Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Primary Sources in Fantasy Gaming

I always liked the distinction in the study of history between primary and secondary sources.  Primary sources being, of course, stuff people actually wrote down at the time, and secondary sources being stuff written about the primary sources.  It's a useful distinction.   I've been thinking lately about applying the same sort of division to RPGs.  In a way, I think I sort of do this already, but analyzing my own habits can't hurt (right?)


There's a distinction to be made between directly useful gaming materials and inspirational materials used to spark ideas, or settings, or plots.  The primary gaming material sources are going to be materials written for the system itself.  So, since I run GURPS, that means published GURPS books and Pyramid magazine.

Secondary gaming material sources would then be anything else related to gaming: homebrew stuff by other GURPS GMs, published material for other systems, or homebrew materials by non-GURPS GMs.

These sort of primary sources are about the game itself and how to play it.  It's pretty obvious that these are important, so I don't think I have to discuss them much.

Books, Myths, and Stories

My "primary sources" for inspiration are myths, stories, and books in the appropriate genre.  I'm focused on fantasy books for fantasy games here, since that's what I enjoy running the most, but for a sci-fi campaign sci-fi books would be primary sources.  For fantasy games, regardless of how finely you slice the genre (epic fantasy, fairy tale fantasy, dark fantasy, romantic fantasy, etc.) myths are going to be a primary source because they're still told or read about, and they form a sort of intellectual backdrop to the whole fantasy genre.

Secondary sources for inspiration are films and books that are from other genres, and published adventures that aren't what you're running.  I was reading Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest for the first time last week, and I could see how bits of it could be used as events and inspiration for characters, even though it was wildly outside of fantasy.

Inspiration is the important bit for me, because sometimes I think the fantasy RPG genre is a bit too self-contained.  In other words, we run games with plots and inspiration from other games rather than from myths and fantasy books, and this is the wrong approach for me.  I'm not about to make the claim I don't use materials from other games (though I don't use adventures), but I am of the opinion it's best to look at the classics of the genre, the primary sources as I would have it: Conan, Elric, Tolkien, Dunsany's stories, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or myths and fairy tales for inspiration because these have stood a longer test of time.

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