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Saturday 12 December 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: How to Game Master Like a Fucking Boss

This is a review of the book "How to Game Master Like a Fucking Boss", written by Venger Satanis, published by Kort'thalis Publishing. This is a review of the print edition, which is a softcover book, 122 pages long. It has a full color image of a kickass-looking fantasy hero facing an enormous red dragon (a repeating theme in Satanis' books, it would seem). The interior art is black and white, and looks suitably as weird/dark-fantasy as you'd expect from a dude who chooses to call himself "Venger Satanis".

You know, several years back (I'm talking like, before Lords of Olympus) I had written a book on Game Mastering for Precis Intermedia.  It was a work-for-hire, I got paid, there was even a cover commissioned, but for whatever reason Precis never got around to publishing it. Maybe someday they still will, as I understand it Brett Bernstein has always got a lot on his plate, and it's likely that other stuff just took priority.  Mind you, there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and I figure I might not keep to all the same ideas I had then, though for the most part I probably would.

So anyways, the point is I've had some chops of my own in writing about GMing (besides the book, there's 10 years of GMing advice on my blog).  Let's see just how much of Venger's work I agree with here.

But first, I'll point out something that is a recurring problem with Venger's books: he needs a better proofreader.  As with Crimson Dragon Slayer, a quick read of the book discovered (without particularly trying to seek them out) various small errors in his work that could have been avoided had he only been able to get someone to check (or maybe double-check) his work.  It's not quite as egregious as the case with Crimson Dragon Slayer, but there's little things, like writing "planet's inhabitance" when he clearly meant "planet's inhabitants".
Anyways, since this isn't a rule-book, it's less of a problem than in the former work.

The format of the first 68 pages of book is of a seemingly disordered variety of guidelines and suggestions for how to GM effectively, like little lectures, varying in length from a single paragraph to a page or so. The last 18 pages of these are just a long "checklist" of things Venger thinks should show up in every campaign (which is mostly stuff that is blatantly obvious, stuff that you see in fantasy tropes in general, but with a couple of quirky ideas too).
Those who have read the Amber RPG would find the entire first section VERY reminiscent (even in terms of some of the title headings) to Erick Wujcik's incredible advice on the same subject.  Of course, Venger Satanis is no Erick Wujick.  Not that you can blame him for that, no one is.  Amber and Shadow Knight are two of the greatest GM-training books ever written, on account of those little lectures. Satanis' book? Well, it's a lot more of a mixed bag.

In the very first statement, he does pretty well.  Venger establishes that the main purpose to roleplaying is Immersion. Right he is!  I've been saying so for years.

His second point is about "being the Boss"; in other words that the GM needs to be the guy in charge of the pretend-play that leads to immersion, for the sake of everyone.  Again, he says what I've been saying since the start of my blog. I'm not totally with him in the particularities of his suggestions along these lines, for example his idea that a GM should try to dress like they're going for a job interview (I always try to dress well, no t-shirts or torn jeans for me, but not because I'm thinking it'll affect my gaming group specifically), but on the whole it seems we're on the same page. The GM is the King, he's the alpha person in the group, or else things are going to go bad.

There's quite a lot of general advice, like 'be prepared', 'give the players what they want but don't go too far', 'avoid too much exposition', 'try to refer to the character's names, rather than the player's, during play', 'know how to deal with players who try to backseat-gamemaster', that sort of thing. Nothing wrong with this stuff; but not a lot of it is really impressive as outside-the-box thinking. I remember in my own GMing book, for example, I made a point of specifically advising GMs NOT to give the players what they want, to make them suffer for it so that when they got what they want through their own effort they'd know they'd earned it.  That at least is a bit more challenging (in the sense of making the reader question some of the standard GM advice they've already heard a thousand times) than most of what is being offered here.

He does occasionally get to something that was, of course, one of the chief concerns of my unpublished GMing-guide: the rejection of Forge ideology.  The advice here, with a few blips, is largely of the Old-School variety; and once in a while he directly tackles the harmful cowshit of the failed school of Forge-theorists.  For example, he rejects the notion of 'failing forward', pointing out that an important part of effective living-world construction is that failure can and often does just happen, with no 'out'.

There are a few rules where he gets the overall point right but kind of misses the mark in other ways.  For example, he talks about not treating Charisma as a dump stat, which is very very right. But at the same time, he mentions that treating it like a dump stat is what you did in the 'old days'; only it's not. It's what stupid players have done because stupid GMs have underused the value of that stat in both the old AND new days, but any old-school games that used reaction rolls and retainers could tell you that charisma was no dump stat when used properly by a GM.

