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…
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 (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 (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…).
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.
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.