It has become something of a tradition for OSR blogs to cite various works of fantasy and science fiction as relevant or particularly inspiring. Since I am nothing if not a stauch traditionalist that fears change and firmly adheres to the notion that things in the past were not just better, they were absolutely marvelous and society should have stopped right around the Bronze Age, I will gladly conform to this format.
Why books? Simple. I believe that books are the medium that bears the most resemblance to roleplaying games (audio books come even closer), with video games on the other side of that coin. Books deliver information in the same way a GM delivers it, through the medium of written or spoken language. Books force you to use your mind to imagine a scene and learning how to use descriptive language effecively should be one of the priorities of an aspiring dungeon master. Books have but one flaw, they are not interactive, and a roleplaying game is interactive. Video games, particularly rpgs, come very close to approaching the tabletop experience but if one omits good stories from one’s repertoire one risks making games that are bland and dull in the extreme. Video games have a number of advantages that tabletop games do not. They have graphics, audio, nigh infinite processing power to handle complex encounters and exciting randomly generated loot for you to pilfer. You do not. What games also tend to have are clichéd storylines, limited character interaction (also known as roleplaying) and a massive focus on combat. One must master both or be found lacking.
In no particular order.
Anyone citing serious literary works for inspiration in their elfgames is usually dismissed as a pretentious dimwit & STORYGAMER but I must cite 1-3 works that I really fucking loved and that have left an impression on me, no matter how slight.
The Count of Monte Christo by Dumas
– Where does one begin? The depth, detail, richness of the characters and the excitement that comes from watching their manifold plots unfolding at the hands of master manipulator and suave gentleman Edmund Dante needs little introduction. If one ever hopes to facilitate the sort of candy-ass nancy-game for girls where people solve their problems with hugs and feelings and lies and political intrigue and manipulation instead of with swords I can think of few works more suitable for inspiration, even if, say, the game would take place on a space ship, or, fare more likely, in a dilapidated mansion with some emo vampire kids.
Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens
– Everyone is probably drinking hot coffee and spitting it at the screen but yes, I will recommend Dickens to any GM for any genre whatsoever. Though it can be credibly stated that very few characters of Dickens are very deep, they are, to a fault, very memorable. If one presents YET ANOTHER FUCKING SHOPKEEPER the least one can do is present him with a little character before the mind-numbing drudgery of arrow-buying and encumberance wrangling takes over. Avoid if: You are a humourless boor that thinks elfgames should be serious affairs of wretched grimness and dankness at all times.
The Illiad by Homer
Though I am not recommening you run a Trojan War campaign (Yes I am, run one!) the Illiad involves so much cool shit that to bypass it in your elfgame you have to be a moron. Epic motives, the plotting of vengeful and capricious gods, single combats galore, sea snakes, boulder throwing, oracles and the blood of men flooding unto the hot sand as night falls before their eyes. The Illiad is, in the truest sense of the word, Epic. If you are going to run a DnD campaign read this and not yet another novel about Drizz’t Do’urden sulking in a cavern.
Faust by Goethe
Another winner. Goethe’s play, with its use of alchemy, odyssies into classical mythology, wars, schemes, sorcery, hubris, deviltry and biting, hilarious satire, is lightning to the brain. The old becomes new once more. Mephistopheles is and remains the quintessential devil; biting, irreverent, hilarious, yet always with a malignant undertone. Ignore the bazillion pages of notes on how Goethe’s use of water and fire was actually a veiled criticism of the vulcanist movement and just experience the work as written, a glorious tribute to the classical age.
For a long time I have preferred Science fiction over Fantasy and therefore this section will contain only a small fraction of the of works that I have read and enjoyed over the days. I make no pretensions of literary appeal, I really like sciencefiction and these I spring to mind as particularly inspiring so here they are.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is so famous and renowned a work of brilliant science fiction that I need not explain its greatness to anyone. Nevertheless, to anyone running anything that even vaguely resembles a space opera post E. E. Doc Smith, particularly one with a somewhat exotic milieu, its labyrinthine plots, fascinating cultures, vast depth, brilliant memorable characters and atmosphere of exotic grandeur make it a veritable cornucopia of inspiration.
Hyperion and its sequels by Dan Simmons
Litfags will balk but Hyperion is a masterpiece and I consider it almost equal to Dune. Eschewing the crutch of eastern mysticism for the slightly different looking crutch of indistinguishable from magic, Hyperion’s is part canterbury tales, part space opera, part horror and all awesome. Few sf stories have invoked such a sense of fear, wonder, tragedy, laughter and horror. And it has a time-travelling god-monster made of razorblades.
