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The leanest bookshelf in Roleplayingdom

Our story so far: Erin consolidates the RPG material stuffed on his bookshelf and haphazardly stored in bankers boxes piled in his attic. In the process, he begins to disassociate products from productivity, keying on the most fundamental and useful titles and abandoning the rest. As a result, he has cleared both his bookshelf and his mind, and the lack of distracting content is improving his creative process. We join our protagonist at the start of a self-aggrandising tour of his RPG bookshelf...

The Bookshelf

In the interest of full disclosure, I do have 2 bankers boxes of RPG material left in the attic. They're small, but filled with collectible stuff that I plan someday to pass down to my as-yet-unborn spawn. Or seal in plastic bags to secure against the apocalypse, so that as man struggles to rebuild a world he destroyed, he'll at least have some decent games to play.

But the list below is what I actually use to plan, write, and run my games. Here we go:

The Antonine Wall (Geoff B. Bailey)
Rome's Northern Frontier...and was it ever. Hadrian had nothing on this. Plenty of fort and barracks maps, info on who manned the walls, and how they were built. Plus, it was published in Scotland, so words like "colour" and "neighbour" are spelled correctly.

Castles (Philip Steele)
Children's book that's good for quick reference about the folks who inhabited castles and towns, info about city gates and curfews, becoming a knight, and a guide to heraldry a 10-year-old could understand. Just my speed these days...

Atlas of the Bible

Atlas of the Bible

Atlas of the Bible (Reader's Digest)
An Illustrated Guide to the Holy Land; this book has maps galore and an historical spin that doesn't tread heavily on mythology (or faith). What I like is that it covers the same, relatively small geographic area (read: campaign setting) across the span of about 3,000 years. You see the rise and fall of cultures, and the events that could shape your own setting. With maps. Did I mention there were maps? If I ever run a real-world campaign that takes place before AD 150, this is my sourcebook (it even has an appendix titled "Bible Gazetteer").

Basic D&D (Tom Moldvay); Expert D&D (David Cook)
As I read (and re-read) these, I become more convinced that together, this pair was the most flexible, DM-friendly, and expandable version of the game. Side note: this particular copy of Moldvay was owned by Fred Briggs, Room 206, but oddly, it's definitely written in Chick-script (Mrs. Briggs?).

B2/Keep on the Borderlands (Gary Gygax)
Near perfect, IMO, as a campaign-starter, though replay value with anyone but novice gamers approaches zero as I get older. Still, given the amount of adventure it contains, astoundingly well-organised.

X1/Isle of Dread (David Cook & Tom Moldvay)
Another near perfect campaign starter, but with dinosaurs and squishy fish-men. Also well-organised, and I browse through this for inspiration (but resist the urge to place magic treasure inside the bellies of giant herbivores).

Rules Cyclopedia (Aaron Allston)
While B/X remains my favourite version of Classic D&D, the Rules Cyclopedia scores more points for complete spell and monster lists, general skills, weapon mastery, and post-15th-level stuff. Use B/X to play, RC for reference.

World Builder's Guidebook (Richard Baker) and Dungeon Builder's Guidebook (Bruce R. Cordell)
Each provides excellent guidelines for the idle GM, including many, many random tables to help you get things done. If you need to know your world's hydrography or a dungeon's interdimensional properties, go here. A little too much drow in either, but hey, they carried 2nd Edition, right?



Cities (Stephen Abrams & Jon Everson) and Jonril, Gateway to the Sunken Lands (Abrams & Feist)
Both from Midkemia Press. The former contains tons of urban encounter tables, essentially helping you build a city on the fly. The latter details the fantasy city of Jonquil and surroundings, which is code for "campaign setting with home base."

Character Law & Campaign Law (Coleman Charlton & Pete Fenlon)
While ICE's Rolemaster (aka "Chartmaster") was my 2nd-least favourite RPG, this is a great reference for creating characters and campaigns in any system. Plenty of tables, options, and just plain stuff you wouldn't normally think about. Need to figure out if your character has increased lung capacity or different coloured eyes? Or maybe you need Military Strength by culture.

