One of our goals for Gnome Stew in 2012 is to be more selective about reviews. Each gnome approaches that goal in a different way — for me, it means saying “No” a lot and generally only reviewing things that are specifically GMing-related. Not “GMs can use this,” or “It’s a game with a GM.” GMing tools and resources. (Unless something is really good/bad or I’m really excited about reviewing it, of course.)

And I’ll be honest: A lot of the time, I don’t enjoy writing reviews. It takes a shitload of time, as in several hours to do an in-depth one, and I just don’t have that kind of time these days. And yet, reviews are one of the most useful things gamers can contribute to the community, so I want to do them when I can.

I made time for The Game Master, by Tobiah Panshin.

That’s really the title?

Yes, the title of this free ebook is “The Game Master.” It’s a terrible title, totally generic and uninspiring.

Wait…and it’s free?

Yep, totally free. You can download it in PDF or ePub, donation optional. (Update 6/16/12: You can now buy the book in print for $9.99, as well.)

So it has a bad title and it’s free…it sucks, right?

No, it doesn’t suck one bit. But I thought it would, too!

Some things can be free without making me raise a mental eyebrow, like blogs. I expect blogs to be free. But if someone takes the time to write a goddamn book, which I can personally attest is something that takes a motherfuck-ton of time and effort, and then publishes it for free, I always wonder if it’s because they didn’t think it was good enough to sell. That almost stopped me from checking it out.

Plus, who really needs a review of a free book? It’s free; go try it out for yourself. In the time it’s taken you to read this far into what is, so far, not really a review, you could have skimmed the first few pages and had the same realization that I did when I somewhat begrudgingly skimmed through the first few pages: This book most certainly does not suck.

Not only that, but the author should really be charging for it.

Here’s my review:

“The Game Master,” by Tobiah Panshin,
is an excellent book

It’s straightforward. My favorite thing about The Game Master (TGM) is that everything about it makes sense. The writing is clear, the advice is sound, and everything is expressed in a straightforward, unpretentious way that makes it accessible without being aimed at the lowest common denominator. If you’re a GM, you can get something out of this book.

I wish it had existed when I was starting out. That’s not to say that TGM is only for novice GMs, or that you’ve already seen it all before. But it is a book that would make a pretty damned fine introduction to game mastering for someone just getting into the hobby. We need more books like this — and this one is free.

You can tell it’s based on extensive personal experience as a GM. When someone writes about GMing (or most things) without knowing what they’re talking about, you can usually tell. That goes double when they’re writing about something YOU know a lot about, or even just enough about to spot bullshit. I can tell that Tobiah speaks from experience, and he’s good at translating his own experiences as a GM into advice that other GMs will find useful.

It’s written in plain English. Have you read your share of pretentious, flowery bullshit about gaming? I have. TGM isn’t that in any way, shape, or form. It’s honest and simple in the best possible way, and is what it sets out to be: a guide to the art and theory of roleplaying, like it says on the cover. Note that it’s A guide, not THE guide. There is no “The” guide. And that’s okay. As “A” guides go, this is a good one.

It covers things that matter, and does so in a logical fashion. TGM starts out by talking about the PCs and the party, moves on to designing your own campaign, then addresses your first session and how to write adventures, and then closes with some advanced topics like how RPGs are conceptually different than other kinds of narrative fiction. Those elements are common to virtually every RPG, even ones where the group collectively plays the split personalities inside the mind of a space cockroach that thinks it’s a rabbit.

And lastly, there’s a throughline. Tobiah closes with an axiom and four laws that he’s found universal and illuminating during his GMing career:

The Axiom of Roleplaying: The purpose of gaming is to have fun; All other rules are mutable.

1st Law of Game Mastery: Communicate with the Other Players.
2nd Law of Game Mastery: Have a Plan.
3rd Law of Game Mastery: Collaborate with the Other Players.
4th Law of Game Mastery: An RPG is an RPG; Approach It on Those Terms.

Those five things are central to the whole book, and they show through in all sorts of places. It’s a coherent whole that works well as a guide to running games.

So should I download it?

If that axiom and those four laws don’t line up with your personal view of gaming in general and GMing in particular, you should pass on downloading The Game Master. Otherwise, you should download this book and, if you like it, make a donation.

My thanks to Tobiah for making The Game Master available to the gaming community. (Now go publish a print version and get it into stores!)