9 Ways You Can Use Fiction Books As A Gm Tool

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0062

  1. Why Use Books As A GM Tool?
  2. Use The Book’s Cover As Inspiration
  3. Use The Book’s Maps
  4. The Setting
  5. Villains
  6. The Heroes
  7. Cast Of Minor Characters
  8. The Conflict
  9. Won’t The Players Recognize What I’m Doing?

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Combat Planning Tip
  2. Online Database Tool For Tracking Your Games
  3. Using A Costume To Increase Player Imagination

A Brief Word From Johnn

Referral Contest: Deadline March 3rd

My sponsor, FunUSA.com, has generously supplied me with a couple of gift certificates to use at their online store. A US$30 certificate and a US$20 certificate. So, I thought it would be neat to hold a referral contest so that we have more GMs getting this ezine and sharing their tips with all of us.

I thought that the winners could use their certificates to buy game books, pre-order a Chessex mat or two, or make a group purchase for your whole roleplaying group.

Here is how it will work: for every successful referral you provide (i.e. that person has subscribed), you will receive an entry in the gift certificate draw. On midnight March 3rd, I’ll randomly draw two names and announce the winners in March 5th’s issue.

And, in the spirit of roleplaying, I’ll use dice to generate the random number (i.e. d10, d100, ignoring all rolls above the number of entries). And 15 lead figurines (including a hill giant!) will be the official witnesses for the draw.

You can enter a referral by either sending me a list of people whom you have referred and I’ll compare it with the new subscriber lists for the next two weeks, or you can have your friend mention your name in the subscribe email. I decided not to use a referral form at the Roleplayingtips.com web site, where you would enter people’s names and they would be sent an invitation, because that’s too much like spamming for my taste.

Possibly the easiest thing to do is to forward your issue by email to your friends and then have them forward that to me at [email protected]. Your email address will be in the first forward which I’ll pick out.

(All addresses that you send to me will be deleted from my hard drive on March 4th. And, unless your friends subscribe, they will never receive any correspondence from me. Read my Privacy Policy at the bottom for additional privacy info).


  • Deadline is March 3rd (two weeks from now)
  • Each friend who subscribes gives you one entry to win
  • Forward this issue to your friends and have them forward it all to [email protected]
  • Prizes are a US$30 and US$20 gift certificate at FunUSA.com

Lost Emails

This week a server went down and I lost 8 hours of emails on Thursday. If you emailed me during that time, I’m sorry, I didn’t receive it…

Special Thanks

I’d like to a brief moment and thank these people for sending in some great book tips for this week’s issue:

Have a great week, and thanks for your referrals!

Johnn Four
[email protected]

9 Ways You Can Use Fiction Books As A Gm Tool

Why Use Books As A GM Tool?

I feel fiction books are a fantastic GM resource:

  • There’s a lot of good meat in them to choose from (i.e. Tips #2-8). And you have the option of choosing the whole thing, or just pieces.
  • They can help you prepare for your games faster.
  • Look at reading the book as doing “research”. Just use your research to build a better game.
  • By reading the book, you’ve “experienced” it. A big problem of using published modules is dealing with all the details and learning them. Using a book allows you to draw on all the memories, facts and trivia you picked up while reading it. It gives you a library of knowledge before you even start planning an adventure.
  • You have an end in mind. An exciting finale can make your story memorable–and have your players impatiently looking forward to your next adventure. Just by having a clear picture of how things could turn out, you can consciously and unconsciously steer things during play in that direction.
  • Books can even help prevent you from overly scripting or “railroading” an adventure. Depending on what elements you take from a book, you can draw on your book knowledge of the NPCs, motivations, future encounters, etc. and adapt things better as you play. Reading a book gives you a deeper understanding and longer term view of things for you to draw on.

Use The Book’s Cover As Inspiration

Here are a few ideas on using the book’s cover itself as a GM tool:

  • Scan it and use during play as a player handout or illustration. Use a drawing program to erase the book’s title, price, etc. to preserve the sense-of-disbelief during play.
  • Study the cover closely until it’s firmly in your imagination. Then you can use your mental image of it during play for better descriptions. For example, if a book cover has a great ship design on it, draw on that the next time the PCs use or see one.
  • Use individual elements as Show & Tell during the game. If you pick one or two specific items from a book cover during play, this will not ruin the session’s sense of disbelief and can help everyone visualize something important much better. For example, “the sky looks like this”, “this is what your brother looks like”, “here is the strange design on the weapon you found”.I also use magazine covers (i.e. Dragon and Dungeon) for this purpose.

Use The Book’s Maps

Some books have a map of the setting inside.

