Anyone whose been playing D&D long enough has probably read the schizophrenic mix of authors that make up the core influence of Dungeons & Dragons: Tolkien, Leiber, Moorcock, and Howard. This is the first of a reoccurring feature where I recommend works of fiction that might inspire some good gaming. This time around we’ll look at some euro-medieval fantasy novels for gamers.
1. The Black Company by Glen Cook
The Black Company does a number of things that can give a fantasy campaign a boost. First, it takes an epic LOTR-esque conflict and brings it down to the ground level, something a lot of DMs attempt, by focusing a bunch of mercenaries in the service of the evil overlady. Second, it humanizes the grunts of the forces of darkness, which can add some depth to a campaign. Third, the feuding factions among The Lady’s lieutenants gives a nice example of how to portray an evil organization where each member has its own agenda.
2. The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.
Here we have a spin on the standard fantasy campaign. We see that the world-saving Macguffin, long rumoured to lay in far off lands beyond many dangers, is fact hidden somewhere handy and that using it is far more dangerous than the enemy forces arrayed against the forces of good. It gives a much more sinister take on the wizard mentor figure (ie. Merlin, Elminster, Gandalf), and a deeper looking at the hardened barbarian warrior of the frozen northlands cliche. Throw all that on top of some great characterization and there’s plenty there for a gamer to work with.
3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind is more typical of the genre than the rest of this list. The novel is the first part of the memoirs of the world’s greatest wizard/swordsman/bard, starting with the death of parents and the hands of a demon lord’s minions through to his trials at wizarding university. This teaches the gamer that even the most cliche and Sue-ish of characters can be worthwhile and entertaining.
4. Furies of the Calderon by Jim Butcher
Butcher manages to do a great job of juggling action and intrigue with the pacing a game master should envy. Mix in some an interesting mix of races (ie NOT the standard elves-that-are-better-than-you and the universally Scottish dwarf) in a setting that allows a Roman Legion to square off against the Zerg. Plus the magic system that mixes The Last Airbender with Pokémon gives it a flavour quite unlike the norm.
5. The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
Another series that is a little a-typical in that the ragtag band of heroes out to overthrow the evil empire are in fact a team of con artists. The series gives a great example of having a team with specific limited talents complementing each other's skills without the scenario writing feeling forced (like those episodes of the Super Friends that exist only to show that Aquaman was a useful member of the team). The plot has a just the right amount of twists and turns, plus it shows how you can pull of the 'nice job breaking it, hero' twist three times in one storyline. The series also features another well thought out magic system that ends up making the characters feel more like superheroes than wizards.
6. Lies of Locke Lamora By Scott Lynch
Another team of con men doing what con men do, robbing everyone they can blind (something your PCs probably want to do anyway). It a nice change of pace from the normal epic quests of fantasy, the plot keeps the characters in one location letting it grow and develop as much as the cast. The A plot of the con and the B plot of the violent confrontation between the criminal elements of the city acts a breath of fresh air in the genre and a good GM should try and do more with his plots than force-march his PCs across the continent in the pursuit of the Macguffin of evil overload defeating +4.
There’s a good start to shelf, I believe. Expect more articles in this vein for other genres of fiction and other media. I may even revisit fantasy novels again later after I’ve done so more reading. Feel free to add to the list on forums.