Jeffrey Webb’s 7 of the Best: Inspiration For Writing Great Adventures and Campaigns
Written by Jeffrey Webb
My Seven of the Best is geared toward the things that bring inspiration for the writing of great adventures and campaigns for my players. The chosen 7 for this list are indicative of my favorite genres of game. Sometimes I count “the best” as that media which inspires me to write, rather than that which will end up winning awards or being critically praised. If something lends inspiration for something I’d like to share with my friends, it ends up on my “best” list regardless of academic merit.
2XS, by Nigel Findley
The late, great Nigel Findley has written some of the best RPG material I’ve read- and his Shadowrun novels 2XS and House of the Sun are great examples of his abilities with fiction. 2XS follows the misadventures of private detective Dirk Montgomery, a man in the Shadowrun universe bereft of cyberware or magic. He’s a regular joe in the pattern of film noir detectives who exists in a world that is familiar, yet somewhat alien. Dirk serves as a point-of-view character as he moves within the magically awakened and technologically complex dark future of the setting. The tale blends the tropes of hard-boiled detective stories with the science-fantasy cyberpunk of Shadowrun. 2XS even touches on some of the more interesting plotlines from the games. The reader is taken along for a ride that is an excellent introduction to the Shadowrun world. As such, the three-volume set originally intended to bring readers into the setting is hardly a necessity.
Robert Charrette did a bang-up job with the Secrets of Power trilogy, but 2XS is a wonderful jumping-on point. 2XS is relatable and a much shorter read. Plus, it has the virtue of working on more than one genre level. It’s enjoyable even to folks who are not fans of the tabletop game but might like detective fiction. There is inspiration to be found here.
The Final Reflection, by John M. Ford
Remember when Klingons were analogs for Cold War Soviets? Before they were the biker-Vikings we knew from 1979-2017? Back in the 80s John M. Ford took all we knew of the Klingons from the original Star Trek, the Animated Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He then turned Klingons into a fully-realized culture. This culture was quite different from the Klingons as they shaped up in The Next Generation. Some of his influence has occasionally made it on screen however. The Final Reflection is a novel entirely concerned with the Klingons. Aside from bookend pieces, the book takes place entirely within the Klingon realms. The picture painted of the Klingon culture in this book is more interesting than that of a society of brute force warriors. Ford’s Klingons are thoughtful, calculating and (at times) treacherous. They see value in things which would be considered dishonorable by the Klingons seen on screen. Certain Klingons still engaged in said acts though. The Duras sisters come to mind.
Ford’s Klingons see the world through the Great Game, where every action is a move or countermove on the road to victory. They believe that the thing/person/empire which is not growing is dying. When they die, their service continues in the Black Fleet (a Fordism mentioned in the new Star Trek: Discovery series.) I kinda squeed when that happened.
To this day, when I run Star Trek in an era that is pre-TNG, I treat my Klingons as John M. Ford Klingons rather than biker Vikings. As much as I love General Martok and the Klingons of the DS9 era, Ford’s Klingons ring more true as a society that could actually endure. Check out the book. Find inspiration.
Also – Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet gets a mention here as possibly the most ridiculously funny Star Trek novel ever written.
Max Headroom – The 1987 TV series.
So, I love the Cyberpunk genre. With the release of Blade Runner 2049, everyone recalls how the original Blade Runner defined the look of the genre. Well, that’s true, and Blade Runner did predate Max Headroom by half a decade. While the former was the groundbreaker in the cinema, the latter brought cyberpunk dystopia into our living rooms on a weekly basis. Matt Frewer starred as reporter Edison Carter, coming to you “live and direct” on Network XXIII, asking the hard questions. A specialty of his was sticking his nose where it wasn’t particularly wanted by the corporate masters of the day. Even his own network. Carter is injured, and a digital copy of his mind is created. This enables his Network XXIII masters to determine if he knows too much. They’d hate to kill a valuable and popular asset if they don’t have to. The result is M-m-m-max Headroom, a glitching, wisecracking “computer generated” Carter (actually Frewer in makeup.) Lots of folks in the 80s took Max for the real CGI deal. We don’t even think about it today, but in the 80s such a thing was still years off.
Many of the elements of what I would weave into the tales told at my game table were here. Theora as a Decker/Netrunner, guiding Edison around using blueprints and controlling elevators and security doors. Edison as a Media, risking it all to get the word out on the street. Blank Reg as a video pirate. Body banks dealing in organs. Video screens EVERYWHERE. All-powerful corporations. And that’s just the first episode. The rest of the series had genetic engineering, addictive fast food, bloodsports and more. This television series dripped was dripping wet with Cyberpunk, and it formed my view of the genre. Plus, W. Morgan Sheppard.
