Lately I’ve been on an RPG reading tear, and I’ve been fortunate to find, stumble upon, and have recommended to me four excellent GMing books that I’d like to recommend to you in turn.
Apart from all being good books, they share a slant towards fantasy and setting creation, but also another important trait: It’s easy to use them for other genres, too.
If I could only have one book about building a sandbox fantasy campaign, it would be Red Tide. The first half is all about the actual Red Tide setting, and I skipped it; Sine Nomine does good work, so I assume it’s good — but I didn’t buy the book for that half. I bought it for the second half, which lays out foundational sandbox creation principles, advice, and tips you can tell come from experience.
It also introduces a tag system for quickly and concisely making locations meaningful, and then breaks each tag down to give you further inspiration. So you could, for example, tag a borderland town with Bad Water and Religious Tensions. Without even looking at the lists of ideas for each of those tags, I already have ideas about what’s wrong with that town — and I bet you do, too. It’s a brilliant system, and while it’s written for Red Tide it’s ridiculously easy to strip out the few setting specifics and make it your own.
An Echo, Resounding
Also from Sine Nomine, An Echo, Resounding is a bolt-on domain action and warfare system for any fantasy RPG. It provides a host of tools to make domain actions interesting, attach mechanical weight to them, and even integrate them into your game from first level.
As written it’s probably more than I personally need, but that doesn’t mean the layers I wouldn’t use aren’t good; they might be perfect for you. I’ll get plenty of mileage out of putting a domain-level “skin” on my setting so as to have more hooks to work with and an idea of what might happen when the PCs fuck it all up.
Tome of Adventure Design
The Tome of Adventure Design is a weird book, but it intends to be weird. It’s all random tables, but it’s almost nothing like Toolbox and Ultimate Toolbox, the random table books everyone thinks of when anyone says “it’s a book of random tables.” The tables are all designed to jar your brain out of whatever rut it’s in and into a different groove, which they do (in most cases) by producing peculiar results.
This one really needs an example, one from the Locations section. Need a cool place to build an adventure around? I rolled percentile dice four times and got the Earthen Aviary of the Shattered Chalice. If you read that name and instantly got a neat idea or two, you’ll like this book. For my money, it’s worth buying just for the first section, which is full of starting points and tools like the Location tables.
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding
A lot of worldbuilding “advice” tends to be bullshit, pontificating, bloviating, boring, or all of the above. The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding is none of those things. It’s a mix of practical how-to essays and essays on worldbuilding theory that are actually interesting to read, all written by smart people you’ve likely heard of — Monte Cook, Wolfgang Baur, Zeb Cook, Michael Stackpole, and many others.
Will you use all of it? Probably not; I won’t, but that goes for most books. But it’s full of gems, delicious meat, and things I found quite useful. It’s one of the best worldbuilding books I own.