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Making our favorite games even better
I thought I’d share some of the best sources that helped me be a better storyteller since the question has been asked a fair amount of times.
I’ve found that just picking up some good movies, comics, and a novel or two in whatever genre that matches a new game I’m starting as a GM really helps out with the creative process even if the sources are mined just for the “vibe”. As a player learning more about a genre helps with ideas for backstory and your PC’s personality within a society in that genre.
I highly recommend any DM or GM to interact with The Evolution of Trust to get a better idea of how trust works and to look into the Prisoner’s dilemma. Understanding how trust, environment, and choice interact with each other and how certain philosophies or outlooks can flourish in one environment and then fail in another. If you’re world building this is the key that will unlock better games for you.
The strategies that your players will attempt to use are predicated on the environment you create and how you respond to them and their strategies. If all the players are murder hobos then you might think about why the gaming environment is rewarding that tactic and how you might try and build a different tactic with your players. If your players trust you then this is easier to do. Sometimes it is easier to do by changing the game environment completely with a different campaign or game system while making small changes to the current campaign may work better for other troupes or for you.
Mining media for your games is an important skill and can broaden your own imagination. Having a grounding in the genre you’re running really helps to avoid tropes or throw tropes at players in unique ways.
I’m going to list by type of media some of my favorites chosen for how much they helped me tell stories which isn’t necessarily the same as how much I enjoyed the media but usually they are roughly congruent.
Frank Herbert’s Dune books are dense and full of politics and complex ideas and really useful for Amber or Scion as they deal with the “Big” as well as the personal. Frank wrote another series of books that are often forgotten beginning with Destination: Void which is an absolute bonanza of fertile ideas for the cruelly minded GM. I ran a one-shot of Destination: Void in a Mage game with Void Engineers teaming up with Sons of Ether to make a new type of spirit using kidnapped and mindwiped Mages that was wonderful. I used the core idea in a Paranoia game and in a fantasy setting with an AI in a crystal matrix influenced by Janny Wurt’s novels that really was fun.
Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud remains foundational to me on the many possibilities that life and mind may form. The idea that our earthbound sort of life was the unusual one was mind blowing to a 10 year old which with Simak’s City which had life in the atmosphere of Jupiter helped me run some very fun Gurps: Space games. I see the trope of the universe zipping out any mind that groks the universe in this one too. I can’t remember if this novel had the universe get more complicated in response to enlightenment like physicists playing 20 questions in the manner of the participatory universe theory but that is a fun idea you can use in your game. Reality adapts.
Roger Zelazny’s Amber books are fun and witty showing a mastery of knowing when to go into detail and when to gloss over the unimportant. He can cover a hundred duels with inferior opponents with a sentence but wax on for a chapter involving the machinations of maneuvering an enemy to step into a trap. This is hugely important for a nascent storyteller to understand. Far too often I’ve seen GM’s waste a lot of time on combat that doesn’t really matter or move the story or in social situations that the GM would be better served with a casual waving on of time passing.
If running an SF/Fantasy Immortals campaign then Lord of Light is a must read especially if you’re like me and like to inject some down and dirty politics with your wannabe gods. Frost and Fire is probably the best book of short stories I’ve ever read. Donnerjack and Lord Demon were co-written with Jane Lindskold and provide very fertile and easily adapted cosmologies.
I’ve been hugely impressed by Hannu’s Rajiemi’s writing and in particular the first book in his trilogy The Quantum Thief. If you’re looking at a Singularity/Posthuman campaign you’d be hardpressed to find a better resource. Think of it as Neal Stephenson, China Mieville or William Gibson pushed out a few hundred years past cyberpunk.
Some of my first fictional exposures to African myth was Alan Dean Foster’s Carnivores of Light and Darkness, the Al Qadim D&D setting (middle east/northern African), and South of the Sun the Ars Magica Prester John setting.