There's some other details which I think are not, in fact, general rules for GMs but more about Venger's own playstyle preference. For example, he claims that the right length of a gaming session is 3-5 hours, with 4 being the ideal. My Albion sessions go for 10-12 hours, and believe me they kick ass.
He also suggests that you need as much as 2 hours of prep for every 4 hours of play; that to me is absurd.  I know that having close to 30 years of experience as a GM means I might take less time than the average GM, but I don't think I EVER did 5 hours of prep for a 10 hour game. Most of my games involve weeks of campaign-prep, but then rarely more than 20 minutes of prep after that. THAT would be something interesting to offer as GM advice: put a lot into prepping your campaign and you'll be able to get your individual sessions ready in minutes.

Likewise, he also advises that you "always level up after the first session". Nonsense. Why would he suggest this? Because he played in a Tekumel game once where they didn't level up after the first session and then never played again.
Around here, we call people who do that 'malcriados'.

In my original Dark Albion campaign, I think it took four or five sessions before most of my players hit level 2 (and remember, that's 40-60 HOURS of play, because I'm not one of these pussies that can only handle 4 hours at a time). And that campaign didn't do too badly, given that it's still running now, 5 years later, and spawned a best-selling OSR book.
Now, I'm not saying that ALL campaigns should be handled like that, in fact if you play the Appendix P rules by the book it's very likely you level up in the first session; but it seems to me that putting in a rule like "ALWAYS level up after the first session" is just bad advice.

There's more I could note here, like his advice to always sideline NPCs in a fight (my players would at that point be asking 'why the fuck are we letting these guys come with us, then?').  Or how he advocates strongly that "nudity, sex and eroticism" feature prominently in campaigns.  It's a trait he shares with a lot of the guys who most want to think of themselves as the OSR 'avant garde', but which in my own experience runs totally counter to what most gamers prefer, and I think for good reason.  Romance? Sure.  Having to hear the 300lb bearded guy next to you talk about his carnal relations with a nonexistent virgin elf girl in a way that might land him on an NBC news special? not so good!

I'll sum up this part by saying that of course all GMing guides are going to have a portion of what amounts to highly personal preference; but the real test is whether they can be applied universally with any kind of consistency.  Some of Satanis' stuff clearly cannot. The stuff that can is good solid advice, but not really stuff that experienced GMs haven't heard before (over and over again, in fact).

Along the way, we learn some quirky details that are more about Venger's own tastes than anything remotely to do with RPGs.  I mean this literally; for example, we get told (with the flimsiest of RPG-related justification) about his personal views on Metallica's album history (he thinks the black album was awful).  And this is not for a couple of throwaway words; it goes on for three paragraphs!

The second, and probably most useful section of the book is a set of about 28 pages worth of random tables.  These are meant to assist GMs in a variety of tasks.  Tables include:
- the "whom to blame" table (which mostly involves laying blame on a variety of cthuloid entities)
-past events (which are very similar to the past event tables I put into Dark Albion, including granting some small bonus or effect; but are made for a MUCH more gonzo campaign than Albion is)
-a secondary motivations table (ranging from 'restore glory to the Kezakhan Empire' to 'grow the world's largest potato')
-a list of random 'wise' sayings  (some of these are from historical wise men, like Pliny the Elder, Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley, or Marcus Aurelius; others are from historical idiots Venger must nevertheless admire, like Anton Lavey, Ayn Rand, or Og Mandino; and a couple from fictional characters like 'Rani from Land of the Lost' or 'God from the Old Testament')
-random cult names/leaders/qualities
-random monster features/strangeness/colors (the 'color' table is just a list of 100 color shades, seriously?!)
-random mutant magic items
-random cosmic horror effects
-random stupid gnome hats (dude, seriously, if you want cool gnome-related random tables, go buy Gnomemurdered!)
-random complications
-random NPCs
-a 10-entry random encounter table (there's 100 shades of colors, but only 10 encounters? Really?!)

These tables are very creative. In some ways, they by themselves are worth the price of admission for the book.  But they're also often very, very particular. They're not general advice for GMing RPGs, they're not even for general fantasy RPG settings. They're for one very particular type of fantasy game: the kind Venger plays and writes. Namely, weird/dark fantasy with lots of tentacled things and godlike entities and androids and other gonzo stuff with names that have too many apostrophes. IF you sometimes run these types of games, this section is great. If you don't, it's useless to you.

There are a few exceptions, like the table/list of 100 questions to ask a player about their character to help them flesh it out (again, VERY reminiscent of the 'character questionnaire' found in Amber), or the table for 'why characters are together', or the reaction table, none of which have any tentacle-stuff.