The Real Ghostbusters
Yes. The cartoon. Why? Well, for starters the first two seasons were overseen and partially written by J. Michael Straczynski. This writer went on to create Babylon 5. He also had a hand in Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, as well as Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. I could cite any of these JMS shows as a “best” for inspiration, but RGB stands out.
During his involvement in the earlier seasons of the show, JMS brought both humor and darkness to the show. It was more than a little scary at times, but in still maintained that Ghostbusters wit. Some of the plots verged on the ridiculous (especially in later seasons.) There was something still here though, that any GM could easily use in any game with supernatural elements. I used episodes of RGB as inspiration for Chill, Beyond the Supernatural, and of course Call of Cthlulhu. The Real Ghostbusters/ even had an episode that discussed the Cthulhu mythos – The Collect Call of Cathulhu. Beneath the comic relief, there were plot hooks that would be GREAT for supernatural games. I highly recommend pulling up Netflix (as long as it has RGB anyway) and sampling the following episodes:
Citizen Ghost – This episode features Dr. Venkman being interviewed by a news reporter and flashes back to the immediate fallout of the battle with Gozer. It explains why the Ghostbusters got their different uniforms and why Slimer lives in the firehouse. It also manages to be EXTREMELY creepy when the old uniforms… well… you’ll just have to see.
Mrs. Rogers Neighborhood – In this episode, an old lady hires the Ghostbusters to investigate her haunted house. The trick is that the old lady is actually an ancient demon looking to take out the Ghostbusters. This is a plot I stole shamelessly for my own tabletop game. It was a great bait-n-switch when my players had gotten into the “rut” of supernatural investigation and were expecting just another job. Also, my 80s nostalgia brain tells me if Mrs. Rogers was a live-action character in the 80s, she would have been played by Nedra Volz.
When Halloween Was Forever – The origins of Halloween and a few Pagan traditions are references in this awesome episode that includes my favorite line spoken by Maurice LaMarche as Egon Spengler. “Zone Dweebies?”
Take Two – The Ghostbusters travel to Hollywood to consult on the 1984 feature film all about themselves. “Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis? What’s that, a law firm?”
I could seriously go on and on about the awesome episodes in this show. Sadly, the premiere episode (Ghosts R Us,) is not one of my favorites, but is by default the first episode most people see. Anyway, want a sorta spooky cartoon you can watch with your kids (and mine ideas from, to throw at your players?) For inspiration, we now return to The Real Ghostbusters.
Dream Park, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
LARP before LARP was cool. Niven and Barnes posit a huge amusement park where the Gaming Domes present huge canvases upon which professional Game Masters set up massive LARP games. Actors and holograms portray NPCs. Sets are built. The underground of the domes are a Disney-like network of tunnels and workshops. Everything before the end of the adventuring day is recorded. If the party is successful and entertaining, the recordings of the adventure are edited and sold as feature films. Then, of course, there’s the home game rights…
Dream Park shows how LARP can evolve into an industry. Players can eventually start making money if they become popular with crowds and ascend to the role of Loremaster; sort of a party leader. Into this wondrous paradigm of professionally produced live-action games comes a mystery.
A park security guard is murdered and an item is stolen. The only logical perpetrator has to be one of the gamers in the major game about to launch. Can the park’s chief of security, not a gamer himself, walk the tightrope of pretending to be a gamer while investigating the crime? Can he do it without ruining the millions of dollars invested in the creation of the game?
This book is chock full of references to 70s and very early 80s gamer culture. Filk songs make an appearance. Tabletop games are discussed. Classes, XP, hit points are in the book as well; all very much in line with the games of the time. Many of the characters are close to the kinds of players a lot of us have seen at our tables. There’s the glory hound, the serious roleplayer, the hack-and-slasher, the significant other and more. All of the archetypes are here. Dream Park has a great story-within-a-story, and our hero serves as a point-of-view character for the non-gamers reading the book.
As inspiration, this book worked for me on two levels.
Firstly, it inspired me as to what might be possible within my lifetime. When I read it the first time in 1988 or so, we had Photon and Lazer Tag. It was just enough to give us a taste of where electronically-enhanced live-action play could go.
Secondly, the idea of a game within a game appealed to me. What if the PCs in another campaign (Cyberpunk 2013 perhaps,) played in a LARP like this? Years later, X-Crawl would come out with a different take on the idea. By then, I had become a LARP-er myself. Having spent half-a-decade in the Amtgard LARP, I was always wishing it could be a lot more like Dream Park.
There is a Dream Park roleplaying game, produced by R. Talsorian Games. The game captures the spirit and cross-genre possibilities of the novels in a fun “rules lite” manner. Interestingly, it uses none of the game mechanics assumed from the novel (no Wessler-Graham random stat generations or traditional XP.) Dream Park is worth a look for some “beer & pretzels” fun (or perhaps to be the system your game-inside-a-game is run with?)