It is really important to get beyond just European and North American based ideas if you’re going to be good at creating unique worlds for your players. In Psychology class, we’d talk about how weird and atypical Americans are in human history particularly white middle-class American college students who were the most studied people. Sociology and Psychology tend to assume that these test takers are the norm and sometimes find that about a third or more studies can’t be replicated when using a different more varied sample.
Frederik Pohl’s Starburst introduced me to Godel and my friends and I would use the mathematical language to encode short acronyms with each other. 600 equals getting a cab to go somewhere if I remember correctly.
The idea of a bodiless ghost being a soliton wave of energy was another idea introduced to me by this story that I’ve used in my games before I read about St. Jack the Bodiless in Julian May’s books. The core concept of Starburst ties in pretty well with Destination: Void except rather than trying to create artificial intelligence of a higher order to the idea was to put geniuses together away from the stresses of people in a spaceship to mine them for their ideas and creativity while they journeyed.
The tv show Eureka kind of steals this idea by putting the crew of a spaceship into a VR realm in their minds so that the scientists could spend their time inventing without the real world interfering too much.
David Brin’s Earth and Existence are must-reads for near future hard SF adventures. David’s ability to predict future potential realities is a bit eerie. For more space opera campaigns I cannot recommend more his Uplift series in which humanity uplifts dolphins and chimpanzees to sentience before expanding to the stars and discovering a vast intergalactic set of civilizations built on the idea of mature spacefarers uplifting other species to sentience. We are unusual in that we uplifted ourselves and thus the other species call us the “Wolflings.”
Speaking of Wolfing that is the name of a story by Gordon R Dickson that isn’t anything amazing by itself for its writings or even general plot but it has given me a lot of story ideas to use including probably George Lucas. There is a weapon that is basically a lightsaber that you can extend in length which focuses the blade smaller like a cone and that you can retract to almost a small buckler shield. This weapon I’ve used in many of my space campaigns from Amber (Courts of Chaos), Traveller, Mage, and Gurps: Space.
Imagine if you could make a lightsaber that was as thin at the tip as a smallsword but could stretch across a room and burn a small hole through an enemy and then quickly shrink it down to an arming sword shape to dispatch a nearby foe before quickly making a small shield to block a blaster. Now imagine dual wielding and the Tower Fechtbuch or I33 sword buckler combat with weapons and shields that can switch back and forth between swords and shields at will.
The other idea I’ve borrowed from Wolfling, Star Trek, and Larry Niven’s Protector books is of various types of humans being spread across space or in the case of Star Trek seeded. I had a game in which an ancient race had made the earth a garden planet (look up hydrogen wall and Alice) and would periodically sample hominids to use as a base creature for manual skilled labor on a thousand worlds. So, when the PC’s leave earth on the first FTL (see E.E. “Doc” Smith) they end up finding a series of worlds with divergent hominids going back to Homo Erectus to neanderthals who all evolved differently over the past million years as the precursors have disappeared leaving their tools and pets behind.
In a fantasy game, I used this idea as the basis for elves, dwarves, giants, mermaids, and other races as humans who adapted to different environments as they gated from world to world. All dragons were in the beginning brown in that campaign with different dragons evolving on different planets and the big story of that campaign was learning that the brown dragon was from the homeworld of the dragons which had been isolated millennia before during a war with the Titans/Joten and now almost no one knows what brown dragons are. For another take on this check out Titan by John Varley.
Going back to Gordon R. Dickson check out the Childe Cycle particularly Soldier Ask Not and Dorsai! for military games, Young Bleys for understanding a good villain, and Necromancer for time travel.
Julian May’s The Many Colored Land and the rest of the books in the series are great fun books to read while also being fertile ground for storytellers. You have a Celtic-Germanic myth, time travel, psionic powers, sex, hybridization, and in the later series, you have telepathic coercers working for the mob and eventually galactic war between augmented cybernetic superminds and the poor aliens who welcomed us into galactic civilization. It also involves a long thread about redemption with the tale of Abaddon. I don’t want to ruin the series by providing too much more.
Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio series is another world that covers different types of humans and evolution but it is his Songs of Earth and Power which is a true wonder. I read them originally in separate stories but the newer version has them packaged together. Religion, fairies, the Serpent Mage, evolution, magic, reality hacking worlds, and this is YA enough to give to precocious young storytellers and readers. If you’ve played the Strange by Monte Cook Games I wouldn’t be surprised if it was influential in the making of that setting.
C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire series is one of my favorite SF stories as an origin for a fantasy setting with an excellent magic system. If you’re wanting to build an innovative magic system then read Janny Wurts and C.S. Friedman. If you’re wanting to delve into the mind and the alien wrapped in humanity in a hard SF setting then read This Alien Shore.
If you’re writing, designing, or running a game with swords or things that can cut then you would be well served learning about proper edge alignment and cutting techniques from Mike Edelson’s Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application.
Moonheart by Charles de Lint provided a key chunk of my first Mage campaign and his other stories influenced my horror games and some of my lighter campaigns. He opened the way for urban fantasy to become more popular with authors like Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher following later.
Robert A Heinlein’s Lost Legacy among others was very influential in how I have villains and villainous organizations operate in my games particular Mage and the Technocracy. The villain Nehemiah Scudder is another threat worth reading about.
Honorable Mentions include Raymond E Feist’s Midkemia series particularly the character Pug which remains the rare compassionate and caring human wizard who achieves great power but is still a good person without being an avatar or angel et cetera. Pug stands in stark contrast to DragonLance’s Raistlin Majere who was mostly selfish and cruel like an 80’s incel when he arrives into his power.
Another of the rare “human” wizards are Ged from Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the bard Arithon and Jaric Firelord from two of Janny Wurts’s series. Too often you see the powerful lose their compassion in games, movies, and books unless they are somehow “other” such as Superman or Gandalf both of which are aliens in a world of men.
Planetary by Warren Ellis is entertaining with a lot of different settings and shows really how to delay certain reveals to later points in your campaign. Don’t tell your players everything at once. Warren Ellis has a whole suite of great comics from Transmet which is great for a more fun wild story in the far future to Injection which I highly recommend for those trying to inject a “rational” system of magic in the modern day. Global Frequency I just outright stole from for a set of one-shots when I knew that some players were going to be absent. In the comic Trees, aliens come to the earth and don’t recognize us as sentient.
Saga is a must-read for entertainment but for a storyteller, it opens up a setting with a war between magic and science and a multitude of worlds and species. Well fleshed out characters and an overarching story with clearly defined story arcs under the umbrella of the love child between two species at war. Players will probably benefit the most with reading this for a little help getting a good backstory.
Beasts of Burden is a solid series over the decade involving talking dogs and cats. I’ve run a few different games with sentient animals including one inspired by Cliff Simak’s short stories bundled in City.
Hellblazer and John Constantine are pretty hard to beat for a mainstream comic book involving magic in a superhero world (DC). I’ve read at least a few hundred issues.
The Unwritten, Fables, and Ever After are fertile ground with a multitude of worlds with fictional leakage, reality hacking, and many excellent bad guys. Where are fables have become real. There is also a pretty good video game based on it. Not all the offshoots are created equal though.
Harbinger and the rest of the Valiant Universe provide solid stories and characters in a universe that strives to make sense despite being weird and containing wildly different character types. If you’re looking to make a game world with a lot of different play types and power sources then you would be well served to look here. Living alien body armor and African voodoo Loahs in the same world as psychic greek Buddhist monks from the time of Alexander the Great and CEO’s capable of taking over small nations.
Check out Paper Girls for a wild run with some young heroes traversing time and universes. Good for ideas on how to run a campaign with younger PC’s.
For fantasy, it is hard to beat Rat Queens for a good raunchy and wild time in a D&D style setting. There are two different runs with slightly different stories. I particularly like the Lovecraftian plotline and the orc side issue.
