The books in this article (and links to acquire them from Amazon) are:
A Word to the Wise
What you are about to read is a list of the five books every Game Master and role player needs to own. Not books they should own, books they need to own. These books are listed in no particular order — it is not as if Primal Order is more or less important to own than Game Mastering Secrets. Each of these books offers insights and information that is of value. The relative value of each book will depend greatly on the style of game you play, and the rules you use.
But the value of each of these books is far greater than the obvious! Some of the books were designed to be used as I am about to describe. Others offer insight and information that goes well beyond the intent of the author (or so I assume, not being the author of any of these books). The value of each is greatest when you are the Game Master (a.k.a., Dungeon Master, Storyteller, etc.). But as a player, these books are amazing. If nothing else, this list may give you some ideas for a gift to give your favorite Game Master.
#1: Gamemastering Secrets
Grey Ghost Press is best known for publishing the FUDGE System. Still, a couple of more generic books on role playing are in their library. One of these is Gamemastering Secrets. This book introduces you to the world of being a game master. It covers most every skill you need to practice in order to be successful. The first few chapters cover:
- Quick Tips
- Things to do before the game starts
- Things to do as you start the game session
- Things to do as you run the game session
- Things you do as you close down the game session
Then, the final chapter is a collection of short (2-6 pages) articles giving advice from a series of amazing guest contributors. These articles include:
- Gamemastering for children
- The beginner's game
- How to wing-it at the table
And so much more. If you are new to being a game master, or want to improve and hone your skills, this book has a lot you can use.
#2: X-treme Dungeon Mastery
This book has a lot that screams: do not buy me!
The cover comes off as confrontational (illustrating a group of adventurers and describing them as doomed). The first few pages are written with a style that comes across as a bad mix of we are cooler than you and we know it and look at the jokes — the jokes! — if you are not laughing you suck.
However, once you can get past this, the book is good. No... not good, it is fantastic. So step one in enjoying this book and getting the most from it: skip the first 22 pages. This section (yes, starting on page 23) and those that follow, contain an ongoing discussion of the theories of extreme dungeon mastery — more accurately called good game mastering. The topics covered include:
- Player types and what they want from a role playing game
- How to apply narrative (story) and allow it to drive the game forward
- How to design and implement effective puzzles that feel a natural part of the game's environment
- Game master preparations
- Keeping the action moving; avoiding dry spells in the game
- Establishing the proper atmosphere
- Themes, props, and stunts
- Being a good player
...all before it devolves back into uselessness around page 119.
Look, the cooler-than-thou attitude and in-you-face jokes are all through the book. Pages 1-22 are so full of it, there is no room for anything else. Pages 119-160 are not nearly as bad (and have some decent material). But it all becomes heavy handed again. That material from page 23 to page 118 is pure gold.
You need to get a copy of this. Today.
#3: GURPS Timeline
Chris W. McCubbin is an excellent author who wrote several books for Steve Jackson Games' GURPS system. One of his best was called GURPS Aliens. If you find yourself in need of some very cool non-human species with a strong sci-fi flair, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.
A book that was written with time travel games as its target genre, however, turned out to be far more valuable a game resource than I think anyone considered when the book was pitched and written. That book is GURPS Timeline.
The book describes itself as a collection of seeds; these seeds are ideas that can be used to grow adventures or even whole campaigns. Many involve the concept of the McGuffin (see below). So what sorts of seeds will you find in this book?
All sorts. The book covers the history of the world from The Big Bang, the formation of the solar system, and the origins of life... all the way to 1992 and the first Gulf War. For the Game Master, this book has more ideas for adventures and campaigns than any other book that has ever been published. Sure, one can look at a giant history text and pull from it ideas for stories. But this one outlines history and pulls from it some of the greatest stories that have taken place in history and presents them in a way that illustrates and highlights their capacity to be used in a role-playing game.
In other words, this is world history distilled and presented in a way to make its application in a game as straightforward as possible.