First and Last Men by Olaf Stapleton
For anyone who seeks to portray extinct alien or human civilisations with a degree of grandeur and scope that is simply not found in Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of Thonbaka, Stapleton’s brilliantly imaginative future history describes the rise and fall of nine races of men over a billion years of history. The civilisations themselves make for great pulp/weird sci fi too, as this was written before atomic power came and mucked everything up.
Twisted Metal by Tony Ballatine and its sequel Blood and Iron.
A novel of self-aware robots on a metal world and the rise of robot che guevarra and robot stalin in a rich, detailed fictional world of iron and circuitry. Chosen because I have not often seen stories with nonhuman protagonists in such a thoughtful yet action-packed fashion.
Axiomatic and Schild’s Ladder by Greg Egan
A masterful short story collection and novel respectively, Greg Egan is utterly useless to anyone desiring dashing space adventures of heroism and daring. What he brings to the table is a dedication to profound hard-science fiction combined with a poetry that renders the whole heartrendingly beautiful and imaginative. Whenver I get tired of the staples of space opera, no matter how well executed, I read Egan to remind me how high science fiction can soar. Hard science fiction rocks, and Egan’s sf is the white-dwarf star matter of hard science fiction.
The Xelee Sequence by Stephen Baxter and Coalescent by the same
One cannot speak of Scope and Gravity without at least an off-hand mention of Baxter’s Xeelee sequence. Baxter’s galactic scope and galaxy-spanning mega-engineering projects imprint upon one the size and scope of the universe compared to which our puerile endaevours are but the lowest anthill. Appropriate for the more hard-sf minded space opera fan that enjoys hard sf space opera taken to ridiculous extremes. Coalescent continues with what has become a strange obsession of mine, humans living as hive-societies without the crutch of telepathy or magic to foment this organisation.
The Null-A trilogy by A.E van Vogt with Null-A Continuum by John C. Wright instead of Pawns of null-a, a godawful work
Space opera done right. Plausability and realism be damned, Null-A is about adventure and wonder. Every chapter a magnificent plot-twist that not only keeps us guessing but indeed, radically changes the import of chapters preceding it, Null-A reaches it aepex in Continuum, when Wright masterfully out-Van Vogt’s Van Vogt in a dazzling tale of cosmic scope, super science adventure and dashing space heroism. An absolute joy to read.
Metaplanetary by Tony Daniels
One need not leave our Solar System and have FTL to encounter worlds of imagination and future speculation that both tintillate and awe. A rip-roaring space operatic tale of thought, high-tech wizardry and whimsey, set in a strange future where the inner system is connected by a vast web of exotic matter and a futuristic dictator seeks to incorporate the system into himself…with science! And only a junk collector, a temporally disjointed oracle and a hyper-intelligent ferret turned into a person are there to stop him.
Everything ever by Philip K Dick except for Solar Lottery which sucks balls.
The mad prophet of science fiction, Dick’s work does not stand out for its gadgetry or its believable world building, but rather, his quirky characters, great concepts and fluid realities that reveal aspects of the human condition via the invasion of strange, alternate realities that resemble the delusions Dick himself must have suffered from. Absolutely stonking great.
Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert
Herbert wrote works beyond Dune, but so great is Dune’s light that all other stars are blotted out and we cannot see them and thus often forget they exist at all. A wonderfully creepy story of a secluded human cult that lives under the earth like hive-insects, complete with strange 70s era particle beam weapons, sex hormones and earthquake machines. We need not travel to the far-off Calyxis Sector to encounter man-made horrors that dazzle and terrify. What is creepier then alien bugs? Humans that live like alien bugs!
Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven
Niven is one of the greats of the silver age of science fiction. Hard Science Tales of exploration and wonder, a detailed universe, strange and interesting aliens and awesome technology. Ringworld describes the exploration of an alien megastructure built around the sun with a dedication to plausibility without losing the sense of wonder and exploration that for a long time, was par for the course with space opera. The scale and diverse inhabitants make it one of the best candidates for a hypothetical sf-dnd campaign. Just dont read the Awful Awful part 3, Ringworld Throne, which was written with one hand under the table and is basically three-quarters Niven fantasizing about alien sex and one quarter Niven being contractually obligated to have stuff happen from the last book, just less interesting or coherent.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
One the founding fathers of cyberpunk, Gibson’s Neuromancer transports us to the grimy, seedy underbelly of the dystopian future. Its megacorporations, ninja clone assassins and thoroughly grey protagonists lend a delightful atmosphere of tech-noir for those seeking to cleanse their palette of the perhaps somewhat overly optimistic future tales of the olden days.
