Review: How to Game Master like a F***ing Boss

This is my review of Venger Satanis’ book on Game Mastering tips, tricks and guidelines. The original version of this review included some play reports but things got very long. I’ll post those seperately.

How to Game Master like a F***ing Boss was an entertaining and easy read. It is well written; using a light, conversational tone that is heavy with self-aware humor and light in pretentiousness.

While there are plenty of sources of Game Mastering tips out there, in published works and blogs, I found several fresh, unique ideas. Here are three that stood out to me:

  • Deeds of Might: giving each player a finite source of bonus dice each session that can be spent to perform potentially extraordinary feats. These dice may be spent sparsely or a bunch at a time. While this concept is nothing new, I rather liked the implementation.
  • Handing out a brain teaser to occupy the players while taking a break. I can’t believe that I never thought of this before (or simply taking a break after leaving a cliffhanger at the table).
  • Improvisation via Covert Solicitation: using player ideas and expectations to create encounters and events (covertly “passing the joint” around the table and gathering ideas for your use). I was a fan of this concept when I played Dungeon World, but this method is more casual and less formal.
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It wouldn’t be a Draconic product without tentacles, skulls and cultists.

I appreciate Venger’s goal to bridge “old-school” with the new. He uses the term “O5R” in reference to the OSR movement (Old School Revival) and the latest (fifth) edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This strikes a chord with me because I’m doing exactly that: using OSR and DIY (Do-it-Yourself) material in my modern edition campaign.

The quality of the artwork is really decent (Venger never disappoints in this dept.). There are lots of evocative, full page illustrations. Some are rather campy and kind of sleazy (in the tongue-in-cheek manner of Heavy Metal magazine). Luckily, they’re always interesting. Three of my favorites:

  • An homage to the first monolith scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey, but with dinosaurs instead of apes.
  • A page and a half spread of a classic dungeon party with traits that made me think of Elfquest, Erol Otus and Ralph Bakshi.
  • A mage and a dwarf warrior battling it out on top of a freakin’ speeding monorail! Also, winged horrors approaching to eventually join the fray.

While I really liked the art (I feel that this book has the most impressive collection of any of Venger’s books to date), I wasn’t a fan of the iconic watermark on each and every page. I felt that it was distracting and would have preferred a lighter version or if it had been placed off in the side margin (as is seen in Venger’s other recent publication, Crimson Dragon Slayer). I also felt a bit jarred while reading half of a sentence at the bottom of one page and being interrupted by a full page illustration while flipping to read the rest of it later on (to be fair, this isn’t likely to be an issue in the printed version).

The font and the 2-column text layout are fine and easy on the eye (except for the before mentioned watermark). My only criticism relates to the center margin: at times it felt a bit narrow, especially when two headings ended up side-by-side in each column. I usually read these as a single heading. I also would have liked a bit more space above the footer: the text at the bottom of each column came a bit close at times. Take these criticisms with a grain of salt: I’m no desktop publisher or typographer. This is all personal taste.

The headings were nice and clear, and often sardonic or clever. Whenever they were a bit vague, they were thought-provoking or attention grabbing. Some of my favorites:

  • When Metallica forgot how to be Metallica
  • The Waiter Analogy
  • Flatlining the Burning Chrome of Chiba City

The Game Mastering advice includes all manner of topics that you’d expect: handling different kinds of players, campaign management, finding inspiration, pre-game prep, improvisation, balancing encounters and pace. What made this book feel a bit more unique were the tips on lifestyle and handling stress. Sure, some books out there offer advice on managing a campaign, few offered advice like Venger’s that bordered on self-help or mental health (in a good way). I appreciated these sections a great deal because of my own life experiences and current family life.

There’s lots of great stuff in here: I guarantee that every Game Master will find something inspiring and useful.

A few sections, however, will probably draw ire from some critics. While I “get” Venger’s attitude, I still cringed slightly at a few things that I know could draw negative attention. While I refuse to be a moral judge about authors and artists, others out there might not. All that I’ll say is that this work, like all of Venger’s products, isn’t for absolutely everyone.

