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The Last Dark Art

Nine: A Dark Arts Library: Thirteen Non-Gaming Books for Pretentious Gamers

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Jul 28,2003


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Nine: A Dark Arts Library: Thirteen Non-Gaming Books for Pretentious Gamers

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

"I have always imagined Paradise to be a kind of library."
- Borges

In Chinese, the word gong fu - usually written as "kung fu" here in the West -- means something like "study and practice" and applies not just to the martial arts but to any discipline that requires skill and craft. Having established by now that RPGs are as suitable as any other art for that description, it should be obvious how gaming is practiced -- by sitting down and doing it -- but not so much how it might be studied. With a very few notable exceptions, not much has been written on how to game well outside of the advice in rulebooks themselves.

And in a way, that's just as well, because it allows thoughtful roleplayers the chance to bring in skills from other arts to enrich the experience of gaming, which is as it should be if RPGs are to continue to develop as a medium. To that end, I've compiled the following Witch's Dozen list of titles suitable for improving one's gaming kung fu, from a variety of areas of interest. This is, to be sure, a subjective offering -- they're the books I personally have found useful in developing my gaming skills, and your mileage may certainly vary. But any one of them might be a thought-provoking first step in thinking outside the box when it comes to roleplaying, and most have fairly wide application across genres and styles. There are a lot of writing books here, which should come as no surprise, since fiction writing may be the closest sister art to gaming (narrowly, which is why I've also included books on theatre, psychology, and general creativity) -- it certainly has the most to offer in skills that work well for both disciplines. But I'd recommend picking out a couple of different ones and seeing how they mesh together, since gaming itself is such a uniquely strange melange of various arts.

One caveat: I can offer no guarantee that these are all in print. Many are, last I checked, but there are some that may be harder to find than others. Any will reward the effort to do so.

In no particular order, then:

How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card. Still the definitive text on genre writing, by one of the field's greats. Here's everything you need to know not just about world-building and the conventions of genre, but also what makes a milieu-driven story different from a character-driven one, and many other fine and wise things. Occasionally highly opinionated, but slim, readable, and invaluable.

The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Maybe the best source for real-world names, and a nice alternative to baby-name books. Organized by nationality (mostly -- there's also a section just for names from Arthurian legend) with alphabetical lists of names, along with their meanings and variations. Also includes some introductory chapters on naming for genres which have some useful bits in them.

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. Still one of the best general-purpose writing books around, with applications across many disciplines. The first half of the book is especially useful to gamers; it's a discussion of "literary-aesthetic theory," which isn't as bad as it sounds -- mostly a run-down on fiction elements from basic components to genre to metafiction and deconstruction, and many points of interest between. Gardner's style is both conversational and erudite, and a joy to read. GMs and players with an interest in creating coherent narratives will find much to mine in here.

20 Masterplots (And How to Build Them), by Ronald B. Tobias. Possibly the ideal complement to S. John Ross's Big List of RPG plots (which can be found at - this is a rundown of the most common plot structures in fiction, like "Pursuit," "The Riddle," "Sacrifice," and "Transformation," with advice for adapting and ringing variations on each. Easy to read and unpretentious, if occasionally somewhat opinionated. The GM who doesn't find this book to be laden with ideas for plot hooks just isn't trying.

Dynamic Characters, by Nancy Kress. The sourcebook on building complete, three-dimensional, interesting characters. It starts off with the idea that "plot is character" and goes from there. Includes specific advice for creating interesting bad guys (and heroes), notes on changing characters over time, and a discussion of archetypes and motives. There's even an "intelligence dossier" in the book that can be copied wholesale and appended to a character sheet, for the truly ambitious player. Great stuff.

An Actor Prepares, by Constantin Stanislavski. The keystone text of Method Acting and psychological realism in theatre, and a fine companion to the Kress book above. Written as if by an actor in a company learning his craft from a wise and wiley Director, so it reads like a diary of sorts. (If this is likely to annoy you, try out Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting instead, which covers much of the same ground from a slightly more contemporary perspective.) Full of techniques for getting inside a character's head, as well as excercises that can be easily adapted for gamers, and an introduction to the concept of the "Magic If." An especially good resource if your group has a lot of theatrically-inclined players, or folks who would like to be but don't know where to start.

The Magician's Reflection, by Bill Whitcomb. A complementary volume to The Magician's Companion by the same author, this one's a guide to creating meaningful systems of symbols. A combination encyclopedia of symbolism and DIY guide for the spiritually-inclined. Lots of lists of things (like colors, or substances, or objects) and the various symbolic associations of each. A wonderful resource for world-builders especially, but also for anyone interested in creating story elements (characters, backgrounds -- maybe even rulesets for the truly ambitious) with lots of archetypal resonance.

The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers. Campbell may or may not have been on-track as an anthropologist, but for a look at what makes epic stories tick, this is the book to read. Compiled by Moyers from interviews conducted not long before Campbell's death, it covers vast amounts of territory and ties together myths, folklore and literature from all over the world. Archetypal tales, mythic symbology, the Hero's Journey and the how-to guide to building myths from the ground up -- it's all in here, told through Campbell's wonderful conversational voice. Indispensible.

Free Play, by Steven Nachmanovitch. Subtitled "The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts," this is a guide to winging it. Its essential premise is that all life is improvisation on some level, and goes on to demonstrate how playfulness can make you a better artist in any discipline. The concepts get a little esoteric, but the writing is very accessible, and the explorations of practice, limits, and mistakes should have obvious interest to roleplayers, as well as guidelines for dealing with the dreaded inner critic. Thought-provoking and full of great advice. A short, intense, delightful book that's well worth tracking down.

Into the Deep: A Writer's Look at Creativity, by Susan McBride Els. A brief, but wise and thoughtful, exploration of the creative process. More intimate and meditative than the Nachmanovitch book, but covering some complementary territory; this is a guide to cracking open your own head and seeing what's working in there. Inspirational and lovely.

The Prince , by Niccolo Machiavelli. Whether or not you agree with Uncle Nicky's somewhat harsh philosophy of statesmanship, this book is invaluable in understanding the mindset of rulers, politicians, and anyone else with an upwardly-mobile bent for power (which includes, let's face it, a lot of PCs). Works as both a blueprint and a survival manual for all games of politicking and intrigue. Surprisingly readable even after nearly five hundred years, though of course a lot depends on the translation.

Games People Play, by Eric Berne. A breakthrough text in psychological thought when it appeared in the '60s, and still intriguing in many ways today. A lot of it reads as very dated now, and certainly reflects the prejudices of its time, but it's a great place to start for getting inside the heads of people who don't have healthy relationships with each other (which certainly includes a lot of facinating characters). If you want realistic motivation for people with emotional baggage, look no further.

Getting To Yes, by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. The reference book on the art of negotiation and compromise. If your group can't seem to go twenty minutes without a stupid fight breaking out OOC, you need this right away. Easy to read, accessible, and to-the-point. Keep it on the shelf right next to Robin's Laws, within easy reach.

And there you have it -- thirteen titles to get you started flexing your muscles as an intelligent gamer, and you can read any of them on the subway without looking like a nerd. With summer on its way out soon, it's not too early to be a good student -- so start hitting the books!

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