Back in December 2012 I had the pleasure of reviewing Never Unprepared: The Compete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep (You can see that review here). I found that book very useful and use some of the tools presented in it to this day. So I jumped at a chance to read something else by +Phil Vecchione and the rest of the +Gnome Stew team.
Martin sent me a PDF copy of the book for review so all of my thoughts here are based on that version of the book. I know there's a print version out there, as well as other eBook formats.
The first thing that caught me about this book is the cover. Is that a non-white GM I see? Why yes it is. What you can't tell from the cover is that it's a non-white differently abled GM. I have to commend Engine for this move. It's good to see.
Odyssey is 209 pages with a full colour cover and back and black and white interior. The art is solid and very evocative of the text. All of the art features the same gaming group either in person or in character and shows them progressing through two different rpg campaigns: one fantasy and one sci-fi. The PDF is well hyperlinked which is something I really like to see.
After an intro from +Kenneth Hite we get to meet the two primary authors of Odyssey: +Phil Vecchione and +Walt Ciechanowski. Phil's work I'm familiar with both from Never Unprepared and the wealth of game advice he shares online both through Gnome Stew and social media. Walt's name is new to me. Phil's background as a project manager really shows through in his writing. It's almost technical and presents things in a "This is how you do it" kind of way that I know others have found a touch pedantic. I personally don't see this but then again I work in Quality in the auto industry and have been involved in many projects and launches. Walt is much more casual both in his writing and his approach to gaming. It's rather cool to see these two poles highlighted in one book.
After the author intros there's a "How to Use this Book" section. Something we often see in RPGs but not support books. It explains how Odyssey will take you through three things: starting your campaign, managing your campaign and ending your campaign. It asks why we need a book like this and talks about why campaigns die.
He dissects this and then goes on about campaign management. The emphasis here is that you don't run your campaigns you manage them. He talks about why we host campaigns (to entertain and have fun, to create a story, to grow and develop characters and to develop a connection) and how campaigns evolve.A campaign is a series of gaming sessions focused on a group of characters which maintains a sense of continuity.
Chapter 2: Management is also written by Phil. This chapter deep dives the actual management of a campaign. He explains why we manage and not run a campaign and talks about why we should manage our games. Campaigns are broken down into layers and each is discussed. The ideas of Risk and Change are introduced and there is some talk about the start, middle and end of of a campaign.
Chapter 3: Starting Campaigns is probably my favourite chapter of the book. In it Phill talks about a whole slew of things I never even considered. This is the chapter that, upon reading, instantly changed the way I approach a new game with a new group. Phil provides another good quote:
The goal of starting a campaign is to create a shared vision for the campaign that is mutually agreed upon, interesting to everyone, and sustainable.The big thing for me here is the "mutually agreed upon" part. I've always started a new game the traditional way. I'm the GM here's the game I'm running so lets make characters. Sure maybe sometimes I will ask the group what they feel like playing next, but we are always just talking about system. I've never sat down with my group ahead of time and asked "what kind of tone would you like in our next game" "What types of genres would you like to explore?" It's always been "I want to run Gamma World Next, who's in?"
Phil dissects his quote and breaks down starting a new campaign into four phases: concept, framework, creation and the first session. In all of these steps he strongly suggests the entire group be involved. The book takes a look at the gaming group itself and the role of the GM and the players. Note: this is the role of both sides of the screen before the game has even started, before the first session. In this chapter Phil even takes the time to give us a short lesson on negotiation, a very important skill when involving your entire group this early.
Chapter 4: Campaign Concept continues the pre-game discussion. Phil talks about who's going to GM, who's playing, what system to use, where you will play, what the story will be, etc. His project management background comes into play here as he talks about different ways to answer these questions using a few tried and true methods: exploration, spitballing, the pitch and the short list.
I also found this chapter fascinating as most of the ideas were very different from how I've done things. I've always just used a pitch or short list and even then didn't really listen to player input. I've been stuck in an old school: I'm the GM you play what I want to play mentality without even realizing it.
Chapter 5: Campaign Framework has Phil telling us about the things we should do to start building our campaign. This is a very mechanical chapter in my mind. It's getting to the meat of the game as opposed to the high level story. You are deciding what rules to use, what books are allowed and, what roles and characters the players will play. Yes, story is discussed as well, but more as a guiding hand. Here group interaction is again emphasized with everyone being on the same page before the game starts. So everyone knows what is allowed, what is not and what to expect once the game starts.