The Mechwars series by Gregory Benford
There are few tropes as worn in sf as the war between machines and men but at the apex of this olympic mountain of chrome-plated skulls there are two thrones, its twin kings gazing down upon the rest with bemused sympathy. Surpassing Saberhagen’s Berserker series by a hairsbreadth, Benford’s Mechwars is the greatest story of humankind fighting a hopeless battle with a galaxy-wide civilisation of AI’s that I have ever read. If you want to get AI’s right, Benford is your go-to man.
Echopraxia by Peter Watts
A quasi-sequel to Blindsight, which i have not read (update yes i have), Watts’s dystopian and profoundly cynical vision presents a picture of the future that is both lovecraftian in its incomprehensible and thoroughly uncaring nature yet stripped of all the trappings of superstition, idealism and illusion we human beings cherish. Watts kicks down so many sacred fenceposts one is left staring open-mouthed at the devastation, and he does it in a story about a biologist contacting what might be god alongside a crew of transhuman monks, ressurected prehistoric vampires and nano-zombie supersoldiers. Offensive and thought-provoking to both die-hard atheists and deists at the same time. Excellent. Also 140 cited papers in the references, as god intended.
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Blindsight is a dystopian first contact story treated with a dispassionate rationality that is utterly terrifying. One of the few novels I can recall that manage to portray aliens as genuinely alien. Manages to deserve the epithet ‘lovecraftian’ while avoiding any resemblence to lovecraft in style, content or tropes. The exploration of a megastructure swaddled with magnetic fields and occupied by utterly alien things is a feast for the imagination. One of the best examples of inspiration for a space horror dungeon crawl.
20.000 leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne
Steampunk before steampunk existed (back then it was but simple scientific speculation), Verne reminds us of the mystery and beauty of the unknown when he is not too busy writing pages and pages of sea-creature taxonomy. He also introduces what might be the first literary supervillain ever, Captain Nemo, an affluent member of royalty of unknown nationality that uses super-science to inflict upon the nations of the world a retribution for previously suffered wrongs.
Dancers at the End of Time and the Black Corridor by Michael Moorcock
The unfortunately named Moorcock is a controversial figure in sf/fantasy, some love him, some hate him. I fall in the former category, for the most part. Dancers at the End of Time presents a playfully melancholic civilisation of humans that live at the end of time, when the universe has run its course, and their myriad whimsical interactions. Black corridor is a chilling sf-horror tale of apocalypse and madness set on earth and later on the last starship to escape its doom. Both are great in their own very special moorcockian fashion.
Picoverse and Cusp by R.A Metzenger
In what may be one of the most glorious satires of hard-sf ever conceived, if they are indeed intentional, which the jury is not out on just yet, Metzenger uses hard-sf to tell absolutely ridiculous high-concept tales of alternate universes, 2 billion year old alien plans, hyper-intelligent neanderthals with borderline precognition, sentient dinosaurs, zero-point energy fuelled messianic figures, time-travel and Einstein building particle beam towers so they may fight off Josef Stalin aided by an extra-dimensional emissary from another universe.
The works of Philip Palmer
A newcomer to the scene, Palmer calls back to the old sf pulps like no other, mixing the wonder and unchecked imagination of the old-school with a droll, irreverent sense of humour and scenes of horrific, graphic violence to create a wonderfully eclectic blend of honest to god space pulp action. Plausibility is thrown out the window, what matters are the characters, the universe and the fun. All are more then present.
Vermillion Sands/The Crystal World by J.G Ballard.
If one is to harvest literary works for interesting tidbits one often does them a disservice by stealing plot since plot is anethema to agency but in rare cases one can harvest not just the world but its themes. Vermillion sands is a feverish dream of a failing futuristic desert resort where various characters follow their obsessions with love and death. The Crystal World is about the journey into a familiar landscape that becomes transformed in an unearthly fashion, reflected in the changed demeanor of its temporary inhabitants. If you want to add some surrealism to your game without going full on 70s psychedelic panic then you might enjoy these, so you can instead go 68% psychedelic panic.