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
OK, some folks can’t do this one. They say it’s too many pop culture references. But since my brain is stuck in the 80s, this book rapidly became my favorite read, re-read and audiobook. In fact, Wil Wheaton reads the audio version. Wil’s performance is so perfect, I wish a CGI Wheaton circa Wesley Crusher could star in next year’s film adaptation.
RPO is a novel taking place in the 2050s, where the environment and economy have collapsed. About the only thing the teeming masses have going for them is the OASIS. It’s a virtual reality world that has largely replaced any other way of using the Internet. People go into the OASIS with goggles and haptic gloves. They do their shopping, business, education and recreation there. It’s the escape from the horrifyingly crappy reality most people face.
Enter Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, a high school kid whose sole escape from life with his drug-addicted aunt atop a stack of mobile homes and trailers is the OASIS. When the creator of the OASIS dies, leaving no heirs or family, his entire fortune is willed to the OASIS user who can find the Easter eggs he has left in the nearly limitless world the OASIS represents. This kicks off a frenzy of people studying every detail of the creator’s life, his interests, obsessions, favorite films, music and games. The end result is that in the 2050s, everyone wants to know more about the 80s, as well as the decades that preceded and succeeded those years.
Here is where the pop culture references come in. In order to figure out the puzzles that lead to the Easter eggs, the gunters (short for Egg Hunters) must learn about everything the late James Halliday loved. Halliday loved a lot of stuff, almost all distinctly geeky in nature. Arcade games, Dungeons & Dragons, Rush, Star Wars, Japanese shows like Ultraman and Supaidaman… the list is endless. So, yes, this novel has an unending parade of pop culture references, but I don’t find any of them as gratuitous as the novel’s critics have found them.
Why? Because James Halliday might as well have been me.
My game group and I communicate in film quotes and pop culture references. I take my kids to the Austin Toy Museum and lament the days of GI Joes and Transformers stacked to the ceiling at Toys R Us. I miss the world I grew up in, and so does Ernest Cline, and so did James Halliday.
If I feel as wistfully nostalgic at 42, how will I feel in Halliday’s place, knowing that cancer will take my life no matter what I do? Why not bury myself in the things I love and ensure that whoever inherits my millions damned well better share my love for those things? I get the Halliday character’s need to pass along the things of his past that they will not be forgotten. I do this stuff myself. I show obscure 13-episode animated shows from the 80s to my friends. I pull RPGs they’ve never heard off my shelves for a run. I send them YouTube playlists. This last I am doing for my 16-year-old sister Carlie so she can get a feel for the culture I grew up in a quarter century before she was born.
So, yes, I understand Halliday and his author Cline’s need to express the things he loves in Ready Player One. I’ve seen inspiration for Cyberpunk and Shadowrun games based on this book. Perhaps I’ve even combined Dream Park and OASIS in my own dystopian cyberpunk worlds? Inspiration is afoot.
Spacecraft 2000 To 2100 AD, by Stewart Cowley
When I was in middle school, a brand new gamer, voraciously devouring anything I could get my hands on, I came across this book in my school library. It was in my possession for months thereafter. I kept re-checking it. I found it fascinating.
This book was what happened when author Stewart Cowley took a number of unconnected paintings by Chris Foss and others, weaving them together into a cohesive storyline detailing mankind’s struggle against the Proximans, an alliance with the Alphans and the colonization of space. The art was enthralling, and the stories accompanying each illustration drew me in like few other non-novel fiction books had.
At that age I was reading books on Egyptology and archaeology and medieval weapons – things to feed my fascination with (and find inspiration for) Dungeons & Dragons. This wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t a game manual, it was something else. It represented a window into another world; a science fiction world that wasn’t Star Wars or Star Trek. I was riveted.
To this day I find little tidbits in the art and text that set my imagination flying. Inspiration indeed. I imagine the Sentinel line outsystem of Earth, or the “nuclear kites” engaging Proximan forces only to run out of fuel and drift helplessly. I imagine living in a decommissioned MOBA, or the horror of having a Tarantula pop up out of its dug-in hiding spot.
All these memories and ideas have been stuck in my noggin since the 80s, and some of them have wormed their way into my sci-fi games. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I found out a Terran Trade Authority roleplaying game had been released. I integrated story ideas from this into my Traveller, Star Frontiers and 2300 AD games.
Three other books in this series can be found by searching the author’s name or for Terran Trade Authority. For artwork that gets the sci-fi brain rolling, this book, and the others in the series can give GMs all kinds of inspiration.