At some point, I realized that I enjoyed reading about how games work and why, as much as I enjoyed reading and learning new games themselves. While I have gone out of my way, in the past, to find new books about the process of running and managing RPG campaigns, even if I wasn’t looking, it would be hard to miss Your Best Game Ever, a book about various aspects of learning, playing, and running roleplaying games from Monte Cook Games.
This review is based on the PDF version of Your Best Game Ever, which is 242 pages long. The book is full color, and features a greatest hits collection of artwork from other Monte Cook Games products. If you have seen any of the MCG books, you know these are impressive pieces.
Chapters have clearly outlined headings, with sub-headings and bullet pointed lists to emphasize material that has been presented in the text. There are sidebars that introduce various related topics and summarize them, as well as several full page interludes by various gaming personalities on a number of different topics. There is a single page index, which also includes an index of the contributor pages (21 separate short essays that generally appear at the end of various chapters).
While these are scattered throughout the text, I thought I would address them first, as they appear at the end of various chapters, are from a variety of writers, and touch on a wide range of topics. The contributors include:
- Susan J. Morris
- Matthew Mercer
- Bear Weiter
- Ajit George
- Tom Lommel
- Bruce R. Cordell
- Alina Pete
- Charles M. Ryan
- Stacy Dellorfano
- Shanna Germain
- Matt Colville
- Jennell Jaquays
- Sean K. Reynolds
- John Rogers
- Luke Crane
- Tammie Webb Ryan
- Monica Valentinelli
- Eric Campbell
- Tanya DePass
- Darcy L. Ross
- Eloy Lasanta
I wanted to specifically start this review addressing the contributions because when the Kickstarter for this product was live, I misunderstood the structure of this book. I was expecting an anthology of essays by the guest writers as the primary content of the book. As it stands, I think the book is stronger for having a cohesive voice, and then adding these single page, focused essays.
In addition to these sidebars, there are comic strips from DnDoggos, John Kovalic, Aviv Or, Brian Patterson, Len Peralta, Alina Pete, and Stan!, often emphasizing the point being made in the previous section of the book.
Part 1: Roleplaying Games
This section includes chapters called So You Want to Play an RPG and Understanding RPGs. Right from the start, it is interesting to see that the opening section of this book is written to people that are assumed not to have played or read an RPG first. Most game advice books are, for lack of a better term, 200 level treatments of the topic. They assume you know what an RPG is, have probably run at least a few sessions, and want to get better at doing that. In this case, the book is starting from the ground up, assuming you have heard of, but not fully engaged with, the concept of tabletop RPGs.
So You Want to Play an RPG is aimed at explaining what the experience of reading an RPG book may be like, getting a wider view of how RPGs function. It also addresses engaging with online content and exploring local game stores. There is a section on what people that have been playing RPGs over the long term may forget or take for granted that new players should know, as well.
Understanding RPGs introduces more of the structure and procedure of RPGs. It introduces the concept of the Three Entities, the game master, the players, and the rules, and discusses how these interact in play. Then the chapter delves into styles of RPG games (discussing topics like fun first or story first), including complexity and genre. The chapter also explores the differences between longer campaigns and one shots.
The chapter touches on communities that surround games, such as online communities, local game stores, and conventions. Perhaps most importantly for a section aimed at new gamers, it talks about the importance of being comfortable and safe at the table with the other people, and how to determine if it is time to move on from the game.
As an important note, this chapter also introduces its own form of safety tool, The Pause Button, which, as described, functions much like an X-Card. I like that this gets the idea of safety tools into the discussion of RPGs early on for a potentially new member of the RPG audience.
If there is a general downside to this section of the book, it’s that most of this is written from a more traditional RPG point of view. While it ranges from games with different tones, genres, and levels of complexity, it generally assumes traditional aspects of games like the split between GM and player responsibility, and doesn’t touch much on games that may not even have a GM. This is understandable, given that many new players will be entering via games with more traditional structures, but it’s worth noting.
Part 2: Being a Great Player
This section is comprised of chapters on Player Basics, Creating Characters, Playing Your Character, Everyone’s Favorite Player, and Character Arcs and Bonds.
The first section, Player Basics, emphasizes that a player needs to learn varying degrees of creativity, problem solving, roleplaying, and teamwork. It’s a relatively short chapter, but I think it summarizes the broad strokes really well.
