Books full of Cool Stuff!!
As a DM, for my own table, I am always on the prowl for new source books, adventure ideas and game running techniques to improve my own game as well as share with other game masters and players. The art and science of game mastering is, at its heart, a creative endeavor. As GMs we make up entire worlds and people them, we create elaborate plots and schemes to enmesh our players and we often must come up with solutions, on-the-fly, to keep things moving along.
It requires, if you are ambitious, a LOT of creative juggling to make things come together in a satisfying way. GMs are creative folks in their DNA, they have to be. I don’t believe this is debatable.
And most creative folks don’t just turn on a spigot for ideas. Its just not how the mind works. Occasional flashes of inspiration happen all the time, but most aspects of creativity are fueled by things we are familiar with and examples we have seen and believe could be improved upon.
Steve Jobs put it most simply: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
So, of course GMs look around everywhere for inspiration and then bend those ideas to meet their needs. More than anything else, most GMs need a font of inspiration to keep their games exciting and engaging. They need Books Full of Cool Shit!
Professionally, I am part of a creative team that creates content for other creatives.
Now, this might sound like the start of a bad joke, but it’s certainly true. Many folks in this hobby/industry view their creative contribution as story creation, plot development and the actual telling of tales...they’re not wrong. But that description is only part of the story. There are also aspects of creative problem solving, character development, player engagement, and atmospherics that I am focused on here. These aspects are often considered by authors but are rarely laid bare and explained. There are persistent assumptions in the RP hobby that run counter to this thinking, but I’ve found a growing majority have developed higher expectations for the time they spend at the table than was true 20 years ago. Lots of folks still want to “kill shit and cash out” and would be perfectly happy delving dungeons at every session. They are only part of the picture, though.
At least as many folks are looking for greater immersion, character development and open ended sandboxes that don’t conform to the model of running a module for X characters of Y levels. That approach has plenty of supporters and outlets in the various organized play platforms from Wizards and Paizo. Those players and GMs value a consistent input and output and some level of assurance that for any given content the play experience will be equivalent.
When we are casting about for something to run for our own games, we can take many different routes, and I have gone down most of them. I’ve run verbatim adventure modules right off the page, with no modifications, in earlier editions of the game. I have home brewed an entire campaign setting (Embersteel, #shamelessplug) where I had free reign to make up every aspect of the world. I finally settled, in recent editions, on a blend of these two extremes. These days, I typically take a cool adventure from someone else and heavily remix it to meet my own needs.
Sometimes this level of remix leaves very little of the original content intact. Looking back on those instances I probably was ONLY looking for a touchstone to mount my own ideas upon, something to get the synapses firing. With a lot of nerd friends I am sure that I heard it was good, or it had a really standout villain, or some cool maps or EVEN a cool cover (it’s fine to judge a book this way if it inspires you). The more rational reason is the obvious limitations of time for a busy professional and the need to have some sort of skeleton to hang a few evenings worth of adventure upon. A framework for player enjoyment, if you will. And that last part is key, I run for my players enjoyment, first and foremost. I want to offer them an experience that is memorable and that reaches something different in each of them. I could get by with less, certainly, but I would see that as failing in my promise to the group. So whatever the motivation, I can always find something in each piece of content that might apply to my game and make the play experience more richly rewarding.
In other words, for many GMs, what they need most of all are “Books Full of Cool Stuff”. This covers a LOT of ground and applies to non-printed sources, such as fine art, film and music. I often grab a pdf from DTRPG, or a book from my shelf and just page through it for inspiration. I try to keep my phone handy for recording notes, or a pad of graph paper to jot down ideas, make small explanatory doodles or a simple mind map that indicates connections between seemingly disparate elements. Its essentially remixing RP concepts and content until I have something usable to work with. My recent 5th edition D&D home game was focused on a 3rd edition campaign book called the “Red Hand of Doom". The adventure itself is excellent and the presentation is great so I did not have to alter the basic premise all that much (A remote valley under the threat of war). I did not have to cut and paste my way around a lot of wasted filler in the text.
Those are things I often need to do to render a playable and engaging experience for my players. The maps were created by Mike Schley so there was little to improve on there as well. So far, many of my checkboxes were being marked in just this “one book full of cool stuff”! In my experience that is rare. In many cases the presented plot is pretty predictable and relies heavily on well worn tropes. There are good reasons to do this as an author, but for my taste and my table I want to present something more subtle and with less obvious motivations and conclusions. I will often turn to novels for a more solid inspiration, in this case the the books of The Black Company by Glen Cook. I borrowed liberally from the first book to create the characters in my running of Red Hand. While the original adventure was well written and the characters were fine, they did not evoke a sense of a terrified populace poised on the brink of war. The Black Company books provide plenty of good examples of this imagery, so I remixed the adventure module with a healthy dose of characters from another series of Books Full of Cool Stuff. I also found myself paging through Art & Arcana, the omnibus presentation of D&D artwork from the last 40 years and instantly started seeing my character coming to life in those pages. I knew immediately when I had my Mayor and Guard Captain and conniving Town Wizard. Talk about a "Book with Cool Stuff in It", that thing is a treasure trove. And when I had exhausted that I turned to Google and started searching for Hobgoblins and War Parties and Mounted Knights and was able to round out the imagery I needed to create a more compelling campaign. Obviously Google is not a book, but it cannot be denied that it’s full of cool stuff.
I did the same for evocative imagery, sound effects and inspiring music, the list went on and on. Inspiration is everywhere, even on my morning walk: I was strolling past a bridge after a serious rainfall and as I stood there taking in the sights and sounds of rushing water from above I pretty much figured out the entire ending sequence of the campaign where the players need to deal with a bridge crossing of strategic importance. Nature may not be a book but its FULL of cool ideas.