Active from 2005 to 2007 and dedicated entirely to system-neutral GMing advice, Treasure Tables was one of the earliest RPG blogs. It was also the precursor to Gnome Stew, so we decided the best way to keep all of its content -- over 750 articles and more than 7,500 comments -- accessible to as many GMs as possible was to move it here, which we did in 2012. Comments are turned off, just they as were when Treasure Tables closed in 2007. The GMing material and discussion archived below was originally featured on Enjoy! --Martin Ralya

I picked up Spirit of the Century at this year’s GenCon, in part because I enjoy pulp games but mainly because I’d heard that it was full of good GMing advice.

And so far, it is — and not just for Spirit, or even just for pulp games. It offers good foundation-level tips on writing and running adventures, on putting your players first and on all sorts of other useful topics. In fact, page for page, it offers more digestible, immediately practical GMing advice than any other gaming book I’ve read recently.

The thing is, browsing through a copy in the store, you might very well miss that aspect of the book — and I’m sure there are plenty of other gaming books out there with similar surprises for GMs.

So how about it: What gaming books have you read that offered solid GMing advice with broader applications — stuff you can use in lots of games, not just the one where you found the advice?

Update: I’ve taken all of the recommendations made in the comments and listed them below for easy browsing. My thanks to everyone who has contributed to this list.

  • Amber Diceless Roleplay
  • Angel RPG
  • Buffy RPG
  • Burning Wheel
  • Campaign Law (Rolemaster)
  • Changeling: The Lost
  • Characters and Viewpoints, Orson Scott Card (not gaming)
  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Dread
  • Dream Park RPG
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide (1st Edition)
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide II
  • Feng Shui
  • Galaxy Guide (d20 Star Wars, revised)
  • Game Master Law (Rolemaster)
  • Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! (CyberPunk)
  • Nightmares of Mine supplement
  • Over the Edge
  • Promethean: The Created
  • Risus Companion
  • Roleplaying Mastery (Gary Gygax)
  • 7th Sea
  • Sorcerer (also Sorcerer and Sword and Sorcerer’s Soul)
  • Star Trek Narrator’s Guide (Decipher)
  • Star Trek core books (Last Unicorn Games)
  • Star Wars Gamemaster’s Guide (WEG’s d6 version)
  • Traveller (the original book)
  • Usagi Yojimbo RPG (Autumn Moon edition)
  • Vampire: The Masquerade (1st Edition; also their Player’s Handbook)

About  Martin Ralya (TT)

"Martin Ralya (TT)" is two people: Martin Ralya, the administrator of and a contributor to Gnome Stew, and a time traveler from the years 2005-2007, when he published the Treasure Tables GMing blog (TT). Treasure Tables got started in the early days of RPG blogging, and when Martin burned out trying to run it solo he shut it down, recruited a team of authors, and started Gnome Stew in its place. We moved all TT posts and comments to Gnome Stew in 2012.


24 Responses to Gaming Books that Offer Unexpectedly Good GMing Advice?

  1. The original Traveller Book had a great section for GMs.

  2. Galaxy Guide for Revised Star Wars D20. Good stuff.

  3. Burning Wheel has lots of it. It did not come as a surprise, though, as Rolemaster’s Campaign law did. Amidst all those realistic weather tables there was solid GMing advice, assuming a traditional GM and sandbox play (ready world, enter PCs who can do whatever they will).

  4. I have to second Cliff on the Traveler Book. The concepts of the Push, the Pull, and the Gimmick are very useful.

    I would also recommend Over the Edge. I only have the first edition, so I don’t know if there are new essays or ideas in the second.

    Another good one is Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer and it’s supplements, especially Sorcerer and Sword and Sorcerer’s Soul. Lots of good advice on tailoring a game to the players’ characters and on setting up themes for campaigns.

    Amber Diceless Roleplay had some good bits as well, less as how-to and more in terms of unlearning other habits around what makes games “fair” and “balanced.”

  5. The first edition DMG had all kinds of goodness buried in it, but it wasn’t in any real order.

    Books on acting, inprov, and creating believable characters in drama and fiction hold all kinds of unexpected info.

  6. Star Trek RPG, both LUG and Decipher, have extensive and helpful advice on gamemastering. As for SotC, it is not solely centered on Trek games. Very generic stuff.

  7. Gamemaster Law for the Rolemaster system by I.C.E. Published in 1995, the entire first section of 78 pages is general GM’ing advice not specific to the Rolemaster system. Even the next 100 pages written for Rolemaster has alot of general advice good for any game or setting. Perforated, with holes for a 3-ring binder, it’s an excellent resource.

  8. I’ll put out a second recommend for Burning Wheel and Sorcerer and Sword. The advice in SotC, however, shines out.

    Although, I think it is advice for one type of (exceptionally fun) play. I’d recommend any GM thinking of using it to first let their players know they might need to contribute to the game in a different way, as the advice in SotC requires quite a bit of player “buy-in.”

  9. Not directly related, but “Characters and Viewpoints” by Orson Scott Card offers solid advice for creating characters and interesting scenarios. The book is intended for fiction writers, but a lot of it applies to gaming as well.