Citybook I (Larry DiTillo) & Citybook II (Liz Danforth & Michael Stackpole)
These are from Flying Buffalo's All-System Catalyst Series, which means you can use them with any RPG. Between the two, there are 47 urban establishments, 145 NPCs, and plot hooks for each. Plus interior maps and Liz Danforth illustrations.

Wilderness Encounters (Roy Cram)
Another All-System Catalyst series offering from Flying Buffalo, this contains a baker's dozen systemless wilderness encounters, each with maps and suitable for expansion.

Historical Campaign Sourcebooks
Cherry-picked selections from TSR's "HR" line: Vikings, Celts, Romans, Greeks, and Crusaders. While I love a thick history tome, for gaming purposes, these are easily accessible cribs. Each contains maps of the topical culture's dominance, a good bit of historical reference, and some approaches to D&D translations of cultural icons (like druids, gladiators, viking raiders, crusader knights, et al.). Again, don't use these to study up for your history exam, but do employ them to give your campaign's Celts some verisimilitude.

Chimera Basic (me)
Natch. Now in the 4th Printing, Chimera Basic is pretty much the RPG framework for all my playtime. You know, if you don't have a copy, you can get one here, for free.

Barbarians of Lemuria

Barbarians of Lemuria

Barbarians of Lemuria (Simon Washbourne)
An interesting RPG system. What I like is the rules-lite approach and simple mechanics. While it's tightly coupled with the campaign setting included in the book, it's easily adaptable to whatever setting the GM might dream up.

Savage Worlds Explorers' Edition (Shane Hensley)
The first multi-genre game that made sense to me (I really tried to grok GURPS, but alas, I have neither the patience for 45-minute combat rounds nor the advanced maths degree to make them go faster). Anyway, SW is clearly a well-thought out system, and I appreciate how accessible it makes all sorts of multi-genre stuff that's actually a pain in the butt to account for on the gaming table. Bonus: Digest-sized.

Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion (Paul Wade Williams)
I picked this up more out of a sense of "completeness" than necessity (which goes against the basic tenants of my urge to consolidate last week, but give an aging gamer a bone, whydoncha?). Another reason for picking this up was because I wanted to see how the game designers addressed a specific genre for a multi-genre game. It turns out that this (also digest-sized) volume contains a lot of good material—races, magic items, monsters, and spells. Just goes to show how much detail one could apply to what is, essentially, a rules-lite game. The wise part of me heeds the warning...

Viking Weapons & Warfare (J. Kim Siddorn)
A great little reference guide about Viking culture. It grabs you straight away: Chapter 1: The Havoc of Heathen Men. Interested now? Chapter 2: Iron, then Chapter 3: Spear. It goes on like that, with incredible, but highly useful, detail. Bonus: according to the "Fines" chart (pg. 101), if you touch a Viking chick's boob without her permission, it will cost you 5 shillings.

The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (Colin McEvedy)
The text is a bit dry, but the draw is that each page is map of Europe, from AD 362 to AD 1483. Now the spread of Christendom in 565, or the spread of the black plague, or 13th century towns and trade routes are at your fingertips, all visual-like.

Years of Adventure (A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons)
Guity pleasure, but a fun read. Plus commentary by Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel.

Hârn (N. Robin Crosby)
My first "grown-up" campaign setting (after Greyhawk), Hârn isn't just incredibly detailed—it's extraordinarily cohesive. I dig the 10-god pantheon, the history of demi-humans, the rise of man, the cultural archetypes, and the rarity of magic. When I feel my fantasy campaign is getting a little too "out there," Hârn helps me reign it in with a bit of grit.



Eldarad, The Lost City
A sleeper supplement for Avalon Hill's RuneQuest, Eldarad is a lost city infested with ancient tombs and being resettled by civilisation's disenfranchised: drifters, criminals, artists, and mercenaries. It also has a map of the surrounding wilderness, so it could form the foundation of its own campaign. Bonus: I still have my typewritten Eldarad notes from college, plus more random tables I forgot I invented.

