Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide

DMing is enjoyable, but isn't easy at times. For a first time DM, however, preparing for and running sessions can be downright overwhelming. After all, a DM has a lot on his plate. The Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, written by Paul Jaquays and William W. Connors, is meant for both veteran and neophyte DMs. Veterans will find this great read, examples of "what not to do" are humorous, and they might learn some new things. Beginners, however, should devour this book, even though a small amount of advice might be dated.

This 128 page perfect bound book is the first Dungeon Master's Guide Reference series. Generally, while the DMG explained the rules, these series, more or less, showed DMs how to, well, DM, addressing all the DMing stuff that the core DMG didn't. TSR published nine of these books. Of these, the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide is the most important, because it sets the foundation for great DMing.

Although the book has 12 chapters, the book itself can be divided into the three sections. The first shows a DM how to prepare for and conducting gaming sessions. The second part is all about developing a campaign world, creating adventures, making NPCs seems more alive, and so on. The last part, and the small, features some generic dungeons (the great pyramid, a beehive fort, a castle on the moors, etc.) that the DM can use. This last section (chapter 10-12) feels like, more or less, an addendum. The maps provide are neat. But they aren't exactly "generic" dungeons.  I think the designers included them to demonstrate that a "dungeon" doesn't have to be labyrinth in the earth and to show off their 3-D mapping skills (a 3-D map grid is provided). There is, however, further advice on how to run a "dungeon" as a "setting" by including natural hazards one would encounter underground (gases, lava, etc.)

The first four chapters deal the challenges a DM can, and probably will, face while running a session, and the stuff that happens between sessions. This is the real gem of the book. DMs learn how to recognize the different styles of play and the different kinds of players (hack-and-slash, the problem solver, etc.) and how to cater to each. How do you integrate a player with a character from another campaign? What do you do when a player suddenly has to leave in the middle of a session? When should the rules be left behind? How do you escape from Monty Haulism and super-characters? The answers are all there. I think these chapters are the most vital in the book, because they show DMs how do deal with things like player feuds and absentism.

Chapters 5-10 aren't any less important; these show how to create an entire campaign setting and the adventures there. But what's the point if the DM doesn't know how to conduct the game and handle troublesome players? Still, a DM needs to provide good adventures to get players to the game (and stay there). A DM will learn about the different kinds of gamers out there (problem-solvers, role-players, etc.) and the types of adventures he can run (linear, open, matrix, and so on).

The only downside about this book is that some of the information is probably dated, particularly the chapter on map making, given that this book was written before map making software became readily available. Younger gamers probably have no clue what a "Monty Haul" is (Lets Make A Deal stopped running in the 1980s, I think).

Some gamers might criticize the section on "Fudging or Constructive Cheating." The example given, however, is a group of characters who've just completed their quest though wounded, when the DM notices that they are about to walk down a corridor of deadly gas that can wipe out the entire party. Does the DM let the players make the decision and the dice fall where they may? It's up for the DM to decide. The author suggest giving the players a chance to notice the gas, diverting them elsewhere. Basically don't let an entire campaign end get wasted with a TPK.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide was written when story and plot were considered an integral part of the gaming experience, at least from the TSR perspective. You'll find all kinds of tips on how to create plots and story lines, but not so much how to create campaigns based on exploration and player decisions.

Overall, this is great book for beginner DMs. Chapters 1-4 are the most important in the book, because they handle the tabletop etiquette that makes a session run smoothly. I sure needed the advice at 11 years old, a year after I first starting playing D&D. I know those early games weren't all that great, but this book helped, a lot. Especially when dealing with different types of gamers, both then and now. I've had this book since the beginning of my DMing career and I still occasionally refer to it.

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