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Which RPG's, in your experience, have good advice for gamemasters in their rulebooks, both for novice and experienced gamemasters?

Please keep in mind that this question is not about good games for beginners. It is about good advice for gamemasters.

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closed as too broad by LitheOhm, Oblivious Sage, Ernir, GMJoe, doppelgreener Aug 13 '13 at 11:09

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

19 Answers 19

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I suppose it would depend on what you're trying to accomplish.

  • For attempting to "referee" an old-school or classic-style RPG game (based on or close to Basic D&D, Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, etc.), I'd definitely give a look at Matt Finch's Primer for Old School Gaming. It does a nice job of explaining some of the differences in philosophy between newer gaming and the classical assumptions some use for the game.

  • For D&D 3.x/Pathfinder, you can't go far wrong with the Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide. It's a number of essays, pieces of advice, and world/campaign-building tips that build on more than 10 years' experience with a basic system, and many more years of general gaming besides. This is one of the higher-rated books I've seen come out of Paizo, and that's saying something.

  • If you're more interested in "tools" and charts, and count those as advice, I would submit it would be well worth your time to find a copy of the Hackmaster 4th Edition GM's Guide. This book is chock full of charts, tables, and items for every single occasion. I use it with other games all the time, although it was written for Hackmaster. Again, this is less meta "advice" and more a toolkit for use in the game.

  • As an overall pick, as a generic product, I feel I would be remiss if I did not mention Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering. Although not a system-specific product, it stands as an excellent resource of general GM advice, and is generally considered a classic treatment on the subject.

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Apocalypse World. Hands down. Vincent has been refining the notion of teaching the players of his games how to actually play the game -- as opposed to just presenting a bunch of rules and then hoping the players get it. And thus far, Apocalypse World is his masterpiece. It is clear that it is teaching you one way to run games and then provides a ton of very specific things to do in order to run the game the way he wants you to.

Really, on reading this and thinking about it, it's kind of amazing that this is a new technology. But it is. And it's remarkable how different it is from most games in this regard.

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Each one of Vincent's games gets better and better at precisely this. I found In a Wicked Age to be a wonderful, concise, game that showed you how to play and taught you how to play. I'm still reading through Apocalypse World, but it seems to be, as you say, an even better example in this mode. – Viktor Haag Aug 31 '10 at 15:21

I personally think that Dogs in the Vineyard is not only some of the best "how to gamemaster" advice I have ever read, but it also has probably the best "how to play rpgs" advice.

I also think Burning Wheel is similar in this regard, once all of the supplements are combined.

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The material in the D&D 4e Dungeon Master's Guide 2 is really good; it's full of concrete suggestions and examples. It's aimed at more experienced GMs who've run games before, rather than first-time GMs. Robin Laws wrote it, and he explains not just what you can do but why you might want to do it. This makes it a toolbox rather than a set of instructions. Most of it is good for any game. It does lean somewhat towards the encounter structure of 4e.

Over the Edge also has excellent advice. It's a more free-form game, to a degree that was really unusual at the time it was published, so the GM advice is great as an introduction to a more experimental style of play. For example, there's no skill or stat list. One of the examples is a character who abused that freedom to make an overpowered character, and how the GM can work with that impulse rather than quashing it. The advice about adlibbing adventures encapsulates a similar spirit and is equally useful.

Matthew Finch's Quick Primer for Old School Gaming is absolutely awesome for anyone who wants to understand or play in the old school style. It's not a game, but it's still very good. It'll help both players and GMs understand how to make decisions about PC actions when the rules don't cover a specific situation.

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I definitely agree about DMG2. The 3E and 4E DMG2s were some of the best "how to be a good game master" books I ever read. – rjbs Aug 22 '10 at 22:16
I would add on DMG1 as well for its coverage of the different player types. – Popo Mar 12 '13 at 20:15

Some of the best advice I've read has been from Robin D Laws in his book, Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering. It's one of the best PDFs I've ever invested in.