Judges Guild Binder
A mish-mash of handy JG material containing the (revised) City State of the Invincible Overlord, Fantastic Personalities, Caves & Caverns, Campaign Maps 1, 2, 4, the First Fantasy Campaign map (aka Blackmoor), and (my favourite) Ready Ref Sheets. There's room for Unknown Gods, which turns out to be very hard to find (any leads appreciated...).

Binders of Wonder
First is the consolidated container for all the notes, maps, and NPCs I salvaged from all my other RPG binders. Its content is so brilliant that the reader gains +1 WIS. Next up is a binder of plastic-sheet-protected GM forms (character sheets, hex templates, etc). The remaining 3 contain printouts of mapping tutorials, mapping software documentation, and RPG fonts (for the eventual day when I get round to organising those...).

Monstrous Compendium
A little incongruent, I know. This had been in the attic, but when I cracked it open, my heart was filled with the love for 2nd Ed. beasties that I had back in college. While I despise the redaction of demons and devils, I find this format superior to the hardcover 1st Ed. monster books. And while I don't include every creature, they all provide good inspiration (except the Minimals, which, as miniature animals, are inappropriately cute for any campaign I plan to run). In the spirit of consolidation, though, I did pull out the MC3 (Forgotten Realms), MC5 (Greyhawk Adventures), and the Rogues Gallery. This leaves me with what I consider to be a well-rounded bestiary of core volumes 1 and 2, the Outer Planes (MC 8), and the Fiend Folio (MC 14). Downside: no flumphs.

Final Words

Having written this out, I'm seeing how much of an out-of-print gamer I've become. Not sure what that actually means...maybe you can tell me. Or, just share the titles of your indispensable RPG materials.

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  1. December 30th, 2010 at 10:12 | #1

    My distinct impression is that while you consider yourself as striving for innovation, you are actually clinging on to the past, with little or no eye towards the the present or future. You’ve become the classic jaded old-school gamer that sits on your porch harking about the good old days. You’re so enamoured with retro that you’ve become anti-modern.

    What I would be interested to know is whether or not you’ve actually attempted to look into any newer products. The only current products you’ve mentioned looking into is Labyrinth Lord and the like, following the discussion on OSR and it’s place in the industry, and to a certain extent, you already knew they were basically reprints of old products.

    Of your entire RPG collection as it stands, the newest product on your shelf is actually Chimera RPG – the product you are working on. It’s like you started a hobby admiring other developers and their works, and then reached a certain point where you’ve become disillusioned and decided that the only way you’ll find what you’re looking for in RPGs is if you write it yourself, as nobody else can possibly meet your expectations.

    It’s like you’ve given up and turned your back on the industry and it’s current trends, having decided that you don’t want it, therefore it doesn’t want you. It’s almost sad so see such disillusionment and cynicism in a gamer, regardless of age, when like every one who first got into the hobby, and subsequently, the industry – it was their passion, creativity, and support for others that drove everything forward.

    Is there not a single idea out there today that makes you feel glad to be a gamer? A single product or service that makes you feel like supporting it? Maybe you should try to take a break from the past, and take a moment to see what else is out there today, and try something new, if only to re-ignite your enthusiasm.

  2. December 30th, 2010 at 11:02 | #2

    @Da’ Vane : I did actually have a sizeable collection of d20 material and 3.x sourcebooks in what I purged. I originally obtained them to see where 3.x was going, as well as to see how other authors were making use of the OGL.

    I was highly disappointed. Certainly part of it was based on my passion for the original game, and how much had changed. More importantly, I have time commitments today that didn’t exist when I first started playing, or even in the 2nd Ed. days. In 8th grade, it’s no problem to spend hours pouring over the complexities of AD&D 1st Ed. or spending an entire weekend playing with your mates. Today, I’m hard-pressed to keep to my 45-minute-a-day writing schedule. For all its innovations (no sarcasm), 3.x and d20 required more time from me than I was able (or willing) to give. It’s entirely accurate to say that my ease-of-use became a top priority for me in gaming.

    But a far greater part of my disappointment was that, while I expected WotC to amend the excesses TSR had flaunted as they galloped toward bankruptcy, it was clear that they were following–if not capitalising–on the same trend. More than anything else, it was apparent that the goal wasn’t about quality of product or retaining a loyal customer base–it was about profit margins and profit margins alone. Perhaps it was an unrealistic expectation, though I did believe that WotC would usher in a reversal of all the things that had made TSR bad. And while I don’t begrudge WotC from making money, the experience of the previous 5 years as a disappointed TSR customer left a really bad taste in my mouth.

