5 Books To Inspire Your Games
Happy New Year's Eve! I was looking back at books I read this past year and thought about how much several of them have influenced and inspired my tabletop gaming. Here are a few suggestions for you to consider.
The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin
Right away I have a trilogy, not a single book. All three of these novels are set in the same world containing mortals, three gods, and— in the second and third books— a host of "godlings." Each book tells a separate, self-contained story, with a different protagonist, so you could theoretically jump in later in the series, but I think reading in order definitely gives you some context to the story.
I'm a bit disappointed that I'm not talking about Jemisin's Broken Earth series, which I finished last year and preferred to this trilogy. None of these are bad, but Inheritance doesn't feel as original as Broken Earth. I liked the final book of this series, The Kingdom of the Gods the best, but your mileage may vary.
Where this series excels for game masters and world-builders is in how it deals with the relationship between mortal and divine. This relationship is baked into the core of Dungeons & Dragons, but feels largely unexplored beyond using deities as quest-givers and final bosses. I almost guarantee you will want gods and goddesses to be a more visible part of your world after reading these books.
The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
The City of Brass focuses on a young street girl from Cairo, but most of its characters are magical djinn dealing with their own problems. She travels to the titular city, where different factions hold centuries-old grudges.
I actually didn't love this book. I was super hooked for the entire first half and then things just really slowed down. The ending definitely leaves things hanging for the sequel coming out in January. People who really like this book seem to really like it though, so it's worth checking out.
I recommend it to game masters because so much of it is set in a magical city full of immortal creatures— something that could easily come up in game. It's also a decidedly non-Western take on fantasy, giving inspiration for flavor from sources other than Tolkien and European folklore.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
This is probably the most popular property on this list, so you may already be familiar with Harry Dresden, the hard-boiled Chicago detective who also happens to be an accomplished wizard. He solves supernatural crimes and takes on all sorts of creatures, from demons to fairies to vampires.
2018 was the year of Dresden for me; I read the first nine books of the series before taking an extended break. They're very good, and very cheesy. Makes for a great palate cleanser in between weightier works, but too many in a row and they start to feel a little formulaic.
The Dresden Files is a go-to source for anyone running a modern fantasy game, but there's a lot to be learned from these plots to be applied to any settings. Dresden is almost always working under a deadline, which can be important to give your players a sense of urgency. Most of the books feature two (or more) antagonists, which is a fantastic way to give players both a lot to do, and a lot of agency in how to do it.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
You may have heard of a little story called The Iliad, in which case you probably know what happens to Achilles. Miller's version is told from the perspective of Patroclus— Achilles's lover— and focuses more on their relationship than the heroic events that surround the pair.
This is essentially (well-written) Homeric fan fiction. Depending on your reaction to that statement, it may not be for you. Regardless, it's a fantastic study in inferiority and the progression of love from infatuation to a more mature, but difficult, relationship.
As with The Inheritance Trilogy, there's a lot to be looked at here about how an author approaches a world in which mortals regularly deal with deities. It will also get you in the mood to add some Greek mythology into your world, which I find makes for a familiar touchstone for most players.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
Baru is a child when the empire of the Masquerade conquers her idyllic island nation. She rises up through the meritocracy of the imperial system in order to destroy it from within using her super-accounting powers. Finally, a fantasy novel about inventory and currency speculation.
I put these in the order I read them, not ranked by quality, but The Traitor Baru Cormorant is probably my favorite book on here. The middle section drags, but it is otherwise a compelling read starring a protagonist I really wanted to see succeed. It's so refreshing to see a main character in a fantasy novel who truly wins battles through intelligence and logistics, rather than strength, magic, or even charisma.
Shout-out to the great podcast Dungeon Master of None for introducing me to the book. They have an entire episode dedicated to this novel, and using it as world-building inspiration, but it's pretty spoiler-heavy. Read the book first!
There are no overtly magical elements in the world of Baru Cormorant, but it still gives great inspiration for fantasy world-building. The interplay of different cultures and nations is incredibly thoughtful and realistic and should spark some ideas for you in what to communicate about the people of your worlds, and how.
My number one recommendation for you is more logistical. Get the Libby app; it lets you use a local library card to check out ebooks for free which you can read on your phone. Dump your social media shortcuts and spend time you would've spent scrolling through cat pictures reading instead.
So go forth, read, and be inspired! My plan for 2019 is to read 40 books and focus on more historical nonfiction. What are your 2019 goals?