These maps are useful:

  • Copy the whole thing if the players get themselves transported to a new world that you haven’t really prepared for.For example, if you use the D&D Planescape setting, which allows PCs to travel to other dimensions and worlds if they have the right magic or can find the right portal, there’s thousands of places the characters could journey to. You can’t have maps ready for every possible destination.Another example: in sci-fi games, PCs with a good ship or FTL method of travel could take themselves to possibly millions or billions of unmapped worlds very quickly. A book’s map could make do in a pinch.
  • A tip in the opposite direction now, maps can help you confine the PCs in your adventure area better. Pull out a few books with maps in them and look at their boundaries. How does the author hem the heroes in?
    • Terrain: mountains, water, desert…
    • Enemies: roving bandits, armies, spies…
    • Magic/Technology: energy barriers, dead magic or wild magic zones, land mines…
    • Danger: monsters, sinkholes, earthquake zone…
    • Special danger: whirlpool, rains of fire, radiation zones…
    • Travel technology and setting size: you can limit how fast people can travel or you can make the setting area very big
    Some authors put up walls of mountains on square maps that exactly fit the page (a pet peeve of mine :), so avoid doing this if you can. Your best bet is to use a combination of the methods above and from other ideas you get out of you own books.

By the way, if you have other ideas to add to the above list on hemming PCs in, let me know: [email protected]. I’ll publish a complete list for your use if enough ideas come in.

The Setting

Authors try hard to make their worlds and settings interesting, different and unusual. Ask yourself:

  • What was cool about this book’s setting?
  • What were the most interesting areas/encounter settings?
  • Were there any specific details that stuck in your mind when reading? i.e. a strange culture, interesting use of technology/magic, special society customs, etc.

Take the best ideas and add them into your games. Or add them to a list you keep somewhere to reference when you get stuck for an idea.

Some things to think about on author’s settings:

  • The nature of the universe: physics, special features (i.e. worm holes, gods do exist, dimensions…)
  • The land: special features, strange places, geography in general, how climate affects things
  • The peoples: cultures, customs, special groups
  • Magic: if it exists, how does it affect people’s daily lives? How is it used?
  • Hook: what single aspect sticks in your mind about the setting?

Patricia C. Wrede has written a great list of worldbuilding questions that you can also use to analyze a book’s setting. I have no idea where her official web page is, but you can find a copy of her questions here: http://www.sfwa.org/writing/worldbuilding1.htm


This is my favorite use of books: villain ideas. Authors take great pains to build brilliant villains. Let them help you build better bad guys for your games:

  • Personality and physical traits
  • Diabolical plans
  • Their actions
  • Motives
  • What they say and how they say it
  • Understand their inner mind
  • Flunkies and underlings

The Heroes

Here is a list of ideas you can get from a book’s heroes:

  • Plot hooks: how did the heroes get involved?
  • Ways to use non-combat skills to propel the story forward
  • Motivations, background and back-story ideas
  • Example family structures
  • Secrets for you to reveal about the PCs during play (“Luke, I am your father.”)
  • Ways to challenge the PCs other than combat (what challenges did the heroes face in the book and how did they overcome them? How did the author make those challenges interesting?)

Cast Of Minor Characters

The book’s minor characters are a ready-made pool of NPCs for your games.You can also use them to get specific ideas for your NPC development:

  • Relationships (with the heroes, villain, other NPCs)
  • Names
  • Personality traits, quirks
  • Physical traits
  • Simple histories and backgrounds
  • Motivations and actions
  • How they used their skills to get ahead in life

The Conflict

What was the main conflict of the story? Knowing this can help you develop instant plots in your campaign if you’re in a jam.And if you have a little preparation time before your game, you can analyze the book’s conflict to help you build a more complex or well-thought-out plot for your story.Also, the exercise of a plot analysis will help develop your own plot-building muscles. You will learn to build better and stronger connections between the various powers that you have in your campaigns.

For example, I have started many stories off with the characters having to deal with bandit activity near a town or village. The plot hook is usually one of these:

  • The characters are hired to deal with the threat
  • The PCs are themselves victims of the bandits
  • A party member has a threatened family member in the area

Boring and cliche you say? Normally, yes. But, I learned after running this type of story for the millionth time that the players always enjoy trying to figure out what I’ve got cooked up for the “bigger picture”:

  • What’s the major conflict that’s playing out behind the scenes?
  • Are the bandits pawns of a higher power? And what is that power using the bandits for?
    • Drive the villagers out of their homes because the area is valuable?
    • Use the bandits to gather supplies and resources to feed an underground army?
    • Halt trade in the area to weaken countries and strain relations?

By reading books and figuring out their conflicts, you can build up a good library of plots for your games and allow you to make old, boring ideas into something more…

To figure out the conflict of a book, try these questions:

  • What was the villain trying to accomplish? What was his/her plan of action? Why did the heroes try to stop him/her? What did the heroes try to do to stop the villain?
  • What were the goals of the major powers (i.e. gods, kingdoms, countries, races, corporations…)? What actions did they take to achieve their aims? What plots did they hatch?
  • How did the heroes get involved in the struggle? What were their goals? What actions did they take?

Won’t The Players Recognize What I’m Doing?

The players may guess what the source of your inspiration is. If that happens, you may have to change your plans a little to keep them guessing. Or, the players may not care and are great at separating in-character knowledge from out- of-character knowledge.It could also be possible that your players would really enjoy experiencing a book through roleplaying…especially if you’ve found out their favorite books and are intentionally using them in your story.

