Yesterday I came across a post on Facebook. The post went like this:
Rules: In a text post, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you.
I rattled off ten books, from the top of my head, and didn’t give it much more thought. Until this morning in the shower. Why did these books, out of everything I’ve read, stand out to me? I made a deliberate effort to include five stories and five role-playing games, since RPGs have always had a big impact on me, but other than that choice what motivated these selections? Today, I want to talk about ten random books and what they mean to me. We’ll start with book books and then move on to RPG books.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I first read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was sixteen. Which means I was at an impressionable age and the things we experience around that time have better odds of sticking with us. I’d theorize it’s something about the hormones and feeling intensity but that’s baseless speculation. Timing aside, the one thing that really sticks with me isn’t really the book itself, or the story, but that the franchise was. A radio drama turned book, turned video game, turned TV series, turned comic book, turned movie, and even a towel somewhere along the line. Except it wasn’t a carbon copy every time.
Adams had a mind to adapt his story to the medium. There are sometimes subtle changes and sometimes radical departures, but it’s the same story over and over. It’s a lesson that I wish more creators would pay attention too. Slavish devotion to the original medium isn’t going to help your story when moved to a new field. More than anything it’s the ability to retell and adapt the story that sticks with me.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I read this book in a single day. I can’t say that about any other book I’ve ever read. To say I found myself gripped by the tale of two star-crossed teenagers would be an understatement. John Green tapped into something with this book that really spoke to me. Granted, I was twenty-nine years old when and I’ve never had a medical issue even remotely close to cancer but to me that wasn’t what the story was really about anyway.
There are a lot of elements in the Fault in Our Stars that I really loved but the one that sticks out the most was the situation around Peter van Houten. I’ve been lucky enough to not only meet some of my literary heroes but actually get time to speak with them and, in one case, become friends with them. I’ve never had to suffer with disillusionment of a hero but I’ve always feared it. What Hazel and Gus go through with Mr. van Houten was crushing and if I think the movie got one thing wrong it was that Willem Dafoe came across too understandable.
Snow Crash by Neil Neal Stephenson
I think I read Snow Crash right around the time I read Neuromancer and started getting into the idea of Cyberpunk. I will say this up front, half of this book drove me nuts. There was so much time discussing philosophy and nam-shubs without actually accomplishing anything. But when things were happening and the story was moving it really got me into it.
For me Snow Crash will always be about the characters. From the humorously named Hiro Protagonist, to the rebellious street punk Y.T., to the absolute badassary of Raven there were just so many stylish characters. Everyone in the book came across larger than life and really helped me understand the Style Over Substance idea in cyberpunk. Not to say the character’s didn’t have substance, but that’s not what you remember about them.
Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
I knew I’d have to put one of the Dresden Files books on my list just because I’m a huge fan of the series. Surprisingly, it didn’t take me long to pick which book. Granted, I liked the story in Death Masks more and the emotional impact in Small Favor was way bigger but the way Michael Carpenter shows up in Grave Peril will always stand out to me as the way to introduce a character. Why? Because he simply shows up.
Butcher treats Carpenter as a fact already present in Harry’s life. Like he would be. There is no chance meeting or awkward getting-to-know-you phase. There is just this guy, Michael, that Harry knows and has worked with before. Oh, and by the way, he wields a sword forged from a nail used in during Christ’s crucifixion. no biggie. That’s the brilliant part of it. We don’t need chapters devoted to bringing the character in, he’s already in and we get to know him on the job.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman in general, in fact he’s part of the only celebrity couple I’ve ever cared about, but I’m not terribly versed in his work. I’ve read, and enjoyed, a handful of his novels and stories but there is something magical about American Gods. I think part of its attraction for me is because of my love for mythology and folklore. Taking iconic mythological characters and re-imagining them in the modern world was so new to me that it really grabbed my attention. Something Fables would do again years later.
The part that really stands out to me now is the central conflict between the Old Gods and the New Gods. It really feels like a metaphor for growing up. Everyone knows what its like to have the things you know and love grow old and be replaced with newer things.