Creating Characters is a general advice chapter, so it doesn’t go into what individual games may have in their character creation rules. It does emphasize several things that a player should be doing. As an example, it points out the importance of understanding genre, setting, and tropes, and creating a character that works in that context. It introduces some broad character types, as well as the decisions a player may need to make involving mechanical choices, such as being focused on key tasks versus having a broad range of abilities. There are tips and strategies for developing a personality, goals, and a backstory, and different reasons for choosing how detailed your backstory should be at the beginning of the game.
Playing Your Character largely deals with the relationship that the player has with other players and the GM, and how that plays out at the table. The chapter delves into concepts like spotlight time, metagame knowledge, and the degree to which the player is adding story details to the campaign narrative.
Everyone’s Favorite Player goes beyond best practices for a player, and moves into “above and beyond” practices. Most of this revolves around how to help the GM and other players with creative solutions, being a good guest in general, and looking for ways to be a supportive friend to others in the game group.
Character Arcs and Player Bonds introduce established character arcs and relationships that a player could have as a goal, or as an established connection with another character. The section on character arcs presents the broad concept of the arc, and has sections for the Opening, Steps, Climax, and Resolution of the arc. The bonds include a broad description of the bond, a suggested benefit, and a suggested drawback for the bond.
The Character Arcs and Bonds chapter is one of my favorites in this book. I really enjoy how it clearly gives examples of various tropes and how they could play out at the table. Even if a player doesn’t rigidly follow the structure outlined, they are a great tool for players to visualize directions their characters might take. If there is a downside to them, it may be that the section tries to give advice on using arcs and bonds as character advancement or to provide mechanical benefits or penalties, and I think that’s a little beyond the scope of the player section of the book and hard to encapsulate in a book giving general RPG advice, divorced of a particular game system.
Part 3: Being a Great Game Master
This section includes chapters on Game Master Basics, Building a World, Creating Adventures, Running the Game, The GM and the Rules, and Being a Dynamic GM.
Game Master Basics starts by explaining that it may be easier to GM if you have played in a game before, but that situation may not work for everyone. It then moves into what to do first to get a game going, how to start a session, as well as the responsibilities and skills that a GM will need to develop. A particular point that I appreciated in this section is that while you may be Running the Game, it is the entire groups responsibility to deal with table issues.
Building a World discusses how GMs need to plan out the world that the game they are running will exist within. This talks about creating new worlds, using established game products, or adapting existing properties to your game. There is a lot of advice on starting small, hammering out details, and only building what the players are likely to interact with. There are sections giving advice on verisimilitude and adapting real world historical events, cultures, and religion for use in a game setting. There is a final section on getting player input on collaborative worldbuilding.
The section on using real world religions or historical cultures with a twist is a little thin, and given the topic, a lot can go wrong in that direction. I do appreciate that the text calls for people to be thoughtful and respectful when doing so, I just wish there were more pages and a few more examples of doing it “the right way.” I also feel like there are a few places, like discussing a campaign map or some of the items on the verisimilitude chart, that lean more towards a more traditional RPG approach. I really wish the collaborative world building section had been expanded.
Creating Adventures looks at broad categories of adventures, like location, event, or time based adventures, and then explores different goals and means of resolving adventures that might be considered. There are discussions on act structure, side plots, and potential pitfalls of different adventure styles, and the chapter concludes with a page of sample RPG plots. This is a solid section for examining the structure of adventures, and it is a great introduction to anyone trying to learn the moving parts of an adventure and how to manipulate those parts to potentially elicit a different effect.
Running the Game tackles topics like how to convey information, the importance of asking questions, pacing within a session and within a campaign, player agency, and NPC interactions. There are sections on best practices for maintaining session notes, how to vary adventure styles, NPC traits, and the best ways to end campaigns.
The GM and the Rules examines how the GM interacts with the rules of a game. It discusses rules mastery, house rules, game balance and what it actually means at the table, fairness, and resolving difficulties. There is a section on how to determine if two disparate rules are balanced, and goes into a detailed way of determining this by assigning values, then after the example is finished, the section recommends you don’t try to balance anything in this manner—I love that it illustrates this by going through the steps. There is also a section that jumped out at me that details not calling for anything to be randomly resolved if you aren’t prepared for any possibilities that the random resolution may indicate.