    Time to find a different game. It was clear that D&D was no longer going to be fun for me.

    I think your admonishment–that I claim to innovate while clinging to the past–is rather superficial. It’s true that my RPG passions do lie within the old-school camp, but there are ways to innovate within that style. B/X, for all its flexibility, had a lot of what I’ll call mechanical shortcomings. These can be improved, and indeed, Chimera strives to do so.

    Labyrinth Lord, on the other hand, makes little to no effort to innovate at all (and, in fact, the author says this in not so many words). LL is a far better example of being “enamoured with retro” than Chimera. While the former regurgitates an old standard, Chimera at least strives to provide a new approach to an older style.

  3. Anarkeith
    December 30th, 2010 at 12:01 | #3

    @Da’Vane: Did you miss the paragraph on Savage Worlds? The rest of the material contains much that could be used in any system.

    @Erin: I’ve got a number of the books you list on my shelf as well (love that Penguin atlas!) and you’ve a few that I hope to pick up in the future. I need to purge my shelf a bit as well. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. December 30th, 2010 at 16:24 | #4

    @Anarkeith : The Penguin Atlas is a favourite (they seem to have Atlases for all sorts of other stuff–Roman Empire, Africa, Ancient History, et al.). Let me know if you’re looking for anything in particular – I have yet to send off the stuff I purged.

  5. December 31st, 2010 at 04:22 | #5

    @Anarkeith I must admit, I can’t say I know much about Savage Worlds. Enlighten me.

    @Erin D. Smale I can agree with your assessment on Chimera RPG, Erin. Like I said, it was the impression that I got – and you’ve pretty much confirmed that yourself: You put faith in WotC to change the way TSR was going, and despite the promises, they betrayed your trust and failed to deliver. Just like most politicians and ex-lovers, in fact.

    The thing is, there’s more out there than D&D, and even though I have been getting melancholy of late about losing touch and becoming jaded with games in general, dissatisfied with their shift in focus, you’ve managed to make me feel like I’m still a young newbie with the spark of enthusiasm that got me excited in the first place. As I said, I find this rather sad – for you.

    As for innovation, while there are many things about early games that could be fixed, there will always be the risk that you are treading old ground and reinventing the wheel. That you’re busy slogging your guts out to get to a point where other people have already been, and still trying to call it innovation.

    What is new to you might not be new to everyone else. The reverse is also true, what you already know and take for granted as old hat might actually be something really ground-breaking to someone else.

    Maybe this is just me and my academic background, where knowledge and expertise means more than profit and success, and peer reviews and peer referencing is the norm, and I’m still coping with the idea that someone could just turn their back on their peers so easily. Mind you, I am still recovering from losing my DragMag and DungMag collection, and that was purged five years ago… It still stings like it was yesterday, dammit!

  6. December 31st, 2010 at 10:02 | #6

    @Da’ Vane : I think you may be dramatising this a bit on my behalf–I’m not nearly as jaded and cynical as you seem to think (though I do have my days).

    I have a great deal of enthusiasm for achieving elegance in Chimera–sort of the “minutes to learn, lifetime to master” bit about chess. It’s not a deliberate response to 3.x or 4E, nor is it out of any desire to reinvent the wheel because I’m deluded into thinking I can do it better than anyone else.

    It’s merely crafting a game that caters to what I think is important: easy to play, passably realistic outcomes, and flexibility to customise. To me, that’s the RPG triangle: pick any two.

    I say ‘innovation’ only because I’m trying to nail all three.

    Maybe ‘innovation’ is too strong or presumptuous a word. Certainly, Savage Worlds and Barbarians of Lemuria already come close, but neither is exactly what I’m after. So Chimera addresses the few things I don’t fancy about those games (e.g., Abilities instead of Attributes, single framework for all powers, simplified encumbrance, et al.).

