What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.
Good GMs need inspiration. Movies, TV, music and video games all figure into the mix, of course. But nothing beats a good book.
The events of the past month have sent many of us looking into the roots of our hobby. And if anything is made clear, it was that fantastic fiction – whether it be thrilling tales of pulp adventure or the more far-reaching and thoughtful science fiction –was a key component to the development of roleplaying games.
So while I was away, I managed to recharge by devouring these books. It’s a dash of history, sword’n’sorcery, gaming supplements and even a comic book (OK, graphic novel, if you insist).Â But all of it was worth my while.
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
I wanted to read this before I saw the motion picture. Well, I read it and had no interest in seeing the movie.
Did I like it? I’m almost ambivalent about it, really. I know, it’s a Hugo winner, and Time magazine named it one of its 100 top novels. My regret was waiting so long to read it, because I think had I read it when it was originally released in 1986 I would have had a greater appreciation for the various storytelling techniques it employed and for its place within the context of the times.
Was it worth it? Sure. I just can’t help making a comparison to Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” which is from the same period and I think is a superior work. I freely admit Moore had the more difficult task and presented the reader with a more challenging story. Despite the dystopian Gotham, Miller was extolling a heroic mythology; Moore was refuting it.Â But where I’m inclined to re-read “Dark Knight” sometime in the future, I don’t think I’ll be picking up “Watchmen” again.
Starless Night, R.A. Salvatore
My haphazard journey through Drizzt-world continues, and I wasn’t disappointed.Â Having just come off “Promise of the Witch-King,” I was delighted with the interplay between Jarlaxle and Enteri. As for action, the battle on the rothe isle was as engaging and suspenseful as you’ll see in adventure fiction. Say what you will about the dark elf hero – he’s too introspective, too many encounters seem staged, you may envision the Forgotten Realms differently – but when he finally gets down to flashing those scimitars in battle, all that other stuff is forgotten.
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
What is this? More comic book writers? I’m sorry I waited so long to read this adult fairy tale. What a quick, beautiful story. Love, adventure and magic, all rolled up into a classic fable. Oh,, and it has witches, delightfully evil witches. And a hairy little man which must be some sort of a gnome. And if it’s a gnome, it’s gotta be good.
Cityscape: An Essential Guide to Urban Adventuring by Ari Marmell and C.A. Suleiman
Ptolus: City by the Spire by Monte Cook is the high bar for urban adventuring. Thankfully, the authors took a different tact – providing advice on how to populate various neighborhoods, how to create themed cities (trading city, elven city, martial city, etc), and how to make contacts within this environment.
The real meat of the book though, focuses on how to create guilds and other organizations – and best yet – fully statted out NPCs of the sort PCs are likely to face with encounter tables to match.
It’s proved to be a good reference baseline for materials that I’ve been developing for my home Steffenhold game, which is set in a frontier town during the medieval period.Â My only complaint is that it is short of generic maps for shops, inns, churches and manor-sized homes. A few ready-made places to drop into your campaign would have given greater utility to the supplement.
John Adams by David McCullough
Who was that fellow who was president between Washington and Jefferson? This biography tells you all that, in unflinching terms. Adams was the respected, but mostly disliked, author of the Declaration of Independence and the signer of the Alien and Sedition Acts. It’s also the story of the friendship/rivalry Adams had with Jefferson, as well as the long-distance love affair with the brilliant and far-more admired Mrs. Adams, and the story of his even-more brilliant son, John Quincy Adams.
But it’s also the story of early colonial times, and gamers looking for flavor for life in cities of the time, such as Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, London and Amsterdam can find plenty of descriptions to add spice to their own games.
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
OK, I hear you groan out there in Stew-land. I know, Brown writes conspiracy-fluff based on the evidence of “facts” with the durability of tissue paper. Who cares? He writes fast-paced, easily-understood suspense novels that work on our most hidden fears. That’s fun stuff!
If we as GMs ran our adventures at the pace that Brown tells stories, many of our players would be much happier.Â If Brown can fly from Boston to CERN to the Vatican and visit all the important churches of Rome and get back to the Vatican in time for the conclusion of the story in a mere few hundred pages, surely adroit and deft GMs can transport our players’ characters in and out of adventure locales in a couple of hours.
I’m trying to wrap my head around Dan Brown and Salvatore getting more props than Alan Moore. Bizarre.