For world building, it is hard to beat Monstress. I really want to make a game in this world and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It is still new so not a whole lot has been revealed but if you’re wanting to build a world in a magic setting this is the comic to read.
If you’re going to run a superhuman game in the last century involving war then one of the two Uber series is the comic for you. During World War II the Nazis discover how to create super humans capable of leveling cities and deploy them shortly before the Allies started winning. It is violent, depressing, and gory like war would be with superhumans involved.
The Wicked and the Divine is an easy world for a storyteller to steal a campaign from. It is a normal modern world in which people become gods for two years and then die. I think this would be great for new players because they don’t know what they’re doing and neither do their characters compared to settings that demand the players know a lot to be able to function.
Garth Ennis’s The Boys is the kind of comic to read when you want to overturn everything that is the normal superhero setting. It is NSFW! I heard it is going to be made into a tv show which would be hard to manage.
I was growing the most as a storyteller in the mid to late 90’s so it probably isn’t too big of a surprise that that is the era with the most movies for me to recommend. I will just make a short list as there is Wikipedia, IMDB, and rotten tomatoes to explain them.
Dark City is the movie I recommend most as a source of inspiration for a new GM running a solo adventure. It may also be my favorite movie which is a hard thing to pin down but it is wonderful if you haven’t seen it. Dark City had the unfortunate fate to come out at the same time as the Matrix. In that era, SF movies didn’t have a deep bench of fans that bought movie tickets and everyone was talking about the Matrix. The Thirteenth Floor and Existenz had a similar problem.
Fallen with Denzel Washington is another movie that makes for a great solo campaign as a police detective goes toe to toe with a spirit/angel/demon that can possess what it can touch. Great for ideas on how to build tension and how to reward investigation and problem-solving. Sometimes you can’t swing a sword and win a fight.
Incredibles and its sequel are just great films for running a supers game and for running kid characters with middle-aged parents.
Excalibur was my first big fantasy movie and it still has a magic that is hard to beat. Patrick Stewart in plate armor should be enough of a draw for any of my younger friends but the Merlin in this is my core base when I make a cunning and powerful good magus in my imagination. The Princess Bride I watched a few years later and is also a favorite fantasy epic.
Hard to beat Babylon 5 for SF settings and for being one of the first tv series that had short, medium, long, and series-long story arcs written by JMS and Harlan Ellis mostly it had a lot of famous director’s like Neil Gaiman. As I’ve grown older I’ve rewatched the series a few times and while the first season remains the weakest I no longer see the Shadow War as the best part of the series and lean with the fifth season with Lando as the pinnacle of the show and G’kar as the character who developed the most. Delenn is my favorite woman/alien on TV as a character and is arguably the core of the show.
Rome is a gorgeous show filled with politics and intrigue. Absolutely one of the best shows and highest production values ever made. If you’re going to make or run a political game then you’d be well served by a bit of “Even you Brutus?”
Game of Thrones is probably up there with Lord of the Rings when people think fantasy worlds and both the books and the tv show are well made and entertaining. Read or watch this series to learn how to be ruthless as a GM.
Dark Matter is just “sci-fi” or SF lite but it is a great example of how to throw a bunch of characters into a world they know nothing about and just try and wing surviving it. Fun show to watch while surfing the web on your phone or reading a novel. This is an example of something that isn’t a pinnacle of storytelling still being a totally valid source for ideas.
Microprose’s Darklands taught me how to make campaigns that last centuries. I had a world in which I had three different campaigns and it was only at the end of the third that the players realized that all three campaigns were on the same world separated by time and geography as the heroes of the third campaign get helped before the gates of hell with an artifact that their PC’s in the first campaign had recreated. Two of the PC’s in the first campaign had retired upon having a child so the now elderly child who grew up on a different continent was the protector of the crown that opened up the way to hell and prevented the devils from attacking them.
More modern games like the Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun games are a lot of fun to play, inexpensive to play, and some of the mods are very good. Older games like Psychonauts or LA Noire are still worth checking out for puzzle ideas or detective games.
