REVIEW: The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide by James D’Amato

I’ll open with four basic observations about this book:

Firstly, The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is not a beginner’s guide to RPGs or one of those ‘how to run a regular game’ books like The Lazy DM’s Guide. Nor is it an introduction to the act of roleplaying that tells you how to put on a funny voice or develop a character concept. The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is best thought of as an assortment of guided exercises and theoretical essays designed to help improve your game by making you a better participant in RPGs in that the advice this book is relevant to both players and GMs.

Secondly, the author of this book James D’Amato is not a game designer but rather the creator of a series of successful actual play podcasts. He is also someone who has been formally trained in improvisational comedy by a number of august educational institutions.

Thirdly, despite having been published by Simon and Schuster and having enough of a marketing push behind it that I actually found my copy of this book in a generalist bookshop in a small British town, The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is by far and away the single worse-organised piece of non-fiction writing I have ever encountered.

Fourthly, once you move beyond the fact that D’Amato is bad at both articulating his ideas and presenting said ideas in a logical fashion, this book is surprisingly good.

It took me the best part of two months to finish reading this book because the first two chapters are a conceptual mess. Once you move beyond those two chapters, things improve. Once you move beyond the first five chapters, you’ll finish the book in a single sitting. Having now finished writing the above sentences, it occurs to me that they go some way towards explaining the book’s organisational problems.

As a general rule of thumb, when you are trying to convey your thoughts, it is useful to present your readers with a very general on-ramp that is both easy to understand and effective in setting the terms under which the rest of the piece will operate. For example, if you are going to write about Kant’s Categorical Imperative, you do not leap straight into the flawed formal logic underpinning a 21st Century re-statement of the Imperative. Instead, you present people with an example that demonstrates the categorical imperative as it applies to theft, lying, or laziness. The on-ramp sets the terms of the debate, introduces you to the issues that inform the debate, and generally prepares the audience for your central thesis. Once you have articulated your idea, you move on to addressing potential difficulties and dealing with definitional nuances. The general movement is from general to specific and from easy to hard. That way, you are not asking your readers to take on too much new information at once.

Anyway… the first chapter of this book is entitled ‘Understanding Audience’.

While I was not previously aware that ‘improv’ is something that one can formally study, D’Amato has studied it at several august institutions and is clearly knowledgeable about some of the theoretical writings that have been produced by people in that field. The first two chapters of The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide are difficult because they are the chapters in which D’Amato tries to take theoretical concepts developed around improvisational comedy and apply them directly to RPGs.

I can understand an actual play podcaster stressing the importance of audience understanding and expectation because they are in the business of performing for an audience.  There is a clear divide between the people who download the podcast (audience) and the people who appear on the podcast (performers). D’Amato is correct in saying that the concept of audience is still relevant to RPGs in so far as everyone at the table is the ‘audience’ for the person who happens to be talking at a particular point in time but the lack of real boundary between performer and audience in most RPG sessions means that a theoretical concept like ‘audience’ is going to be harder to relate to a regular game than it might be to a regular piece of theatre. This prompted me to wonder why D’Amato not only decided to start out by talking about audience but then proceeded to trail off after the recognition that there is not going to be a clear audience/performer divide at most RPG tables.

A similar issue surrounds chapters two and three in which D’Amato talks us through the initial steps of setting up a campaign. Now… if you are anything like me then most of your campaigns will have started with someone volunteering to run a specific game, them going off to select or write an adventure, and then you turning up to create your character with maybe a little bit of assistance from the GM should your character concept turn out to be antithetical to the story they want to tell. This is not the workflow described in the book…

According to D’Amato, RPG campaigns start with people sitting down to discuss what kind of genre and story they want to tell. Based on that discussion, people will select a game. Character creation follows during which the players make it clear what character arcs they expect their characters to pursue.

While this is certainly an approach to setting up a campaign, I would not say that it was the norm and even if it was the most common approach to setting up a game, I would not say that it was so common as to justify a refusal to even acknowledge the existence of other approaches to campaign play. For the record, I have been playing RPGs for over thirty years and the only time I have ever encountered a first session like this one was when playing heavily improvisational indie games like Fiasco or Ten Candles. Maybe things have changed, but I would be very surprised to learn that all of those millions of people playing D&D had started out with a session zero in which they all discussed their character concepts, looked through a capacious RPG library, and decided that D&D was the best option for their tails of revenge, betrayal and self-actualisation.

