DMing is a craft, and if you are serious about it in any way, you will have read some of Justin Alexander’s work at the Alexandrian. Several of his essays are seminal and have had a significant impact on the hobby. ‘Xandering the Dungeon’, ‘The Three-Clue Rule’, ‘Don’t Prep Plots’, ‘Node-Based Scenario Design’, ‘Hexcrawls’ . . . if you haven’t read them, you really, really should. As well as his articles, there are cheat sheets, remixes, session write-ups, book reviews. In the last couple of years, he has also expanded into YouTube videos – I recommend subscribing. He is the co-creator of the Infinity roleplaying game and the wonderfully titled Magical Kitties Save the Day, which I really must play one of these days. And on top of that, he seems to be a really nice guy. He takes a huge amount of time out of his day to answer reader questions, and he sent me not just a PDF of his new book but even a physical copy (and given I’m not in the US, this is much appreciated).
What, then, is So You Want to be a Game Master? First of all: big! It’s a 544-page paperback, with beautifully illustrations and diagrams by Fernando Salvaterra and a nice clean layout. The subtitle reads ‘Everything you need to start your tabletop adventure – for Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and other systems.’ You might assume from this that it is a beginner-focused ‘how to DM’ book. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but I’m not quite sure it is: not because it’s ‘unfriendly’ to new DMs, but because it goes into a level of depth and detail which even experienced gamers will find useful. New DMs will certainly get a lot from it, but veterans might get even more.
After a short introduction, the book is organized into six parts. The first five each cover a different ‘structure’, starting with dungeons (arguably the simplest and most fundamental, although there are nearly 200 pages of detail here), then mysteries, raids and heists, urban adventures, and ‘into the wild’ (and with it, hexcrawls). The sixth part, ‘extra credit’ covers 100 pages on other fun topics such as world-building, recruiting players, running combat, and so on. Each chapter has a tongue-in-cheek ‘homework’ section where you are encouraged to apply what you’ve learned in a step-by-step process. I’m a teacher, so unsurprisingly, I love this.
The style is a pleasure to read: clear, fluent, lively. This is not a textbook. In fact, it is far more readable than the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and you will probably get more from it. It is overflowing with useful tips and advice, some of which are perhaps already familiar to regular readers of Justin’s work, but even there the advice is often updated and expanded from the original blog posts. It feels like the sort of book where you can flick it open more or less at random and find something interesting to read. (A case in point: I tried exactly this and got a great little sidebar about why you shouldn’t use an ogre mini as a stand-in for an umber hulk. And you know what, he’s right. You shouldn’t.)
What are my favourite bits? Probably the first and last sections: ‘dungeons’ and ‘extra credit’. 5e seems to be moving further and further away from its roots, and while that isn’t always a bad thing, it’s a shame that dungeons have become less and less important to the game. Justin takes you through the whole process and gets to you think about every aspect of it, be it trap design, boxed text, random encounter tables, or mapping. It’s a level of depth that many new DMs just won’t think about. ‘Extra Credit’ has some great ideas for creating and tracking campaigns, learning new RPGs, setting up an open table, and running NPCs. Again, some of these elements might build upon blog articles and YouTube videos, but having all the advice in one place is great.
Any minor quibbles? Not really. It is long, but that just means there’s more material! Some of that material is occasionally a bit crunchy (eg, the procedures for hexcrawls) but Justin makes it manageable for (lazy) people like me who need a bit of hand-holding with such things. There’s a bit of recycled material from the Alexandrian, but I don’t begrudge this, because a) it’s usually given a fresh treatment, and b) not everyone who reads this book will have seen Justin’s blog. To be honest, when I think about how valuable some of those articles are – like ‘The Three-Clue Rule’ and ‘Xandering the Dungeon’ – I think I would be more surprised if they weren’t included.
Final verdict: this is a great book. I’ve always thought Mike Shea’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is the book the DMG should have been, but So You Want to Be Game Master complements it nicely and really helps you to understand why we use these structures and how to do them properly. I’m conscious I got my copy for free, but for $24.99 (£18.99 in the UK) you’re getting a fantastic new addition to your gaming library. The book releases on 21 November, so pre-order it for Christmas and make your DM happy. Or if you are the DM in your life: start dropping hints to your players, perhaps by sharing this review.
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