  10. I’d like to put in a second recommendation for the Decipher Star Trek Narrator’s Guide.

  11. Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! from R. Talsorian is a great book. It’s intended for CyberPunk, but there’s a lot of advice in there I’ve used in other sci-fi, modern, and even some fantasy games.

  12. I’ll admit that I bought Burning Wheel mostly because I’d been convinced from reviews that it was worth mining for interesting perspectives on running a game; I have no intention of actually using the system. So for the purpose of this article, it’s not an *unexpected* source of advice.

    My best surprise find for GMing advice comes from the _Usagi Yojimbo Role-Playing Game_ book (the “Autumn Moon” edition from Sanguine Productions, using their Ironclaw system). A densely-packed 200-page volume manages to get 10 pages of *good* GMing advice.

    The first nice surprise is the terminology. The chapter of advice is titled “Hosting a Game”, and the person who does so is called the “Game Host”. This term alone has given me a good analogy to use for defining the role; it certainly makes it easier to focus on the players than the traditional “Game Master” title.

    The chapter has very good, yet pithy, advice on many topics like “Don’t let an hour go by without some story-points getting resolved”, “Clichés work better in games than in stories”, and “Don’t _tell_ your players how to do things — _ask_ them”. Sections on dealing with problematic play habits and writing adventures is also brief but good.

    _Usagi_ is the only book I have from Sanguine Productions; perhaps all their “Ironclaw”-system books have similar advice chapters and refer to the “Game Host”. If so, that’s good value, because I believe it fosters the correct attitude of the person in that role.

  13. I appreciate the “game host” language. I might take that up.

    I remember the 3.5 D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide II having a surprisingly helpful section on inter-personal dynamics. Might be worth checking out.

  14. Alas! Only if all these good recommendations came with examples!

  15. I always liked the adventure writing guidelines in R. Talsorian’s Dream Park RPG. Essentially, they recommended alternating cliffhangers (set pieces) with plot developments, and showed how the three-act plot structure could serve an RPG.

    I wish I still had my copy; to this day, I plot adventures in a very similar fashion.

  16. I always recommend the old White Wolf Vampire: The Masquerade basic RPG and their Player’s Handbook for good examples of how to run a game. Keep or pitch the rules, but there are many, many pages chock full of GM-y goodness about how to tell a good story, craft an adventure, and how to keep your players interested in a game.

  17. I had great luck mining information from Dogs in the Vineyard. Its focus on setting up one central conflict per town and building characters around it is wonderful. The focus can be applied to a dungeon, a building, a country, whatever the scale of an adventure your characters are on.

  18. I loved the D6 Star Wars Gamemasters Guide. Out of print but probably easily found on Ebay. It has some great points for gamemasters.

    Loremaster, I second Orson Scott Cards Characters and Viewpoints, I was pointed to that book by Mike Stackpole a long time ago and found it helped me not only with my short lived writing career, but also coming up with interesting characters.

  19. So, first off, thank you for the kind words!

    Trying to remember those I can without actually going to my game shelf, and people have made some great suggestions so far, so I’ll try not to repeat too much.

    To my surprise, the most recent nWoD games, Promethean and Changeling, both have much better GM advice than I expected. Promethean contains a very concrete breakdown on how to run the entirety of a character arc, and Changeling has surprisingly practical adventure design advice. Neither necessarily falls into the category of books I’d put into someone’s hands purely for the GMing advice, but it is sufficiently interesting to see GM advice about _play_ rather than tone from these books that I feel they deserve a nod.

    7th Sea probably remains one of my favorites for general GM advice. It’s very John Wick, but not necessarily the hose ‘o Wick you get out of Play Dirty, and there are gems to sift out of it like the other hundred points (as a way to find player interest in thematic elements) to how to handle death that I recycle frequently.

    The Amber DRPG has fantastic GM advice for a very specific, very adversarial style of play. It is not a style I enjoy much these days, but with elements such as “How to play NPCs who are much, much smarter than you are” it really handled it well.

    Feng Shui still holds a place in my heart for the most elegant and portable adventure design model I’ve ever seen (which boils down to ‘Three Cool Fight Scenes’). Robin Laws also slips in for his part in Over the Edge, which has a frank discussion of handling secrets and trust which I found totally repellent when the book came out but which I now see the merits of.

    It’s probably not surprising that Hen Hite’s ‘Nightmares of Mine’ has great advice, since it’s purely an advice book, but it deserves a nod. I understand a lot of it made it into the latest version of GURPS horror as well.

    And now I’m wondering what I’m forgetting.

    -Rob D.

  20. (discordian) Alas! Only if all these good recommendations came with examples!

    Yep, that would rock. I like that the Fate (SotC) stuff is online — I wish more games did that.

    I’ll update the main post with a list of everything that’s come up so far. :)

  21. A belated entry, as I was traveling over the holiday weekend — the Buffy & Angel games have a fabulous section on constructing season arcs that apply well to any licensed property. It’s also applicable otherwise, but the thoughts about structuring as series/season/episode fits well with the licensed lines.

  22. I’ve updated the list again. :)

  23. In before comments closure, and on the list — thanks, Omnius.