Christmas is coming and books are a popular one to get for those friends and family members who enjoy role playing games but which book to get? Unless you know exactly what to get, and they don’t buy it first, then you are hunting for the receipt or letting you and them down. This book is the answer as it not specific to a game and will be a joy to read no matter which book they have or don’t have.
I have reviewed James D’Amato’s first book, The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide, and it also would be a good present, but this one is for the friend who not only plays RPGs but helps run the game itself. The advice is neither pedantic-like many or these books are or pallidly thin with cliché aphorisms that they could pick up on YouTube. The Chapters speak for themselves and I will outline this review with the highlights.
The introduction leaps right into the complementary worlds of System versus Story run systems of play. Two examples are the classic Dungeons and Dragons versus the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games. In the first the dice rule and the Game Master is the arbiter of the rules. Ideally the Game Master should let the dice decide players if the players are successful, but it can devolve into a railroad of dreariness if the situations they are put in are one-way and lack options. In the second, and newer game, dice can be used but the players are involved in creating the story and there is more of that elusive “player agency.” The problems in these games are the same that can happen in bad fiction, where the protagonist has “plot armor” that protects them, and the game becomes a competition of various plyer threads that are tangled and contradictory.
Now both are extremes and D’Amato gives very good and upbeat descriptions of either system of RPGs and very good advice. He is even handed about this and all other aspects of RPGs. When weighing in on “power gaming” or “character optimization” -which derides players who concentrate of creating a powerful character rather than an interesting one he writes that, “The only style of play that’s inherently bad is the one that disregards the experience everyone is willing to have.” This advice goes beyond the off quoted cliché of “play the game the way that feels good” and gives specific guidelines that work for everyone.
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The book is also different in how it jumps into the world of streaming games for an audience, which he terms Actual Play. His take on how the traditional audience of just the players has recently been expanded by the internet to those who aren’t playing but actively commenting and sometimes influencing the game is succinct and enlightening. It alters the experience to where the players and not just entertaining themselves but a wider audience. The game can also let this audience determine how it goes through monetizing how certain game mechanics will work.
The other chapters mix the traditional elements of fiction with contemporary RPG terms to great effect. Chapter One’s “Understanding the Audience” lets the reader into the analogy of the players as the audience that the game master must understand so as to deliver the experience that they will enjoy. This I a time-honored concept that, if ignored, can lead to an unsatisfying experience.
Chapter Four “Session Zero” is a relatively new term that gets the players and the GM together to lay out the expectations of everyone so that a social construct is laid out. The players express what they are looking for in a game and the GM listens. Then the GM tells the players what type of game he would like to run. Everyone comes to a loose agreement so that when the game begins it will be fun for all.
Decisions are made to see if it is going to be serious or silly, more high fantasy or cyberpunk, rules as written or modified to match a particular type of play. This is a great chapter and worth the time to read more than once.
Some of the other the finishing Chapters such as “Narrative Rewards Table,” “Pacing Scorecard” and “Side Scenes” build on the previous ones and give some advanced advice that will make your game the best it can be.
In closing I would buy this book for any player of RPGs and especially those that run them.