Worlds of Design: Citing Your Sources
  • Worlds of Design: Citing Your Sources


    In the early 1980s I wrote a column in Dragon Magazine called “The Role of Books.” I described nonfiction books so that Dragon readers could decide whether to read them as a source of ideas. But people have changed how they their ideas and inspiration.


    Keep in mind this was only a decade after the invention of fantasy role-playing games. The expectation was that players and GMs would come up with their own ideas for the characters in their campaigns, perhaps derived from books and film rather than from game specific publications. There were certainly game specific publications around, but most of them cost money and the distribution system still followed the distribution of the games: in game shops or direct. Of course, there was The Lord of the Rings as well.

    So I found nonfiction books, like a book about medieval life that you might find in a library, and described it for the readers so that they could decide whether it was worth reading. When Dragon changed its submissions to require purchase of all rights, I stopped writing anything for it, and that was the end of my contributions to that column.

    I would not write such a column nowadays because of changes in how people get their ideas and inspiration:

    • There are a lot more fantasy films and novels than there used to be
    • There are vastly more game specific supplements
    • There is an immense amount of free material available via the Internet
    • Most people don’t try to make up their own adventures, that expectation is gone

    Addressing these points in order...

    There are a lot more fantasy films and novels than there used to be
    , both from increased popularity and from more than 35 years of additional releases. Improvements in computer graphics have a lot to do with it as well. For GMs, it’s fairly easy to adapt incidents or entire plots from a film or novel to an RPG. Yes, some of that went on with The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit 40 years ago, too much some people would say, but with the advent of the LOTR films there are surely more people since 2001 who have seen the films than have read the books.

    There are vastly more game specific supplements: some adventures, some settings, some descriptions of particular elements of fantasy (such as castles, or Vikings, or pirates). This is a result both of the ease of production with modern computers, but also the accumulation of 35 to 40 years. Many fantasy supplements don’t wear out; for example, even a supplement for first edition D&D can be applied without too much trouble to fifth edition.

    There is an immense amount of free material available on the Internet. The Internet includes sites that will generate new characters, new dungeons, new cities, even character names and backgrounds, such as donjon.bin.sh (well worth a look). Many of the “old-time” supplements are now free, or “free.” I remember talking about music to one college student who said, “why would I bother to buy any, it’s all on YouTube?” We don’t quite have a YouTube equivalent for RPGs, but the material is certainly out there. For example: all the issues of Dungeon magazine.

    Another reason for the change is that most people don’t make their own adventures as much anymore. They use existing ones whether free or at a cost. But even the cost is relatively low because of PDF distribution online (quite apart from piracy). This tendency to rely on the publisher helps keep them in business despite the wealth of free material available. In my experience, most RPG players don’t expect their GMs to make up their own adventures. I expect ENWorld readers are much more likely to make up their own stuff; but here we have an atypical group of RPGers!

    Of course, the kind of nonfiction I wrote about in my old column may be more popular nowadays, and is more common because we have 35+ years of additional work to choose from. But why read something not closely related to games when you can read something made for games?

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
    Comments 23 Comments
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      One reason to read 'non game material' would be to source ideas from material unlikely to be on your player's reading/viewing lists. If players are familiar with your source material, they may be able to short cut the plot lines or more easily solve the mystery.

      Even with the vast amount of material available today, such an article would still be useful. Without this site, I would never have known about the Renault D&D themed video even though it is very likely searchable.

      Idea from video - Group of kids returning from Universal Harry Potter park. One of them is playing with a wand purchased in one of the park shops. Lightning strikes nearby. Bolt of something jumps from wand to car's nav system, forming portal seen in video. Kids now in D&D universe.....
    1. MGibster's Avatar
      MGibster -
      I'm one of those weird people who likes to make up my own adventures though I'm not too proud to use a published adventure. You're absolutely right that we've all got greater access to game supplements and fantasy media than we did back in the 1980s. I can hit up Youtube and watch other people gaming whereas back in 1987 the only way to learn how to play was to just do it.

