Reviews


Gamemastering: Preparing and Running Storytelling and Roleplaying Games is a 162-page manual that addresses the subject in six sections: A Gamemaster’s Tasks, The Role-Playing Group, Mastering a Gaming Session, Preparation, Adventure Themes, and Further Gaming Techniques.

The first thing I noticed about this book was the format – rather than looking like your typical RPG book, the use of color, graphics and subject icons on the cover and interior make this book look like it could easily share a shelf with “how-to” books such as the popular “X For Dummies” series. While it definitely gives the book a professional look, I can’t really say if this would lend any appeal to the target audience, who can be notoriously fickle about such things, and easily turned off by such a mainstreaming of their hobby. I didn’t encounter much of a problem with it during my own read-through.

The advice is solid and useful, and runs the spectrum from common-sense tips that only the beginners would find useful to common-sense tips that even the veterans never considered. Much of this advice can be found in other places, but the “For Dummies” style of the book invites a somewhat different approach to the material – for example, there are “Exercises,” or thought experiments at the end of sections to inspire the reader to consider how they would handle certain situations

The book outlines the tasks of the gamemaster and his relationship with the players, the different types of players (power gamers, storytellers, etc.), suggestions on dealing with problem players and resolving personality conflicts and conflicting player desires, as well as preparation and story structure. It is the latter two of these that I found the most useful, particularly the suggestions for using Mind Maps and Conflict Webs to structure and organize stories.

The book is wrapped up with an appendix that includes Georges Politi’s list of 36 dramatic situations (with possible RPG applications added to each) and possible solutions to the exercises presented throughout the book.

Gamemastering is an excellent collection of GM advice compiled in a familiar format – but one that I hope won’t turn too many gamemasters away, because the content is solid and very useful.

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It should be pretty obvious by now that I am a big sucker for any product that helps inspire creativity and improvisation, and generally makes the GM’s job easier – and I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon many in recent years.

Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game could be a candidate for one of the best GM tools ever, at least in my book. It is a 300+ page collection of NPC personality sketches that is not just a list of characters, but a collection of tools to adapt them to your own campaign and use them to the best advantage. It’s not only a book of NPCs, it is a book on how to NPC.

The entire first chapter is devoted to GMing advice – making NPCs memorable, “re-skinning” NPCs from one genre to use them in another, polarizing elements of the character to make them unique – and most importantly, how to not overdo it (these are supporting characters after all, and should never steal the show from the real protagonists).  The lists of traits and “invisible keywords” at the end of this chapter, and the explanation of how they were used, will prime any imaginative GM to immediately begin customizing these NPCs before they even get to them.

After that comes the parade of NPCs, divided into three genre categories (fantasy, modern, and sci-fi), each of which are divided into sub-categories (villains, neutrals, and allies). Each NPC is fleshed out in an array of descriptors – Name, Capsule Description, Quote, Appearance, Roleplaying, Personality, Motivation, Background, and Traits. The descriptions are very concise, to keep the most important and functional elements of the character in the foreground. Many of the NPCs could easily be adapted to other genres with a bit of fiddling and tweaking (and advice for this is supplied in Chapter One).

If all of this wasn’t enough, the book contains a “name ribbon” running through it – a one-line list of names running along the bottom of most of the pages that a GM can quickly reference if a character name is needed on the fly.

While looking through this massive collection of character backgrounds, I found an additional use for it, as I caught myself coming up with story ideas to draw them into. I’m even tempted to challenge myself and choose some at random (they’re all numbered) and try to write a plot around them!

As a side note – I was pleased to discover that it was inspired by one of my favorite Dragon magazine articles of all time – “The 7 Sentence NPC,” by C.M. Cline. It appeared in the August 1992 issue, and I’ve kept a photocopy of it in my RPG binder for many, many years now.

I really can’t recommended this collection enough for any serious GM’s reference library. If I had to come up with a negative about Masks, it would be this – it’s entirely too big to fit into my RPG binder. I’m probably going to have to invest in a good tablet PC that can display PDFs.

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WyshMaykers is a storytelling game about a special group of people who have the power to make wishes (sorry… “Wyshes”) come true.

The setting is rather open-ended – no time period is implied (though it seems to assume a contemporary one), so GMs could set their stories in almost any era they liked. Virtually no mention is given to the repercussions of this wanton WyshMayking. Do Wyshes cause any kind of karmic backlash? Are WyshMaykers only allowed to make Wyshes when the mundanes aren’t looking? If not, what would happen if a mundane witnessed a Wysh in action? None of these questions are answered, but the right group of players may have a good time making up their own.

The game uses -U-, a fairly rules-lite system.  Characters are detailed by three Attributes (Action, Thought, and X, which is sort of a catch-all attribute for things such as Will and Luck), a list of Studies (areas In which they have some level of expertise), and any Items that they possess. To create a character, players assign dots to these Attributes, Studies, and Items. Actions are resolved by rolling 3d6 for each dot in the appropriate Attribute (plus any dots in related Studies and/or Items). If any of the 3d6 rolls come up with a pair of matching numbers, the action is a success, while three matching numbers indicate a critical success. No matches denotes failure.

