This book is for those who want to take their adventures to the next level: a collection of essays with titles like "When Last We Left Our Intrepid Heroes", "Action Scenes: More Than Just Flashing Blades" and "Using Cliffhangers Effectively" suggests that it's about adding a bit more zing and cinematic flavour to your plots... but there is more with other essays touching on using oral traditions, tone, plenty on adversaries and more. It's fascinating just to read through, but the layout makes it easy to return when you want some advice on a particular topic as well.
Appropriately, it starts off with James Jacobs on "Beginning a Campaign". This isn't so much about the plotting and planning that goes into starting a new campaign, it's more about what can start the actual playing of that campaign with a bang that makes the players sit up and take notice: this is no ordinary campaign but something really special. Thinking cinematically, start by building anticipation with a few teasers, a trailer if you will, for the game that you intend to run, and give your new campaign a compelling name. You may wish to release sufficient information to at least allow for sensible character choices after all. Discussion then moves on to that all-important first session. You want them to be panting for more. It's good to really understand both the characters and the people who will play them - indeed you may use the first session for character creation and not actually start play until the next one. Then there are more good ideas for how to actually get the game rolling as well. All excellent stuff and well worth reading however many successful campaigns you have under your belt.
Next up Jeff Grubb addresses the matter of "Other People's Stories". Even if you like writing your own materials, there's nothing to be embarrassed about using published material. Jeff is full of good advice about how to pick the right adventure module for your campaign, then how to file the serial numbers off and weave it seamlessly into whatever else is (and will be) going on. (Check out my adventure reviews, this is the way I approach them, as resources to enhance your own campaign, not a substitute for having one of your own). Or you may just appropriate elements for reuse in your game.
Then Wolfgang Baur writes about "Choosing an Ending First". Even the most sandbox campaign needs an objective, or it ends up more of a never-ending soap opera game than a plot-driven campaign. Goals are important, whether set by you or by the players, and some kind of a climactic event is always a good way to end a campaign properly, rather than just let it peter out. Plenty of good ideas to chew over here as you start to plan that campaign.
The next essay is "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" by Robert J. Schwalb. This is a thoughtful exploration of the thorny subject of running an 'evil' campaign, preferably without the characters turning into complete psychopaths. The main key seems to be open dialogue with your players to determine the precise nature of the game, what will and will not be acceptable behaviour. Another is that all actions have consequences... Interesting and thought-provoking reading, with plenty of ideas if you want to try out playing the bad guys.
Steve Winters then looks at "Otherworldly Visions" - ways in which to make it clear that the world of your game is not the real one outside your window. (Just in case the presence of dwarves and elves and dragons - or galaxy-roaming starships - hadn't already given it away, that is.) It's all about mood, images, conditions and events... and if you follow Steve's suggestions you might end up with some very weird worlds indeed!
Next is "When Last We Left Our Intrepid Heroes" by Clinton J. Boomer, in which he muses on how to steal...er, be inspired by... the tricks TV shows use to keep our attention week by week (or even during the ad breaks in the middle of a show). It's more than that, though, with ideas about using episodic formats, about building on things that happen (even, especially, when they are unexpected - just as showrunners pay attention to what the fans think and may even amend stories, bring characters back and the like in the light of what they say). And there's plenty more to glean from this essay, too.
This is followed by "Tricks from the Oral Tradition" from Kevin Kulp along much the same theme, only here it is traditional storytelling that's being picked apart for good ideas to apply as you devise and run your game. Pacing and timing, improvisation, presentation and more are discussed. Of particular note are the comments about making NPCs come to life by the way you have them speak - with hints and tips that will empower the least actorly of GMs to handle them with confidence.
Margaret Weis then discusses "Action Scenes: More Than Just Flashing Blades", beginning with the perhaps startling thought that they need to have a purpose, not just be there so as to have a brawl. Using examples from well-known novels, films and TV shows, Margaret shows how to use 'action' - by which she means combat most of the time - creatively to enhance or advance the game, actually contributing to and driving on the plot. Other types of action are also covered, however.
Then Wolfgang Baur is back with "Tone and Bombast" in which he discusses the relative merits of realistic and cinematic approaches. Above all, he says, don't be cautious, or small in your ambitions. Make things personal and visceral, perhaps even unfair, then make the imaginary headlines even worse... how would the events in question come over on the main evening news?