Roadside Picnic by the Brothers Arkady
The novel that would, in order, inspire both a movie and a subsequent video game series, Roadside Picnic represents a modern take on the adventuring profession. Stalkers, essentially criminals, steal into areas touched by alien visitation (The Zone), brave unknown and often incomprehensible perils, in search of strange and often dangerous artifacts. Of particular note are the dangers themselves. Unknown, hideously dangerous, impossible to recognize without prior warning. So too the Stalker, the Adventurer’s modern counterpart. Jaded, callous yet driven to set out into the Zone, searching eternally for the motherlode.
The Garments of the Caen, The Great Wheel and Seed of Evil by Barrington J Baley.
Eon, Legacy & Hull Zero-Three by Greg Bear.
Since I mostly run fantasy games, these are bound to have a larger influence. Works belonging to the traditional Gygaxian Appendix N have been so marked. In no particular order:
Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber (first 4 books) [Appendix N]
As previously outlined, the exploits of Fafhrd and his chromatically-challenged companion are so fundamental to the original spirit of D&D that to ignore them would be a crime against humanity and elfgames. At times whimsical and poetic, the savage world of Newhon provides wonder and peril in equal amounts. Absolutely great.
Tales of the Dying Earth (not to be confused with the Songs of the Dying Earth, which was mostly shit) by Jack Vance [Appendix N]
Ah Vance, poet, fantast, genius. Tales of the Dying Earth is an amazing collection of picaresque tales set in the far distant future, with humanity reduced to a few hundred thousands living in tiny psychopathic enclaves and a world littered with ancient mysteries, magic, wonder and monsters. Vance paints a wonderfully vibrant autumn picture in a thousand different colours, all are beautiful. Sociopathic protagonists, bickering archwizards, magic both bizarre and truly wonderous, the list goes on and on. If you must read one book that inspired DnD you can do worse then this one.
The Second Apocalypse Series by R.Scott Baker
I am a man attracted to extremes (and nubile, round-breasted nymphs). I like my fantasy either firmly grounded in historical realism and mythology or brimming with imagination and wonder. So too do I gravitate towards either whimsey or grimdark. Baker makes a stunning attempt to combine all elements, except for whimsey. In what could have easily been yet another Lord of the Rings Clone ™, Baker drenches it all in serious Old Testament ketchup and manages to do some poignant philosophizing in between the crusading, the stoning of harlots, the sorcery-ing and the slaughter of filthy Kianene. Dark as shit, introspective, well-rounded interesting characters, with not a hint of the sentimentality that has made so much of post-lotr so goddamn trite, Second Apocalypse is an amazing, if bleak, experience.
Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. [Appendix N]
Though citing such a widely known, immensely popular groundbreaker of fantasy and science fiction alike seems a bit redundant, I put Lovecraft and his stories here for completeness sake. Seldom have I seen such imaginative visions of horror, grotesquerie, alienness and wonder as those discovered in the short stories of ole’ Howard Philips. Particular favourites include the magnificent At the Mountains of Madness, the prototypical Call of Cthulhu, the fantastic the Mound, the sublime Dunwich Horror and the epoch-spanning Shadow Out of Time.
The short stories of C.A Smith
One cannot mention Lovecraft and neglect his peer, the ole’ Clarke Ashton. Where Lovecraft’s writing tends to be a bit cold and distant at times, Smith’s work exudes an aura of decadent sensuality that is every bit as atmospheric if not more so then the works of Lovecraft. Noteworthy examples of quintessentially clarkashtonsmithian works include such lurid tales as The Isle of the Torturers, The Flower-Women, The Coming of the White Worm, The Seven Geases, Ubbo-Zathla and The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan.
Conan the Barbarian by R.E Howard [Appendix N]
About as Sword and Sorcery as you can get, Howard’s stirring tales of blood and steel in ancient antiquity basically set the benchmark for good S&S. Not as good as Leiber, but in the savagery and decadence we are shown what it means to be a man. Conan is the manliest of men, a reaver, a warrior, with loyalty to his friends and fealty towards none. Awesome.
John Carter of Mars by Edgar rice Burroughs, and its spiritual successor, Warriors of Mars by M. Moorcock [Appendix N]
Every bit as influential on the shaping of Ur-D&D as Lieber, Howard or Vance, Burrough’s adventures on the dying world of Mars are the birthplace of the sword & planet genre, and John Carter’s escapades on Barsoom provide stirring and imaginative tales of adventure the likes of which have never been seen. Rock climbing, underground rivers, 4-armed man-apes, flying ships and copious sword-fighting. Great.