Some example seeds include:
- Huang Ti and the Chinese — a look at the formation of the Chinese Empire, the only ancient empire that has survived until present day.
- Phoenicia — a brief look at a relatively advanced ancient civilization that never coalesced into empire or even unified nation.
- The Death of Alexander — do you have a powerful warrior in your game that laughs at ancient gold dragons and eats Kraken for breakfast? Remind him of how the greatest conqueror in history succumbed to indigestion.
- Pope Joan — for 700 years, the official record of the Vatican stated that a woman from England reigned as Pope. The story of this woman is too fascinating to ruin with a one line summary here.
- And so on.
Want to know the story of 15,000 Blind Bulgarians? How about the story of the Order of the Rosy Cross? The Roanoke colony? The Merovingian Kings? How about why a large group of most terrible people, if they could, would want to travel to the year 1809?
I do not care if you are a historical gamer, fantasy gamer, sci-fi gamer, or just a history buff. You need this book.
McGuffin (noun): a plot element which has no bearing on the story other than to drive it forward. See also deus ex machina.
Coined by Alfred Hitchcock, a McGuffin is really nothing at all. The most famous example is the top-secret-strategically-vital document of which some unwitting fool manages to come into possession (e.g., The 39 Steps, North by Northwest). What the document says, who it is for, or why the protagonist has it is all of little concern. The existence of the document is what is important because this allows us to suspend disbelief as one or more blood-thirsty organizations now spend the rest of the story hunting down the poor fool in an attempt to regain this document at any cost.
As Hitchcock said:
"It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers."
#4: Primal Order
Back before the little startup game company in Washington state called Wizards of the Coast discovered that printing trading cards could be as profitable as minting your own cash, they released a book called Primal Order. This book is about gods.
Sure, every fantasy role playing system that includes such beings has some treatment of them. TSR released Deities and Demigods for Dungeons and Dragons. However, TSR missed the point of such powerful beings: they are not just powerful, they are different.
Where Dungeons and Dragons handled Gods as 400 hit-point monsters with some cool powers, Primal Order introduces primal energy — a force that divine beings (and a few lower powers) tap into, harness, and project which renders them beings far and above the power of mortal men. If a godling casts a spell and laces it with primal energy, no saving throw, no magical defense, no anything (except more primal energy) is going to stop this spell from striking true and having the maximum possible impact.
The rules presented are in a system Peter Adkison wrote which allow it to be translated into other systems with relative ease. That was the idea, anyway. Some systems work better than others for translating this much power. Other systems should probably avoid defining such beings in terms used by normal, mortal characters. Still, using the system as written will allow the game master to determine who wins between a couple of primal beings. If your game is to have gods, arch-devils, members of the Q-continuum, or other nearly-omnipotent characters, you cannot go wrong by getting yourself a copy of this book.
#5: Fantasy Wargaming: The Highest Level of All
Before I start describing this book, a word of warning:
Chapter 7: Playing Rules contains what can only be described as one of the most convoluted and unplayable role playing systems ever written. If this book were just this role playing system, this would be number one on my list of books every role player should avoid ever coming in contact with. Fortunately, there is a lot more going on here.
With that out of the way, let's look at why this is a book you need.
Fantasy Wargaming is a collection of essays written for game masters and players of role playing games to explain and describe how the times often emulated in various gaming systems actually worked. The idea behind these articles was to elevate understanding, to infuse proper motive and logic into the games we play. Chapters include:
- City, Court, and Country — explaining how land is the foundation for everything in feudal societies. How does this impact society? How does this lay the foundation for the local and regional economy? So much more...
- Myth, Magic, and Religion — explaining how religion and its institutions impacted day-to-day life in medieval times. What role did religion and magic play in the lives of peasants? Nobility? The Church? What was the disconnect between reality and belief?
- The Book of Physiologus — explaining the sorts of wildlife that existed (and was believed to exist) in these ancient times. What sorts of undead did different regions believe roamed their cities? What sorts of faerie did they believe roamed their countryside?
