The Ultimate RPG Game Master’s Guide by James D’Amato

subtitled Advice And Tools To Help You Run Your Best Game Ever!

There is so much useful information packed into this relatively slender volume, not only for anyone aspiring to run role-playing games but also for more experienced Game Masters looking to hone their skills. All the advice here is system agnostic by design, which makes this a really great resource that isn’t limited to just one kind of game. Its 200+ pages also make it very accessible for readers who already have a ton of material to get through with prepping most RPGs and don’t need yet another massive, small-text tome on top of that.

And frankly, most GM’s guides written specifically for one game are kinda terrible. I’ve been running Dungeons & Dragons for years and still haven’t been able to get past the very first chapter of the official Dungeon Master’s Guide, as my eyes keep glazing over from the potent mixture of confusion and boredom it evokes. Plus, it’s fifty bucks! (And don’t get me started on the diminishing quality of Wizards Of The Coast book bindings over the years.)

Fortunately, The Ultimate RPG Game Master’s Guide is a much more budget- and brain-friendly alternative to collecting a whole bunch of different guides that may or may not prove helpful to the vocation of being a versatile and successful GM. The contents of this volume are well-structured, really going over everything GMs need, from prep to actual play. The bulk of the book is organized into two large parts: GMing Basics (mostly philosophy) and Leading The Game (mostly exercises.)

And I’m ngl, the opening segment on GM Basics gave me bizarre, almost-PTSD-like flashbacks from my first years of playing in and running RPGs. I actually had really good experiences for the most part, but James D’Amato’s frank but kind breakdown of how GMs should best facilitate games really had me reeling, as I realized exactly how much bullshit I put up with and how the GMs I played under should have better protected players at the table. Like, I already knew that the one GM who crowed to a table of strangers about how good he was at killing Player Characters was a walking red flag. As was the GM who told me that my obviously uninterested PC failing a Willpower check against a Seduction role had to sleep with her superior. But being explicitly told that my favorite GM was wrong to do certain things regarding communication with and between players that definitely made me feel uncomfortable at the time… well, that was validating, and allowed me to be more compassionate towards past me.

In fairness, it wasn’t my old GM being malicious — roleplayers are at heart weird nerds, after all, and communication can be difficult even for the most well-meaning and/or articulate. I also learned more about things that I should have been better at myself when I stepped into the GM’s seat. A lot of it boils down to communicating better, particularly in the specific instances Mr D’Amato highlights as being crucial moments and possible pitfalls in any RPG. Honestly, it’s all an ongoing process — I’m certainly a MUCH better and more considerate GM now than I was before — but the whole part on GM Basics was a great reminder of overall best practices when it comes to facilitating games.

The second section of the book, Leading The Game, breaks RPGs into their component parts and offers specific tools for overcoming any difficulties. This section felt a lot more optional to me, tho there was one very cool thing that I’m going to bring with me to pursuits outside of RPGs. That was the bit about building a divination deck for your game, which is just such a very neat and interesting thing to do. Better still, the advice given in the book is totally applicable to building an oracle deck for any purpose, and is something I plan on exploring soon.

Overall, I found this to be an invaluable guide to not only being a great GM moving forward, but also to figuring out and potentially unlearning the negative experiences that may have shaped you as a player and GM. The tools listed here are also surprisingly versatile for non-gaming purposes. Beyond the excellent guide to building a divination deck, the Advanced Narration section is great for storytelling of any kind, just as the Counting To Twenty game is good for team-building.

You don’t have to read this book in order to be the kind of GM players clamor for and applaud, but it’s a really useful way of learning that isn’t sheer trial and error. Best of all, everything is written in a way that’s clearly rooting you on to more fun and greatness. Recommended for any storyteller, tbh, but especially of the role-playing kind.

The Ultimate RPG Game Master’s Guide by James D’Amato was published March 26 2024 by Adams Media and is available from all good booksellers, including

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  1. […] So when I received the Magic The Gathering Oracle Deck from the same creative team unsolicited, you bet I squealed with joy. While I’m certainly far more active in D&D than I am in Magic nowadays, I’ve been a player since the glory days of Urza, and still use Arena to scratch that occasional card flopping itch. Gideon Jura stan for life, baby! And while I’ve always been a white weenie fan, I do have a fondness for a black and white Innistrad deck, because who doesn’t love gaining life with every point of damage I make? That said, I never really got to play in Theros, Magic’s Ancient Greece-inspired plane, so the setting of this Oracle Deck was both intriguing to me as someone new to it, as well as distinctly apropos given the origin of the word oracle. Plus, I super love retellings of the Ancient Greek myths, and definitely wanted to know Magic’s take on them, as well as the authors’ officially licensed take on a divination deck altogether (especially since reading some of James D’Amato’s fascinating theories on creating those for gameplay in his excellent The Ultimate RPG Game Master’s Guide.) […]

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