Some GMs read nothing but official gaming product. Others expand their horizons to include Game Supplements from other sources, both officially-sanctioned and homebrew. A few go further, and seek out genre-related works and referances from which they can seek out inspiration and detail. Very few are what I would describe as “Literary GMs”, who read just about anything and actively seek ways to make their reading relevant.
Here’s a quick rundown on just some of the referances that I currently have close at hand for use in gaming prep (in no particular order):
- Two copies of Roget’s Thesaurus;
- Three Dictionaries – one modern, one from about 40 years ago that I bought second-hand, and one that’s now 60 years old and far more substantial than either of the other two;
- A history book on the rise and fall of the third reich;
- An old yellow pages for the city I’m now living in (random business names!);
- An old white pages for a small town in Australia (random surnames);
- Two books of baby names (one gives the meaning of popular names, the other has equivalent names from multiple languages and nations);
- The History Of The 20th century;
- The Right Word At The Right Time, a hard-to-get but excellent book on comparative english and correct usage put out by Reader’s Digest;
- A Dictionary Of Mythology;
- A book on African Mythology;
- A two-volume encyclopedia;
- A dictionary of mathematics;
- A dictionary of engineering;
- A textbook on introductory psychology;
- A high-school textbook on politics;
- Three Atlases;
- Four Almanacs;
- Two books on writing novels;
- A careers guide;
- An (out-of-date) breakdown of the science and engineering courses offered by a local university showing the specific subjects covered in each course and which other courses are prerequisite requirements;
- A book on writing screenplays;
- SI Chemical Data;
- A high-school summary/study guide of higher mathematics;
- A textbook on Statics (the study of stresses in engineering design;
- Guiness’ Book Of World Records (1980 edition – it was cheap);
- The Intelligent Man’s Guide To Science by Isaac Asimov (even decades out of date it’s invaluable);
- Two books on life in the middle ages;
- A complete history of the world;
- A Dictionary Of Electronics put out in the 1970s by Tandy Electronics;
- An introductory textbook on Geology;
- An introductory textbook on Archeology;
- A manual on first aid
- How To Lose A Battle – Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders by Bill Fawcett, plus a couple of his other books like It Seemed Like A Good Idea and You Did What To Whom?
- The Writer’s Guide To Everyday Life in the Middle Ages by Sherrilyn Kenyon
- Day Of The Bomb, a history of the creation of the first Atomic Bombs and their use on Hiroshima
- World-Building – A Writer’s Guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets by Stephen L Gillett
- The Giant Book Of Facts & Trivia
- Elements Of Materials Science & Engineering
- Tourist guides to a number of different cities and countries;
- The Writer’s Guide To Character Traits which is the book that I’m reading at the moment;
….and the list just goes on and on.
And these are just (some of) the books that I have at hand, never mind tucked away on my main bookshelves. And that doesn’t count the hundred or more game supplements and game magazines that are also not far away.
Every one of these has been useful on multiple occasions, for multiple purposes.
Gathering The Collection
I visit second hand bookstores frequently, check out any book sale or garage sale that I happen to pass, and have slowly amassed this collection. Some are texts from my university studies.
As a result of having these at hand, if I place a wooden suspension bridge in a campaign, I can at least glance at the textbook on Statics and get some idea of roughly how much weight it could theoretically carry in just a second or two, and what events might affect that amount, during play.
If I need to know the surface area of the Earth, or to know something about the 18th President of the United States, or the Prime Minister of Canada in 1962, or whatever, I have those details at hand as well.
The internet can replace many of these, but there’s a limited amount of screen real estate, and I need most of it for the document – whether it’s a scenario or a blog post or an article – that I happen to be working on at the time. There are also, always, questions about the accuracy of net-derived information. Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, but it’s not always accurate; and if it is sometimes wrong, what hope is there for the rest of the internet? I always take info gleaned from the net with a grain of salt, unless I can confirm it at two or more reputable sites.
Using the collection
As a rule of thumb, I either have to be an expert in anything the players know, or might need to know; or (more practically), I have to be able to fake it by at least sounding like I know what I’m talking about – something that is a lot easier if I at least understand the basics!
Fantasy vs SciFi and Modern-Day
It might seem that a fantasy game setting is a lot less work than a modern-day or science-fiction one, but the reality is slightly different – at least in the latter two cases, you can take your normal education and apply it directly. With a fantasy setting, you have to understand the mythos and superstitions and misperceptions and false apprehensions that abounded and then translate those into your game environment.
Not only does that make you responsible for creating more of the content, it makes it harder to keep everything internally consistant.
The Value of Gifts
What’s more, referance books make great Christmas and Birthday presents – if I know one of my players is running a Halfling Gardener, a second-hand book on gardening, or hobby farming, or traditional recipes, can all be given as gifts that supplement the knowledge that the player brings to the character. In effect, you make it less work to be more believable.
The most valuable referances
Perhaps the most valuable, though least-referanced, are the books on How To Write.
Communication is one of those essential game master skills – you have to know how to describe what you are seeing in your mind’s eye, be it the result of an in-game action or the landscape unfolding before the PCs, or whatever, in such a way that your PLAYERS can also see it in their mind’s eye. And you have to be able to do it clearly and succinctly and decisively.
A roleplaying game scenario is something of a cross between a screenplay, an improvised radio play, and a novel. There are tracts of exposition and description, there are prepared passages of dialogue, and there are improvised conversations. Each scenario can also be likened to an episode of a TV serial.
Learning how to write more effectively makes your communications to the Players more comprehensible and concrete, while giving you more time to spend on clever content. Learning how to construct great characters for a TV show will help you construct great NPCs.
The more effectively you can translate your ideas to the page, the better your game becomes. And the more you read, the better you get at communications, and the better your game becomes.