      I do think there's still value in looking at non gaming sources for gaming material. We can still find interesting ideas looking at modern fiction as well as historical stuff.
    1. Jer's Avatar
      Jer -
      most people don’t make their own adventures as much anymore

      This is a bold claim - is there any evidence for it? As you say we're a bunch of weirdos around here so our anecdotal evidence would be biased, but is there evidence that in the wider gaming market folks aren't making their own adventures as much? That would be interesting to know, since the anecdotal evidence is that folks are coming into gaming - and especially D&D - from watching Actual Play podcasts, which are almost always original material. Is this something that has been measured somewhere, or is this just an impression that you have? (And when I say "almost" it's because the one example I can think of where it isn't true is the first few episodes of The Adventure Zone, which were just the McElroys playing Lost Mine of Phandelver from the Starter Set as an episode of their MBMBAM podcast - any of the Actual Play podcasts I've tried beyond that have been original material).
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      I find the "most" in "most people don't make their own adventures" suspect as well. How could you even find such data without doing blind surveys? Self-reporting surveys would be biased.
    1. Immortal Sun's Avatar
      Immortal Sun -
      Though I suspect many here will take issue with the "most people don't make their own adventures" line, I suspect the author is correct. Lew also notes that we are an a-typical sampling of TTRPGing as a whole. Given the other threads and commentary on this board, I suspect he's absolutely right on that call.

      I do agree with an earlier post that material outside pop-culture is more likely to be "unknown" to players. But on the same token, things that are unknown to players means that you'll have to do more explaining when they encounter it. The value of sourcing material that is "in the know" is that it is easier for players to "get it". Which, given how much work I do as DM already and how quickly players bore of narration, exposition and so on, has great value.
    1. blaise hebert's Avatar
      blaise hebert -
      "why read something not closely related to games when you can read something made for games?"

      Or do like every group that I've played/Dmed with for the last 25 years, and make up your own worlds, settings, stories. Where do you think all those fantasy authors get their ideas? You can't limit yourself to what is already published... It's so limiting. It makes it sound like everyone is playing the same thing.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      I loved reading The Role of Books!

      "But why read something not closely related to games when you can read something made for games?"

      I much prefer to rely on original sources for my gaming material than to just take things from gaming specific books, for very harsh reason; Ever here of the band Pop Will Eat Itself? Well, Gaming Is Eating Itself. So much of modern D&D isn't based on any kind of historical, mythological, literary, or pulp sources, but rather on ideas from other games or older versions of itself, or from books based on D&D, and get endlessly recycled and watered down with each use to the point where players don't even understand the origins and implications of the original ideas.

      As an example, not long ago we had characters end up entering Faerie and my character warned everyone to be careful about accepting any gifts or eating any food offered by the inhabitants because accepting gifts from or eating the food of the faeries might cause them to be trapped there forever. And one of the other players stopped the game and asked me what book that idea came from, so I had to explain that it wasn't from any D&D book and I had no idea if it applied to the game, but it was from the actual real world mythology of faeries so I thought it might have been a legend my character had heard, and I had to go into a discussion about Fairyland and the Sidhe and explain the mythological origins of the D&D concept of fey creatures. I was shocked that no one had ever heard of the concept, hadn't they ever read any fairytales, or Rip Van Winkle, or at least read The Sandman and the Books of Magic?

      I just feel that the same ideas get mindlessly recycled over and over again in D&D without any understanding or knowledge of their sources, and end up being Disneyfied, by which I mean a tamed, toned down, mass-consumer version of the original ideas, like how Disney takes real myths and legends and sanitizes and whitewashes them into bland, saccharine versions, and then that become the standard because no one ever reads the originals anymore. (As with how the generic default for gnomes in fantasy literature has pretty much now become standardized as Dragonlance Tinker Gnomes, absent-minded professors building crazy inventions that blow up in their faces, instead of being the wise fey Earth spirits with black senses of humor of actual myth. UGH. I cannot stand what Gnomes have become thanks to Dragonlance.) How many people have ever read the actual bloody Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, compared to the sanitized Disney version? Or The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or Beauty and the Beast? Not to mention the actual real story of Pocahontas compared to the whitewashed Disney travesty.

      People really need to read the original mythological and historical and pulp sources of D&D concepts so they can understand and appreciate the full meaning of the ideas behind D&D, because they're almost always more nuanced, deep, and meaningful, and there are always more ideas to be mined from the original sources, and so that gaming doesn't lose its heart and roots by regurgitating the same ideas over and over in increasingly bland permutations. Instead of just repeating empty RPG tropes without understanding the actual meanings behind them, we need to appreciate the classics behind the gaming.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      OTOH, @AaronL, I'm really not a fan of fantasy literature. I'm a much larger fan of SF, and, frequently, I read short fiction more than not. And, frankly, while I have read a lot of the pulp sources of D&D, I'd rather read stuff that doesn't make me want to wash my eyes out with bleach afterwards. The rampant racism, misogyny and outright bigotry of the pulps just puts me off so much. I read the works, but, I certainly didn't enjoy the experience.

      Sometimes, it might be better to let history die.