This is one of the longest chapters in the book and has a ton of great info. Phil has the GM asking a lot of questions that I think are often overlooked when starting a new campaign. Here you will decide on all of the how and why of the campaign. You will decide if you are running a serial and if you world has no Dwarves and why. Will you be playing in a sandbox or riding the rails? All of the details are figured out: before you have had your first session.
He talks about a GM's campaign material, what should be in it as well as some suggestions for organizing it. There's talk of your GM shopping list and what you should go shopping for. Phil also spends some time talking about a "What's Really Going On" document. Something he got from +Fear the Boot. While I really dig this suggestion I wish the document was included here in Odyssey, instead of just providing a link.
This chapter also talks about one of the most important topics to players: character creation. In his typical fashion Phil breaks this down into four requirements for characters: that they be believable, fitting, mechanically sound and satisfying. There's some talk about group cohesion as well.
Chapter 7: The First Session had me wondering if Walt actually wrote any of the book at all. It would have been nice to have seen another voice by now. Not that Phil's doing a bad job here at all, it's just that I know there are two authors and I'm starting to wonder when I get to hear the other one.
In this chapter Phil takes us through some actual session prep. There's a bit of overlap here with Never Unprepared. He highlights the important things that a first session should do: introduce the setting to the players, introduce the PCs to the group, start the first story and make it fun. Each of these is looked at in detail with some great suggestions on how to make the most out of them. Phil also presents his suggestions on how to run your first session. Some of these match my personal method of teaching a new game, which I call the Super Mario Bros way and some do not.
Chapter 8: Campaign Management finally introduces Walt as lead writer. In this chapter Walt re-introduces us with the concept of campaign management then looks at exactly what a GM has to manage. This is broken down into five things: story, PCs, people, risk and challenge. He talks about being flexible and looks at railroading vs. travelling on foot.
Chapter 9: Story Management continues where chapter eight left off with Walt now talking about creating sessions for the campaign. This chapter has a lot in common with Never Unprepared. There is a detailed look at story arcs and being proactive vs. reactive. It includes some great suggestions for keeping the story on track and for dealing with when it goes off in an unexpected way. A few different story structures are presented and the three and five act model is discussed.
Walt also presents some good suggestions for redundancies, reminding GMs never to leave a dead end in their stories and having back ups just in case one comes up unexpectedly. I personally dug the concept of "Bookends" which is not something I had heard before. Here's how it is presented in the book:
Pacing, maps and the supporting cast all get a few paragraphs each followed by a section on continuity. Continuity is followed by a brief discussion of the passage of time.Another technique I like to use when designing adventures is to bookend them with colorful scenes that aren’t necessarily related to the main plot. The opening scene or scenes might simply provide a window in to the PCs’ lives, possibly sparking a sub-plot or two, while the closing scene returns the PCs to normalcy with a final wrap-up (possibly tying up sub-plots as well).
Chapter 10: Character Management. This was another chapter that, to me, turns the tables on the traditional. Just like the earlier chapters on campaign prep had players involved where usually only GMs tread, this section has GMs involved where things are often left to the players.
Walt looks at how characters change over time and how to manage that change. He looks at players that have fairly static characters and those who change dynamically after almost every session. There's a touch of the player types made famous from +Robin Laws's GM book here, looking at how different players made different types of characters.
Character growth both in story and mechanically are looked at with good suggestions on how to foster it while still keeping the overall campaign under control. Things like niche protection are discussed and mechanical changes in characters and the impact that can have on the campaign is looked at in good detail.
Chapter 11: People Management looks at the players (and games master) themselves. We're all people playing these games with real lives and commitments and Walt takes this into account while offering suggestions on how to manage all of it. Timetables, what do to when a player misses a game, what's the minimum needed to play, etc.
This is a topic near and dear to my heart as I game with adults, most of whom have kids and all of which have many non-game related obligations. In my personal Monday night game, the rules are: we play every week on Monday, the game starts at 8pm, if two players can't make it we play boardgames. When players aren't there we hand wave their characters: they fade into the background.
It was cool to see Walt included a section on kids, as this is something that affects any games I run at home. I've already realized the need to make sure my wife's character isn't the most important part of the story as I know she may need to step away from the table from time to time and it's nice to see this written down as a suggestion in Odyssey.