The last and by far most useless section of the book is an 18 page glossary of a made-up fantasy language that Venger invented, full of slightly ominous sounding words and an excess of apostrophes.  Seriously, 18 pages. First he puts the words in the made-up language with their English meaning, then he reverses this and we get pages of English words with their made-up equivalents.
Seriously, what was this?! It's not even a full language in the sense of the more ponderous of M.A.R. Barker's writings on Tsolyani (or Tolkien's, or whoever), it's just a list of vocab.  The only thing I can imagine is that this was an attempt at serious filler to bulk up the book.

Well, actually, I can think of one other possibility...

...Which brings me to one more thing that might be worth pointing out here, something I think most readers, and other reviewers would miss, and that's the influence of the occult on Venger's ideas.

(no, not that kind of occult! The REAL kind!)

The reason both he and I talk so strongly about the importance of a Living World and treating your setting as such, and getting to that point where the Universe becomes more than the sum of its parts and is Conscious on its own (and can even come to surprise you!) is, I think, intricately tied to our mutual involvement in the western esoteric tradition. It ties into ideas of archetype, myth, and even pathworking on abstract planes (aka "scrying", aka "astral travel").

He talks about treating campaign starts as 'initiations', which I would agree with. He even advises meditating before starting a session, something I wouldn't really suggest myself, though meditation in other contexts is definitely something I'd recommend to everyone.
Venger even presents his 'ten steps to good luck' which are really more like guidelines for how to live, that he admits was inspired by the 'philosophers' he reads.  Which philosophers? Anthony Robbins, Gurdjieff, and Anton Lavey.  Of those three, only Gurdjieff is someone I'd ever recommend, and he was batshit nuts (not that there's anything wrong with that, all the great esoteric philosophers were batshit nuts).

(nuts you say? A fellow who looks like that?)

So yeah, needless to say, Venger's occultism and my own are not quite the same. I'm a little bit more of a Chogyam Trungpa guy than a Gurdjieff guy, more of a Idries Shah guy than a Robbins fan, and for outright magick I'm way more of an Aleister Crowley guy while Venger is a fan of Anton Lavey (who made a career of being a really bad shallow rip-off of Crowley).  But that said, it's clear that Venger has had at least some of the same occult-derived trippy consciousness-altering experiences as I have, and that like me he's applied some of this to his game-mastering. It's hard not to if you do both, because GMing and occultism share a common trait of exploring symbolic inner-worlds.

(of course, every occultist should look nuts; it helps them to unlock the doors to that huge space you didn't know you had)

That brings us back to his make-believe language.  There's a long tradition in western occultism of 'barbarous words' and arcane languages; even Gurdjieff did it, quite a lot.  So there is that possibility: the inclusion of Venger's "Viridian" language (what he calls "the green tongue") might be a kind of spell. Things like magical words gain power when they're directed at people.  It is particularly a principle of Chaos Magic that using mass-media can greatly increase the 'charge' of talismanic magick.  For example, the famous magician/comic-writer Grant Morrison essentially crafted magick all over his seminal comic series The Invisibles, which he credited with giving him all kind of success in his life and career; and the theme of The Invisibles as a whole might have been a kind of enchantment intended to alter the level of consciousness of its readers.

So our friend Venger might very well have included his magical language (which he urges the reader to "make as much use of it as possible"!) for his own occult purposes. Shit, the whole book might well be a spell.

But if it is or isn't, that really doesn't affect much of it's quality as an RPG product (unless you're an evangelical Christian or something, in which case why the fuck are you buying a book by a guy named "Satanis" in the first place?!).  My conclusion on the book as an RPG product is that Venger's work is only really useful at all if you're either an extreme newbie at GMing, or if you are a big fan of the style of fantasy Venger prefers (in which case, as I already said, the random tables would likely make the product worth it to you).


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Classic Series Rhodesian + C&D's Crowley's Best


  1. Yeah, I'll get to it. Every time I sit down with it, some other issue crops up that needs my attention and I get pulled to work on something else.

    1. Shit, I barely even remember what I wrote for it (I have the file around here somewhere, and even an image of the cover you had made). At this point, once you do release it I might be able to make some quick bucks releasing the "revised edition" or something.

  2. Seems like it is good book for me. I am always struggling to come up with chantings ... example language that sound foreign is good stuff.

  3. Haha! Thanks for the review, hoss. I agree with most of your assessment... but not everything, of course. ;)

    1. Interesting way of saying "no comment".

    2. I decided to comment elsewhere since this is your personal blog.

    3. Care to share where? Or is the point that I don't find out?

  4. I am afraid that the book that preaches 2 hours of prep for every 4 hours of play has nothing to teach me about GMing.

    Good review, as usual, although this time spoilt a bit by your signature anti-Forge blabberings.