      And, yeah, I have to echo the question about the number of folks that rely on published gaming material instead of making up their own stuff. WotC has stated in the past that 50% of gamers use home-brew worlds, so, right there, you've got a big group of gamers that isn't using published stuff. And, even folks using a pre-published world might still be creating their own adventures for that world. Personally, I tend to go about 50:50. I'll use modules, and I'll make up my own stuff. And, really, back in the day, it was about 50:50 too. We played the crap out of modules back then too.

      To put it another way, you don't sell a million copies of Keep on the Borderlands if no one is playing modules.
    1. Fandabidozi's Avatar
      Fandabidozi -
      ‘But people have changed how they their ideas and inspiration.’
      Uh, I guess?
    1. Derren's Avatar
      Derren -
      Most fantasy products copy from history. So I decided to cut out the middleman and also take my inspirations directly from history.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      "Reality is stranger than fiction."

      I use all sorts of everything in making adventures. The last adventure, I used a player's backstory of a warrior monk that was interested in Marcus Aurelius, so created an order of future Hospitallers, in a Roerich painting style setting, and mixing Bilal's The Hunting Party with the assassination of Pompey. I do also use pre-made material, when I can hide the origin, the main issue being that players might have read it before.
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      On published material vs. home grown...

      The hardback 5E adventures seem to sell pretty well. Most of those sold are probably being played at some point. I started playing in 1974 (I'm a dinosaur, I know) and I always did (and do) my own setting / adventure material. I own pretty much no modules / adventures from back in the day (with a few exceptions). I did buy (and still do) buy setting material from which I crib ideas for my own setting. I own most of the new 5E hardbacks. I'll never run the adventures, but I read them, look for ideas, and make them available to the kids in the game club I advise at school (I keep an extra set of the core books at school as well). My students seem more comfortable running published adventures. One of them has ventured to run his own as well as using published material. This isn't statistically relevant, but anecdotally it seems to back up Lew Pulsipher. These are new players. Judging by the popularity of D&D right now there are a lot of new players (and DMs) out there...

      Other things...

      I remember the Role of Books articles fondly. I have always used "outside materials" (I have degrees in history and cultural anthropology) as well as reading pretty much every fantasy and science fiction book available back in the day. Not so much anymore btw -- I'm short on time and, to be blunt, there is a lot of mediocre material seeing publication today. I suspect that was true "back in the day" as well, but I wasn't as discriminating then as I am now

      Another discussion that probably can't be settled without information we don't have access to. The upside of that: everybody can say "I'm right". With a straight face
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by MGibster View Post
      I'm one of those weird people who likes to make up my own adventures though I'm not too proud to use a published adventure.
      At least according to a lot of what WotC has said, a lot more people run their own and/or customize published materials, certainly than WotC would like for their own sales figures.

      I'll steal stuff from published material but rarely run things as written.


      You're absolutely right that we've all got greater access to game supplements and fantasy media than we did back in the 1980s. I can hit up Youtube and watch other people gaming whereas back in 1987 the only way to learn how to play was to just do it.

      I do think there's still value in looking at non gaming sources for gaming material. We can still find interesting ideas looking at modern fiction as well as historical stuff.
      Yeah, there can be some really great inspiration in non-gaming material, especially in historical stuff. NPCs, plot lines, ways of making the world feel "real", and so on. One source now that was not available back in Ye Goode Olden Tymes is YouTube. There are TONS of great history videos one can watch. Also there are a number of videos that are aimed at people writing stories which help go through how to devise an effective plot, characterization, etc.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Immortal Sun View Post
      I do agree with an earlier post that material outside pop-culture is more likely to be "unknown" to players.
      I got busted by this. Way back when I stole the name "House Targaryen" from the very first Game of Thrones book for the ruling house of a country who were Weredragons. I found GoT really tedious and didn't bother reading further in the series. At the time my players hadn't read any of the novels and the show wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye. Unfortunately, that's just not something I can actually use in my campaign now. :/
    1. Immortal Sun's Avatar
      Immortal Sun -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      I got busted by this. Way back when I stole the name "House Targaryen" from the very first Game of Thrones book for the ruling house of a country who were Weredragons. I found GoT really tedious and didn't bother reading further in the series. At the time my players hadn't read any of the novels and the show wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye. Unfortunately, that's just not something I can actually use in my campaign now. :/
      Yeah, I try real hard to avoid using exact names from any material really. I might copy a character whole cloth from something and make some minor changes (different hair, different skin tone, etc...), but I'll always give them their own name.

      In part because if people put 2+2 together they start having expectations about how the character should behave based on the source material. In other part because my luck has always been there's that one guy who knows these names.

