Monday, February 22, 2016

Review: How to Game Master Like a Freakin' Boss

You shall not pa--... On second thought, after you.
Here's a spooktacular Hallowee--
A great present just in time for Christm--...
Get your honey the gift of game mastering for Valent--
By gosh and begorrah! Happy Saint... oh, forget it.

Ok, so this review is super late. Spectacularly late.

Last year, +Venger Satanis was nice enough to send me a copy of How to Game Master Like a F#cking Boss. He asked if I would take a look and review, no strings attached. He assured me that I should be completely impartial and honest. I really dropped the ball.

In fairness, a lot has happened in my life in the last 6 to 8 months and the blog has badly fallen victim. If I post once a week, that's a good week... but I said I would give it a review and it has taken me too long to get to it. For that, I apologize to Venger for the extreme tardiness, but I will still be impartial as I am able.

Too Long; Didn't Read Summary: 
Q: Wow, that's crap-load of critique. Did you completely hate the book?
A: No, not at all. I found it a thoughtful and entertaining read. But I just happen to be detailed in my [hopefully] constructive criticism to help the reader get a deep understanding of my subjective opinion.


Introduction


Venger is nothing if not ostentatious. His online persona is occasionally over the top and he likes his role playing games to reflect a specific Sword & Sorcery style often seen in 1970's era fantasy art. He likes his boobs and butts and makes sure that kind of sensuality (or some might say sexism) is reflected in the products he develops.

Whether you like his style or not, he is an astute observer of gaming styles and genres and an articulate debater, so I was particularly curious to get a look into his game mastering mind.

How to Game Master Like a F#cking Boss is a book that Venger successfully Kickstarted in January of 2015 and available through DriveThruRPG or RPGNow.

Format


The PDF is 121 pages long consisting of a few different section. The bulk of the book (69 pages) consist of what I'm calling "vignettes" of GM advice. Each vignette section is between a 1/2 page to a 1/4 page of text touching upon some aspect of running a game or building a campaign. The advice can be roughly classified into broad topics like "player management", "game/campaign management", "campaign ideas" and "scene/encounter details" (these are my own rough classifications, not ones presented by Venger).

Pages 70 to 97 are an array of random charts on a wild variety topics from character backstory ideas to the color(s) and pattern of a "Stupid Gnome Hat".  Pages 98 to 116 a dictionary for the "Viridian" language, a fantasy language created by Venger for use in your game and 119 to 121 contain 3 dungeon maps.

Format Critique

One of the first issues I had with the text was a lack of organization. Even though the GM advice can be grouped into related subjects or categories, Venger's style is more stream-of-conscious. He bounces from topic to topic and there are no chapters. This limits the book's utility as a reference work, because it is very hard to find advice on a specific topic. The table of contents (which is improperly named "Index") often does not help because the header names of the advice vignettes are almost as varied.

As an example. "Flatlining the Burning Chrome of Chiba City" is the title for one of the topics in the table of content. I'll be honest in that I've probably read that section 2 or 3 times, but I still can't remember what it was about (without looking) because the title is so esoteric.

I don't mind whimsical titles if they are grouped in sections. The Chiba City vignette is actually advice about the illusion of verisimilitude, which would be much easier to find if it were grouped into a section about developing a campaign world or such... However, on their own. the titles in the table of contents don't often help you find what you are looking for.

Now, not all of the titles have whimsical names. "Should NPCs be involved in Combat?" for instance, is fairly self-explanatory. However, because there are 2 - 4 vignettes per page over the first 68 pages, combing through the table of contents for those specific items you want to re-read is frustrating because you likely won't find them without re-browsing most of the book. Take notes and save PDF bookmarks if your software allows it (FYI - the PDF you get from OneBookshelf does not allow bookmarks, but if you email Venger, he will send you an unlocked copy).

I did ask Venger about the seeming randomness of topics and he replied that the "organizational anarchy is intentional." He was is using a teaching technique utilized by "Fourth Way" masters. I may be mis-characterizing the technique, but the idea (as I understand) is that because of the frequent topic changes, your brain pays more attention and so comprehension is increased.

That might be ok for philosophical teachings, I suppose, but for a reference work it just frustrates because, as I note, it's impossible to find something at a later date that you read previously.

The layout and editing could use a tweak here and there, but for a one-man operation, those minor foibles can be overlooked.

Art


A snippet from one of the best pieces in the book.
You'll need to purchase to see the whole picture. 
The book has numerous full page and half-page art pieces with varied styles, but an over all "old school" tone. I won't try to define exactly what I mean by "old school"... It's more of an "I know it when I see it" kind of thing. Sword & Sorcery. 1980's era styling. Black and white line art. You probably get the gist of it. Venger appears to have spent a fair amount of money on several artists to achieve a particular look. The genres portrayed span Sword & Planet fantasy/sci-fi to Lovecraftian beasts.

Art Critique

The art is pretty good. Not all the pieces are knock outs, but overall, the book portrays a particular style of art effectively. For those that care, it does contain some frontal nudity, in a somewhat cartoonish style... but you may not be interested in goblin(?) penis. There are also the butts and boobs in the Franzetta / Vallejo inspired pieces if you like (or don't care for) that style.

The misses are relatively minor and have more to do with the medium than the artist. One of the artists used pencils on a textured parchment paper. This is very subjective on my part, but I found the texture to be distracting from the details in the imagery. Also. because the other artists used standard white backgrounds, the scans of textured pieces stood out in a somewhat jarring way in the book, especially on the piece that was not full page.

