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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I’m not sure how I missed this on Gnome Stew when it was first posted, but I’m glad I caught it through a more recent post – John Arcadian explains The 3-3-3 Approach to Quick Game Prep. It sort of reminds me of Dr. Rotwang!’s  Adventure Funnel, another great tool for prepping adventures quickly.

Both are awesome, and you should definitely print them out and put them in your RPG binder for future reference, as I have done.

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Sonnet 18

Part of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, written in Amethyst (click image for more)

Omniglot is a comprehensive collection of languages and writing systems, both real-world and “constructed,” and is an incredibly inspirational resource for anyone interested in adding foreign languages to their roleplaying sessions.

There is a lot here for GMs to work with, whether you’re looking to create some convincing phrases or even if you just want some nonsensical filler text – you could, for example, create some simple documents in Arabic or  Ancient Aramaic for your troupe of archaeologists to find.  There are even writing systems that have been developed by visitors to the site – all of them very unusual. Use Visual Binary Cube on some keyboard displays in your cyberpunk campaign.  Write out a page from a crazed cultist’s journal in Bāgha. Want to burn a few real-world sanity points from your players (and maybe make them a bit nauseous to boot)? Give them something written in Rotor Script to translate – it’s a language in which all of the characters move as you’re reading them.

Just try not to get overwhelmed like I did. I may need to lie down for a bit.

(Thanks to BoingBoing for the link.)

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I’m not sure why I never thought of this before. While browsing through the Onsite Registration Book for Origins 2011, it dawned on me what I had in my hands – a long list of one- or two-sentence plot summaries for tons of RPG sessions! What better source of inspiration when one is looking for a quick idea for an RPG plotline?  Each entry, while very short, could easily be brainstormed into an extended adventure – and for plot twists, you could try combining two or more of them!

So save those old con books – pull the RPG Event sections out if you don’t have the room for the whole book – and take one down off of the shelf the next time you need an idea for a plot!

If you’re not subscribed to the Roleplaying Tips newsletter, you really should be. And if you haven’t downloaded the ZIP archive of the past 514 installments, you really should do so. It is a veritable flood of ideas, advice, and suggestions for tabletop RPGs – over eleven years worth – that is practically guaranteed to inspire and/or improve your roleplaying sessions.

There’s a book I’ve been working on that I keep tucked into the backpack that I carry with me where ever I go. It’s not something I’m writing myself – I’m more of the editor/compiler of it.

It’s one of those paper folders with bendy metal tabs in the spine to hold three-hole punched pages into place, and it’s full of various things that I have printed out or photocopied that I find helpful in brainstorming RPG ideas. Whenever I have a bit of free time (and don’t have a anything else to read at the moment), I pull it out and read something at random out of it.

Here is a list of what I keep in that book:

  • The Big List of RPG Plots by S. John Ross – A list of 30+ basic plots that you can use as springboards for an adventure. Includes tips on how to use them creatively – combine two, reverse the roles, etc.  This is great for those times when you have to come up with something fast, but it’s also good for laying down the basic foundation of your plot.
  • Yes, But… Part One and Yes, But… The Scenario (from “See Page XX”) by Robin Laws -Two great columns on how to answer player requests with “Yes, but…” instead of “No.”  In the second column, Laws suggests running a full-freeform game in which the PCs ask you questions that are all answered with “Yes, but…” (To get these two, you’ll have to purchase a PDF of the first 24 installments of this column, but there is a lot more good advice to be found among them, and the price is right.)
  • How to Play Role-Playing Games and How to Run Role-Playing Games by Greg Stolze – Two free PDF pamphlets by one of my favorite RPG designers. Both of these cover the basics of the hobby, but I always find myself reading them to remind myself what those basics are. “How to Play…” is also handy for giving to anyone who would like to understand the hobby (when you’re too pressed for time to explain it yourself).
  • Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws – Tons of incredible GM advice packed into 33 pages – focus, mood, story structure, improvisation, and a lot more. It’s hard to crack this open to a random page and not get something from it that you’ll want to try in your next session. (Thankfully, Steve Jackson Games made this one available as a PDF – the original print run sold out quickly, and dead tree versions are going for ludicrous prices on eBay!)
  • The Seven Sentence NPC (from the August 1992 Dragon Magazine) by C.M. Cline – This one will be a little tougher to get than the others, unless you have access to back issues of Dragon or the CD-ROM archive of the first 250 issues that came out a while ago.  The basic idea is simple, however: when creating NPCs for your campaign, describe them in seven sentences, based on seven character qualities. The article gives specific qualities, but you could certainly come up with seven of your own, that would custom suit your campaign.
  • The Adventure Funnel by Dr Rotwang! – This was one of his posts from his blog I Waste the Buddha With My Crossbow on how to brainstorm the basic elements of a story on the fly. I liked it so much that I use it almost every time I’m coming up with a plot – but I usually need to remind myself how to do it.
  • A Quick Primer to Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch – A brief manifesto on the old school style of roleplaying. Debates on old- versus new-school roleplaying have been running rather hot lately, and I’m not interested in getting into any of them.  I can appreciate and enjoy both forms. What this doc does is to examine the freeform style of old-school play, and shows how creative and intuitive it can be.

And that’s my RPG inspiration book… for now, anyway. There is still room for more pages, and I’m always open to suggestions.  Have any? Leave them in comments!