      I mean, I literally wrote Thanos into my last campaign but called him "Ja'Gor" and nobody even noticed.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Immortal Sun View Post
      Yeah, I try real hard to avoid using exact names from any material really. I might copy a character whole cloth from something and make some minor changes (different hair, different skin tone, etc...), but I'll always give them their own name.
      Yeah usually I'd change things but for some reason I hadn't, or at least not much. My House Tregaryan really bore no resemblance to the one from GoT except for the draconic blood and the name.


      In part because if people put 2+2 together they start having expectations about how the character should behave based on the source material. In other part because my luck has always been there's that one guy who knows these names.
      Yeah I'm a lot more careful and my players were cool about it, though to be fair at the time there was no sign GoT would even take off as a fantasy novel series, much less become a worldwide phenomenon, but it is unnecessarily jarring.


      I mean, I literally wrote Thanos into my last campaign but called him "Ja'Gor" and nobody even noticed.
      I have a hard time taking a villain named "Thanos" seriously. It's a really common Greek man's name!
    1. Michele's Avatar
      Michele -
      - Role-playing is not just about fantasy. One can have a historical setting, or maybe historical-with-a-peculiar-twist. And historical isn't just medieval, either. So the over-abundance of fantasy fiction isn't all that relevant if I'm preparing a Cliffhangers scenario set in the 1930s. Not if it is historically accurate, and not if the occult or alternate-history aspects aren't elves and wizards.

      - Even assuming we stay in the fantasy genre, we might want something more resembling our Earth's middle ages, with wizards thrown in. "Gritty", "realistic" fantasy, I believe, sometimes is better served by knowing how actually likely it would be to find a physician in a small market town in Northern France in the 1200s, than by relying on D&D assumptions. Of course, that may not be true if go for "high" fantasy.

      - Exactly because players may have seen movies and TV series, they may well find something new at my table if I go to the actual sources, instead. If I know they prefer something new, then that's a good choice. There is the possibility they want a canonical Game of Thrones game, of course; in that case, they'll let me know well in advance and we'll use canonical fictional sources.

      - Free material is often worth what it costs.
    1. Immortal Sun's Avatar
      Immortal Sun -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      I have a hard time taking a villain named "Thanos" seriously. It's a really common Greek man's name!
      And that's why so many people underestimated "Bob from Accounting".
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Michele View Post
      - Role-playing is not just about fantasy. One can have a historical setting, or maybe historical-with-a-peculiar-twist. And historical isn't just medieval, either. So the over-abundance of fantasy fiction isn't all that relevant if I'm preparing a Cliffhangers scenario set in the 1930s. Not if it is historically accurate, and not if the occult or alternate-history aspects aren't elves and wizards.

      - Even assuming we stay in the fantasy genre, we might want something more resembling our Earth's middle ages, with wizards thrown in. "Gritty", "realistic" fantasy, I believe, sometimes is better served by knowing how actually likely it would be to find a physician in a small market town in Northern France in the 1200s, than by relying on D&D assumptions. Of course, that may not be true if go for "high" fantasy.
      I've gotten more interested in some alternate settings than just pseudo-Medieval Western Europe. For instance, I'm pondering a campaign world (tentatively named Norrebe, which is "Eberron" backwards) that's modeled on early Modern to 19th Century Europe. However, the big twist is that humans are incredibly rare, having been largely wiped out by Plague several hundred years before, and thus the main nations would be demi-humans and/or civilized humanoids. The pseudo-France and pseudo-Germany would be halflings, pseudo-Italians dwarves, pseudo-Japanese dragonborn, etc. Part of this was to totally f--k with the stereotypes that have grown up around these races, such as "all dwarves are either alcoholic Norse or Highlanders". A variant on this would be more human-centric but oriented around the early Modern period during the constant warfare in Eastern Europe that went back and forth after the Fall of Constantinople through to the Siege of Vienna.

      So, doing some reading or YouTube videoing on the eras is very helpful.


      - Free material is often worth what it costs.
      Heh, true dat.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      While I always have used published materials- and always will- I also design my own campaigns and adventures. Some stuff is completely original*, but I’m open to drawing inspiration from anywhere- not just genre-appropriate ones.

      My best campaign EVER was a supers game that had a core built around the creations of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, as well as the RPG Space:1889. But I also took inspiration from comic books (duh- supers game), anime, Michael Moorcock and William Gibson books, James Bond movies, TV shows like Kung Fu, Wild, Wild West , Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr. and Fawlty Towers as well as actual history.



      * or possibly inspired by sources I have no conscious recollection of being exposed to
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