One need not be an accomplished author to be a GM, but there is overlap, certainly. Both professions have stories to tell, an audience that awaits the description of the next scene.
I recall running an adventure from The Wheel of Time campaign years ago. I needed a Â description of a Borderlands fortress that the party was approaching. Â The gameÂ wasÂ based on the fantasy novel series by Robert Jordan, so instead of writing something myself, I grabbed the first novel, The Eye of the World, and read a passage that described the very thing I needed to convey to the players.
I think that helped the players at the table become immersed in a world they themselves hadn’t read, but were playing in. For certain, the author’s own work was superior to anything I could have managed.
Next time you’re stuck having to offer aÂ description, consider reaching for the pros and swiping their stuff.
Actually, the amount of free fiction of a fantasy variety that’s available on the internet is pretty amazing. Just checking the sites for Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing, I found a treasure trove of sample chapters and short fiction, all of it describing adventures set in their fantasy roleplaying worlds.
In less than ten minutes, I snagged the following four examples, each one tied to an element familiar to the four basic roles in an adventuring game: swordplay, magical healing, a summoning and a roguish caution. Any or a portion of them could be used to set a scene. Check them out.
Within the crowd stood a circle of eight swordsmen, all but one pressing kerchiefs to fresh wounds. The uninjured man appeared three decades older than the others, a swatch of gray at either brow. The fencing master was of a height with me, placing him a few inches above the younger men. Unlike his curious pupils, he did not turn at my arrival. His gaze was locked upon the duelists inside the ring.
Dave Gross, The Fencing Master
He took a small holy symbol, a stylized rose, in his hand and placed bothÂ of his palms–gnarled and scarred from years of battle–on her stomach. He intoned a prayer to Amaunator. A soft glow spread from his palms to her abdomen, warming her, easing her pain, and quelling her fear.
Paul S. Kemp, The Godborn
Entreri quietly hooked his toe under a rock, but made no movement other than that. He stood waiting, staring at the burly man, but with the archer on the edge of his vision. So well could the assassin read the movements of men, the slightest muscle twitch, the blink of an eye, that it was he who moved first. Entreri leaped out diagonally, ahead and to the left, rolling over and kicking out with his right foot. He launched the stone the archer’s way, not to hit the man–thatÂ would have been above the skill even of Artemis Entreri–but in the hopes of distracting him. As he came over into the somersault, the assassin let his cloak fly wildly, hoping it might catch and slow the arrow.
He needn’t have worried, for the archer missed badly and would have even if Entreri hadn’t moved at all.
Coming up from the roll, Entreri set his feet and squared himself to the charging swordsmen, aware also that two other men were coming over the rocks at either side of the trail.Â
R.A. Salvatore, The Silent Blade
I lack the words to describe what happened next. Imagine that thunder and lightning struck simultaneously, yet without sound or light. There was no roar or flash. There was only the devil.
Several moments passed before I recovered from that first shock of power, and even then my mind could hardly encompass what my senses perceived. I have a half-memory, like something from a fading nightmare, of great size and glistening hide and twisted black horns.
Elaine Cunningham, The Illusionist
Of course, there’s no need to limit your searches to Internet freebies. Libraries (speaking as the husband of a motorcycle riding librarian) are great sources, as are your own bookshelves. And you need not limit yourself to the genre of roleplaying fiction. You’d be surprised at how descriptions from all sorts of fiction – mysteries, thrillers, romances – can be employed, too.
Frankly, excerpts like this are better than boxed text – which sets a scene in game terms and has a certain utility. But there’s just something about the way good fiction delivers.
And think of it. The chance of having your favorite author sit in on Â your game session is pretty remote. But this way, they CAN be at the table, or at least their work. Reading a selection from their novel is like having a celebrity contribute to your gaming experience, and that’s cool too.
That’s interesting; I’d never considered using fiction as box text, despite having used fiction to borrow character concepts and plots.
I suspect that’s it’s best in small doses, much like box text. The specifics of the character’s perceptions and situations is what we’re focused on, rather than grand descriptions of the rolling hillsides… or the dank smell and steady drip of mineral rich water from the dungeon ceiling.
Good point. This is very much something to do in small doses — either as a session intro, maybe, or setup of a key NPC or big encounter. And probably no more than every other session — at the most.
My recommendation is that if you are going to do this sort of thing you pick fiction written *before* 1974.
Not long after that 90% of fantasy fiction becomes D&D derived to the point you can see the joins. Not just D&D derived, bad D&D derived in most cases. Nothing good can come of putting such drivel into one’s game.
Ever read a story and suddenly come across a blatant marching order? Or an impromptu inventory of what each character is carrying? Or watched the characters involve themselves in a pointless encounter tossed in to add pages to the story? All examples of “Bad D&D” writing.
For some reason stories written in the 1990s seem to have more examples of this than later tales (but I still find them depressingly often). It’s almost as if all the publishers fired their editors, then spent eight years figuring out they needed them back. I recall an execrable Sherlock Holmes-esque book I bought in 1991 in which a complete stranger walked on stage to give the hero a shotgun, then left them to it, never to appear again.
In all honesty I’m about fed up with reading Fantasy these days as a few pages in I’ll start to spot “the formula” more often than not.
So stick with the likes of Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard and co. That’s my advice.