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.
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.
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.