Again I'm reminded of Robin Law's book as I get to the section of common problem player types. Here Walt takes a really good look at the most common types of problem players and gives some very solid suggestions on managing these types of players. He also spends some time talking about player relationships, something that I've personally seen ruin more than one campaign.
There's a good look at keeping player and GM interest in the campaign. I had to laugh when I saw the paragraph heading: "The Dreaded Shiny". That is something that I personally have to fight with constantly. I'm always wanting to move on and try something new, much to the chagrin of my players.
Walt also suggests something I've tried before: the alternate campaign. This is something you use when you have some players that won't be able to attend regularly. Something that you and the other players can play on the 'off week'.
This rather long chapter ends with a look at getting player feedback and a talk about safety nets and social contracts. This second part seems to be a hot topic lately in the RPG scene. Here Walt is pretty sensible just suggesting that you all sit down and talk about what is and is not allowed in the game before starting play. That works for me.
Chapter 12: Risk Management, not surprisingly, sees the return of Phil to the table as risk management is pretty much the main job of a project manager. He first defines risk and then sets some targets for managing it. Risk management is a huge topic and Phil does a good job of giving the readers a crash course. He breaks the process down into four steps: identification, likelihood, mitigation and contingency. The chapter ends by bringing it back to the game table looking at common risks in campaigns. Things like PC deaths, new players, loosing players, etc.
Chapter 13: Change Management starts off with Phil explaining the difference between risks and changes. He clarifies that all risks are changes but that not all changes are risks. Goals are set and four steps are given to manage change.
The most important part of this chapter to me was the bit about communication. Again the authors stress player involvement. If you are thinking of making a change to the campaign, talk about it with your players. If Bob is quitting the game in a month and you are thinking of ending the game at that point, let your players know. It's also a two way street, the players should let you know as well, not only of pending changes but how they feel about any changes proposed.
Phil takes time to talk about changes in story, PCs, players and system. Each is looked at in detail with many suggestion on managing the change without killing your campaign. There's an important bit that brings things full circle at the end. When changes like this happen you should look back to your campaign framework and see how the change affects that.
Chapter 14: When It's Time to End Your Campaign. The final chapters of the book, starting with this one are all about ending your campaign. Something that happens to all of us and is often managed poorly. This is one of the chapters I was really looking forward to reading.
Walt's back to talk about how campaigns end and makes us all feel better by explaining that it happens to the best of us. Heck he's even got a side bar titled "Why Can't I Finish a Campaign? I Must Be a Bad GM!" where he goes on to say that that is most definitely not the case.
One of the most important things I read in this chapter was knowing the signs that your campaign is coming to an end and that you should act on those signs. Walt lists eleven signs all of which I've seen many times over the years. After listing the signs he goes on to talk a bit about good ways to end a campaign. These are talked about in more detail in the later chapters.
Chapter 15: Killing a Campaign starts with Walt re-iterating that it's okay to kill a campaign. Sometimes they just don't work. A ton of advice is given on ways to properly kill a campaign. Four methods are discussed in details: walking away, wrapping up the current adventure, the movie and the TPK.
I personally found The Movie ending to be rather fascinating. It's not one I had heard of before. It basically suggests that you run one (or a few) final session(s) in which everything ramps up to an exciting climax. Tie up the important loose strings and amp everything up. You are looking to go out with a huge bang while resolving the important questions and not worrying about all the little details.
Probably the most important part of ending a campaign is discussed last. That is learning from your mistakes. Analyzing what went wrong and making sure you don't make the same mistakes next time. Walt looks at many things that could have gone wrong and walks us through each. There's lots of good stuff here about figuring out what the true cause of the game ending was.
Chapter 16: Suspending a Campaign. I don't think I can count the number of my personal campaigns that are 'on hold.' This is usually how my campaigns end, with the promise that we will get back to them some day. To this day I don't think I've ever actually started up a suspended campaign again. Which is kind of sad, come to think of it. Walt talks about this, and other things in regards to suspending a campaign.
The advice I probably need to take to heart is the fine line between when you should suspend a campaign and when you should instead end it. There's some good advice on shortening a campaign rather than ending it that, combined with the last chapter, will be my plan for the next campaign of mine that comes to an end.