    Sure, bits and pieces might be old ground for others, but either they weren’t made mainstream or wasn’t implemented in a workable fashion. Or maybe they’re crap ideas. Regardless, I’m having fun putting them together and working toward my original goals.

  7. January 2nd, 2011 at 01:23 | #7

    @Erin D. Smale This may be the case – but in a community that prides itself on evolution all aspects of RPG, particularly with regards to referencing the ideas and concepts of others, it can sometimes seem pretentious or arrogant to disregard new developments wholesale to focus on your own ideas, especially if you are looking backwards and taking an alternative approach from the past.

    The biggest feature of of both the past two updates has been the indication that product spam is bad, because they made people feel like they had to buy products or their collections were incomplete. Rather than being enthused about what TSR or WotC were producing, people would buy them because they were made by TSR or WotC. Some people like this – and for them, never missing a product, and the idea of subscription-based services appeal.

    Yet, for others, it’s the content itself that matters, not who publishes it. If it meets what the customer wants, then they will buy it – and they will look into more like that and buy them, if they fit with what the customer wants.

    I will be interested to know which products, if any, you will be looking forward to checking out this year. It would be a lot easier to see you less jaded and cynical if there was some hint about the future that didn’t read like you’ve become abandoned and disenfranchised by the RPG industry and therefore you feel like you’ve had no choice but to develop Chimera RPG. This may be the wrong impression, but it is the impression I am getting from you.

    Happy New Year!

  8. January 2nd, 2011 at 12:40 | #8

    @Da’ Vane : You’re unreal. Now you want my 2011 reading list of RPG material so I can prove to you that I’m not jaded and cynical?

    Guess what? Part of the reason I appear jaded and cynical about the current state of the industry is because of rude, arrogant, unimaginative, and presumptuous players like you. If you represent the latest and greatest thinking extant in the hobby today, then I’ll stick with my backward, old-school ways, thank you very much.

  9. January 3rd, 2011 at 04:06 | #9

    @Erin D. Smale No – I just think it would be interesting information to see what you are looking forward to, as opposed to always looking backwards with your old-school ways.

    Don’t feel pressured if this is too much for you or anything. The reason I appear rude, arrogant, unimaginative, and presumptuous is because old-school like players such as yourself automatically assume that my request was hostile. Like I said, it’s the impression I’m getting from you – feel free to dispel it any time.

    @Anarkeith Savage Worlds… actually, that is ringing a bell for me now I think about. Is that the one that uses the uses the Burning Wheel system, where the PCs are demigods that travel through different worlds and genres, including settings like Relic, their Fantasy world?

    If that is the one, I must admit, that passed me buy, although I did look into it to see the competition for D-Jumpers, and was rather satisfied while similar, the scope and power level was different that it was hard to justify them as being the same. From the little I saw, it was brutal and high powered with a significantly higher power basis – but I was more concerned with the story content than anything.

  10. Greg MacKenzie
    January 3rd, 2011 at 09:50 | #10

    @Da’ Vane
    Oh dear, what a way to start off the new year. Well, I promised myself I’d try to refrain from explaining myself… however you’ve touched upon something here which seems a bit mystifying to you but is crystal clear to an older generation of players such as myself. Past a certain point as an “author” you don’t really need anything else if you’ve already gone your own way creatively.

    For example, I can’t think of a D&D game which didn’t use house rules of one sort or another. Consider this, it is a natural progression from writing your own adventures to customizing a rule set and/or deriving your own unique set of house rules. Inevitably, who hasn’t thought of writing their own game? If anything this de-centralization of the According to Hoyle approach has been going on a long time and you can see it with the glut of “games” now available. Consider that the only thing a group of GM and players really need agree on is do the rules they are using work for them.

    In this modern era it would be particularly difficult to invent a new RPG, or any rule mechanism which would appear completely new and original. Comparison with previous, and existing RPGs is inevitable, and in some cases highly desired, hence the OSR. I’ve been a fan of Erin’s approach to the RPG for quite a while and with Chimera Basic I find that the rules do what I want. I can play almost any sort of adventure, and the players do not have to re-learn the rules to play them.