The Dragon Age series is good fantasy fun with a surprisingly deep setting. The first game is more strategic while the second has a stronger focus on the personal and the third shows a more strategic perspective as the leader of a large organization rather than a ragtag band of heroes.
Civilization by Sid Meier is dear to my heart and that is how I learned about world history as a kid. I ran a Palladium Transdimensional RPG with mutant centaur-like Mongols because I played Genghis Khan in the first Civilization game. Learn about other peoples and how tech and society fit together and you’ll make better settings.
Witcher 3 goes far beyond the previous installations and is the best game which I’ve played that you control just one character. Fantastic setting.
Star Control 2 was the inspiration for my first Gurps: Space campaign with some elements of Traveller RPG which taught me hexadecimal and the idea of antigathic medicine as an 8-year old whose second PC ever died during the process of making the character. Looks like they are making a new one which I will have to try out just for nostalgia’s sake. You’re a spaceship on adventure visiting new solar systems in the game and get to upgrade your ship and learn the importance of diplomacy with aliens.
Don’t hesitate to try out other settings or systems for ideas.
I started out with AD&D, Gamma World, and Traveller as a little brat and in middle school moved on to TMNT, Beyond the Supernatural, AD&D 2nd Edition, and Talislanta.
In high school, Shadowrun, Ars Magica, and Amber Diceless ruled the roost and I even in one nearly fatal experiment tried out the World of Synnibar which almost clobbered one of my mates in the head after I tripped and fell forward with the book. That gamebook should be read for how NOT to design a game but it did give me a few ideas despite the system.
As an adult, I ran a very long World of Darkness campaign focused on Mage: The Awakening and continued playing Shadowrun, Amber, and Ars Magica.
Recently, as a father and having moved to a different city I mostly just read rather than run games but with Monte Cook’s “No Thank you, Evil!” that has changed giving me the opportunity to run games for my little boy.
If I was going to run a game today it would be in Bruce Cordell’s The Strange. The Cypher system is remarkably similar to a system and setting that I was working on for years but much more polished and easier to run. The Strange is closely aligned with my old Amber/Ember and Mage games and is a great setting with lots of possibilities and the same is true of the Numenara setting.
Shadowrun is a wonderful setting and I’ve loved running and playing the pen and paper games and the old and new video games in that setting but the mechanics are just not conducive to my style anymore. I’d recommend reading material for running games in any setting.
Gurps has made well researched and put together gaming books for years and if you are running a game it doesn’t hurt to pick up one of their sourcebooks that might tie-in to the genre or setting your running your game in.
Ars Magica is the setting to check out if you’re wanting to run a fantasy or grounded medieval game. When Wizards of the Coast owned D&D and Ars Magica at the same time they put out joint products and I would recommend getting Ars Magica books if you’re running a D&D or Pathfinder game. The lead designer for 3e was the lead designer of Ars Magica so a lot of ideas have already cross-pollinated.
Magic: The Gathering and On the Edge were great one-on-one games and Jyhad: The Eternal Struggle and Illuminati by Steve Jackson Games were a blast if you could get a few people together that were devious and had the natures of sneaky cunning weasels…so most gamers!
I was dead tired once running a fantasy Gurps game and just used some mana to decide on a terrain type that the PC’s were traveling on and then modded some creatures of that type to the game and made it through the game with no prep at all just winging it with some magic cards I visited while taking bathroom breaks so no one had a clue. Just have fun and use what you can. The players loved all the combat since I normally ran more intrigue and social games so they thought I was inspired instead of exhausted.
If you’re a new storyteller I hope I’ve given you some ideas for media to watch to help expand your repertoire and if you’re an older storyteller or player I hope this was an enjoyable walk through memory lane. Feel free to comment and leave your favorite media below.
I hope this blog post gives you a good idea or encourages you to try out some new media for gaming ideas. Thanks for reading.