Writing advice for Game Masters is hard. Perhaps the part of any RPG game that will see the most scrutiny is that ever so necessary section where the game attempts to explain Game Mastering in a way that makes it sound like more than a necessary chore. It can feel daunting and difficult, trying to bottle the lightning that strikes in a really good session of a game, where you feel like your position as Game Master was not just a mandated ploy by the rules system to keep itself together, but rather a marked improvement on the experience. It is a position that demands empathy, patience and innovation.
Advice on Game Mastering, beyond the very basics, is often a matter firmly rooted in perspective. We’ve all got our methods, and the people who disagree with them. We all sling around maxims and codify buzzwords that try to illuminate the abstracts that go on when we have fun at the helm of a game. The Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael E. Shea, AKA Sly Flourish offers a lot of advice that is worth considering in this arena. While targeted at experienced Dungeon Masters who are ready for a kick in the pants to their preferred lightning-capturing techniques, I would argue new GMs can learn even more from it.
The crux of the Lazy Dungeon Master is that there’s value in planning efficiently – and that planning too much or in too great a detail runs contrary to this. In planning too much, you’re spending less time on the things that matter. It has tips and techniques, many of which center on a “rule of threes” where you prepare 3 NPCs, 3 Paths, 3 Choices, etc, in order to have enough choice and variation, but not so much that you break your back plotting out your campaign, or confuse your players with too many interconnecting or conflicting details at a time. It contains very general guidelines and frameworks and then methods for using them more specifically and fleshing them out. Building up and out in this way, the book asserts that you can spend less time preparing but ultimately prepare more flexible elements and use them more effectively.
It’s difficult to describe it any further without giving away the magic trick, so to speak – I feel as though I’ve already said too much about the content! The tools presented are succinct and simple. The 3×5 post card features prominently as a symbol of creativity through limitation, and the 4th Edition D&D mantra of “Reskinning” is examined, quickly, simply, a whispered reminder in your ear if you’ve heard of it before, or a startling revelation if you’re new to the concept.
The “meat” of the book is 32 pages, an address to digital piracy, and 16 pages of interviews with RPG personalities like Tracey Hurley, Randall Walker and our own Dave Chalker. The interviews are fairly short, and vary in how interesting you’ll find them. The book comes in all your favorite formats: two PDF formats (large and small, which basically means single column and two-column), epub, and .mobi. There are hyperlinks in the text, both for parts of the book itself, and appropriate links leading out to all the websites and podcasts referenced in the text. A clean and simple layout makes it easy to read through.
The Lazy Dungeon Master is worth 5.99, which is a pretty good and accessible price for it. While the book asserts that it is intended to be given to Dungeon Masters who have run dozens of games already and have a lot of experience, I’d honestly rather recommend it most for new GMs as a companion to whatever Core Rulebook they’re reading at the moment. I fit into the audience the book purports to target, but I did not really feel that I had learned a whole lot by the end, or that there was something there I had missed. I feel I’ve mostly learned everything the book has to offer by osmosis just because I play a lot of indie and new school games, and because I read a lot of analytic content about those games. Perhaps it would also be useful to people who just don’t read the author’s own blog, or critical-hits, or other sources which cover the new school GM self-help niche.
Had I started my dungeon mastering career with the book in hand, however, I’d definitely be a lot more enthralled by it.