If you run a licensed property RPG — a game based on a movie, book, or TV show (etc.) — then you have access to a wealth of inspiration, ideas, and gameable material in the form of books produced for that property. While not gaming books per se, these books are often very, very close to being gaming books. And as an added bonus, they can be really cheap.
I’ve found that my personal sweet spot for these books has two parts:
- I don’t want to own so many of them that I feel overwhelmed and suffer from analysis paralysis, or don’t think I can “live up to” the depth of the canon material in my campaign
- These books work best for filling gaps in my knowledge, or if they’re done encyclopedia-style, as I don’t want to squash my own improvisation or contributions to the licensed universe
The genesis of this article was picking up a non-gaming sourcebook for Cubicle 7’s Dr. Who RPG — a book which fellow gnome Don Mappin rightly pointed out is virtually indistinguishable in its trade dress from Cubicle 7’s actual sourcebooks, despite not being published by them. Having just started a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign, one of the first things I did was go hunt down a few similar books for the Star Wars universe, and that got me thinking about this practice in more general terms.
One quick aside before I get to the books: You can also get a lot of information about licensed properties online for free, something I’ve done for both Star Trek and Star Wars. But I’m a print dinosaur (rarr) and I like physical books for browsing, future use, and passing around the table. I use online resources alongside, or sometimes instead of, buying non-RPG sourcebooks; mixing them works nicely, too.
What follows are specific recommendations for four games I’ve run (Star Trek, Star Wars) or played (Game of Thrones, Dr. Who), but this is the tip of the licensed property iceberg. If a property is sufficiently popular to merit an RPG license, there’s probably stuff like this out there for it.
Surprise! There are a billion books about the Star Wars universe. In my opinion, it would be easy to try to use too many of them for a game.
When I ran one of the introductory adventures for Edge of the Empire a little while back, “Trouble Brewing,” we found ourselves saying, “A what, now? Are those the guys with ballsack chins, or the weird porcupine guys?” a lot, which sent me straight to Amazon after the game — I knew I wanted a book full of aliens to hold up whenever we couldn’t remember what a particular species looked like.
I picked up The New Essential Guide to Alien Species for just that purpose. It should also be useful to get ideas about which species to feature in the game, as I’d like to use some oddball ones.
The core book for Edge of the Empire is a bit sparse on other topics where my Star Wars knowledge isn’t as strong as I’d like, notably worlds, ships, vehicles, guns, and tech…so I picked up the Essential Guides to those topics as well: The New Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels, The New Essential Guide to Weapons and Technology, and The Essential Guide to Planets and Moons.
I went with used copies for all but one of those. The lowest price with shipping was less than $5, which is a steal for a sourcebook — and one of my favorite things about buying used books on Amazon.
For everything else, I’ll just use Wookieepedia, which is a fantastic resource.
When I run Trek, I’m not too fussed about canon but I do worry about getting the timeline wrong. I picked up Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future to fill that gap, and it’s a useful resource.
I also like to have a big book of stuff to browse for ideas, and to reference for things I don’t know enough about, and The Star Trek Encyclopedia is perfect for that. I used the crap out of this one in the first season of my Trek campaign, and I expect to do the same in the second season.
For any gaps those two books don’t address, I use Memory Alpha.
I haven’t run this yet, only played it, but I see myself running it in the future. For now I’ve only snagged one book, The Time Traveller’s Almanac, but it’s awesome. It’s from Tennant’s run on the show, so it focuses on his seasons, but apart from its physical dimensions (something like 10×7) it looks almost identical to Cubicle 7’s actual Dr. Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG books. I hope they do a sequel to this book.
Game of Thrones
We didn’t play this one for long enough to send me to the bookstore, but if we play it again (or if I ever run it), I’ll likely pick up The Lands of Ice and Fire. Westeros is a cool setting, and these maps look really neat.
If you’ve used resources like these, whether for these RPGs or others, share them in the comments. I’m far from the only GM who does this, and we can all benefit from each others’ recommendations.
Teresa Patterson co-wrote two fantasy references with their sereis’ respective authors. She did The World of Shannara with Terry Brooks. It’s fairly credible. The other was The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. For my money, it’s inferior to the rpg sourcebook. I seem to recall Okudas did Star Trek The Next Generation Technical Manual, which was filled with technobabble gobblygook, perfect for an rpg. An, interestingly enough, the motorcycle riding librarian just checked out The Marvel Encyclopedia published by DK — which is perfect for a supers rpg. I mean, need an insta-villain? It’s in here, certainly.
Oh man, wasn’t there a series of one-page profiles for like every Marvel villain? I bet that got collected somewhere.
Yes, TSR did Marvel Encyclopedia and a few updates back when they had the license. Pretty much statted out every Marvel character that ever appeared, even the freakish one-shot characters that you’d never heard of.
Somewhat related – GURPS has(or had) a Discworld book and of course there is a ton of books to draw from for ideas for that setting thanks to Sir Terry and L-space
Good point on GURPS books: they’re often very close to systemless, and fall into a similar category if you don’t play GURPS. Most of the ones I own as sourcebooks for other games aren’t for licensed properties, but they’re excellent.
I thought I was your sourcebook for all things Star Trek? :p
I can’t stuff you in my backpack or read you on the toilet, though…
Good article Martin. For Star Wars I would also recommend The Essential Atlas, which has major planetary info and some very pretty star maps. Another book that I like is Jedi v. Sith: The Essential Guide to the Force. This book is a good resource for learning more about the history of the two most prominent Force using groups in galactic history.
For my Serenity RPG games, I have three “Visual Companion” books for the series and movie, as well as “Still flying,” from Titan Books. They are full of pictures of props, sets, costumes and actors, as well as scripts and short stories.
There is also Quantum Mechanix’ “Map of the Verse” for the same setting, which has dozens of worlds and moons located. With the fan-created “ARC of the Verse” one can use that to plot travel times between the worlds.
While I find most game based novels dreadful, sometimes they can help me get in the right frame of mind to GM not just the facts, but the mood the game strives for. And when it’s time to adlib, you have something to fall back on.
For 40k RPGs, I read the Eisenhorn trilogy, and that really worked well for me. Not only did I know what an inquisitor was, I knew how people felt about them.
However, a bad novel(and there are many terrible ones) can ruin a setting for you. Look for reviews. Ask friends you trust.
And, always handy: S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters, A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities…
Back when I ran my Buffy campaign, I made use of the various Watcher’s Guides , monster books, and Casefiles (from Angel). I didn’t rehash the creatures and characters so much (although they would work for that). No, I did write-ups for the games and mirrored the layout. It was a great way to layout the high points of the episodes and the players greatly enjoyed it.
Of non-gaming related material I’ve seen, it fit so perfectly to what Eden did with their game.
DC’s Who’s Who line and Marvel’s Handbook line were also excellent reads for any super hero game really.
Battlestar Wiki is great for that property. En.battlestar.wiki