Wraith: The Oblivion by White Wolf Publishing
I’ve always been a big World of Darkness fan. Vampire: The Masquerade was the first game I’d ever played that put more emphasis on the characters than the combat and while I’ve been a through and through White Wolf junky since I was eighteen it was only Wraith the Oblivion that always held a special spot in my heart. To date it is the only White Wolf line that I want to own ever book in. And I’m so close to my goal, missing only Dark Reflections: Specters. (Thanks to Eddy Webb several years ago I got a PDF copy of it, but I’m talking physical books.)
I’ve always been a big fan of ghosts and ghost stories but there is more than that to Wraith that drew me in. I love morality tales and Wraith has morality built into the system. The Shadow is literally the dark voice in the back of your mind urging you to slaughter the younglings. It was the first game I’d ever played where I handed part of my character over to another player. A mechanic I love to this day.
Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker
Purchase: Night Sky Games
Dogs in the Vineyard changed everything for me. Before I played Dogs gaming was very traditional; roll for success or failure, better stats means better character, level progression for the sake of progression, etc. When I first played Dogs I the idea of being able to create my own Traits floored me. The idea of creating gear that I wanted instead of striving for that brass ring really spoke to me.
In many ways Dogs opened my eyes to a style of contemporary gaming that I’d been longing for. It came at a time where I was already feeling burned out on the medium and revitalized my love for the hobby. It was also the first game that told a specific story, before that every game I’d played would simulate settings but not a genre. Dogs really set the tone for the last five years of my gaming life.
Houses of the Blooded by John Wick
Purchase: John Wick Presents
Lets start with the obvious, I consider John a good friend now but long before that he was the “Guy Who Wrote Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea”, some of my favorite games when I was younger. When I was nineteen it was all about White Wolf and John Wick for me. When Houses of the Blooded came out, I snatched it up and was so taken with it I got the cover art tattooed on my body.
Houses introduced me to the idea of complete and total narrative control. It was the first real collaborative role-playing game I’d experienced. I’ve seen Houses criticized for spending the too much time describing its world, not a complaint that I have but one I understand. In my opinion though it doesn’t get enough credit for the time it spends giving advice. I have a lot more I could say about Houses and maybe one day I’ll post more about it. One day when John is closer to putting out Houses Revised.
Smallville by Margaret-Weis Productions
Story time. I hated Cortex games. Serenity wasn’t bad, but it was very traditional. Battlestar Galactica was just Serenity re-skinned and didn’t capture any of the themes from the show. Supernatural was a slap in the face to fans of the show. It was Serenity re-skinned, again, and didn’t even pay good homage to the series. So when they put out Smallville, a game for a show I didn’t even like, I never bothered with it. Then comes along Cam Banks. I won’t recount the story here, again maybe in another future post, but lets just say Cam managed to turn a Cortex hater into a Cortex+ supporter.
Smallville emulates teenage television drama better than any game I’ve ever played. The core mechanic doesn’t ask you if you want to win or lose, but how invested in the fight you are. You don’t have abilities based on physical characteristics (Like Strength or Charisma) but instead about the things your character values (Love, Power, Justice). The game actually encourages having the antagonist be a player. I could write pages about how much I love Smallville but for now I’ll leave it at this. Smallville tells a genre story. It’s worthless if you don’t want to tell that kind of story but if TV Drama is what you want, you won’t find better.
Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman
Purchase: Magpie Games
Every RPG on this list taught me something new about the hobby. Wraith taught me that handing over part of my character is fun. Dogs taught me that creating my world is fun. Houses taught me that when narrative control is given to the players its fun. Smallville taught me that games which emulate a specific genre are fun. All of these other games introduced me to something I’d never seen before. Our Last Best Hope taught me that I was dead wrong about one of my core assumptions; A roleplaying game needs a Game Master.
I was skeptical about the idea of GM-less role-playing before I tried Our Last Best Hope. I assumed it would be little more than pass-the-stick storytelling. There isn’t anything wrong with that but when I play RPGs I wand Role-Playing and a Game. Two elements, working together, to tell a story. Sure, I saw hour narrative collaboration would work in Houses but at the end of the day you still needed someone to Captain that ship. Our Last Best Hope is brilliant for devising a way to create a RPG that is the players vs. the game without the game being another person.