Gaming inspiration

5th January, 2021

I think we could all use some help in escaping to other worlds with our friends. I’ve taken the Christmas holiday as an opportunity to read some good gaming books, some of which were kindly placed in my stocking by Father Christmas…

Without further ado,

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael Shea (aka Sly Flourish) was the first book I cracked open. I wholeheartedly recommend it as a guide to improvising more, preparing less, and let at the same time running better games. Shea’s basic thesis is that role-playing referees prepare in ways that are often counter-productive, tying their games up in tedious back-story, limiting their ability to pick up on good ideas from around the table, and tempting them into the sin of railroading. I’m sold on that, but what makes the book worth 94 pages rather than a couple of blog posts is that it’s full of practical ideas. Some of those ideas are about how to make improvisation work, and some are about how to prepare for maximum impact. My favourite new idea is to prepare “secrets and clues” – what don’t the characters yet know, and what clues might they uncover? There are plenty of other great tips too. Despite a few pages of obvious filler, there are a lot of very useful ideas packed in here. (As a bonus, here’s Shea’s guide to Gaming over Discord.)

The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide by James D’Amato is an equally good book, although with a very different style. The first half is slightly philosophical, but highly knowledgable, drawing fine distinctions between different styles of play or approaches to gaming. Lots of moments of realisation for me: ah, yes, I’d never thought of it quite that way. Not so much in the way of actionable advice, but the second half makes up for that with some very strong practical tips – for example, how to contribute to a game in a way that shines the spotlight on another character.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess by James Raggi was the book I was most looking forward to reading, but I found it a little disappointing. The illustrations are splendidly horrific (and unsuitable for children) and the small-format hardback is very pleasing, but… well, there’s not much here but a set of rules, and the rules hew very close to D&D, so there is not much sense of revalatory excitement. There is a companion volume for referees, apparently – but that fact wasn’t evident when I bought this one, and the companion volume appears to be available only as a pdf right now. Perhaps a closer read – or the appearance of the second volume – will yield more.

Of course, there is no want of inspiration out there, so I turned first to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Light Beyond the Forest (a wonderfully weird rendition of the grail quest) then to my friend Dave Morris’s Chronicles of the Magi trilogy (swashbuckling and relentlessly inventive, perfect for gamers) and then to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence. Unaccountably, I have never read it, and it is so influential that it feels very familiar. It’s excellent so far.

Happy gaming, all – and if you’re here for the economics or the geeky social science and are now feeling confused, don’t worry. Normal service will be resumed soon.

My new book, “The Data Detective” is published in the US/Canada on 2nd February.

“Nobody makes the statistics of everyday life more fascinating and enjoyable than Tim Harford.”- Bill Bryson

“This entertaining, engrossing book about the power of numbers, logic and genuine curiosity”- Maria Konnikova

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom – have a look and see all my recommendations; Bookshop is set up to support local independent retailers.

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