Monday, January 27, 2014

What I've Been Reading

Long-time readers of the blog know that I periodically write about things I've been reading, mainly with an eye toward the premise of "is there anything useful in this book that you can adapt for your table-top role-playing games." That's one of the reasons why I write my "New Comics Wednesday" posts - every single one of those reviews has a section at the bottom indicating what kinds of things you can pull out of the comic to use in your RPGs. It's also why I started my "Inspirations" series of posts, as I think sometimes as a community we can get a little too myopic and focus too much on published game materials or genre fiction for inspiration, whereas I think the best ideas actually come from non-fiction historical texts, non-genre fiction, and yes, comic books.

With that said, here's a look at a couple of books I've been reading over the past few months, with some ideas of things you can steal for your games.

The Encyclopedia of Christmas
I wrote recently about how much I really like Christmas, and I have a very large selection of Christmas-themed books. They're about roughly split equally between Christmas fiction (stuff like The Autobiography of Santa Claus, which is a really neat and fun book), and non-fiction about the history of the holiday and how and why we celebrate it the way that we do. I'm a huge fan of wanting to know why I'm doing something before I do it, which is one reason why certain rituals (usually religious) tend to be a bit off-putting to me. I recall going to a church once with a girlfriend and there were a lot of very elaborate rituals going on involving a lot of standing up, sitting down, and making various hand gestures, some of which I'd seen before, but one particular one was new to me. I remember asking her, "Why are you doing that? What does it mean?" and the response was, "This is what we do when reading a verse from that particular book." And I said, "Yes, but what does it mean? What's the background behind what you're doing? What does it symbolize?" I never got an answer, because the people in this church community had been doing that for so long, they'd never thought to ask what those gestures meant. It was simply rote.

In any case, if I'm going to put up a Christmas tree, hang mistletoe, tell my daughter to hang up her stocking, I want to know where those customs come from. This book is a great overview of many of these customs. As an Encyclopedia, it doesn't go into a lot of depth on any particular subject, but rather gives you a basic background and also provides sources where you can go investigate deeper into anything that grabs your fancy. It also covers a wide range of topics, everything from specific Christmas songs, movies, foods, decorations, related festivals, and how Christmas traditions are celebrated in other countries (including who their gift-bringers are, if it's not Santa Claus, how they celebrate, etc.).

It's these last bits that provide fascinating research for tabletop role-playing games, particularly of the fantasy variety. Most fantasy games come with a ubiquitous pantheon of gods, but aside from naming the gods and listing their spheres of influence (Bob is the god of windows and pools), it's often easy to overlook them in everyday play. We often only think about them when playing a cleric character or when our characters need healing and we seek out a local temple.

I've written about incorporating feast days and festivals into my own home-brew campaign setting, the World of Samoth, before. This book provides tons of ideas that you can steal for your games, especially when reading about how Christmas is celebrated in, for example, Poland or Guatemala or the Philippines. It's very easy to simply change the name of the holiday to fit your own campaign world, but keep all of the related trappings mentioned in this book. It'll give you some instant ideas to make a particular holiday or festival "come to life" and you can use that as a springboard to start coming up with your own ideas. I often maintain that historical human culture is much more creative that much of the standard fantasy fare we see these days, and I'm a huge proponent of incorporating real history into my games to help make it easier for the players to immerse themselves in the setting.

And while you're at it, you may learn a thing or two about some of the Christmas traditions you've been keeping and where they come from.

Beer in America: The Early Years 1587-1840
This book was a Christmas gift from my friend Loren and I jumped at the chance to read it immediately, as it covers two of my favorite topics: beer and history.

In this book, we find out exactly how important beer was to the early American settlers; how ships from the old world had to make sure they had enough beer on board for every man, woman, and child; how crews would mutiny if the beer began to run out; and how in every early town in America, after the settlers disembarked, one of the very first structures they built was a brew house and pub.

As modern role-playing gamers, the tavern has become so tied to the game, particularly as the starting location for the first adventure, that we often forget why it's there in the first place. In the 1600s and earlier, people were nearly afraid of drinking water, as most water they drank was stagnant and disease-ridden. They didn't know how or why, but what they did know was that beer did not make them sick. Back then, they didn't understand that it was the boiling of the water as part of the beer-making process that killed most of the disease-causing germs and bacteria. All they knew was that if you drank water, you'd get sick, but if you drank beer, you wouldn't. Hence, there was a great need to build a brew-house for every town, where a master brewer could make a drink that could keep the local populace from being sick all the time. Beer wasn't just a nice way to relax after the end of a long day or a way to celebrate with your mates. It was a necessity.

This book tells the process of how the early Americans slowly began brewing their own beer versus importing it from the Old World, and how the need to make beer shaped the early colonies and everything that came after. As an example, the very first paved street in New York is Stone Street (clever name). Before that, however, it was called Brewers Street and was the site of (you guessed it), a brewery. There was so much overflow water pouring out of the brewery (as part of the beer-making process) that Brewers Street was a quagmire of mud all the time. So, they paved it to help channel the runoff water and keep the street from sinking. Think about just how important beer was to these early colonists, that it caused them to embark on pathway to paving their city streets.

Now think about the role that beer, or taverns for that matter, play in your fantasy games. If you're like I was when I began role-playing, I pictured the standard D&D tavern as essentially a fantasy version of Mos Eisley Cantina, with elves and dwarves standing in for aliens. Later on, I "grew up" and pictured them as akin to the Prancing Pony from Fellowship of the Ring. However, in all that time, I pretty much always just assumed that people were there simply to have a good time, and that brewers made beer because people wanted to "feel happy." The real story is much more complex than that, and having a little bit of knowledge like this can go a long way toward helping the taverns in your game be more than just a place where the adventurers happen to meet before trudging off to the dungeon.

These are just two of the books I've recently read. In addition to these and my continually growing list of monthly comics, trade paperbacks, and graphic novels, I read a really fun book my daughter (and wife) gave me for Christmas, Super Graphic (wherein the author makes clever use of really interesting infographics to talk about his comic collection as well as pop culture in general), and Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History, a gift from my sister for Christmas, about one of my favorite musicians. I'm also continuing to make my way through the 13th Age RPG Rulebook, about which I'll have a review soon.

Hanging: Home office (laptop with brand new 27" second monitor!)
Drinking: black coffee
Listening: "Ceremony" by the Cult

1 comment:

  1. Nice, especially the Beer book. I really like the idea of bringing historical realism into my gaming tavern. The idea of a flooded street/swamp around the brewery is kind of interesting, too. I wonder if it wouldn't make an interesting adventure site.

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