Also I'd agree that the advice in the 4e DMG2 is also very good. Unsurprisingly much of it was written my Robin D Laws as well.

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As someone noted above, anything by Vincent Baker has excellent GMing advice which, while certainly geared towards the game at hand, will always offer broader insight.

The sadly overlooked Prince Valiant by Greg Stafford is a treasure trove of clear, straightforward advice.

I would also include the supplement Sorcerer & Sword by Ron Edwards. While focused on the Sword & Sorcery genre in relation to his game Sorcerer, there's lots of great stuff in it about how to make play come alive for players.

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Good call. Why not the other two Sorcerer supplements too? They're all three full of neat stuff. – clweeks Aug 23 '10 at 16:54
Indeed they are, though in my experience they're a bit further out to left field than some are comfortable with. Sorcerer & Sex, though, is possibly one of the most unique rpg texts I've ever seen... – kesher Aug 24 '10 at 13:54
I agree strongly with all your recommendations; they're all recommendations I would have made in my own answer. I'd add that the various incarnations of Pendragon (which Greg had a strong hand in) and HeroQuest (which Greg had a strong hand in) are also written with lots of good advice for everyone at the table on how to play the game (much of which can be extrapolated to games in general). – Viktor Haag Aug 31 '10 at 15:19

Spirit of the Century, a Fate-based game by Evil Hat, contains a lengthy and very useful section on how to run a game. It's broad enough that it applies to any genre and is helpful even if you're not running a Fate game. I re-read it from time to time to get inspired and to remember that more work doesn't mean better gamemastering.

Andy Kitkowski, creator of the Indie RPG Awards, said this about it:

Out of all the mainstream or indie books I’ve ever owned, no other company or designer has ever, EVER put as much time, thought and energy into making such a helpful section. The advice is universal (save for the one section on specific pulp games), it is solid, it is a MACHINE for producing GOOD GMs.

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It's a hidden gem. I owned SotC for quite a while without having read it fully (since I wasn't planning on running it any time soon), and only discovered the section after reading about it online. It's pure gold. – SevenSidedDie Mar 12 '13 at 19:55
Agreed. Spirit of the Century pretty much changed how I look at RPGs, both as a GM and as a player. And I don't even play it! – Steve G Mar 12 '13 at 20:05

Ken Hite's Gurps Horror (and its earlier renditions) is some of the best genre-specific game master advice out there for running Horror.

It starts by laying out exactly what is and what isn't horror, going over various tropes and stylistic elements. It then gives solid advice for how to run these, both mechanically and stylistically. It then ends with some very nice campaign frameworks (and even gives a format for campaign frameworks that ahs served me well to this day).

The only other gamemaster advice that I've felt has come close are the two 4e Dungeon Master's guides.

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Not only is B1 In Search of the Unknown probably the best introductory module for Dungeons & Dragons ever published, it is one of the very few D&D modules that also has extensive notes for the fledgling DM. The sections "Notes for the Dungeon Master", "Preparation for the Use of the Module", "Time", "Computing Experience", and "How to be an Effective Dungeon Master" are one of the best five page tutorials for running ANY edition of the game. Some of the advice is really good for any type of RPG, not just D&D.

Some snippets:

"First, it is crucial to keep in mind that this is a game based on player interaction and player choice. The game generally follows the course of the player's actions—if not always their plans!"

"Although you may set up situations to challenge them, you must understand that you are not their adversary, nor are you necessarily out to "defeat" them"

"if your players abandon caution or make stupid mistakes, let them pay the price—--but be fair."

Good advice for any beginning gamemaster!

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I like Unknown Armies because it shows how to construct a relationship map and explains the value in doing so. I also found the information on the use of themes, plot development, hooks, motifs, descriptive language, and characterisation to be well-written, clear, substantive and practical. The GM material comes across as practical and usable, whereas I find many GM chapters in other games tend to be vacuous and too abstract. I would recommend it highly to a beginner, or someone without a background in some sort of literary study, and I would consider it very valuable to even an experienced DM as a refresher, reminder, and useful summation of certain points.