Here are a few tips that I liked:

  • A pre-game mantra-like poem: it clears your mind and, if you speak it out loud in a few different voices, gives you a bit of practice playing out different NPC personalities.
  • Tips on improving your presentation and style (comfy and nice attire, boosting self-confidence, getting into a good state of mind, being a good “waiter” and ensuring that you use a complete set of same-colored dice: all of which may seem trivial or shallow, but I find that there’s value in this advice).
  • Building encounters with Three Aspects. Just like with the Fate fractal, give each encounter three aspects for added detail, interest and context for the players. You can drill down and give three aspects to NPCs, objects and even the environment. A nice, concise idea. As you might have noticed, I’m quite a fan of the Rule of Three.

I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to spoil anything: part of the enjoyment of this book (and conversely, a bit of an annoyance, see below) is discovering something new as you flow from section to section.

While the journey is entertaining, I still would have liked a *bit* more structure. These tips could have easily been grouped into sections or chapters (Game Master Lifestyle, Your Players, Campaign Management etc…). While these topics do flow somewhat naturally, I had trouble going back to reference some things later on (I couldn’t remember under which heading some things appeared). Because of this lack of structure, the Index is just a huge list of titles sorted by order of appearance. A Table of Contents would have been a nice addition, but there is none.

I’d also add that while it was a nice surprise to discover a whole section of tables, languages and even maps (which are all really, really well done), there was no indication of this in the Index. I know that some people decide on whether or not to buy a book based on the index; it is unfortunate that many may not realize how much they’re missing. A few uses of index headings like “Tables”, ‘Tools”, “Languages” and “Maps” would be a great and useful addition. To be fair, these are mentioned on the cover, though.

Loosely, I’d break this product down into these sections (in pages):

  • 4-70: Game Master Advice
  • 70-97: Tables
  • 98-116: Language reference (Viridian to English and then English to Viridian
  • 119-121: Dungeon Maps

The Tables are a great addition, useful in any Game Master’s kit. They’re system-agnostic; more like idea generators. Some are great for character creation (backgrounds and the like), NPC motivations/goals, cult generators and a vaguely Lovecraftian monster builder. In particular, I liked these ones:

  • Magic Item Mutations: mutation tables are a dime a dozen… for player characters. How about for equipment and magic items? Gnarly…
  • Stupid Gnome Hat: I’ll let you discover this yourself.
  • Reaction Table: some nice ways to alter typical encounters. Sure there are others, but I liked this one and the way that it works.

The Viridian section, by the way, is a made-up language that sounds suitably sinister and otherworldly for a variety of campaign styles: evil cults, demons, aliens or Mythos Monsters. It’s split into two parts: Viridian-English and then vice-versa. A nice reference if you quickly need eerie-sounding words.

Yes, they're duelling on a monorail and yes, it's awesome.
Yes, they’re duelling on a monorail and yes, it’s awesome.

I’d say that How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss is a worthy book for any Game Master out there. It is chock-full of great advice and tools. Despite a few minor quibbles about layout and structure, it is a very good read. As usual the cheesecake nudity and occasionally the subject matter will not be appreciated by all. After having read a few of Venger’s works, I know what to expect but it might not appeal to everyone. Please be warned, but please give this book a chance: it’s definitely worth your time.

You can purchase this book at DrivethruRPG.

Review: Mad Max Fury Road

Context: I love the Mad Max films. I’ve watched them all many, many times. Whenever I see another trailer for a Fast & the Furious movie, I roll my eyes and tell people to watch a George Miller film instead. Much more fury. This latest post-apocalyptic episode is the fury-est, for sure.

Fury Road was one of the best, most exciting, visceral and emotion-fuelled action films that I’ve ever seen. It has it all: action-packed chase scenes that have a point, cool characters that you can get invested in (and care about when bad things happen to them), great practical effects and stunts, and CGI used elegantly to accentuate and enhance, not to replace reality completely (it was seriously hard to figure out what was real and what wasn’t, most of the time, anyway).

mad max fury road
Beautiful is the mind that thought of this.

