Review: Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management

Odyssey CoverAuthor:  Phil Vecchione, Walt Ciechanowski
Publisher:  Engine Publishing
Art Director: John Arcadian
Price: Print & PDF $24.95 / PDF $11.95 / PDF @ RPGNow ($11.95)
Pages: 212

Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management is the most recent release from Engine Publishing in print and PDF form, plus bonus EPUB, MOBI and text versions. The book is written by Phil Vecchione (also author of Never Unprepared from Engine Publishing) and Walt Ciechanowski, with art by Avery Liell-Kok, Matt Morrow, Christopher Reach, and Daniel Wood.

Odyssey is a guide to managing campaigns. With that in mind the book covers three major topic areas – starting a campaign, managing a campaign, and ending a campaign. A shorter section defining campaigns starts the book. The book aims to be an in-depth guide to helping a GM guide a campaign from the time it is just an idea, starting the campaign, running the campaign and making it past obstacles that can occur, to wrapping up your campaign.

The book weaves a fictional gaming group amongst the advice to help show how situations can work out better using the advice in the book. The technique works well for this purpose.

Let’s take a look at the book section by section.

On Campaigns

Before the book gets too far into helping you manage a campaign it defines a campaign. Four elements are noted that make up a campaign – characters, gaming sessions, a series of events, and continuity.

Working from there the book moves into why one would want to manage a campaign. Here the book briefly goes into the phases of the campaign, a closer look at the layers of the campaign, and the constant tides of risk and change and their impact on the campaign. This all helps make the case as to why a campaign can benefit from management.

This section is short, but serves well to set the stage for the rest of the book.

Starting a Campaign

The first part of a campaign is starting a campaign. This chapter begins by defining four main phases of starting a campaign. This includes coming up with the campaign concept, the framework, creation, and the first session. The first chapter in this section defines the role of GM and of the players that make up the gaming group as well as key skills for people starting a campaign.

This takes us to the Campaign Concept chapter. This chapter breaks down the elements of forming the concept for the game. The ground rules or blocks that are going to form the foundation of the campaign. Methods of coming up with these ideas as a group or GM are included, along with advantages and disadvantages of each method.

Next we move into the Campaign Framework chapter. This section goes over what I would call the “meta” of the campaign. What system are you going to use, setting, what supplements are allowed, house rules, and even social contracts at the table. The chapter goes into more depth on choosing a setting and what other factors to consider as part of the framework – like roles of the PCs, power level, etc.

Campaign creation gets a short chapter. This chapter aims to help a GM organize his material and consider several elements that go into campaign creation from the GM’s side of the screen.

And finally, this section wraps up with a section on the First Session. This chapter tackles how to handle that first session. I always think the first session of any campaign is one of the hardest. Getting the characters involved in the new world always seems tricky to me, no matter how excited I am for the new campaign. There were several good tips on here on how to get the most out of that first session.

Managing a Campaign

This section jumps right in with the first chapter titled Campaign Management. The chapter is an overview of what is to come, noting five areas of focus. Story, player characters, people, risk, and change. The chapter goes on to talk about being agile and flexible with the areas of focus and avoiding a strict railroad in running a game.

Engine Publishing LogoStory management dives into several good bits of information. Everything from story arcs to ways to hook players into the arc. There is also a section on story structure and touches on the three-act and five-act models plays as something to mimic. The chapter also touches on pacing, the importance of interesting NPCs, and other story related elements that need managed.

Player Character Management comes up next. The authors touch on different character types, growing a character during a campaign both in character and mechanically. There are also tips on how to showcase this growth during sessions.

People Management covers a multitude of real life people scenarios that can impact your game and frequently need some management. Everything from scheduling issues, to problem player types that can disrupt a campaign. The chapter closes with tips on keeping interest in the campaign – both the GM’s and the player’s.

Risk Management is a short chapter that helps a GM use a four step process for managing risks. These steps help determine what risks might be, how likely they are to occur (to help determine how much time to spend on them), and how to mitigate the risk. This was a handy chapter and helps drive home that there is always risk, but not all risk warrants time spent on detailed plans to mitigate, while others might.

The final chapter in this section is Change Management. This chapter also covers four steps to use to address change that might occur in your campaign. This change could be anything from a new player joining the group to a long term player leaving the group.

Ending a Campaign

The first chapter in this section is titled When It Is Time To End Your Campaign. Several warning signs that it is time to consider ending your campaign are listed. The authors also note that ending a campaign is not necessarily a bad thing.

Killing a Campaign comes next as one of the ways to end a campaign. Four common approaches to this method are mentioned and how to implement each of those in your own campaign. And even if a campaign must be killed, the chapter reminds you to look at why the campaign failed and learn from it.

The next chapter covers methods to Suspend a Campaign. The first topic addresses determine whether a campaign should be killed rather than suspended. If interest exists to continue at a later date, then suspending the campaign might be an option. The chapter covers how to suspend it and how to bring it back when the time has come to do so.

The final option mentioned is the Managed Ending. This is where the campaign simply has loose ends tied up because the campaign has run its course. This is a chance to explore final areas players have been desperate to do so or tie up any other loose ends that might exist. The grand finale!


Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management is another excellent offering from Engine Publishing. Campaign management is an often overlooked component of RPG books. Very few RPG publishers give the topic an in-depth look. Campaigns are what keep people playing and successful campaigns are what keep people coming back to the table. The practical advice included in Odyssey is a methodical look at managing a successful campaign and avoiding common pitfalls, a welcome resource to both new GMs and seasoned GMs alike. The fact it is system neutral helps further its usefulness to an even greater number of GMs.

In addition to the usefulness of the subject matter, the book flowed well making reading about such management techniques of a campaign enjoyable. The mixing of the fictional gaming group stories applying the techniques were useful examples further illustrating the relevance of the techniques.

Pairing Odyssey with Never Unprepared and a new or seasoned GM is well on their way to smooth running sessions and campaigns.

Review: Never Unprepared – The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep

Author:  Phil Vecchione
Publisher:  Engine Publishing
Price: Print+PDF Bundle $19.95 / PDF $9.95
Pages:   132 (digest)
Tankard Rating:  5/5

The Book

Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep is the third book out from Engine Publishing. The book is written by Phil Vecchione, a gamer with 30 years of experience and illustrated by Matt Morrow and Christopher Reach.

Never Unprepared is a guide to session prep of any type of system you like to play, whether that be a fantasy genre, sci-fi, modern, or any other genre. The process it works the reader through is applicable to your RPG system of choice. The book has three major sections as the author walks the reader through the process of session preparation.

What is Inside?

The first major section is about understanding prep. This area delves into the five phases of preparation – brainstorming, selection, conceptualizing, documentation, and review. Each of these sections cover the individual process and defines it, covers what happens if you spend too little time on that area, what happens if you spend too much time on that area and how to improve and strengthen this area of your prep. Each section closes with a short question and answer section to help give the reader a feel for their skill level for these areas.

The next major section covers the prep toolbox. This section talks about tools for prep. It does not try to steer you towards good old fashioned paper and pencil or to more modern electronic tools, but talks about pros and cons and knowing your own abilities. It also talks about what makes a good tool for each of the building blocks of prepping a session. This helps the reader make a good choice for themselves regardless of whether they prefer electronic or paper and pencil tools.

Another interesting portion of this section is mapping out your creative cycle. The author is a working professional with a family at home and knows what it is like to carve out prep time. He walks you through a technique to map out just how much free time you have and then figure out when you are most creative. Using this information you can more easily map out when you should be scheduling your prep time, yet still balance with work and your family life.

The final major section of the book covers evolving your style. This talks about various concepts to make your prep a little easier. It covers building templates for you to use to help guide your prep. These templates can vary based on when you consider your strengths as a GM and what you consider weaknesses. When prepping areas that hit your strengths you can get by with fewer details. When prepping areas that you feel weak in, including a little more detail can be good.

Using a prep-lite approach in for session preparation is also covered. This includes more tips for getting the amount of preparation you need as a GM just right, while using each of the five steps detailed earlier in the book.

The final portion of this section talks about what to do when the real world intervenes. We have all been there where something comes up that cuts even more into what little time we have to prep. Several scenarios are covered in this section and how various obstacles can affect your prep and how to adjust.

The PDF version of this book is wonderfully bookmarked and has an extensive index. It is good to see that Engine Publishing understands the value of a well bookmarked PDF and the value of a good index. These things do matter to RPG consumers.

But Is It Any Good?

This book was very good. This book should be standard issue to any new GM or any GM that says they simply don’t have time to run a game anymore as real life responsibilities increase. The author has been there like all of us, from the time where we could spend all afternoon evening prepping for games, reading about gaming and doing research for the game. Now, with careers and families there just isn’t the time to prep like we used to. This book shows you how to make the most of your time and get the prep done you need to run a quality game.

Session preparation is often looked at as a very large task. Never Unprepared breaks it down into reasonable chunks of preparation. Some of these chunks can be done in the shower, while you wait in line and other places with minutes of downtime. Other portions of prep do take more contiguous amounts of time, but the book helps you determine where you can find these chunks of time and how to reduce the stress sometimes associated with taking time out of your day to work on gaming prep.

I appreciated the fact that the tools section did not push you into one particular tool or style. The author spent the time to tell you what was required of the tool, leaving it to the reader to pick his or her preferred tool based on requirements, not on someone pushing you in one direction. Understanding what a tool needs to accomplish goes further to helping the reader choose the right tool than anything else.

I also found the mapping of your creative time in contrast with your free time very valuable. I have never sat down to map out my free time, much less apply a creative time peak map over that. These tips can go far to help reduce any tension you might have within your family for taking time to prep games. The methods outlined in this book do not require you to abandon your work of family responsibilities.

This book will help you better prep for your games and work this prep into your busy schedule. The techniques outlined in the book are very solid building blocks to making sure the time you spend prepping for your game is well spent.

The next time I hear someone say they do not have time to run a game I will immediately point them to Never Unprepared as a place to start. This is a high quality offering from Engine Publishing with invaluable advice to anyone trying to figure out how to more effectively prep for their game.

Tankard Rating
5 tankards out of 5 tankards

Note: The Iron Tavern was provided a review copy of this book.