One of the best pieces spans pages 64 and 65. It is an homage to the original cover of the early adventure module - B1 In Search of the Unknown. The problem is that Adobe Reader thinks the book cover is page 1, so you can't view the piece spanning across two pages as intended in the PDF, even using two-page view, because the PDF pages are one off in number from the print version. I assume this is not a problem with the print version.  The cover is also an excellent piece. All things considered, the art stands up fairly well for a small press book.

Content


As noted earlier, the advice spans a range from managing the players at the table to ideas for the campaign or individual scenes. The advice style is light and conversational. The text reads as if Venger is speaking to you informally as opposed to a lecture about game master style. Each advice piece is short and easy to digest and Venger touches upon a wide range and variety of topics.

The random tables at the back of the book are truly random. They vary in topic from NPC motivation to character background ideas to the names of random cults.

Content Critique

The content was not exactly what I expected. When I think about GM advice, I tend to think of it through the lens of technique -- setting up story arcs, ways to create "acts" within a plot, how to manage pacing, etc. The book did contain vignettes of these elements, but a lot of the content was more like a shared brainstorm session.

The approach was more akin to "Hey, I've got a run-down of fantasy and sci-fi tropes and some ideas on how a GM can present them." There's a lot of world building and campaign building ideas. I'm not saying this is bad; I like those kind of topics. It was just slightly different than expected because of the book title. I was thinking the core of the content would be more about GMing techniques. Those topics are included, but the focus appears to be centered on generating memorable ideas for use in a campaign or adventure.

The other thought that came to my  mind is that the vignette style means that while he is able to touch upon a wide variety of topics, Venger doesn't always plunge too deep on any one. Few topics span more than a half page of ideas or advice. I would have liked for him to explore some of his ideas or suggestions more deeply. If you take the topic of "War" as an example, Venger spent 4 paragraphs on the topic when this one would have been a good candidate for expansion to several pages, if not more.

As a minor aside, Venger's conversational style is fairly easy to read, but can meander at times. He writes in a very stream of conscious style and his prose could be tightened up a bit with some additional editing, but that's a relatively minor subjective critique.

As for the random tables, at first I wasn't sure how useful they could be. The issue with the random tables is that they are often written with a sci-fantasy genre in mind and include setting details. These tables won't help you during play when you are running an improv game session. The details are usually too peculiar and specific.

However, if you think about using them more as a source of inspiration, instead of "as written", they can be useful as a brainstorming tool. Roll up something bizarrely random only to use as a platform off which to dive. There are some more generic tables, but I would have liked to have seen more of those and a little less with the genre-assumptive details. (As a counter example, Raging Swan Press often creates "20 things found in..." articles on their blog that can be used directly in play).

[EDIT]: I suppose I should note that if you are already into improv GMing and good at thinking on your feet, even the more peculiar tables could be used in play by using the rolled result but altering any setting or genre detail that doesn't quite fit your game. [/EDIT]

On the other hand. a side effect of the more unique tables is that aside from being a brainstorming tool, they can suggest other ideas about how to improve your GMing techniques. Taking the "Stupid Gnome Hat" as an example, one would probably not use the table as is, but what it does suggest to me as a GM is that small details count, especially with NPCs. Making memorable NPCs is not just about performing silly accents (which you may not be able to do well), but more about accenting details to make NPCs stand out, which should include personality affectations, clothing and perhaps even smell. In a sense, Venger is indirectly giving advice merely by making you consider these kinds of details... but then you have to create your own NPC clothing table or some such.

Concluding Thoughts


So, that's a lot of critique. Does that mean I didn't like the book?

To the contrary, I found it to be thought-provoking and entertaining. While I did not always agree with the advice, it made me examine my own GM style and look for places where some polish or technique could improve my overall presentation. There were a plethora of interesting ideas and even a few techniques he noted that were completely new to me (despite having read an extraordinary number of  advice articles in print and online over many years).

However, I would have liked topics grouped in some manner to make the book more user friendly as a reference work. I did have some minor issues with editing. I would have liked more depth on a number of the topics, I would have preferred some of the random tables to be more generic and less unconventional to allow to be used "on the fly" during a session rather than as a means to brainstorm as part of pre-game preparation. It's a good book, but has its rough edges.

Postscript


This is not part of the review so much as it is a thought balloon. Because of Venger's occasional use of cursing and his proclivity toward butts and boobs, the title has an "adult content" warning. Using OneBookShelf (RPGNow or DriveThruRPG) you have to log in even to look at the listing of the title, much less buy it. (As an aside, I think OneBookShelf's adult content wall is poorly programmed and could still offer the casual browser information on a listing without the potentially offensive content). This will clearly turn away buyers who are not interested in adult content and Venger is not the type of person to change his work to please the masses.

However, this advice book as a whole doesn't really have that much adult content. Aside from some of the art pieces, the cursing is not overly frequent, and the advice would be good for new, younger game masters. Putting on my business man's hat, my advice to Venger would be to create a second alternate title that is edited down... Not because of any kind of censorship pressure, but rather to expand the audience and reach people he might not otherwise. I think he could double the revenue for this title with a toned-down version.

That's not his style, so it would likely never happen. But he should reconsider the economic impact of that decision.
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