No big secret, we use other stories for our games all the time. Especially me, since a lot of my ‘original’ creative thinking goes into writing fiction. I worry a lot less whether a plot idea for my game is more or less original. But I’ve discovered that even ‘borrowing’ can be an inspired choice. I have to admit, I’m not an avid reader of fantasy fiction. I don’t dislike it or anything, it’s just that lately there has been very little that captivated me strongly. Sure, I’m reading A Song of Ice and Fire, but then again, who isn’t? My reading pursuits lean more heavily towards literary fiction, especially the realms of magical realism, and I’ve
stolen borrowed most of my plot elements from there. Sometimes the thing I end up using is mood or theme, instead of plot, but no matter what I end up taking, those choices always prove to be interesting. Why am I sharing this? Well, I feel like everyone could learn a trick or two from these books, and anyway, they’re all a great read. So, read, and borrow heavily. I hope these enrich your games.
1. Jorge Luis Borges – The book of Imaginary Beings.
This is an easy one to recommend. Garry Gygax read this book. I mean, I have no evidence to support this statement, but I could bet my right foot that he did. Guess what the book is about? Well, it describes mythical beings. A book of fantastical zoology if you will. And it literally reads like the first edition monster manual. DnD monsters have always been known to be on the ‘weirder’ side, and this here tome my ladies and germs is the culprit. Not only does it list what is by now ‘the mundane’, like elves and dragons, but more DnD related beings like Chimaeras, Griphons and Krakens. Did you think that a Catoblepas is perhaps only a DnD monster? What about the Lamia? No. All mentioned here. This book is filled to the brim with strange beings, well described and as fantastical as it gets in literary fic. Should be on any gamer’s shelf.
2. Angela Carter – The Bloody Chamber
This collection of short stories is known for strong feminist undertones and descriptive text, and essentially consists of Carter’s own versions of widely known fairy tales, such as Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots and others. The titular Bloody Chamber story, involving a re-imagined version of the story of Blue Beard served as an inspiration for a DnD adventure I wrote, titled The Bloodiest Chamber (an obvious nod to the original), but much like Carter made the fairy tale her own story, so did I, and little of the source text remains. Carter warned us that her stories shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘adult versions’ of popular classics, and rightly so. Her imagination inspires to re-create and will definitely provide plenty of ideas for various styles of gaming.
3. Haruki Murakami – Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. It has two naratives, a trope that has become very common for Mr. Murakami, one set in a near-future cyberpunkish Japan, where a Johny Mnemonic type character struggles for survival in a skirmish between the System and the Factory. The second one is set in a more fantastical landscape, a place only known as the Town, a more secluded walled-off settlement, one that feels devoid of technology, strangely barren – a place where your shadow is taken away and you learn to read dreams from unicorn skulls. Yes, it is as strange as it sounds, and believe it or not, in the end it all makes sense. Sort of. The idea of losing one’s shadow is what I ended up borrowing from this book, and also what follows afterwards, which is completely speculative even when armed with such magical literature to inspire.
4. David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Unless you’ve been living in Timbuktu (read: middle-of-nowhere) you’ve probably already seen the trailer for the new Watchowski/Tykwer film (apologies to those of you who do live in Timbuktu and have actually seen the trailer, I imagine the hyperbole was completely lost on you). But even if you have, a repeat viewing certainly won’t hurt. Some have accused Mitchell of being complicated for complicated’s sake, or simply being show-offy, but the guy does have skill. His woven narrative spans centuries and touches lives connected by strands of fate. The centre of the book, set in a post-apocalyptic earth, where technology has been forgotten, is what provided me with most ideas for my DnD campaign, especially when fleshing out the fluff for Goliaths and examining where their race came from. But it’s not plot that’s the best part you can utilize from Mitchell, it’s his delivery and an alternate way to tell a story.
5. Neil Gaiman – Sandman
I am not going to pretend that Neil Gaiman is literary fic in any way shape or form. It is however, unconventional fantasy and full of concepts ripe for the plucking. His idea of ‘deities’ in Sandman was something I’ve decided to borrow for a campaign setting I’ve been working on, and so far it’s been a blast to write. He is a man with great imagination and playing around with the creations of his mind is a joy. My fondest one is the ‘Fox’ from dream hunters, a character I’ve adapted as my own. Whilst a scorned woman in love, out for revenge, isn’t exactly a novel idea in itself, but the shell he wraps it in I find very aesthetically appealing.
I can’t help but mention Murakami twice, my love for his fiction cannot be hidden. But I do mention it because I’ve borrowed the ‘air chyrsalis’ from this particular novel. My githzerai monks plucked strands of air from… well… air, and weaved them into a chrysalis. The players were most fascinated by this and even decided to help weave it. When it was in danger, even without knowing what it is or what it does (if anything at all) they wanted to protect it. All is as it should be in magical realism.
I say that these sources are unusual, but they are not at all. Fantasy or not, roleplaying games are, after all, about getting together and telling stories. Stories that we love and cherish and share, no matter the genre or medium. But I hope that for some, this will prove at least as a distraction from the mundane and the usual, and will inspire to tell more stories.