It’s a very freeform system – possibly too much so. The Wyshing ability allows a character to do pretty much anything they desire, with little in the way of limitation (a table of modifiers makes larger acts of Wyshing more difficult, but at the very worst, there’s still a 1 in 36 chance that a WyshMayker can topple a skyscraper). There is a large and powerful group – the Society of WyshMaykers – who work to keep any such activity in check, but even with them in place, I fear for any gamemaster who ends up with even a single powergamer in their group. Please choose your players responsibly if you decide to run a session of WyshMaykers.

The artwork is rough and sort of “scratchy,” and leaves a bit to be desired – thankfully, it is somewhat sparse and non-distracting. The crumpled paper background for the “World of WyshMaykers” section makes it a little more difficult to read, but is absent in the print version of the document.

WyshMaykers gets bonus points from me for the inclusion of the “Print 2 Play” pages at the end of the book. These include character record sheets, story outline cards, and cards to help players keep track of their points, as well as “Rules-at-a-glance” cards. These cards contain a simple synopsis of the rules so that the Story Referee and players can check them quickly, without having to reference the rulebook. They even have the page arranged in sections, so you can fold or cut it apart to make it pocket-sized. This is something that I wish every RPG publisher would do with their game (in fact, for those that don’t, I usually end up making one myself, the first time I run the game).

Check out WyshMaykers: The Game of Magical Stories at DriveThruRPG.

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Edison Force is a setting supplement for QAGS (Quick Ass Game System) set in the early 1900s, combining weird science with the real-world vision and inventions of that era. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison team up to create a mobile weapon that will defeat the forces of Marshovia from invading Florida, and eventually form a special force to hold back any future efforts against the United States – the Edison Force.

This short and sweet package for the QAGS RPG rules comes complete with player archetypes Ex-Soldier, Daredevil, Aviator, Junior Inventor, and more), weird science equipment from the 1900s (a lot of guns that shoot lightning, as you would guess), sample skills, gimmicks, and weaknesses, as well as a sample adventure – Edison Force Versus the Martians, in which the Force is called to investigate some strange walking machines in the Arizona Territory.

The GMs section includes historical characters from the era statted up for play, and there’s a great section of inspirational books to get you into the proper mindset. The art and layout are very good, as I’ve come to expect from Hex Games. It’s a small package (37 pages), but it would make a great one-shot campaign for any gaming group that is looking to try something different and unique.

Macabre Tales is a Lovecraftian pulp horror role-playing game, geared for one-shot adventures for one player and a narrator. From the retro-pulp cover to the story-driven rules to the discussions of theme and mood in Lovecraft’s stories, the whole game looks and feels like a loving tribute to a favorite author.

The game mechanic involves two sets of double-six dominoes with a few pieces removed. The player keeps these as a pool to draw from during the game, and draws three face up as a hand. When an action requires a check, the narrator assigns a challenge level, then tells the player which stat (and possibly which aspect) will be necessary to complete the task. The player then plays a domino that they hope will cover the challenge rating. The outcome is based on the level of their stat, which determines which end of the domino is read (low, high, or both), and the aspect is added for a result that should meet or beat the challenge rating. Doubles and blanks get special treatment, but I’d rather not spoil all of the details of the mechanics – it’s simple and elegant, and I would love to see it become the engine for other RPGs in the future.

I should point out that there are alternate rules that allow for more than one player, but they require a LOT of dominoes – two sets for each player (If you’re not particular about quality, you can find cheap dominoes at your local dollar store*.)

In lieu of traditional take-turns-bashing combat rules, Macabre Tales uses Tension Scenes, in which the player gains and loses Momentum Points that determine how well (or poorly) things are going for them, with the Momentum Point goal getting higher as the story develops. The player is rewarded with Genre Points for appropriate actions, cleverness, and evocative narration, which can be used to help them in future checks. It’s a solid story-driven rule system.

Included are a list of sample supporting characters, stats for most of the well-known Lovecraft creatures (Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Shoggoths, et al), a list of abilities to create your own horrors, and a sample adventure, “The Cursed House.” Macabre Tales is not only an excellent Lovecraft RPG, it’s a great resource for how to run any Lovecraftian horror game, with tips and analysis of the themes, mood, and settings of his stories.

I often wonder, when reading, running, or playing an RPG based on the works of an author, what that author would think about how gamers are treating their creation. Reading through Macabre Tales, I get the feeling that is the RPG that Lovecraft would give his Elder Sign of approval.

Now, if I can just find a few sets of Cthulhu Mythos themed dominoes, I’ll be a very happy cultist.

Check out Macabre Tales at DriveThruRPG.

(*TIP: After writing this, I found sets of double six dominoes at Dollar Tree. They’re a bit smaller than typical dominoes, but they should do the trick nicely, and for not a lot of money.)