A couple of comments and emails from all you folks have pushed me to put out my reading list. Lots of folks will tell you their list of great books to read or shows to watch, but I’m going to tell you why I think they’re good and what you can learn from them.
Tarzan - Originally published as a serial, Burroughs can teach you both how to handle small scale (limited people) action as well as pacing and how cliff hangers can really bring the drama to your game.
Allan Quatermain - For those of you not familiar, this is the hero of King Solomon’s Mines. H. Rider Haggard penned about two dozen novels about the character that too many of you only known from Sean Connery’s portrayal in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The actual stories are a fountain of knowledge about how to put action and adventure into a story without needing to result to combat. Oh, there’s a ton of fighting action as well, but the best of it is in the man against nature aspects. And just in case you think Haggard made it all up, understand that he was friends with Fred Burnham. If you haven’t heard of Fred Burnham, you may want to learn about the real man in addition to the fictional one. On a truly crazy note - Quatermain often had to go on side quests in order to accomplish his tasks or get helop along the way, and they made sense!
John Carter - Another of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ heroes. Forget the movie. Probably good advice with any of these. The plots are actually far too formulaic for me, but here Burroughs really shows you how to develop a world that isn’t “normal”. Looking at the various races of Martians and the creatures of the world, this man was truly gifted. These entirely crazy creatures actually seem to make sense in the world he created. You won’t find a better inventor of crazy worlds.
HP Lovecraft - Following up on crazy worlds! HPL wove a world of crazy that was our own. HPL never felt that he really had to follow the rules. First off, I read HPL on a crowded train at 8:00 in the morning (full sunshine), and it still scared the crap out of me! I think he really builds the basis for how I try to look at gods and other super powers in games. They don’t have to follow some set of rules. The worst thing I ever saw was when some jackass started assigning hit points to Cthulhu. One of the few game designers I admire once said while he and I were on a panel discussion together that he was jealous of the novelist also on the panel, because he didn’t have to follow the game rules, like we game designers did. He could have things happen “behind the curtain” that people wouldn’t know the mechanics of - Lovecraft will teach you that too.
Arabian Nights - I have been reading a Richard Burton translation. Honestly, my son had to switch to a different translation/version because of the constant discussions of black slaves having sex with the wives of the Arabs. In any case, you get a completely different culture than most of us are used to in our fantasy. This isn’t your father’s Sinbad movie. You get an enormous number of ideas on missions, as most of the stories were about people who found themselves in strange circumstances, sometimes due to magic, sometimes just due to freakiness. But you also get a lot of cultural references, reminders of what the feasts looked like, weddings, caravans. Honestly, to me this is just a brand new point of view that just brings a wealth of ideas to build on.
Burn Notice - If you’re looking for advice on new missions, the ways that adventurers might actually live/survive, and that type of thing, I think Burn Notice is the only hope. I’m prepping another post about this, but very quickly, if you think about TV especially, there are no shows where the heroes simply fight their way through the bad guys, unless you count pro-wrestling. Everything else is investigative. Assuming you want something a little more violent, Burn Notice has some good ideas. Also - looking only at the first three or four seasons, they do a really good job of running different missions every week while still having a strong arc behind the scenes.
Hawaii 5-0 - If there is another TV show that can work, Hawaii 5-0 sort of works because (as I have complained about before) they are constantly shooting each other and doing incredibly high risk / non-law enforcement things. I mean, they had a pirate treasure episode - that’s got to be worth something!
Castles - The book and the TV show/cartoon by David Macaulay. I first saw this as a kid, and it has stuck with me ever since. Not only do you get a decent understanding, or at least an introduction to one, of feudal culture, but they explain the hows and whys of building a castle. What was the reason for the wall, the murder holes, the portcullis, etc.
Medieval Lives (with Terry Jones) and Worst Jobs (with Tony Robinson) - These aren’t going to help you figure out battles or missions or magic, but if you’re building your cities and your world, these will remind you of a whole bunch of things you forgot (or never knew). I have to admit, I find these incredibly entertaining.
I could give you a huge list of other books and probably some anime, but I think keeping this short actually helps make it of value. Give these a go. They’re nearly all gems that you should have already known about.