- Mortal Combat — explaining the weapons, armors, castles, and defenses of the various ages, and why they were developed. After all, you do not get the development of a weapon like a mace without a need -- in this case, plate armor. So if you want to create realistic soldiers, you need to know what they carry; and to know that, you need to know what they are fighting.
- Moorcock and More — explaining how to translate your favorite fiction into your favorite game system.
- The Complete Enchanter — explaining how to take the previous five chapters and put them together into a cohesive whole.
The 75 pages these chapters represent are filled to the brim with great advice and thoughts on how to structure a campaign. Chapter 7 — as indicated above — begins a game system that, for the life of me, I have no idea why anyone would include. Strangely, buried within this pile of excrement are some amazing gems. Useful items within the remaining pages include:
- Astrological Influence (p77) — there is a chart which shows how the sign a character was born under impacts their attributes. This is usable with a wide variety of games.
- The Bogey Table (p81-82) — here we get a table of the sorts of things that can hinder or enhance a character. Some of these are not in keeping with modern morality, but reflect the morality of most societies of old Christendom; sometimes this can be an eye-opener.
- Social Classes (p85) — ever get confused with what title is above or below what other title? How about the relative authority carried by a person with a title of Nobility (Barron) vs. a title of the Church (Bishop) vs. a title of the common classes (Lord Mayor)?
- Money (p87) — ever wonder what the forms and denominations of money actually used were? Seems odd that everything is in most fantasy games is in some form of gold-pieces when most peasants would never see a piece of gold in their lives...
- Hit Locations (p101) — need a good table for what part of the body your blow just landed upon?
- Equipping a Warrior (p115-120) — a look at various ages and locations and what a typical warrior of that age/location would be carrying.
- More Astrology (p125-126) — how do astrological signs impact magic?
- Piety and Impiety (p150-169) — how do your actions impact your relationship with the divine and infernal?
- Higher and Lower Powers (p170-179) — where does Michael rank in the Christian hierarchy? Just how powerful is this guy? How about Lucifer? The Virgin Mary? Your typical imp?
- and so on...
There really is more useful content in this book included by accident than most books attempt to cram in.
Is There More To This?
Over at a humble website called Swords & Dorkery, by Mike Monaco, there exists a (rather lengthy) article about this book called Bruce Galloway’s Fantasy Wargaming. I know it is a lot to read, but it is very much worth it. In this article, he describes the history of the book, the campaign that was played by way of playtesting some of the concepts within the book, and (most importantly) how the various articles I describe above were meant to be seen as part of the rules as presented in chapter 7.
He breaks this article into several sections:
- I. The history of the project (a timeline of the book's development)
- II. Leigh Cliffs and Fantasy Wargaming (the campaign that shaped the book)
- III. Cover to cover (a chapter-by-chapter look at the contents of the book)
- IV. Supplementary material (a look at resources that can aid with the book)
Honestly, if there is anything you want to know about this book — before or after you buy it — then this article has it.
All of these books have flaws — some more than others. But they have information that can be pulled out and used in any game system. They are well written, enjoyable, and fun. Each will give you something that can be used to make your game better.
Most of these books are available at reasonable prices. Some are tougher to get, but not so tough as to make it a feat to acquire. Amazon, eBay, Noble Knight Games, and other online resources can get you even the most difficult to find of these books fairly easily.
The Best of the Best?
tantric on November 22, 2016:
Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies"
K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on April 29, 2014:
I have Robin's Laws; good book but not a must have, in my opinion.
Doc Cross on April 29, 2014:
You left off "Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering", from Steve Jackson Games.
K David Ladage (author) from Cedar Rapids, IA on March 19, 2014:
Which two, if I may ask?
Jade Griffin from Ohio on March 19, 2014:
I am proud to say I have read two of them and agree with you 100%. I will have to see if I can find the others at half price book store. Its about all I can afford right now!