There were so many visuals that are stuck in my mind, so many scenes that still give me goosebumps. For comparison, most movies in the past two decades only hold one or two moments each in my heart of hearts. Even the great ones, like the Avengers and Nolan’s Batman flicks. This film is hauntingly memorable and so crazy that it overshadows just about anything else (who cares if Nolan flipped a real Mack truck: Fury Road blows up half a dozen).

charlize-theron-mad-max444-pxlThe actors were all great: Charlize Theron always impresses me and Tom Hardy was worthy of the role. The secondary characters were well casted. Despite the surrealism, everything made “sense” within the context of this world. But boy are you left wondering about some things; Miller leaves you with these glimpses without any corny narration or exposition. The movie just moves along mercilessly (the film clocks in at exactly 2 hours but feels like only 1).

I feel that the complaint that Max isn’t the main, most important character in the film comes from people who mustn’t have seen the previous films in the series. Other than the very first one, Max has always just been “along for the ride”, so to speak, in some other people’s stories of revenge, escape and hope.

I’ll skip out on the politics, though. There are many other sites discussing that far better than I could. All that I can say is that the MRA’s (Men’s Rights Activists’) complaints are misguided. The toxic masculinity portrayed in this film shows how badly it affects men just as much as it does women (and nature). Need an example? Legions of young men feeling that their only worth is to throw themselves to their death in pointless adrenaline and nitro fuelled rage.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend this film to everyone and anyone. It’s exciting, well-crafted and very progressive (strong, competent and interesting women).

GO see it!!!

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Yes, this is incredible, amazing and INSANE!!!

Review of Death Frost Doom

Cover by Yannick Bouchard
Cover by Yannick Bouchard

Death Frost Doom is a newly revised edition of a horror adventure. The title very accurately sets the prevailing mood, that’s for sure. While written for OSR games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it could easily be used with Dungeons & Dragons (any edition, really) or with your prefered d20/OSR game. With a bit of homework, it could be used with other games as well by tweaking the stat blocks and any of the prompts for saving throws.

It is a 66-page adventure written by James Raggi IV and Zak S. The cover art (in color) was done by Yannick Bouchard and the black and white interior illustrations, cartography and design were done by Jez Gordon. This is a review of the PDF edition.

The writing is conversational and clear. The layout, editing and typography are top-notch, making the text easy on the eyes despite the density of the content. The illustrations are wonderful and eerie: absolutely pitch-perfect for this module. Some of the full-page images slam you like sudden jump cuts in a horror film (the Referee gets an early preview of some of the terror that the players will encounter during the game). The maps are easy to understand and use. Overall an impressively well designed product.

The book begins with two maps: one for an exterior (and a small floorplan) and an interior dungeon map The former is keyed with letter, the latter with numbers (which was a nice idea for added clarity). As already mentioned, these are very well designed and easy to use.

There’s a concise table of contents with obvious section headers. While some have titles that are more flavorful than practical, their meaning is clear (eg: “Hell vomits its filth”, one of the last chapters before an Appendix of sorts, clearly implies a very messy, grim climax). The headers are each clickable and link to each section. Very nicely done.

We’re given a page of notes about this new edition by the two authors which includes some history of the adventure and insight into minds of its creators. Interesting stuff.

Then there’s a page on how the Referee can use this module (“The Approach”) which includes a few different possible options on how to get things started. After that, it jumps right into the first encounter with a very memorable NPC.

What I really liked about the structure of this first NPC encounter is that the author gives several options on how to use him (or her). There are roleplaying tips, a random table to dictate what he’s doing when the PCs arrive at his home and a full page of “ifs” to cover just about any possible interaction. This approach of handling an NPC is really, really fun and memorable besides being a great method to bring in some ominous foreboding. I’m a huge fan of modules taking a “do-it-yourself” approach. With this sort of tool, one can determine all of the details before or during the game, either randomly or by choice. I like this a lot and I’m very inspired already.

As an aside, the cool thing about this module is the author’s inclusion of suggested musical cues. That’s a nice touch; I appreciate putting effort into preparing good music for a game session. When I run this, I’ll follow this advice as closely as possible.

