Disclaimer: I should say up front that I have known Tracy Hickman for many years. Despite that, I shall endeavor to give this book a fair review. 😉
XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery is written by New York Times bestselling author and game designer Tracy Hickman and his son Curtis Hickman, with illustrations by Howard Tayler. According to editor Sandra Tayler, Tracy and Curtis “wanted to find a way to help role playing gamers remember to enjoy their games rather than get caught up in the mechanics of systems.” This book does just that.
Throughout XDM, one theme is clear: ditch the rules, the fiddly bits, and anything that gets in the way of having a good time at the gaming table. XDM explores making the game the best it can be, both from the player’s standpoint and from the XDM’s. Yet the book does so with the right touch of humor to set the tone.
I should probably mention that several of the chapters in this book are based on seminars that Tracy Hickman has given over the years. Much of this is familiar to me from the GenCon I spent stalking Tracy at his various seminars.
After the obligatory introductions, the book begins with the “Secret History of XDMs.” This chapter is an account of the “history” of XDMs, from ancient Babylonian times up to the modern day. This chapter is just for fun, but it gets into the mood of the book.
We move on from there to Getting Started as an XDM. This section deals some with some fun initiation material, but has a really good page on what an XDM does and what he doesn’t do. This is an invaluable tool for understanding the content of the book.
The next section is on the theory of XDMing. There is a good section on the types of players an XDM may have at his table. While not as detailed as what we’ve seen from Robin Laws or in the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, the three archetypes presented here are a fairly accurate summary of the types of gamers.
We move on from here to a section on storytelling, which is one of the gems of this book. This includes a variant of the Campbellian Monomyth, designed for use for storytelling. I’ve been using the monomyth in my current game, and the results have been great!
We move on to designing games for story, which takes the premise of story and moves it to practical gaming application. The next few chapters adds on to the foundations of the prior chapters.
From there, we move on to a section where we go beyond normal game mastery to the realm of the Ultimate XDM. Imagine adding sound, lights, lasers, holograms, and fog to your game! And yes, there’s even a bit of pyrotechnics.
What throws the book off, though, is the next chapter, on magic. This chapter talks a lot about various magic tricks, but doesn’t really explain much about how magic tricks deal with a role-playing game. This chapter really felt like it disrupted the flow of the book, and was hard to get through.
However, the book is saved once again with the next chapter on Killer Breakfast, a fun event that Tracy runs at GenCon. I’ve played in Killer Breakfast for several years, and this is a nice behind-the-scenes on how to do it. I’m not certain this is something you can do with friends, but it would be great for a game at a convention.
We then move on to another gem in the book – How You Play the Game. Tracy’s GenCon seminar on this very topic has been quite inspirational to me. One story in particular regarding a barbarian Tracy once played really set the mood.
From here, we go into the next chapter on the XD20 role-playing system. It exemplifies XDM principles in its simplicity. Despite knowing what the authors had in mind, it just wasn’t engaging to me. In a way, having a game system may run counter-intuitive to what this book does best – giving advice on making your game great.
The book finally ends with an afterword called “Waiting for Gygax.” Truthfully, this section should have been the forward. It sets the tone perfectly, and would have been a great place to start. In fact, many of the ideas in this book would have been better served if organized differently. I think some editorial reorganizing would have helped tremendously.
The illustrations helped to make the book what it is. Each one was fun and funny, and I had a good time going through them. It’s too bad that the book wasn’t in full glorious color.
Overall, this book has a lot of great ideas. Yet it has a few flaws, too. The biggest flaw of the book is the excessive amount of typos. It is my understanding that the book was produced in five weeks. It shows. Grammar mistakes run rampant throughout the book, making it distracting. Likewise, the book comes with footnotes. A few here and there would have added just the right spice to the book, but I felt that there was so many footnotes that we were drowning in flavor. Plus, the paper stock reminded me of the type of paper used in the 1st edition AD&D books.
The book seems to be designed for players and GMs who have played RPGs for a while. It’s also a great resource if you’re a Tracy Hickman fan, or a fan of adventure writing.
This book is a masterful resource, one that every GM should have. However, the book is in need of some editing to make it shine. Certainly, for the information inside, it is a valuable and indispensible resource. Yet the book comes across as a bit of a diamond in the rough.
I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.