I would HIGHLY suggest you wait a year or so (or even longer a I did) and then re-read Watchmen. I liked it the first time, but didn’t get what all the fuss was about. But on a second reading I enjoyed it A LOT more. It’s a book that’s meant to be read multiple times, when you can read it not for the story but just to enjoy the characters and the artwork, it really comes alive. The backgrounds and artwork are (purposefully) so filled with little details that you basically have to read it several times to catch most of them. I have friends who’ve read it many times and most of them agree it gets better as you read it over and over again. According to Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore it was in fact meant to be read multiple times. So I suggest you let it sit for a while and then give it another try in a year or two. (And again, really pay attention to the artwork, which is at least half, if not more, of the appeal of it, it really uses the graphic novel format better than just about anything else I’ve ever read.).
with respect to DrOct, i’ll advocate the opposing position, that you should not have read Watchmen at all. the book is, in fact, FILLED with spoilers for the movie, without any warning whatsoever. very annoying.
Reading your bit on John Adams, I saw “signer of the Alien and…” and automatically completed it with Predator movie deal”.
Yikes. Well, Dan Brown does sell a lot. So under all that bad writing and silly plotting he’s doing something right.
WARNING: Potentially unpopular opinion follows.
RE: Watchmen. The artwork is the only reason to read this, but it’s a pretty good reason. The repeated imagery, the background details, the use of color, the contrasting elements, etc.
On the other hand, the story itself is frankly weak. Despite what some say, it was pretty weak back in the 80s when I first read it.
The characters are shallow. Like many modern writers, Moore mistakes inconsistency for depth of character. He also reveals his agenda early on when you realize that none of the main characters are respectable, or even likable.
For those who didn’t live through it, indie comics in the 80s were obsessed with politics, and this occasionally bled through to the big houses. I look at Watchmen as one big and pretty political screed.
I re-read/skimmed the comic (sorry, but “graphic novel” just sounds so pretentious) when the movie came out, and it actually seemed to have gotten worse over the years, kind of like “The Catcher in the Rye”.
Actually, that’s a great analogy. I know I’m supposed to like this book, but I really don’t see what all the buzz is about.
Whew. Sorry for the rant, but that’s how I feel about it.
BTW, Stardust made a pretty good movie, too.
John Adams, author of the Declaration of Independence? That’s a pretty big historical flip, especially given the Rough and Composition drafts found in Jefferson’s handwriting.
@Sarlax – Perhaps co-author would have been more accurate.
Adams’ role was to frame the debate and to vigorously defend much of what Jefferson had written. It was a collaborative process that did involve others.
It was a solid partnership, in that Jefferson hated to debate anything, much less speak in public. He watned to work behind the scenes. Adams, though, was the passionate presenter, being a practiced courtroom lawyer. He was always up front.
Jefferson called Adams the “colossus” of the Declaration.
I read your first two reviews (Watchmen meh and RA Salvatore good) and had to stop before I killed someone. I think our tastes may be utterly, wholly, completely, hyperbolically and diametrically opposed.
In fact, I think we may be arch-nemeses. *ponders this*
@Rafe – I’ve never had an arch-nemesis, before. 🙂
But let’s leave the Supers in their capes behind. The rubber meets the road on this question:
Jefferson or Teddy Roosevelt? (If you said Jefferson, then we truly are arch-nemesiseses ….)
@TwoShedsJackson – Who knows? The Adams’ did love to attend the theater. Maybe they would have loved the Alien and Predator movies.
They just didn’t like political opponents who criticized them.
@Troy E. Taylor: Anyone seen my copy of “American Aurora”?
@Troy E. Taylor – The Lincolns liked the theater, too…
I’m with Telas: a big thumbs-down to Watchmen. Plodding, jerky pacing, dated storytelling, and uninteresting, unsympathetic characters. Wow, a real winner.
Also, I can’t handle Dan Brown. Guy writes novels like he’s writing newspaper headlines. He just just admit that he writes his novels for the sole purpose of having them adapted to movie scripts (trust me, read a few professional scripts, and then read the opening chapter of a Dan Brown novel and you’ll see the parallels immediately, especially in the way he introduces characters).
Aaand I loved Salvatore when I was 16. I tried to read him again ten years later… let’s just say I’m glad I borrowed that book rather than bought it.
Higher props for brown and Salvatore’s juvenile ramblings than Moore or Gaiman? Oh, man tears of laughter. I needed that.
Not that I would ever read another Salvatore book (I am proud to say I never finished one), but again, like Brown, many, many have and appear to have enjoyed the experience.
These fools, morons, and idiots may have much in common with the players around our gaming table.
But I do not think we have to immerse ourselves in dried camel dung to entertain our fellow gamers. After all, it is so itchy.
Find an adventure author who doesn’t make you puke, and lift your ideas from there.
And remember, one man’s dried camel dung is another man’s cooking fuel. 😛
When Watchmen came out, all my buddies made me read the book. (“Best Graphic Novel EVER”, etc.)