If you like adding complexity, a busy-ness that reflects the real world, try Ree Soesbee's "Branching Storylines and Nonlinear Gameplay" for size. Role-playing, after all, has always been about interactivity and character agency, so here's how to design plots that actually work well with that freedom of action. One of the saddest moments in role-playing was when a player asked me after a game "Did we do what we were supposed to do?" Ideally, there should be no pre-determined course of action, just a setting and events to which the characters respond, and which in turn respond to what the characters do. Find ideas for making that happen here.
One of Ree's suggestions is using NPCs creatively, so the next essay - "Crooked Characters: A Simple Guide to Creating Memorable NPCs" by Richard Pett is a timely one. It runs through the process, concentrating on what that NPC is like rather than what his stats are and providing several tables to roll upon to aid you in teasing out each NPC's nature. As example there are some dozen NPCs described in a few vivid sentences, many spawn plot ideas just by reading through them.
Next, Ben McFarland looks at "Fashioning the Enemy" and delves deep into the art and craft of creating memorable and believeable Bad Guys to oppose the party and drive the plot along. Start with what that villain wants to accomplish, and from there hone him into what he needs to be to achieve his goals - players lavish time on planning their character's development, and you should do the same with their antagonists. How did he come to be like he is? And what is his life like now? Who does he look up to, or fear? A good villain is worth his weight in gold to creating a good plot, oh, and don't forget the minions.
Wolfgang Baur again with "Pacing, Beats, and the Passage of Time" which looks at keeping a game moving at a speed that's just right for whatever is happening at the time, with a particular emphasis on the campaign level rather than what is happening around your table minute-to-minute. Fascinating stuff with ideas you may have never thought of before.
Then Kevin Kulp is back talking about "Complex Plotting". It's all about turning the player characters' actions into ripples that travel through that world, with unintended consequences, and keeping track of all those changes they've caused in a dynamic, living game world. Strew plot hooks about and let the characters choose which ones to follow up, perhaps even have several complete plotlines... I recall one game I ran where there were five plots, the characters concentrated on two, dabbled in another two and never even noticed the last one. The trick is not to develop anything further than an outline until you need it (else you get swamped).
Steve Winter next with "Sharpening Your Hooks", an in-depth look at the ways you can use adventure hooks throughout a campaign, not just to introduce the next adventure and convince the characters that they are actually interested in whatever's going on. Of course, it's not really a hook but the bait that attracts them in... and the adventure that each hook refers to need not even exist until some interest is shown, especially if the party is busy about something else at the time.
So far this book has been jam-packed with ideas for making a campaign go with a bang right from the start. What if despite all that advice and your best efforts, it doesn't? Zeb Cook to the rescue with "The Art of Letting Go" - a treatise in a few short pages on how to improvise, casting aside all that careful preparation and just wing it. It comes naturally to some people, but if you're not one of those, this gives you a starting point to give it a go. I know my best games have been no more than a few bullet points and a lot of outlines... and the worst the ones that were all written out ahead of time (it's almost the complete reverse when it comes to writing an adventure for publication, of course!). Improvisation at the table works best with a fair bit of planning in advance, which is then set aside once play begins.
Back to the plotting with the next article by Ben McFarland, "Plotting a Generational Campaign". This discusses games that last for years, even centuries... in-game, I mean, not in real life (although games that last for years are a possibility). I did once design a Vampire: The Masquerade campaign that spanned time from before the birth of Christ up to the present day (never got the chance to run it, alas), but here you'll find ideas to make these long-lasting time-spanning games work effectively. Plan ahead, and know where you are going, yet keep flexible enough to let the characters take over and affect their futures. Relationships, alliances, deeply-felt emnities, all play a part, and remember to weave these into the characters' own histories.
Next is "Using Cliffhangers Effectively" by Amber E. Scott. It's jam-packed with ideas for using cliffhangers to effect in your game, making your players hungry for more... and back next time, eager to continue. You need to keep track of where everything (and everybody) was when you stop, and to make sure that all that anticipation is adequately rewarded when play resumes.
Finally there is "An Improv Adventure: The Journey from Here to There" by Zeb Cook. In it, he provides a complete framework for a simple adventure making use of many of the concepts discussed in this book, particularly his own notes on improvisation, of course. Use it as an exemplar - or even run it sometime.
So, there you have it. A book which any GM, irrespective of the system(s) they prefer to run, ought to have. Read it, study it, keep it to hand to dip into. If there was a degree in role-playing, this would be a set text for the GM module!
[5 of 5 Stars!]