This morning, I read a post by Alex Kimball over at the Castalia House blog. In it, he describes how he ran a tabletop RPG campaign off of a short story from the 1940s and along the way developed a set of rules that he could use to play WWII-style campaigns. He explains that the supplementary material that often comes along with tabletop RPG rulebooks is useless because that material includes too many details irrelevant to the action. As an alternative, he suggested using short stories as a basis for a campaign, since only relevant characters and settings are included, and the story itself could act as a rough outline for an adventure (keep in mind that players will deviate, though.)
Kimball’s experience underlines something important that every Game Master should do: read.
Within many a book, one can find a playable adventure. GMing is a neverending game of improvisation, and you are guaranteed to get a situation you did not prepare for. Being well-read lets you pull out a roughly analogous situation and keep going from there. It keeps the adventures varied and stops them from collapsing into bad jokes and random, pointless encounters. It provides structure to a game that could easily become very chaotic.
It’s important to know, of course, that you don’t use the stories to railroad your players. Your players will take actions that directly contradict the events of a story, and you must accommodate them if you want your game to survive. This means that you must read the stories actively, thinking about what could happen if events went differently. Nimble switches from situation to situation will make the game that much more fun, and your players will thank you for it.
You don’t need a bunch of supplements to generate an interesting game. You just need some good sci-fi and fantasy stories to nourish your imagination and share that excitement with your players. A well-done RPG will create lasting memories.
Also, my novella Sword & Flower can give you some ideas for a tabletop RPG campaign.