Book Review – The Role-Playing Game Primer an Old School Playbook (By: Chris Gonnerman)

The Role-Playing Game Primer is a book by Chris Gonnerman intended to be used as an introduction to RPGs in general and “old-school” RPGs in particular. “Old-school” here being mainly “retroclones” of older RPGs (as opposed to those games themselves) such as Gonnerman’s own “Basic Fantasy RPG” (Based on the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition rules using the Open Game License {That gets complicated}) and “Iron Falcon” (Based on older D&D {Also under the OGL}) games, and several others that are mentioned by name (but those names don’t really mean much to a person who isn’t in the culture yet). But just how good is it at being the “primer” it set out to be?

I’m not exactly the best one to evaluate this book, as I don’t really need “priming” on the whole RPG thing. I am far from an “old-school” gamer, but I generally know the differences in play styles between them and the “new-school” (or whatever they’re called) gamers. So this book was more of a curious read and not me actually looking for an introduction. And it was a nice, short read. The 62 pages have slightly larger than average text and a good amount of illustrations. These illustrations are either: stock images, those sent in by contributors for Gonnerman’s “Basic Fantasy” game, or maps of areas designed as examples. At least that’s my assumption, since, while the art is good, it varies wildly in style and has almost nothing to do with what is written on the page (a common theme in most “OD&D*” books I’ve seen). But it’s still nice to look at and gets the job done. (*Original Dungeons & Dragons)

The text is divided into chapters, but can be further divided in my mind into the first part, where Gonnerman describes new players starting up a game with the Game Master (GM) (using his own system as an example), and the second part, where he talks directly to the reader and gives them advice. I really like the first part. It does a good job of giving an explanation and examples for how to play a Role-Playing Game (even if the dialog is a bit unrealistic at times). It’s one of those reaffirming sections where one can go “whoo… I’m not doing this thing wrong” in reference to starting up and playing an RPG. And it’s short enough to not overstay its welcome. The second part needs to be taken with a grain of salt as it’s written with an obvious bias against newer RPGs (but maybe the title gave that away) that’s never really given adequate justification. One might, through some unlikely circumstance, come out of this book thinking that “old-school” role playing is simply “better” or “the way to play” rather than there being different sets of people who enjoy either. With that aside, however, it does do a very good job of explaining how “old-school” games work for both players and GMs while providing some nice tips along the way.

The brevity of this book is another plus. The language is nice and concise while being informative and not particularly confusing (as far as something being about an RPG can not be confusing). It moves along fast enough that it can be easily recommended as a read before diving into, or while beginning to read, one’s first role-playing game (it does help if it’s one in the older vein, though). The advice, information, and explanations are informative and well laid out (probably from years of experience) while being simply but not dumbly written. Aside from one humorous example where an “old school building” is referenced and in the text hard to differentiate from the many other times “old school” is used in reference to RPGs I was never confused when reading (though as I say I did know about the subject going in). Gonnerman’s experience in the area and writing skill show through when reading.

It’s far from and essential book, but it’s inexpensive (being print-on-demand), short, and well written. I would recommend looking into it as a beginner, but I have to question whether or not it’s really worthwhile with so many good forums, blogs, and videos on the subject out there. If one doesn’t want to sift through that content or wants a more focused experience, this book would work great (and I also can’t imagine you ever finding this review). Otherwise it’s more of a curiosity so that one may, like me, make sure they aren’t “doing it wrong” and maybe get a few helpful tips along the way (except for the part where he calls the traditional way to draw {dungeon} maps into question, but maybe the reason is only obvious to me).

5 thoughts on “Book Review – The Role-Playing Game Primer an Old School Playbook (By: Chris Gonnerman)

  1. Hey, thanks for the kind words! I always appreciate a fair review, and this seems pretty fair to me. I do have to ask, though… you indicate at the end that the reason dungeon maps are drawn as they are is obvious to you. So why are they drawn that way?

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! I always try to be as fair as I can. And it seems to me obvious that the way dungeon maps are drawn is a logical distillation of architectural drawings or just how one would want to draw something looking at it from straight above. The doors in particular need something to be there to indicate there is a door (and not just a hole), but since it doesn’t affect the playing of the game things like which way the door sings are omitted, leaving just the simplest bit to draw, a rectangle.

      • You say it doesn’t affect the playing of the game, but I can’t tell you how many times players ask the question, and I have to make something up. But after all these years, I still do it the traditional way myself.

  2. This review is good enough to, maybe, get me to try this book. I stopped reading Bradbury because I could not figure where he was going plus he was taking a long time to get there.

    • Assuming this is in response to the Bradbury short-story review posted just before this; thank you! I’m happy you enjoyed and his short stories do get to the point a lot quicker if you were reading his novels before.

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