    I completely identify with Erin, in trying to turn on my creative powers for 45 minutes a day, creativity now! It can’t always be done. I make no apology for retaining a shelf full of spark plugs for my imagination, many of them quite old. Others are duds that I have divested myself from as they no longer contribute to the focus and clarity of thought which I now require. Some of the “new games” one might wish to see on my reading list are nothing more than a distraction to my own writing and/or creative process for which I have all too limited time.

    Anyway, that’s the view from my candle-lit garret.

  11. Gregory MacKenzie
    January 4th, 2011 at 06:44 | #11

    Hi Erin,

    My RPG bookshelf contains:

    City State of The Invincible Overlord – I made an index of all the Taverns so that players could go on a pub crawl. If you have this game you need the Glory Hole Dwarf Mine to go with it.

    D&D Basic Sets, Holmes/B1 and Moldvay/KOTB. good primers in how to get it right. Good things come in small packages.

    Renegade of Kregan by Alan Burt Akers, yes it’s a novel but if you were looking for another novel in the manner of ERB this one is great. Dray Prescot is a hero not unlike John Carter of Mars.

    Rules Cyclopedia – a seldom dusted off reference.

    Star Wars – Simple interesting system which covers all the things you’d like to do were you to want to have adventures in the Star Wars Universe. The book has a corporate advertisement for a Droid in it. :) I liked the space navigation in this one, ship pursuit, etc.

    Tegel Manor – This title brings out a flood of nostalgic feelings. The maps have a unique symbology which departs from the model set in TSR’s little brown books. What is interesting is that it shows clearly the most feared monster at the time was the Vampire. I revisit this one quite often and it’s a real primer. Consider though that it’s content shows the early D&D game was played in a far less serious way than you’d expect in a modern title.

    TSR’s Lankhmar – has an alternative approach to the D&D magic system and well I’m a big fan of the Mouser… I have the novels as well.

    Tunnels and Trolls – I used to own a vast collection of the Flying Buffalo solitair adventure titles. In retrospect I should have kept them. However I’ve retained an admiration for the book and Ken St. Andre’s writing. Too many dice though if your serious about playing this game.

    TYR Spacequest – A complete SF adventure game in one old fashioned booklet. Probably pretty rare now but it contains rules for world generation and the mathematics for navigation between the stars. The part I liked the most was the ship construction. I developed campaign material for this game in which you start out as a member of the 20 Suns Combine.

    Things I divested:

    Traveller – Dull beyond belief, character’s have a very short life.

    Top Secret – This title didn’t interest me very much due to its game play.

    Gangbusters – A pretty good game which has really good game mechanics in it, so good they can be applied to other genre’s. Sadly I didn’t keep this one.

    Chivalry and Sorcery – Good resource book, even has astrology for characters, but unplayable. I kind of wish I had kept it.


    I do have a couple of boxes of things in the attic which are keepsakes, mostly boardgames of one sort or another which are now seldom played. Of them Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker is the most significant game which can be easily adapted to RPGs if you need a political and strategic system.

  12. January 4th, 2011 at 12:50 | #12

    @Gregory MacKenzie I must confess, I’ve not actually got around to purging mine, although it is due for one, since the majority of my gaming stuff is actually packed up at my mums since I moved. Twice in little over a year, and the material has been packed up for the past three.

    My on-hand gaming collection consists of D&D 3.5 PHB, DMG, MM, and XPH – and only then because these are the rulebooks I’ve referred to for the Legend of Zelda Roleplaying Game for the past four or so years. At the moment, they spend more time doubling as my mouse mat.

    Anything grab your fancy this year, Greg?

  13. January 4th, 2011 at 17:41 | #13

    @Gregory MacKenzie : Lankhmar made it into my collector’s box – the social rating system is a good add, and I agree about the treatment of magic.

    Top Secret was a bit disappointing to me, too, though I think that’s because I was 14 and wanted to fight Goldfinger. Also felt the same about Traveller – I swear I wanted to like it, but it never happened. Looking over the Classic material, I do believe the setting was more attractive than the system.

    You have prompted me to check out Gangbusters and I like the sound of TYR Spacequest (never heard of that before). Also, you’re the second person in as many months to suggest that C&S is worth a read.

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