Assuming you do want to suspend your campaign, this chapter goes on about how to do it effectively through one of three methods: cold turkey, finishing the adventure and the season finale. After this is a good discussion on how to start things back up. I found this rather interesting as it talks about dropping whatever had happened last and starting up fresh. Almost like a totally new campaign but with ties to the campaign put on hold. Personally, before reading this I would have probably just started an old campaign back up right where we left off. Relying on my memory and that of my players to recall where we were and what was going on. There's some great suggestions about jumping the timeline ahead and starting fresh I'm sure I will use.
Chapter 17: The Managed Ending is the last official chapter of the book. It's all about finishing things off properly. Starting with re-iterating why your campaigns should end and then going into details about how to do this effectively.
There's some good stuff in here reminding GMs to give every PC a chance to shine and ways to leave the players wanting more by sowing the seeds for future campaigns. The one thing that caught me as a cool idea was the idea of throwing an end of campaign party. A real life thing, with cake and drinks and such. I think this is a brilliant idea.
The book finishes off with some closing thoughts by both authors and then talks about the artwork in the book. As I mentioned above, all of the artwork shows either players at the table or their characters following the story of a specific gaming group. What I didn't mention before are the wealth of examples given throughout the book using this group. Every chapter starts off with an example from this group showcasing the topic at hand. Many of these examples are very negative at the start of the chapter, showing the reader how not to do things. The examples at the end of the chapter are at the opposite end of the spectrum, showing how things can work out if putting the advice therein to good use. I found it to be very effective.
In addition to these fictional examples the text is also filled with real life examples both from Phil and Walt's tables. There's a mix of amazing success and crushing defeat here. Some examples being cautionary tales and some being highlights of the methods suggested in Odyssey being put to good use. I thought these examples really humanized the authors, reminding me that they are just another GM like me and make just as many mistakes as the rest of us.
While most of what I talk about above is pretty high praise, I will admit that the book isn't all roses. Phil's writing style does take a bit to get used to. His text often comes off as preaching the 'one true way.' Now I know that's not that case, and that every section is just a suggestion and a showcasing of how he handles things but that is not always evident.
Sections of the book I also found a bit dry at times and I would have liked some more examples or artwork to break it up. It reminded me of that place you get to in every 300 page rulebook where you are just reading skill after skill. It's nice to have a picture to look at to take your mind off of skills for a bit. Most of the artwork is saved for the beginning and end of chapters and I think I would have preferred it being spread out a bit more.
One of the things I really liked in Never Unprepared were actual tools Phil provided for use while planning your sessions. Things like the Blank Free Time Inventory Map, the Creativity Heat Map and suggestions for various templates for scenes, sessions, etc. Along with this were lots of suggestions on tools for managing your notes. It's through that book that I found Evernote and why I purchased a good pen for writing my notes. I would have liked to see some more of these down to earth practical physical tools and tool advice in Odyssey.
My last complaint is an odd one. One thing that is not currently a problem with the book but something I worry will be a problem with books like this and other modern game supplements is that it is not evergreen. I'm not just talking about the hyperlinks and web addresses, though that's part of it. What I'm talking about is referencing tools that can only be found online. Sure, right now I can go to the Fear The Boot website and grab their "What's Really Going On" document. But what if I happened to pick up this book five years from now as new old stock on a game store shelf? What if at that time Fear The Boot is long gone as is their website? Heck five years from now there may not even be a web as we know it now. While it's great to suggest such outside resources I would have much preferred if the authors or Engine had gotten permission to include copies of these documents instead of providing links.
Alright enough with the negativity. As I'm sure you can tell if you managed to make it this far in the review, despite some minor complaints, I really dig this book. When I first agreed to Martin's review request I had some things I wanted to get out of this book. I wanted to have it make me think about how I run my games and how I run my campaigns. I also wanted some concrete advice that I could start using right now to run those campaigns. Lastly I wanted to be inspired.
Well first off, it made me realize that I shouldn't be thinking about how I run my campaigns but rather how I manage them and how I can manage them better. I immediately started to ask myself what I actually do to manage my games and what I could do better. Second it most definitely gave me some things I can use right away. After starting the book I spent some time at my next session of D&D encounters, where I'm running Murder in Baldur's Gate, asking the players what they wanted out of the session and if they were enjoying how things are going. For a public play event like that I would have never thought to even ask. Lastly, in regards to inspiration: much to my current players chagrin I really want to start up a new campaign, but having finished Odessey I realize that what I really need to do is properly manage finishing up this one with a fantastic ending first, and I now have all the tools I need to do that.