Being a Dynamic GM details concepts like using a session zero, checking in with your players, setting and communicating tone, learning about your players, and advancing your descriptive skills. Beyond these topics, the end of the chapter looks at different campaign or GM styles, including running intertwined campaigns with multiple groups in the same setting, or having multiple GMs for the same campaign.
Part 4: Getting the Most out of RPGs
This section includes chapters on The Game Group, Hosting the Game, Playing Games Online, and Solving Game Group Problems.
The Game Group examines topics like the right size group for the game that you are running, finding schedules that everyone can work around, communicating between sessions, rotating GMs, table rules, and bonding with your group. In addition to practical topics like when and how you are going to game, this section looks at topics like learning what members of the group don’t want in their games, and making the game comfortable for everyone. It also suggests some activities that the group can participate in to get to know one another and become more comfortable.
Hosting the Game looks at where the game will be run, if it is public or private, if the GM and the host will be one and the same, how to organize the play space, and considerations for snacks and meals during the session. It also addresses what the end of the night should look like, depending on how the session unfolds.
Playing Games Online looks at the benefits of running a game online, and balances these against a traditional face to face group. It also looks at the enhanced potential for communication and technological use in game, and talks about best practices for an online game that may not be as important face to face. The biggest weakness of this chapter, from my point of view, is that it deals very broadly with the topic, but without going into details on specific forms of technology that might be used, it can’t address some of the pitfalls of those technologies. On the other hand, I can understand the reticence of tying this chapter too closely to the “known” means of online gaming available when the book was written.
Solving Game Group Problems goes through a list of potential issues that might come up at the table, and how some of those behaviors can be addressed in a positive manner. While this touches on all kinds of “known” RPG group issues, it also touches on a few topics that aren’t always addressed in sections on game related issues. It talks about the importance of discussing how death works in the game beforehand, how this relates to player agency, and if the group will deviate from the game rules on the topic. It also brings up an issue I’ve seen at tables before, but have never seen addressed in a “game problems” chapter before, in this case, commenting on the rules of a game during a session, and how rules critique in the moment makes it difficult to play the game.
The main thing I wanted to address about this section is that it contains several recipes, including genre thematic recipes, and then concludes with an index. I wasn’t expecting a recipe section, but I’m pretty amused by it. There are even a few adult beverages outlined in this section.
High Roll I would love it if a large number of new roleplayers had this resource as their foundational knowledge of the hobby. It touches on so many important topics, and covers many things I would have like to have known when I was just getting started.
I love books that discuss the hobby of tabletop roleplaying, and I really like that this book approaches the topic not from the standpoint of refining skills you already started to develop, but from the very beginning, for anyone joining the hobby. There are many important topics that are introduced to an RPG newcomer, while adding valuable information to people already participating that may never have examined a topic from that direction. In particular, I love the idea of introducing safety tools, the structure of character arcs, the overall elements of adventures, and the potential issues at the game table in a manner that new players can see, and established players can internalize.
Some of the advice definitely assumes a more traditional GM/Player structure to roleplaying games, as well as a more traditional narrative dynamic where the GM is the principal world/plot driver, and the player characters provide input by interacting with that structure. Some of the broad topics go a little too far afield, such as the suggestion of alternate advancement rules in the player’s section, and the book doesn’t have time to make that side trek pay off. While I think there is excellent material for new roleplayers in the book (as well as established roleplayers), 242 pages might be a huge investment for learning about the hobby for someone that may not even have read their first rulebook yet.
Qualified Recommendation—A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
I think if you know someone that is interested in roleplaying and is the kind of person that throws themselves into a topic, this is definitely a book for them. If you know someone that is an established roleplayer that loves meta-discussion of the hobby, there is going to be a lot of great material in this book for them as well. For someone that is interested, but less likely to invest heavily in a new hobby, the sheer size of this book plus the potential size of any other game books may be more intimidating than inviting.
With that disclaimer in place, I would love it if a large number of new roleplayers had this resource as their foundational knowledge of the hobby. It touches on so many important topics, and covers many things I would have like to have known when I was just getting started.
What was the first book you ever read about the RPG hobby, that wasn’t a game book? Have you read any books that are about tabletop gaming, but aren’t part of an RPG line? What makes you want to pick up books about the hobby, and what do you want them to address? We would love to hear from you below!