The Night Land by William Hope Hodginson
An amazing, if very lengthy science fantasy foray into the distant future, describing an epic journey into the monster-haunted darkness of the Night Land. Its myriad horrors, wonders, fantastical landscapes and moments of hope, faith, bravery and love in the face of apparent hopelessness make this a worthwile read.
The Elric, Eternal Champion and Corum series by Michael Moorcock [Appendix N]
Another pillar of Ur-DnD, Moorcock at his best (before he turned it up to elven and flew out of the window) is a ceaseless engine of creativity, scope and imagination. His tales of the exploits of the albino sorcerer Elric are a nice counter-part to the adventures of Conan or Carter. His corum series goes for a more traditionally heroic take, and is the stronger for it. A mine for good fantasy concepts.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Fantastic evocation of mythology through the lens of science fiction. Breathtaking descriptions, epic heroes and an imaginative world to get lost in. A brilliant take on indian and buddist mythology.
The Cenotaph Road series by R.E Vandermann
Cenotaph road is like the OD&D campaign you wish you had run. Plane-hopping heroism with your bipolar giant spider friend in search of the body parts of an ancient sorcerer, talking spiders, robots, jester-wizards that imprison their enemies in tiny labyrinths, sumptuous decadent temptresses, silly religions, a random encounter involving two copulating wolves and an epic battle of sorceries at the end. Its no Leiber but it rocks nevertheless.
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
I could write pages about my love for Book of the New Sun, which I consider superior to Dying Earth as the uncontested King of the Dying Earth subgenre. Brooding, atmospheric, introspective and mind-blowingly imaginative. Fantastical monstrosities, strange cultures and ancient science at the end of history. If you have not read it do so now.
The Broken Sword by Paul Anderson
Glorious take on ancient viking/danish legend, complete with the pathos and bittersweet doom that often accompanies pagan myths. Elves, giants, changelings and the wyrd that all men must meet.
Godkillers; Machivarius Point and other tales by Liam Sharp
Modern Sword and sorcery tale that carries many admirable old school trappings without feeling like a tired rehash of well worn tropes. Interesting science fantasy trappings and a terrifying antagonist. Gritty and gothic as fuck. Is there hope for S&S in this benighted era? God Killers made us beg for a sequel that would never come.
The Last Wish by…Andrzej Sapokowski?
Suprisingly great book with many characteristics of old S&S (more focus on personal goals, character building, less worldbuilding, not a hint of Tolkien etc.). Geralt the Witcher has all the trappings of a taciturn super-warrior mary sue but turns out suprisingly likeable and nuanced, with a dry sort of sarcastic humor, a good foil for his more jovial companion. Farcical if suprisingly intelligent twists on well known faery tales combined with pulse-pounding sword-fighting action. And finally, some fucking levity in a contemporary fantasy novel.
(hushed whisper) Terry Goodkinds Sword of Truth Series
Habitual Disclaimer aside, Goodkind commits many sins in writing his opus, among them the fact that you can clearly see he is making it up as he goes along. However, Goodkind’s take on magic, magical creatures and plethora of nuanced and interesting antagonists have left a firm impression on my subconscious. Ayn Rand wins this round.
Drood and The Terror are nominally horror by Dan Simmons but they Rock so here they are.
At times we must stray from our comfort zones and drink Pilsner when all we really want is Hertog-Jan. Drood and the Terror are set in the same Victorian Era and are booth brooding, atmospheric works of stark historical realism interspersed with nightmarish supernatural horror. The astonishing detail and the vivid characterisations sell these for me. Great for a victorian era horror campaign. Do not drop on a small child.
Jack of Shadows
The Moon Pool [Appendix N]
Dwellers in the Mirage [Appendix N]
The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by Ricardo Pinto
The Worm Ouroboros
The Name of the Wind
Hiero’s Journey [Appendix N]
Still on my reading list: A. Merrit, Tolkien, The Worm Ouroboros, Dunstany, More Faffhrd, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Amber series, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Mistborn, Shadows of the Apt, More Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dracula and some other shit. I read old books nowadays and generally find them of greater merit, but on occasion something readable and new comes my way. Comics, Warhammerfagging and other rpgs are not included and thus I might do so at a later time.