I stopped after the first chapter because, frankly, it’s just not that interesting to me.
Now Salvatore, on the other hand, I could eat up. He may not have the most exciting setting (Forgotten Realms seems sort of stale and cliched), but what he does with the characters is amazing. And everyone knows his fight scenes are better than the movies.
And when I say I could eat Salvatore up, I mean his works, not the man himself.
@TwoShedsJackson – Obviously if you read that rag, you deserve to go to jail, with the rest of Jefferson’s scheming friends. 🙂
I see where you can get inspiration from many of this stuff but Salvatore confuses me. I do like his work, well I like how he writes the battles, but it barely crosses over to the RP world. Yes I can pick one PC and make his character better than the others, but that doesn’t work out. And if we copy his descriptions of battle then the entire session will be each player trying to out dramatize the previous player’s turn.
Troy, you’re one brave man. I honestly have a lot of respect for you.
I’m seriously of the Moore > Salvatore and Brown camp.
I honestly don’t see them on the same literary planet.
I agree with many critics of Salvatore’s in that without the D&D connection, his stuff is flat. I’ve forced my way through many of them as I read almost anything, but he’s one of the few writers I have had to actually put down a book unfinished and just consider the time wasted as a sunk cost. I actually remember telling one of my players that I prayed that none of it leaked into my gaming.
Now, Miller’s Dark knight I concur with you is brilliant and epic, and there are so many things done well there. I also have to say as far as ‘translatability’ into the gaming world, Moore’s Watchmen is somewhat lacking, as the anti-heroes and the whole ending is NOT the way most of us want to run a game. In all, I think it served you well to mention this as a foil, and both share space in the upstairs bookshelves as opposed to the countless bins of books in the basement, but I have to admit that Moore’s deconstruction of the myth gets slightly more mileage as I grow older and more discerning.
Brown may be deficient in many ways, but I personally use a lot of history and historical puzzles in my games, so how can you not love that? I think that almost any GM could learn from that.
And while McCullough is not my favorite biographer, I love the fact you included it. Funny coincidence, as I recently reread it. Morris’ Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex really wowed me.
I don’t understand the “unsympathetic” take on Watchmen. All of the characters are a bit “one trait”, but that trait for all of them is one that’s an easy mistake to make, one we fear, or one we wish we had. All of them are easy to look at and see where we made or avoided the same mistakes, and where we felt the same way that we did. As such, every one is an opportunity to say “I wish I had the guts to be that guy” or “I’m so thankful I’m not him”. And while not all of us feel the same way about the same characters (some people idolize Roschach’s clarity of vision, determination, and disregard for the opinions around him, others despise his intolerance, and sction without proof) but it’s hard to believe that anyone can look at the whole host of them and not see a reflection of themselves somewhere.
@LordVreeg – Theodore Rex is a good read.
I forwarded this post to my gaming group just so I could see them all simultaneously explode in shock and rage. It was awesome.
@robustyoungsoul – Glad to oblige.
So they were really that put off by my reaction to the Adams biography, eh?
The Adams biography WAS awesome, we’re in 100% agreement there!
@Kurt “Telas” Schneider –
Wow. I’m stunned. Did we read the same book?
The art was amazing in it’s time, but I now find it boring and lacking in imagination (although a lot of little details, like all of the analog clocks in various scenes are a few minutes before 12:00). Gibbons’ knowledge of anatomy seems pretty weak to me as well (and I’m an artist myself).
The characters are no more inconsistent than the average human being, and have a greater measure of depth than I think you’re seeing. Most of us are actually pretty hypocritical, but we just aren’t self-aware enough to see it. Did you read the commentary sections at the ends of the chapter? There’s a lot of additional development of the characters and their world in there.
And none of the characters being likable? I just don’t see that either. I’ll agree that most aren’t. I’m of a very different opinion of the Night Owls and Laurie, although she’s the weakest of the three. Those three characters are the truly average people who can see the insanity of what they do, and try to reconcile that insanity with living an average life. I found all three of them people I could see being friends with.
Political? Yeah, I suppose so, but having re-read it before the movie as well, I thought the commentary inherent to the story was pretty tame compared to some of what’s out now in mainstream comics (such as Identity Crisis and the BlÃ¼dhaven series).
Admittedly, now that this kind of deconstruction has become common place, the story does loose impact. With M. Night Shyamalan having thrown so many twist endings at us, the ending isn’t as amazing as it was then.
I don’t really intend to change a single mind with all of that, just explain where I’m coming from when I say I think yer nutz with yer opinion! 🙂