Design & Development02/03/2006

Nonfiction Selections, Round 1

We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.

This week, we offer some of your own nonfiction recommendations.

Building worlds based on history, economics... and kangaroo rats!

Last week, Dave Noonan discussed the concept of “flow” during the course of the game -- inspired by his holiday reading of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. At the end of the article, Dave asked for nonfiction recommendations. The emails have been pouring in, and we wanted to share some of those books you said have merit for R&D -- and for DMs everywhere crafting their campaign worlds.

The Most Recommended

A few books were repeatedly recommended, and merit special mention:

  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
  • Machiavelli's The Prince.
"It details the tactics and subtleties that need to be taken into account when governing a country, barony, or other region led by a powerful ruler. It can be very useful for DMs who want to roleplay their authority figures correctly, whether they are good, evil, neutral, or simply "efficient." The book can also provide useful advice for devising clever plots and in-game political machinations."
-- J. Kallin
"At least in my group, we every so often get a real hankering for dirty, mean, nasty politics. Eberron starts down this trend, and it's one that could really get a solid, intellectual following." -- Ben R.
  • Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
"I find that having a tactical mind as a PC and a DM is crucial. Every PC has to look at every encounter (martial or intrapersonal) with a general’s mind." -- T. Schleibaum
"After reading for fifteen minutes, I wanted to get up and throw together a war campaign."
-- C. Tenca

Books to Build Worlds: Through Economics

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner. "This book examines and explains everyday mysteries from the perspective of economics, or more exactly, in terms of incentives and who benefits from any activity; a great perspective for plot and adventure design and for game design in general." -- B. Scott

And related: Cod and Salt, both by Mark Kurlansky. "A look at how a single commodity shapes society."
-- E. Kopp

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald White. "The best nonfiction book I have read in a while. The author steps through the history of civilized man from the beginning, describing each "technological" revolution (hunting weapons, agriculture, irrigation, cities, etc.). He describes our advances as "progress traps", each of which inevitably leads the tribe or nation to outstrip its own environment's ability to sustain it. Early man hunted mastodons and other big game to extinction, and then suffered a population collapse. The great flood followed the Mesopotamians turning the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into a desert by over-irrigation (there was no topsoil left to absorb the rain). The ancient people that built the hundreds of mysterious statues on Easter Island died out about a century after they cut down their last tree (much timber was needed to move the stone giants from the quarries to the shores). The ancient civilizations of the Americas (Incas, Mayas, etc) disappeared after over-farming reduced their lands to near-deserts; centuries later the land recovered, their immense monuments remained, but the civilizations were gone.

"The applications to my D&D game are many. I have several adventure ideas drafted in which humanoid races are clashing over resources, or over the consequences of one peoples' progress in a certain field. Imagine: a great and mysterious nation collapses as some resource runs out, finally opening it up to exploration or conquest. The common people learn what excessive waste is made of their tithe to their lord (or "loaf ward", which Wright explains is the origin of that title: the person who was in charge of the emergency food stores), and they revolt." -- J. Willson

Books to Build Worlds: Through History

Cicero, by Anthony Everitt. "I had a great time with the historical accounts of one of Rome's most prominent politicians. Roman and Greek literature always sparks a want to use it in my D&D campaign. Heck, I even put Rome in Xen'drik." -- J. Schaefer

Strange Victory, by Ernest R. May. "As a DM that designs his own campaigns, Strange Victory has been a great inspiration. This is a pretty heavy read about the beginning of World War II in Europe, but has given me a lot of inspiration for personalities of NPC's, especially flawed leaders." -- Kevin

Shakespeare Alive!, by Joseph Papp. "Short book, easy read. Highly recommended for developers who want to design products with a distinctly historical feel. 16th-century London is as cosmopolitan as Waterdeep and Sharn aspire to be." -- A. Traylor

On How to Craft Villains (and Heroes)

Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. "I have recently read Notes from Underground, and the attack on the enlightenment and his philosophy about why people do bad things changed the way I thought about writing villains."
-- D. Kilgore

Supernatural Horror in Literature, by H.P. Lovecraft. "A great treatise on how to reach your audience and how to manipulate their emotions to your advantage once you have reached them." -- J. Hargrove

The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, Ph.D., and Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, by Robert D. Hare, Ph.D. "Both these books analyze and describe in detail the behavior and motivations of sociopaths/psychopaths, who are the closest real-world analogs to Chaotic Evil D&D characters. The information they present was very illuminating, as well as wet-your-pants frightening -- according to these experts, roughly one in twenty-five people in the western world have this horrifying mental illness!" -- J. Ormand

Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean O Baudrillard, Sheila Faria Glaser. "To define the terms, a 'simulacra' is a copy of an item (with an original) whereas a 'simulation' is a copy of an item without the original. This is one of the books the movie The Matrix was based off of. If you want to really design a mad alien wizard to throw at the players, rather than just relying on stats, then after reading this book you can get some ideas of the mindset. It will leave the players scratching their heads. Imagine their surprise when the archwizard they encounter is more then just a spell hurler, but a big ol' puzzle all his own!" -- Tallknight

The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel. "I think this could really challenge the player of divine characters and maybe even the rest of the PCs at the table with its logic and discussion of moral and ethical situations."
-- M. Lishman

Celestial Dire… Kangaroo Rats?

The Voice of the Desert, by Joseph Wood Krutch. "It's a kind of Walden for the American Southwest, and it really highlights the beauty and tenaciousness of life in the harshest of climates. Read it, if only to find out why the kangaroo rat is the most utterly amazing animal on the planet.

"Speaking of rats, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan is a fascinating book that interweaves a look at the ecology of the common rat with the history of New York City. The author wrote it while staking out a New York alley for a year back in 2001/2002. I've used it's factoids about rats and their lives to wholly flesh out the personality and habits of a wererat assassin PC that I have, as well as an influential NPC rogues' guild in a game that I run.

"But read the desert book, too -- I'm serious about the kangaroo rat. Trust me, it's wicked." -- B. Troyan


If you have more nonfiction recommendations (or for that matter, proud nails, tales of humor at your table, or any other feedback you have on the column) please keep sending them in! In the weeks ahead we plan to turn the tables and offer a few more examples of nonfiction for help in your games, as recommended from within R&D. As always, send your feedback to

You Craft the Creature

Last time, we asked you about the ability scores for our Aberrant Mastermind [AMM]. The results are in, and here's the [AMM]’s primary ability score:

Intelligence: 41.0%
Charisma: 28.2%
Wisdom: 10.5%
Dexterity: 8.3%
Strength: 6.2%
Constitution: 5.7%

And the [AMM]’s secondary ability score:

Charisma: 23.3%
Intelligence: 21.3%
Dexterity: 17.5%
Constitution: 14.9%
Wisdom: 13.3%
Strength: 9.7%

This time there’s no new poll -- just a warning to gear up for another player-submitted entry. We’ve previously asked for your suggestions on special abilities, and received a huge number of truly excellent ideas through the message boards. Next time, we’ll be looking for your help again…

About the Authors

Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.

Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.

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