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An RPG Library

March 27, 2012

RPG’s are one of my passions, although I profess I don’t play anymore. It’s hard to find a group that matches my age that needs another player. Mostly, I end up on MORG’s or digging up Diablo 2 (or Angband) to get my RPG kicks these days.

I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a good ‘basic’ RPG library, because lately I’ve been gorging on sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks, specifically vintage early stuff…Howard, Burroughs, Simak, van Vogt, etc. This stuff really gets you in the mood to hack your way through a dungeon.

There are tons of blog posts that list off hundreds of links to pages with even more links. With all the OGL-licensed stuff out there, in conjunction to the dozens of rule-sets (that’s just the rule-sets still being published), there is enough material to play for the rest of your natural life. I don’t need to list out another link-farm here.

In this post, I wanted to cover the most basic list of things you ought to look into. Stuff that will serve you irregardless of rules, maybe even irregardless of setting or genre. This list ought to help you generate ideas.

The basics

Before anything else, you should have the following.

The rules of the game

Get only the basic rules for the game. For D&D (3-3.5) and Pathfinder, this is the Player’s and Dungeon Master’s Guide, plus the Monster Manual. A lot of other games only have one rulebook.

If you’re just starting out, stick with just these books, and only this game system for awhile. There is a temptation to keep buying and playing different rules systems. Not only is this really expensive, but you won’t master the game. Stick with one system until you know it well enough to know it isn’t for you. Of course, if the first night with the system is the worst night of your life, worse than when your spouse left you, then I’ll concede you may want to switch games right there.

Don’t bother with all the ‘expansion packs’ and rules supplements. If the game is decent, the basic manual will have all the stuff you need to play for a long time. In most games, it will take months if not years for your players to acquire all the skills, spells, guns, swords, trinkets and gee-gaws that are in the basic manuals.

Some folks love the adventure modules that are published, others just wing it. Again, if you’re just learning, buy a few ‘canned’ adventures to start out with.

A ton of dice

contents of my dice bag

If you’re the GM, you should have a bag filled with all kinds of dice. This is for folk who drop by unannounced, impromtu sessions, and other situations. Even if you’re not, have some extra dice. You never know when you’ll have to roll initiative.

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places

Hands down, this is the one reference work that should be on everyone’s bookshelf. Written by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, it covers thousands of imaginary places from classical mythology, right up to modern-day fantasy and sci-fi. The authors decided only to cover places that fit into our planet, but even so, the list and breadth of material is astonishing. You won’t read this cover to cover, but browsing through it will generate countless ideas for adventures, settings, and stories.

The Book of Imaginary Beings

Written by Jorge Luis Borges, this isn’t as expansive or extensive as Manguel’s work on fantasy geography, but it is the best bestiary you can get that wasn’t written for a specific gaming system.

Just beyond the basics

If you’ve been playing for awhile, and want to improve the quality of the campaign world you’re building, here are a few resources to help you along with it.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

Orson Scott Card won a Hugo for this book, and he deserved it. Whether you’re running an extended campaign, or a bunch of fly-by-night mini-adventures, a gaming session is essentially of group of folk telling a story. A story that happens to have goblins, vampires, and other monsters, but it’s still a story. Card dissects world-building, rules of magic and future technology, and how to create convincing characters and plots with a keen eye towards telling a story. This book will elevate your game.

Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide

This was an AD&D 2nd Edition rules supplement, that was written specifically to help GM’s with the meta-game. It covers how to handle difficult players, world-building, keeping the game session running smoothly, creating memorable NPC’s, and life/game balance. I’ve found it to be invaluable, even if there are no specific RPG ‘rules’ in the book.


Inspiration for adventures, campaign worlds, characters and NPC’s can come from anywhere. I don’t want to suggest a ‘must-have’ list of books that you absolutely have to read, or you’ll lose your nerd cred, but point you in the direction of series that contain overviews of classic and newer fantasy, horror, and sci-fi that can lead you onto that next great table-top adventure. Some of these are published by game publishers, and if you’re new to the RPG world, you may not have heard of them.

Everybody has different tastes, and their favorite genres. These won’t be for everyone, so consider everything from here on out optional, but highly recommended.

Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series and Newcastle’s Forgotten Fantasy Library

Both of these series, from the 70’s, are long out of print, but contain a wealth of material. The Ballantine series is by far the larger of the two, numbering out to almost 70 books. Both books focus on classic ‘high’ fantasy and horror, and mostly avoid the pulps.

Paizo’s Planet Stories Series

Planet Stories is pulp gold, reprinting a wealth of material from the golden age of those magazines. Robert Howard, C. L. Moore, Michael Moorcock and many more are represented in this series. It is sold on a subscription basis, where you can sign up to be billed as they add more books to the series.

Chaosium’s Fiction and Call of Cthulhu series

Chaosium publishes the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and many titles in their fiction line are horror and Lovecraft-related.

The multiverse

And finally, if you can’t decide what type of world you’d like to kill monsters and rescue helpless NPC’s in, below is a good shopping list of fictional settings to choose from.

Science Fiction Encyclopedia

John Clute has been writing this for many years, and it has recently moved online exclusively, for free. You can still score the last print edition, as well.

The big lists

Wikipedia also has a list of RPG campaign settings and fictional universes to peruse.

Hey, have fun.

Remember, the table-top RPG experience is simply people sitting around and telling a good yarn. You don’t need rules. You don’t even need to read fantasy, sci-fi or horror. You don’t even need to be a nerd. You can play it any way you like.

Get out there and have an adventure.

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