That being said, here are some prevention ideas:

  • Mix and match your book ideas: take the best ideas from two or more books and combine them into one great story.
  • Stick with the less obvious/cliche/recognizable ideas. Even mixing things up, like turning a mighty barbarian warrior into a bandit who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, gives too much away. But what about exploring the idea of a barbarian king thrust into a sophisticated court? Or a bandit whose love interest has been captured by an evil baron and is being forced into committing evil acts against local villagers?
  • Keep the books you read a secret. Try to keep up with what books your players are currently reading. And check out your players’ book collections–with their permission. Also, ask your players what their top 10 books of all time would be.
  • Use books from different genres (i.e. use James Bond books to inspire your fantasy games).
  • Change all names.
  • Look for uncommon books at libraries and used book stores. For example, Ivanhoe is a famous book by Sir Walter Scott and your players may be familiar with it. But that author has written other, less read books, which are just as full of great characters and ideas.
  • Also, look for foreign books. Here in Canada, Canadian and US authors fill the shelves. But I’ve found many UK books which are excellent and which my players probably haven’t read because of the novels’ limited distribution here.
  • You can always try to be the first on the block to get, read and use a new book as well.

I know there’s more than one author in our Roleplaying Tips Weekly community here. If you have a book published, which other readers/GMs can find in stores, would you mind writing in with some information? Preferably a web site URL that I can point readers to for price, synopsis, ISBN info (can be your site, Chapters.ca, Amazon, etc.).

I’ll publish a list next week for everyone to review and use as recommended reading (albeit recommended by the authors ;). I think it would be great for us to support our fellow list member authors.

Send your book info to: [email protected].

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Combat Planning Tip

From M. J. Young


Regarding the tip of playing out encounters in advance [ RPT#39 – 6 More Ways To Use E-Mail To Help Your Game ], I’ve got a different approach.

I keep a current record of what I call character ADR’s and Surv’s. ADR’s (Average Damage per Round) is the amount of damage a character will do in combat against a typical opponent, given chance to hit, number of attacks, and probable damage; Surv is a survival rating that considers armor class and hit points. Using a simple computer program, I can quickly and easily get the same numbers on any opponent, so I know how tough it is both in terms of the damage in inflicts and the damage it withstands.

I explain this in more detail, and offer a BASIC program I use for it, at http://members.aol.com/MarkJYoung/adr.html; it’s written for AD&D 1st ed., but I’ve adapted the principles to a variety of other very different games. Using the basic principles there, you could probably pull together a program which would simulate the most likely outcome for any opponents in your favorite game system.

Graphic of section divider

Online Database Tool For Tracking Your Games

From Ian

You have a great site and I’m impressed with the resources you are able to pull together. Here’s another one: http://www.quickbase.com. I’m not affiliated with the company (Intuit)–I just tried out their product because I had an idea of how it could work for roleplayers.

Quickbase allows you to create a database on the web, and then grant access of various levels to various individuals, or to the entire Internet. Actually, your first three databases are free, then there is a price structure which I haven’t checked out yet. It’s fairly customizable, easy to learn and use, and for the purposes of the game I’m playing in, makes a lot of sense.

The minor problem I identified recently is that even though [campaign] notes are taken, it doesn’t mean we have time to read them, except for a review of last session’s notes at the beginning of the current session. What that means is that certain side-plots or, especially, non-player- characters, get lost in the shuffle.

Here’s where my idea for using this web database comes in. I went back through the notes and created a database of all the characters in our game that we had names for (or, in a couple of cases, no name but still a big influence) and kept track of a few main categories of information (where met, base of operations, connections to other characters, etc.).

I couldn’t believe some of the people we had forgotten about! And now, they can come back (of course, this could be bad in some cases, but overall it’s a plus!), because the game master can look at it at his leisure on the web. My group is a very cooperative one in terms of helping each other keep track of the huge amount of information we have about the game world, so everyone has access to the database and can add or modify records at will.

Some game masters would probably want to limit their players to viewing records only, or somewhere in between. It’s easy to set up those limits.

All you have to do to use Quickbase is go to their site (http://www.quickbase.com), register, and start creating your database.

Graphic of section divider

Using A Costume To Increase Player Imagination

From Bernhard B.

I really liked the article I read on the page about fleshing out NPCs [ RPT#37 – 5 Ways To Make Your Npcs Better & More Memorable ]. The idea of handing out pictures of the NPCs you’re playing at the moment is really good, but after all, this is a Fantasy Game. So you could expect the players to use their imaginations a little.

What I do is: we play in a shed in our garden, usually with candle light. I wear a robe with a large hood and a mask that covers the upper half of my face. The players don’t see their buddy when they look at me, but they see a figure in a robe, wearing a mask…

Then I tell them, in 3rd person style, who the NPC is they encounter and how he looks, before I jump into the role. The mask and the robe can change into the face and the clothing of the NPC in the players’ imagination and it is a fantasy game, isn’t it?