find useful information, tips, tricks, and hints for putting together a great game for their players.
Gamemastering Secrets starts off with some very basic and quick tips to remember whenever GMing a game. The book then explores some of the more common genres of role playing games to aid the GM in choosing the sort of adventure they might be interested in running. Choosing a system is as important as setting, and is covered briefly in the next section.
The book also discusses when it's OK to change rules, or make rulings on situations where the rules don't apply. Too often GMs can feel hamstrung by rules that don't apply, or don't give the flavor they're looking to achieve, and the book provides practical advice on when to bend, change, or ignore rules in a game. Finding the proper setting is also important, as is the decision to roll-your-own adventure or pick up a store-bought adventure, and the book provides reasons and tips for each.
After the adventure is selected, the more difficult job of running and maintaining the game environment falls on the GM's shoulders. Game Mastering Secrets covers how to assemble the party, setting the proper tone for the adventure, keeping the players interacting with the game, and hints for running the game itself. The advice ranges from knowing when to pull back the detail of combat vs. getting to the nitty-gritty details of every last slash and kick. It also covers the often controversial fudging that GMs sometimes afford their characters, and discusses when it might be appropriate (both on the GMs side, and on the player's side).
Also covered are the more difficult aspects of GM duties: when to award experience, adding new characters, and more importantly; when it's OK to kill player characters, and how to deal with players that are disruptive to the overall experience. Rather than making confrontational, though, the book describes how to be constructive in handing situations when the player expectations aren't meshing with what the GM is looking to provide. Overall, the first part of the Gamemastering Secrets book is chock full of advice no GM should be without.
The second part of the Gamemastering Secrets book is really where the book shines. Taking a page from the later-released Fudge 10th anniversary book, Gamemastering Secrets taps the shoulders of 17 guest authors of notable pedigree to provide short blog-like articles on a topic. One of my favorite authors, Ken Hite, provides his advice on how research can both be informative for a campaign, but can also be darned fun too. Ann Dupuis provides almost a chapter's worth of advice on creating maps for a campaign. The articles vary in length and topic, but all of them provide excellent advice, tips, and tricks that GMs will find invaluable.
The formatting of Game Mastering Secrets will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with Fudge books, with one notable exception. Dork Tower strips pepper the pages, providing a humorous look at the topics presented on the page. It was hard not to keep leafing through the book in order to see the next comic.
Gamemastering Secrets, 2nd edition was initially published in 2002. How well does it hold up 10 years later? Surprisingly well. Some of the software mentioned is no longer available, and the discussions of how to use the Internet are somewhat naive, given the explosive growth of ubiquitous on-line communication services and the rise of Wikipedia. The d20 system (3E) gets some mention in these pages, as does Fudge, but thankfully there is little in this book that directly relates to either system. The book also contains advertisements for the forthcoming Dork Tower books from 2002, as well as the Action System role playing game, and the (also excellent) Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering. But outside of these little trips down memory lane, the book remains as relevant as ever, with timeless advice for GMs that still rings true 10 years later.
Gamemastering Secrets, 2nd edition is a welcome addition to any GM's bookshelf. Most of this material could likely be gleaned from other sources, and from hard-won experience, but the book presents a complete picture of what it means to be a GM, and how to excel in that position. If you've been blessed with the GMing responsibilities at your table, you owe it to yourself to pick up this book and read it cover to cover.