A Few of My Favorite Things…

This week in Ask the Dungeon Master, we look more closely at me.  Because I’m awesome:

Who are your favorite authors & what are your favorite books? How have you mined those books for game ideas?

Every DM needs a little help from time to time.  It’s okay.  We have trouble being the creative geniuses we are 24/7.  Even God rested, so we can to.  Whenever I’m at a loss for story ideas (or just feeling lazy), I turn to other creative minds for inspiration.  It helps get my creative juices flowing, keeps things from getting stale and uninteresting, and immitating others is a great way to hone our skills (as long as we don’t fall into cliches).

It should come as no surprise that the things I borrow from are the things I love.  Some of my favorite authors in no particular order (except the first one) are:

1) Douglas Adams
2) Orson Scott Card
3) Neil Gaiman
4) J.R.R Tolkien
5) Robert E. Howard
6) Ray Bradbury

Other than these guys, I like pretty much all quality Dystopian sci-fi (Brave New World, 1984, etc.).  I love The Princess Bride and The Neverending Story (the books and the movies).  Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is another favorite, as is Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins (proof that I don’t only read Sci-fi and Fantasy)And of course Dune.

Obviously, Dungeons & Dragons was hugely influenced by the high fantasty explosion that was spurred on by Tolkien and his writings, and much of the D&D Universe owes itself to Tolkien (even if Gygax tried to deny it).  Even if I didn’t want to, I’m always unconsciously pulling elements from Tolkien’s writings into my campaigns.  There is of course a problem with this (as with borrowing from anyone): if I come too close to the original source, things get predictable and uninteresting

The only author I consciouslly use for ideas is Robert E. Howard.  The main reason for this is that he wrote primarily in a serialized format.  Every story was self-contained and short.  When looking at the length of a story, a novel is usually equivalent to a campaign (or mini-campaign), whereas a short story would be a single adventure (or two).  I always come up with my own campaign ideas, and then sprinkle them full of various adventure ideas, so novels aren’t the most useful sources for me. 

I find that the structure of a campaign generally has more aventures and occurances than one novel does.  A lot needs to happen, otherwise things get boring.  You wouldn’t want to have characters hiking across a country ala Lord of the Rings and actually roleplay every day of a month long journey where nothing happens.  Your players would probably want to murder you after the 17th Survival check.  So I turn to serialized stories.

The Conan stories are fantastic for a number of reasons.  For one, they’re fantasy stories with monsters and soldiers and fit well into most any D&D campaign setting.  Second, even among the hardcore Geeks, there aren’t a lot that have read all of Howard’s Conan stories.  And lastly, they operate like most good D&D adventures.  There are lots of evil sorcerers in dungeons or towers, hoarding some sort of treasure, with some kind of monstrous pet and probably a trap or two.  There’s also a good amont of political intrique and espionage if that’s your things, and there’s no shortage of ghouls and pirates either.  In short, they’re perfect.

While I do borrow from Howard, I actually turn to Film and Television for most of my story ideas.  I use TV more (specifically serialized Television) for inspiration.  My favorite source is Star Trek: The Next Generation.  TNG obviously works best if you’re doing a Sci-fi setting, but the clever DM (I’m very clever) can always adjust things to suit their needs.  I use TNG mainly because it’s my favorite Star Trek series (and second favorite Television series ever), but also because there are 7 seasons, which means a lot of story ideas.

Wherever you find the most useful stories ideas make little difference.  The main point here is that there’s nothing wrong with borrowing ideas.  Indeed, you should borrow ideas.  It’s good for you and good for the game. 

Where do you find story ideas for your game?

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11 Responses to A Few of My Favorite Things…

  1. “Brave New World” has been one of my favorite books for decades. And I love “Snow Crash,” even though (upon a recent rereading) I was disappointed by the female characters. For such a vibrant world, they seemed overly perfect, which makes them disinteresting to me. I didn’t really notice it the first time I read it; maybe it won’t bother me on the third reading.

    As for “The Princess Bride”: I loved the movie but hated the book. This is a fairly unpopular opinion, though. I’ve only found one other person who feels the same way (though she was a BookPeople employee, so clearly a smart cookie).

    Sadly, I have never read any Douglas Adams or Tom Robbins. They’re coming up on my reading queue, though. Thankfully. Finally.

    • I don’t think I’ve read Snow Crash since High School, so I might very well be of the same opinion if I read it now. An author’s treatment of female characters can really piss me off, so I might decide Neal Stephenson is a complete tool if I re-read it.

      Tom Robbins is hit or miss with me. I would definitely start with Still Life With Woodpecker, though it depends on what you like in your literature. Still Life is a bit more of a cohesive story line, which I prefer to digressions and convolution.

      Douglas Adams is the most amazing author ever, and I’m pretty sure you’re just wrong about the Princess Bride.

      • We’re going to have to agree to disagree about “Princess Bride” (even though you’re totally wrong; the writer’s self-indulgent musings about his family and Hollywood were intolerable, though the rest of the story was great).

        Unrelated: Is that really a picture of you, or is it a literary allusion I’m too tired to get? (The pipe seems very Tolkein, but the rest is lost on me.)

        • Ask the DM says:

          yes, that’s me, and it’s not an allusion to anything that I’m aware of. I was just caught on film smoking a pipe and drinking while lifting some weights I found on someone’s roof. maybe I was trying to be ironic or something because I was hanging out with too many hipsters.

          And I suppose I can agree that Goldman’s private thoughts were uninteresting and useless to me (your’re still wrong though), but the story itself I felt really expanded on the characters in a way that pleased me (so you’re totally wrong), and I also found a lot more cynicism in the book, which I always enjoy. The movie I love, largely because I’m kind of a big sap, but the book was so much less “love is perfect, love is grand, love will save us all”. Not that I disagree with any of that, I just thought Goldman handled the idea better with his cyncism than with his optimism (I’m so completely correct in every way you can’t even handle it.)

  2. Darren says:

    No such thing as original ideas anymore. We can at best reuse ideas that haven’t been used for a long time and PRETEND that we’re the first ^^

    Oh, and inspiration? From anywhere. One of the best reasons to learn languages is so one can read obscure books in a different language, books that never got across the border, and liberally reuse ideas.

    A lot of my plotline ideas come from obscure French fiction. Others come from very obscure fanfiction (Harry Potter fanfiction no less!)

  3. Grace says:

    Dune is awesome, and at some point I need to re-visit dystopian sci-fi, as 1984 and Zamyatin’s “We” have begun to blur together in my memory.

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