Game Master. Dungeon Master. GM or DM. Referee. World builder. Storyteller.
Whatever you call it, it’s easy to rely on your game of choice’s Game Master guide, but there’s a wealth of really good books that tackle the subjects of being a good game master, prepping games faster and better, and running a fun scenario.
I have yet to read all of these, so do some research before you buy; only you know your strengths and weaknesses as a Game Master, so it’s up to you to figure out what subjects to pick up. Hopefully, what I have read and what I’ve gathered from other readers will help point you in the right direction.
Broad Strokes Game Mastering
The following two books cover Game Mastering in broad strokes, touching on every aspect of it. These books seem most useful to new Game Masters because of this, though be aware that the subject matter — being broad as it is — could make these books largely useless to your specific needs. Do your research here.
Of course, you can also go with your game master guide of choice for the game you play. That’s the easiest path, but industry writers being what they are, they actually may not be the best resource for what you need outside of the game mechanic-specific stats and rules. A few of the best written such guides I’ve come across, and what they offer to people who may not be playing the game in question, are listed here:
- Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D (1st Edition): This book is either fondly remembered for its hundreds of tables, Random Dungeon Creation tables and rules, and ridiculously varied lists of stuff…or it is remembered as a frighteningly laid out, opaquely written mess of random musings in nearly impenetrable form. Either way you cut it, it was the first for the hobby, and its utility from the sheer breadth of ground it covers cannot be overstated.
- Dungeon Master’s Guide for D&D 4th Edition: Along with the second entry that came out during 4E’s days, this book really changed up how a D&D DM’s guide was written by concentrating far more on general tips and tools for story, pacing, and “table rules.”
- Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook, 2nd Edition for Star Wars the Roleplaying Game (West End Games): This book was among the first that really tried hard to explain what “dramatically appropriate” means, in terms of story and balance, as well as with how “story” in a roleplaying game isn’t the same as it is in heavily plotted works like novels or movies.
- Dungeon World: The core conceits of Dungeon World (and much of the Powered by the Apocalpyse games) is such that they very clearly lay out agendas, goals, and “moves” that a Game Master does in order to flesh out the world (with the help of the players), apply the rules to make fun and challenging game sessions, and respond to the actions of the players to make it their story, their campaign. As such, it is invaluable for framing what a GM does in any roleplaying game.
- Mythic GM Emulator: Do you find yourself hard-pressed to make “the right” decision in the heat of the moment? The Mythic GM Emulator is an excellent tool that develops a system for determining possible events and allowing you to roll for them, making logical decisions specific to the game you are playing.
I’ve written a few articles about how to prep published materials, and there’s loads of info online about doing so for specific types of gaming — convention games, for example. But preparation is a whole is a lot like project management, and has the biggest potential for time-sinks and roadblocks, so it’s great that there’s a few books touching on the how’s and why’s of project management specific to roleplaying game preparation and management.
- Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management and Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep, both by Phil Vecchione, are great tools for understanding this facet of the Game Master’s life.
While any book on improvisation can be helpful to both Game Masters and players — and there’s a lot of them for actors! — there are two written specifically for roleplaying gamers, and both come highly recommended:
- Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters by Martin Ralya
- Play Unsafe: How Improvisation Can Change The Way You Roleplay by Graham Walmsley
I’m all about things that can be immediately useful at the table, and re-used over and over again. The following books contain exactly that sort of thing, and thus are great when planning a new campaign or one-shot, or for reference during gameplay in order to ease the burden of having to improv something on the spot.
- Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game by the folks at Gnome Stew RPG Blog. It’s just that: a book of Non-Player Characters you can use at a moment’s notice to add life to the people the players interact with.
- Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters by Martin Ralya and many others. Stuck for plot ideas? Not any more! Best for use in session prep…which could mean 5 minutes before game time if you’re a procrastinator and don’t mind some improv.
- XDM X-Treme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy & Curtis Hickman is a tongue-in-cheek walkthrough of how to be a “Killer DM,” treating your RPG of choice as an antagonistic affair in which you kick the players’ characters in the nuts every chance you get. But if you chuckle at the humor and read past it, you’ll find a wealth of information on how to improv without making it look like you do, how to challenge the players without actually destroying their sense of self-worth, and how to prepare campaigns and scenarios that really provide a lot of player-driven plot control, without requiring you to go outside of your comfort zone, or what you’ve already spent hours prepping and they seem hell-bent on avoiding.
- Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding by Wolfgang Baur and others, as well as Kobold Press’ other guides on Combat, Magic, and more, all of which feature a stable of industry professionals writing related articles. We’re talking about “how to” articles from the likes of Ed Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms), Keith Baker (creator of Eberron), Robin Laws (writer of many of the best game-specific GM guides, and Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, which seems pertinent to mention in this article!), Monte Cook (game designer extraordinaire), and pretty much every other major game designer in the industry, past and present. Some of the articles in each book touch on theory a bit, but most are “use-this-at-your-table,” immediately helpful advice.
- Toolbox and Ultimate Toolbox, by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), remain two of my favorite books of random tables covering nearly everything. The first is a bit D&D (3.5E) specific, while the latter delves a lot more into RPG plot structure, but both have a wealth of immediately useful tables to get your juices flowing during prep or play.
- DriveThruRPG has a bazillion more offerings along these lines. Just be sure to check the reviews to make sure you know what you’re getting: some are immediately useful (Monster Parts List by Spellbook Games), while others are poorly written, largely useless notes from an inexperienced writer.
As long as you do your research and really check the reviews, you’re likely to find at least a few of these books useful, in part or in whole.
What Game Mastering books have you found useful across many games?
What are your favorite books for the GM toolbox you’ve built up for yourself?
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