Book Review: The Game Master by Tobiah Q. Panshin

Being a game- or dungeon-master takes a ton of work. Doing it well takes even more work. And there are few voluntary jobs I know of that cross so many creative boundaries…

  • Writing
  • Acting
  • Storytelling
  • Project Planning
  • Conflict Management
  • Human Resources
  • Philosophy
  • Cartographer
  • Researcher
  • And many, many more…

I’ll be the first to tell you that a) it’s been many years since I GMed regularly and even when I was GMing regularly b) I never considered myself “the best GM” in any way, shape, or form. I had my moments but they were just that – moments – and I really relied on my players to help with all the creative duties whenever possible.

All of that said, I’ve been pondering how to review The Game Master: A Guide to the Art and Theory of Roleplaying by Tobiah Panshin and it’s been difficult for me to find the right approach. In many ways it tries to be a comprehensive textbook on GMing, which I found myself bristling at for some odd reason. It doesn’t *look* like a gaming book and gives off a non-fiction or textbook vibe over the course of its 170+ pages, even with the occasional cartoon panel from artist A. M. Thompson.

Regardless, there’s a ton of great advice contained within the book in three main areas – getting a group to agree on some common goals, putting a campaign together, and then actually playing. And for Panshin (as well as myself), it boils down to one main rule (or “axiom”) – “The purpose of gaming is to have fun.” If you’re not having fun, whether as GM or player, something isn’t right.

Panshin follows it up with four other simple rules:

  1. Communicate with the other players.
  2. Have a plan.
  3. Collaborate with the other players.
  4. And remember – a RPG is a RPG; approach it in those terms.

He approaches all of these throughout the book in those three areas I mentioned earlier… So I’m going to cover them at a high level.

First, you have to have a group to game with, right? Though Panshin doesn’t address getting the group together, there have been plenty of resources on the web offering tips and tools to do just that, and I’d point you at a great resource from Johnn Four of fame called Filling the Empty Chair to get started. Once you have bodies around the table however, it’s tempting to just take off running. That can get you into trouble at times however…

Though I can’t say that I’ve ever explicitly used one, Panshin suggests that each group have some sort of a “contract” in place to avoid any unnecessary conflicts from the get-go. If you’re playing a fantasy campaign that will largely take place over land, it doesn’t make much sense to have a sailor or pirate in your party and if you’re doing a lot of sailing, you might want to leave the dwarves at home. So setting the stage and getting some agreement ahead of time on what type of game you’ll be playing and generally how the characters should behave and work together (i.e. a bunch of loner, paranoid characters probably won’t work together well, but playing a group where everybody plays a wizard may not work well either).

Defining goals up front for the group to ponder during the character creation process is definitely a good idea. I’ve played in more than a few campaigns where we tried to do that but didn’t think through things all the way, ending up with characters ill-suited to the adventures we went on. So prior to rolling the dice and getting out character sheets, it’s good to know whether the character concepts will fit the game, the group dynamic, and the campaign. This not only helps out the GM to get a handle on the types of adventures he or she should create, but also helps the players keep their stuff together.

Once you have the ground rules set, it’s time to create the characters to go with the concepts. And here, Panshin has some great rules to consider: “No two players may fill the exact same role in the party.”; “Your character is a person who exists in society at some level.”; “You are an adventurer. You go on adventures. You do not avoid going on adventures.”; and “Your character is not out to betray the party.” All of these make perfect sense to me and I’ve dealt with the repercussions of breaking most of them during my gaming career at least once or twice. Now, there are no absolutes, so you should be free to break these rules when it suits your needs (i.e. an entire party of thieves working for a Thieves’ Guild), but know that as a GM and a player any of these can box you in in some uncomfortable ways at times.

And once the character is together, it’s time to consider their backgrounds. Remember that “your character must exist in society at some level” rule from earlier? That’s where this comes into play. What’s their past like? What did they do? How did they get to where they are now? And if you’ve played any FATE-based games like Spirit of the Century, you can take this a step further and integrate one or two of the other characters into a character’s background, binding the group together that much more.

While the players are working on characters, the GM should also be planning the campaign. But how does one “plan a campaign?” Panshin suggests outlining, which works pretty well. Once you brainstorm a few ideas, they can then be fleshed out through the outline structure. Coming up with those ideas, I might also recommend brainstorming exercises like mind-maps and the like. Ideas in hand, Panshin suggests three main areas for that outline…

The first section focuses on genre, tone, examples for inspiration, and style. These are the details you’d typically share with your group to give them a taste for the campaign. It’s “Sherlock Holmes” with a bit of “Supernatural” and “Clash of the Titans” thrown in… Or it’s a “Fantasy-version” of “The Avengers” with an “eternal war” raging against “extra-dimensional beings”… These are just the high-level ideas or “guideposts” you’ll use when designing adventures in the campaign.

The second section focuses on the “major actors” of the campaign. Who are the good guys? The bad guys? What’s happening? How does it end? How are the PCs involved? What are the major goals? And so on… As Panshin puts
it, by answering these questions “you can write the back of the box version of the campaign in one or two paragraphs.” Just enough to get started.

And the third section are the major events for the campaign. He describes them in terms of season finales and two-part episodes – the “BIG IDEAS” for the campaign that you’re building up to a bit at a time.

Once you have those three areas figured out, you can start planning at least the first adventure to see how things begin.

There are also good sections on selecting a setting and a rule system to fit your campaign, rather than trying to shoehorn things together that just don’t fit together. You don’t necessarily want to be playing a Star Trek campaign using Pathfinder, for example.

And then, once you have characters and a campaign plan, you can actually play some sessions of the game!

Panshin goes through some great points suggesting how to make sure that first session goes off with a bang, not a whimper. Make sure you have all the bases covered – Where? What? Who? How? It’s the same trick reporters have been using forever to get the facts straight. List out your critical bits – pieces of information, foreshadowing, NPCs, places, and how to keep the PCs involved all along the way. You don’t want to railroad them, but by having plenty of details at your disposal you can let them roam a bit to get their footing without keeping them on a wire forcefully.

Quite honestly there’s a ton of great information in The Game Master and not just for GMs, but for players as well.

My biggest issue with the book is that it’s very information dense. Even with the cute cartoons spread throughout the book, it’s not enough to break up the text. Perhaps some worksheets, bulleted lists, tables, gray boxes, and so on would help. It’s a book about gaming for gamers, so why not use some of the layout tricks and techniques used by game material publishers themselves?

Even with that gripe, you can’t complain about the price. It’s available for free as an eBook or PDF on Tobiah’s website, and at DriveThruRPG. Or if you’d rather have a printed copy, it’s just $9.99 through DTRPG, which is quite reasonable.

For more from Tobiah Panshin, be sure to check out his website, and I really encourage you to check out The Game Master if you get a chance!

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