Review of SlyFlourish’s Dungeon Master Tips
Last week Mike Shea of Sly Flourish published his own E-Book: Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips [Kindle Link]. This thing should have really been called “Dungeon Mastering, The Missing Manual,” if that wasn’t already trade-marked. The main thing this book provides is how-to’s and suggestions for actually prepping and running a game. The Dungeon Master Guide 1 & 2 does a good job of providing advice for dealing with players and all the rules and suggestions for building worlds and stories. This book fills in the gaps by giving advice on how to actually go about doing things and running them at the table, with suggestions involving cards, tools, step-by-step planning, and making things fun for your players.
When @Slyflourish tweeted it was available for download, I went to the Kindle store and got it so I could read it either on my computer or my iPad. My initial impression has been quite positive. First off this book isn’t just a compilation of his daily tweets, which was a potential concern. He says this is all new material, although much of book’s advice is informed the ongoing discussions on Twitter and the blogs. Mike’s had a lot of gaming experience and time to think and write about various game issues, and it shows by the maturity and applicability of the advice.
The books is broken down into three arbitrary sections: “Build Your Story” and “Design Fun Encounters,” and “Run a Great Game.” Although these are distinct actions of DM’ing, I call them arbitrary because his suggestions for running a great game inform how to design fun encounters which affect how you build your story. Theses activities are fluid, or at least continuous and incremental: you’re never done building your story if you follow this advice and center the story organically on the PCs.
I’ve selected a few points to paraphrase that really stood out for me, and I hope to use the next time I DM. I’m illustrating them because I consider myself to be pretty experienced at this hobby (22 years and counting), and yet I’m always finding new ways to think about running games and new takes on old techniques. Some of the advice in this book that struck my fancy:
- Build the story organically, centered on the players, i.e. don’t write too much outside of what they are going to immediately deal with and then shoehorn them in to a plot.
- Use “off-camera stories”. Reveal NPC subplots to your players. This was done as a cut scene in the game I’m playing in currently. Unfortunately I think that the NPCs actions/motivations were a little too immediate to what the party was doing. My fellow players were able to use this to metagame too much during some recent encounters, and I feel like we lost the fun of having the mystery. If you follow this advice, I think you should should reveal plot elements that add to the background or world, but can’t be used right away by the players.
- Use the Encounter Checklist. This list makes sure that you have all your bases for an encounter covered. Interesting terrain? Check. Traps? Check? Multiple ending conditions? Check. Read the book to find out the rest.
- How to deal with players stacking up resistances and yet keep the encounter fun. This involves using auras and combining monsters that negate effects or work well with each others’ effects. This leads to a fun encounter where the players can get real sense of accomplishment just by breaking up the combo by killing a monster and making their resistances useful again.
- Managing time and pacing. This includes advice for handling the player issues that affect a game’s pace (e.g. arguments, combat, rules lawyering, etc).
As for the non-wordy aspects of the book: the art is colorful, cute, and appropriate for this e-book, but not super-high quality. You’d probably be PO’d if it were the art supplied with a $30 WotC hardcover, but it gives the impression that this whole thing is a labor of love. While visually amusing, the pictures didn’t always fit in with the topic, and it would have been nice if they were better integrated with the text, although that might just be a kindle issue. The $7.99 feels a little high for an advice e-book that I finished in an hour. I’d feel more comfortable with $4.99 or $5.99 price point based upon its usefulness and what I’ve experienced with other self-published RPG pdfs. However, the advice is certainly great and I don’t regret spending it.
If you’re currently running a game and there are few things that don’t quite click or feel inefficient, this book probably has enough to help you overcome that and have more fun. If you’re new to DMing, some of the advice might be a little overwhelming without reading and understanding the advice in the DMGs first. There is enough useful stuff on a range of running a game topics that any DM would find something in here they could use right away. For me, I have to find a game to run first. I’m not sure how much of this translates to other gaming systems, although any advice when it comes to managing players and stories is transportable.
Let us know how you like the book, and be sure to give your feedback to Mike at Sly Flourish as well.
I should disclose that although this review was unsolicited and I did pay for my own copy, I did receive an acknowledgment in the book. But I didn’t know that until I was done reading and I don’t think colored my impression too much. Make of it what you will.