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Mouse Guard is VERY well set up for the novice MG GM. It's highly structured, so it's easy to GM, and it has copious advice for the MG GM on how to build, use, and twist the structure.

Burning Empires also has excellent GM advice, and again, is a structured play style with a much more limited role than normal.

Both are written by Luke Crane. Burning Wheel, his magnum opus, is not as good on the accessibility score; BE and MG are written more carefully and with more advice, especially important because of their divergent play-styles.

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The Gamemastery Guide published by Paizo does have a light amount of Pathfinder crunch, but it has a LOT of great material for GMs of any game with a slight preference for fantasy.

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Agree with Swarm, it is by far the best one to come out in a while. – no thanks Aug 29 '10 at 15:17
Yes, I agree. The Gamemastery Guide is filled with things that I expect might prove useful to lots of PFRPG GMs: for example, the array of NPC writeups is very useful. – Viktor Haag Aug 31 '10 at 15:17

Unknown Armies has a great GM advice section, including some of the best advice about combat scenes in games that I've seen in print.

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I think I remember hearing that once before---now I may have to go dig it up! – kesher Aug 24 '10 at 13:55

Call me an old schooler but the 1st edition Dungeons Masters Guide is a treasure trove ideas and suggestions for game mastering. Granted it is not laid out in one convenient advice section, but spread thought the text. Even today after over thirty years of gaming I can pick up the 1st edition DMG page though it and almost always find a new nugget of wisdom or wisp inspiration that can help make my game a better one.

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A trove of treasures and blights, one could go on... – Alticamelus Nov 18 '10 at 13:59
It's certainly full of advice. Some of it is even comprehensible. How much of it is good is debatable! – Dave Hallett Nov 18 '10 at 15:58

Over The Edge has one of the best description of how to run the game. It is an amazing game, full of story ideas (and not just for OTE), a gazillion NPCs, and locations. The "How to run a game" section is one of the best I have read. It is full of advise on how to make games more immersive, how to deal with players' unexpected antics, and how to run good multi layered games.

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I was very impressed with the GM's Survival Guide for "Legend of the Five Rings". It did a very good job of how to set tone, how to handle situations, etc. I would recommend it even to people who don't play Lo5R, simply because most of the advice is very system's just good GM ideas.

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Hero Quest II (Robin Laws, 2009, Moon Design publications; I think you can get it as a PDF) has, unsurprisingly, a lot of GM advice, including a fair few ideas not in Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering. I'm not a huge fan of HQ, the system, but the book has been well worth the price to me. HQ2 solves some issues from HQ1, btw, and has been made into a generic RPG with this book, together with a "Gaming in Glorantha" section that is, I think, mostly the work of Jeff Richard.

The new ideas here won't be a huge surprise to anyone who reads Robin's blog: the Playing Stories section, in particular, has a lot of the Beowulf saga that he had there. But the section is now a masterpiece, though.

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A lot of great answers here, but I also enjoyed the gamemastering advice in John Wick's Houses of the Blooded. Wick advocates giving the players some game narration abilities, and his supporting ideas and examples in the Narrator chapter are excellent.

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Houses is filled with great advice, but it's not readily accessible to novice GM's, IMO. – aramis Nov 19 '10 at 6:08
@aramis The question doesn't explicitly call for the content to be accessible to beginners, though would, of course, be a bonus. – GMJoe Mar 27 '12 at 5:59

I think that the best rule book for game master I have ever read is The Book of Mirrors from Mage: The Ascension.

It goes from advising about how to make a good story and what is the objective of doing so to how to game master people with serious issues. Finally, this book it’s not about what you say during the game play, but how you focus so the game play is a good experience.

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