DFDThe first major location is the Graveyard. It is an open-ended and creepy place with all kinds of things that can happen to unsuspecting adventurers. There’s a strong hint that bad things once happened there (and are about to happen again). There’s lots to find or experience in this awful place: it is a great prelude to what comes next. The Cabin, which is totally an homage to a particular horror movie (three guesses which one), adds even further to the creepiness. There is a lot to find and interact with inside that weird place: players who like to tinker and prod at everything will be rewarded (and/or punished, depending on how you look at it). Really weird and neat encounters here: I would be sad if my players missed some of them. I’d probably include a hapless NPC ally or two as insurance (ie- to trigger some of these cool events if no one else takes the bait). These discoveries are not all negative: there are some beneficial things there too (or at the very worst: benignly WEIRD).

Next we get to the main dungeon, the Shrine, where the proverbial “shit” gets real. This is a very unique dungeon and it’s a delight to read, so I’ll omit any spoilers.

There are about thirty encounters in the Shrine (but more rooms than that number).

To start off, there’s some clear advice on how to run this location: it is not a typical dungeon crawl. First of all, there’s a time limit (that is measured in a really awesome and memorable way). A Referee really needs to keep track of this for maximum effectiveness. More on that later.

There are many things to explore and scrutinize here without referring to a character’s skills or abilities (except if something triggers a nasty trap or evil supernatural forces). Being careless or reckless will likely spell doom for a PC; being clever and methodical is by far the safer and more interesting way to go about it.

My favorite example of this sort of thing is the Organ. I won’t spoil it, but there are some really neat things built into this object. It ties into a feature of many of the other locations to a clever degree; the PCs will have reasons to return to it several times throughout the course of the dungeon. I’ll absolutely delight in presenting this device to the players and getting excited trying to anticipate what they’ll do. To me, that’s a trait of a well-written adventure, right there.

There are so many things to do and objects to experiment with that my mind reels with the possibilities. Admittedly there are a few “gotcha!” moments but they are never dull or straightforward and they always add to the weird horror mood.

Many of the rooms have ominous triggers such as “If the dead have risen” which modify the encounters quite a bit. In essence, the party could go through most of the dungeon, trigger this conditional event and then work their way back through the same rooms very differently. It’s a really effective technique.

Some of the key monsters provide fun possibilities for social interaction. None of them, as far as I can tell, are just there only to fight and kill. While interactions with the PCs may indeed lead to battle, this is not a certainty. Again, what a great idea: many undead monsters are not just mindless automatons, after all, but personalities with motivations (usually twisted). Several of these NPCs have had relationships, good or bad, with others of their kind, and if the conditions are right, encounters with them will be greatly affected by the PCs actions.

Art by Jez Gordon
Art by Jez Gordon

At last, near the end is the main event: what happens if certain conditions are met and how quickly (depending on that timer mentioned earlier). This is a BIG DEAL, tapping into the third word of the adventure’s title (Doom). Potentially, this event could have a huge impact on your campaign whether or not it completely wipes out the party.

There is no happy ending for characters involved with this adventure, really. Even if they do survive, their world will be quite affected. With a bit of tweaking, the Referee could build a really cool post-apocalyptic setting on top of the previous one, though. If I run this with well-liked pre-established character, I may indeed go that route. I’d run it as-is with newly created PCs, though, as a one-shot.

At the end of the book there’s a nice retrospective in which the original author (Raggi) talks about the first edition of Death Frost Doom and even includes some of the original artwork and maps.

Lastly there are a few player handouts, which are always nice to include.

Summary

This is an extremely well-written and fascinating adventure, even though it is quite grim and dangerous. Say what you will about the potentially lethal ending or the horrific themes: Death Frost Doom is the antithesis of boring or mundane. This is a very memorable adventure that oozes atmosphere.

I definitely recommend this adventure: even if you never run it (which would be a shame), you will be greatly inspired by the style and game-writing techniques. It is also a really fun read and the artwork is incredible.

You can purchase this on the LotFP store or on DriveThruRPG.