The interesting thing about D’Amato’s idiosyncratic approach to campaign design is that I can easily imagine a bunch of theatre nerds deciding to do an actual play podcast and then having a meeting at which they workshopped their individual characters, their character arcs, the relationships between everyone’s characters and how those relationships would play out over a series of episodes. Indeed, listen to any professional or semi-professional actual podcast and you’ll note that while they do engage with whatever game it is they happen to be playing, they are also engaging in a form of improv theatre that tends to sit on top of the stuff that tends to happen at most RPG tables.

D’Amato’s failure to flag his approach to campaign play as idiosyncratic is a barrier to entry into his ideas and it is one that speaks to the poor organisation of this book. Rather than writing a book about how regular gamers might learn something from theatre nerds doing their thing for an audience, D’Amato simply assumes that everyone approaches roleplaying in the same way resulting in a book that feels difficult and alien rather than inspirational and welcoming. While I really don’t want to be the ‘Read More Theory’ guy, most gamers who talk about RPGs online are (by now) familiar with ideas like social contracts, creative agendas, or just the idea that different games have different styles and focus on different things. D’Amato’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of playing styles other than his own serves only to make his ideas harder to understand. This book would have benefited enormously from occasional comments such as ‘this type of thing is pretty common in games like x’ or ‘you probably don’t do this but you might want to give it a try’.

Once you move beyond the unhelpfully reductive opening chapters, the book opens out into a load of genuinely good ideas.

Aside from obvious-but-useful stuff like how to run a proper Session Zero that tells people what to expect and establishes any red lines they might want to have, there are also more general chapters about storytelling. For example, there are a really good couple of chapters on the importance of pacing and the effects that different kinds of scenes can have on tension levels. This really struck home for me as while I haven’t listened to a lot of actual play podcasts, I have noticed that there is more to tension than simply putting the characters in danger. Regardless of the odds or the in-game stakes, too many combat-focused sessions in a row can result in games that are boring to listen to. So, rather than relying on combat mechanics to create a sense of tension, why not spend an episode priming the pumps through discovery and lore? Rather than simply telling the players that their victories were momentous and then moving on to the next tactical engagement, why not devote a session to exploring the consequences of their victories as well as their defeats?

As you would expect of a trained improviser, D’Amato’s book contains a number of improv exercises devoted to doing stuff like teaching participants the importance of listening to each other and sharing the spotlight in order to have it returned to them. As a GM, it is easy to disappear behind the screen and talk to the group as a monolithic entity but the chapters devoted to stuff like spotlight reminded me that the players are individuals and engaging with individuals means that everyone gets to speak and everyone gets a chance to shine. Most gamers do some of this automatically because traditional initiative rules involve the GM going round the table and asking everyone what they’re doing but giving everyone the chance to speak and play is also important outside of formalised combat and this book introduced me to some techniques that I could use to keep everyone involved even outside of formalised encounters. However, while GMs may have a traditional responsibility for helping people to share the spotlight and bringing quiet people out of their shells, D’Amato correctly points out that players should do this kind of thing too. If someone at your table has gone to the trouble of writing a backstory for their character then engage with that backstory!  Ask questions in character, bear it in mind when talking to them, fold it into your own thinking about your own character!

At its best, The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide describes a series of ideas and techniques that people can use to improve their general participation in RPG sessions. Again, this isn’t so much about how to run a campaign or how to play your character, it’s more about how to participate in an RPG session in a way that makes stuff more fun, more intense, more dramatic, and more democratic. This is more about how to be better at playing RPGs than it is about either how to be better at running games or playing your character.

To be completely frank, I wish that someone had written this book twenty years ago as it would doubtless have improved my level of play and saved more than a few ruined campaigns. RPG culture has always revelled in the horror stories associated with bad play but when it comes to good play, people tend to go very quiet. We all know when GMs and players trespass against us but I’m not sure we have a clear idea on what constitutes being good at roleplaying games. D’Amato’s book, messy as it is, is a first step towards trying to encourage people towards better play.

This book has a lot to take in and my only regret is that the book’s organisation is so bad that you really need to be in the right frame of mind to make sense of what it is that D’Amato is actually trying to say. The only advice I can give is that if you do decide to buy this book then do not make the same mistake I did: Do not try and read this book from front to back. Instead, have it sitting somewhere prominent and dip into it from time to time, reading no more than a single chapter at a time. Read and re-read the same chapters out of order and eventually you’ll start to understand D’Amato’s approach as it really is not obvious when taking a conventional approach to the book.

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