Song of Ice and Fire
This series made me step out of the traditional mold when it came to world-design. Before I read the first novels of the series, my campaign worlds had been pretty standard “European” or it had been Earthdawn (which as a game itself also inspired me a lot). Westeros was not what I found most inspiring, but the decadent and old lands of the east are very cool with places such as Astapor and Mereen. I made a campaign called the Far Seas, a maritime campaign with a lot of islands, where I put in big Jade pyramids, nomadic Halfling armadas, lost gods, fantastic cities with ancient monuments and strange magical effects. Looking at many published campaigns today, Far Seas isn’t exceptional, but it was a good step for me, and it was so popular that when I moved to another town, a friend of mine ran a campaign in that world. That is a pretty big compliment.
“Aggo was back next. The southwest was barren and burnt, he swore. He had found the ruins of two more cities, smaller than Vaes Tolorro but otherwise the same. One was warded by a ring of skills mounted on iron spears, so he dared not enter, but he had explored the second one as long as he could. He showed Dany an iron bracelet he had found, set with uncut fire opal the size of her thumb.”
– A Song of Ice and Fire
The fantastic video game Dark Souls is a masterpiece of game design. I’m intensely inspired by the level design. The way the world seamlessly flows together and slowly reveals new secrets and connections has to be experienced. The story of the world, its mythos, and the NPC’s stories and motives are extremely opaque and are only revealed by examining all objects and if certain specific steps are taken in the right order. And in Dark Souls outcomes and decisions are permanent, so if you attacked that NPC or he died in a battle, you will have to start a new game to try a different path. This is an exploration element that I really like as well, and is an approach I’m attempting in my current D&D campaign.
Watch the show ‘Extra Play’ on Youtube play and deconstruct Dark Souls game design.
They way that you avatar’s experience mirrors your experience as a player is masterful design. The setup of many of the monster encounters is also very interesting and can easily be used in D&D.
Dark Souls II has less interesting level design (it is still great), but it is also visually very inspiring for my current campaign.
When it comes to video role-playing games, it is – in my experience – when it comes to mechanics and exploration the closest you can come to a pen & paper game. The reason is that you can approach enemies and problems in many ways, which is close to your experience in a pen & paper game.
For my current D&D campaign I’ve not fully taken the plunge into making my own version of a coherent world where the campaign basically all takes within a dungeon. I’ve more tried to let myself be inspired by the design philosophy behind it. If I were to go all the way, D&D would not necessarily be a great system, as many of the spells would need to be modified. But any system would probably need to be modified, in order for the system to emphasize the way the world and campaign should work.
Playing at the World
This book is about the history of D&D and the games that led to this revolution. It led me deeper into the ideas in the original D&D and made me want to go back to basics – although without going back to some of the OD&D versions of the game, as I have a preference for the smooth mechanics of 5th edition. It is a massive book (600+ pages), and you will learn something you didn’t know.
One thing that I’ve taken directly to heart in both my home brew campaign and in our Temple of Elemental Evil game is that D&D originally had three core aspects: combat, exploration and logistics. Exploration is of course a cornerstone of my new homebrew. The last part I also find very interesting. I think it is quite apparent that among my players there are different preferences for these elements. Logistics is about how much ammunition to bring, what spells to select and dividing treasure. I have previously skipped this somewhat, but I will try to have it as a more intentional element, for example by using the construction rules from Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign.
It led me to buy many vintage modules online, and there are some great ideas in them as well.
“Into the dramatic structure of Dungeons & Dragons, the mode of logistics injects some much needed banality: after the suspense of exploring and the adrenaline of bloodshed, the chore of logistics, even when they border on tedium, serve as an important counterweight to adventures.” (In Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson)
The Scramble for Africa
Africa is a vast and extremely varied continent, and both its nature and
history is an inspiration to me. Recently I read this history of how the European Powers explored and carved up between them the many independent kingdoms and more or less inhabited wilderness of Africa. The exploration element is as always interesting to me – the hardship in traversing deep jungle and the couple of years that Stanley spent traversing the continent East to West. The brutality of the conflicts and of the rule of some of the African kings can also be used in D&D, as can the power play between the nations trying to grab as much land as possible.
“Stanley looked at the majestic brown river flowing past the tall square houses and the baobab trees. Its calmness seemed to him a kind of hypocrisy. It had robbed him of so many of his best men, including Frank Pocock, the last survivor of his three white companions. Even now Stanley felt the hollowness of his triumph. He had sailed from Zanzibar with more than 250 men, women and children. Only 108 would now return safely to their homes.”
The Scramble for Africa, Stanley arrives at the west coast of Africa
The Italian Renaissance
Italy, before it became a nation and was a collection of city states, is so full of intrigue, war and conflict that period has near limitless potential for inspiration for almost any role-playing game – but for Warhammer Fantasy Role-play in particular. As there is so much surviving art and written works from the region and period, there is a lot of potential reading to do. I just needed an overview before a visit to Florence, and I picked up The Italian Renaissance. It deals with both a few central topics such as Women and Princes and the State, and has a chapter on each of the major city-states, and for someone growing up in a modern democracy; I find it helpful to be reminded of the attitudes, government structures and social structures of other people and other times. It can add some memorable tweaks to your NPCs and campaign setting.
“On this knowledge the Council acted swiftly and silently, for no public trials enlivened the Venetian scene, and there were no appeals. Once found guilty, the prisoner was sometimes quickly and efficiently strangled in the dungeons or thrown into a part of the lagoon reserved for the purpose, where no fishing was allowed; or hanged by one leg from the pillars of the Doge’s Palace; or quartered and distributed about the city; or buried upside down in the Pazetta, legs protruding; or beheaded – as a public spectacle – between the great pillars on which stand Saint Theodore, with his crocodile and the winged lion of Saint Mark.”
– The Italian Renaissance, on how its Council of Ten kept power through its intelligence system.
The Dresden Files didn’t make it to the top-10 list, but I include it as an honourable mention, as I think it can teach you a thing or two when it comes to upping the stakes and making the stories more action packed. The Dresden Files demonstrates that you can always kick it up a notch!