Friday, June 25, 2010

On Imaginary Books I Want (as a GM)

Couple of miscellaneous notes:

*Legends of the Guard #2 came out Wednesday with the story by Gene and I. There's an interview with Gene and I on David Peterson's blog as well. I haven't actually seen the comic as the shop was sold out-- I'm hoping they'll have copies back in next week. Anyway, buy a copy if you see it.

*Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit down and play Action Cards for the first time. I've been running it for about ten years, but hadn't yet played it. In the back of my mind I had still been thinking that my players were humoring me by claiming to like the system. But I can say that I really enjoyed it. Kenny's doing some great stuff with the tools and I'm more excited about the Halo Universe setting than I thought I would be.

On Imaginary Books I Want
I mentioned before that I read with an eye towards game applications. I have a number of pet topics in the back of my mind. Usually that relates to some concept I'm considering in a campaign or story. I'm always interested in history, but usually social, cultural or even economic-- material I think I can actually bring into play at the table. Or perhaps another way, material which I can use to color the atmosphere with passing references. Right now I have games that span several cultural and technological levels, so I look at things from the Ancient World up through Victoriana (for the Steampunk stuff). So a few things I'm hunting for right now.

In my last post I mentioned my dissatisfaction with Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money. I found another book that, at least early on, seems to be more suited to my desire to see a decent history of economics and trade in history-- William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. It is about 400 pages long, and we don't even get to the 20th Century until the last fifty page-- so yes, right on the money for what I want. I'm about a third of the way in at this point and I've learned quite a bit with some eye towards applications for world building.

I'd like to find another good book on how history (and even general social sciences) were done in the past. I've read Ernst Breisach's Historiography and a couple of others, but I'm wondering if there's another and better synthesis of these ideas. Most of the books I've looked at do a wide ranging survey, I guess I'd like to see something which examines a specific period, like the Ancient World, the Dark Ages or even the Early Modern World. How and why was history recorded in these periods, how was it viewed, what uses was it put to? Not to give too much away, but this relates to a concept I've been thinking about for a long time-- a fantastic setting with competing historians battling for control by retelling and revising the stories of the past. As an example, think of people telling different stories about the fall of Sauron in Middle Earth to gain both a political and magical advantage.

On a related note, I've been hunting for a number of years for a good resource for non-Western Historiography. Just about everything I have focuses on Europe and later America. But how was history treated in the Middle East? Byzantium? Japan? India? China? 18/19th century Latin America for that matter. I have a little sense of that in the case of China based on the great historical novels, Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but in some ways that feels like only knowing how history is treated by reading the Aeneid and the Iliad. I'd like a good overview of this field, perhaps with some sense of comparison with Western methods. And I'd prefer something that doesn't get into 20th Century developments as I don't really want to get into the complexities of post-Colonial social sciences.

I have a number of books on Ancient Rome, including some odd-ball academic texts. One of these is Robert Turcan's Cults of the Roman Empire. It actually deals more with the invasion and syncretism of outside cults into the Roman Empire in the later period. While that's interesting, it gives me a little less sense than I'd like as to how the classic gods we associate with Rome were actually worshiped. I'd like to find a book particularly on that topic. As much as anything, I'd like a sense of the rituals and the evolution of rituals. In that regard a book that had a kind of history of ritual and ritual development in the Ancient World as a whole would be really good. Some of this comes from my desire to run a Rome game. On the one hand I'd like to do something like Cthulhu Invictus and on the other hand, maybe a kind of Hellboy, Conspiracy X or LXG set there would also work. I also have a really good idea for how to do a more fantastic version, but I want to come back to that in a later post when I discuss some of John Wick's recent rpg material.

I really enjoyed Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror- though it has been a while since I read it. I heard it suggested that people perhaps invested a little too heavily in it as a source of parallels for present times. In any case, what I'd really like is a book which provides a good, on the ground look at life in the Renaissance, but for a variety of places not just Italy. Part of what I'm looking for is a good comparative look at the cultural and social history of the Early Modern world and a sense of the interactions between the various groups. I'll admit to being lost when it comes to the status and breakdowns of the German states of that period. I'm not as interested in military or religious history there as I am in intellectual and everyday living details.

I have a really interesting book by Jacques Barzun that I work through from time to time, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. It reminds me of my other favorite history book, The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson. I want some books like that but for other places and periods. Particularly I want a good cultural history of Latin America from the 17th to the 19th Century. I'd like something like that for China as well (or for Asia or another Asian region for that matter).

I'd like to find a good and comparative history of cities. I have a couple of those “Life in...” books, but I'd like to see something that provides a kind of cross section look at urban development. What systems arose in the earliest cities? How did those transform over time? How did different cultural, economic and environmental forces affect the development of urban centers in different places. I'm a big fan of urban settings in my rpgs and so I'd like something that has some color to it to perhaps provide some alternate models or cities or at least provide some supporting logic for world creation.

Anyway-- reading suggestions are welcome.

Next books I'm actually planning on picking up: Occult America; Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History; Ackroyd's The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling; and maybe The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World.

Current favorite song as well: “Spaceman” by The Killers.


  1. The history of a city sounds interesting. A quick Googling gave me this quote on Robert Hughes' ("The Fatal Shore") "Barcelona": "Confirms...Mr. Hughes's authority as a first-rate chronicler and historian. The book is destined to become, like [E.M.] Forster's Alexandria and Mary McCarthy's Venice Observed, a classic." The New York Times Book Review.

    Still reading House of Leaves. It would be a very strange RPG campaign...

  2. Steve showed me the book before he left tonight. I'm sure he will be jonesing for your autographs! Kudos on a great collaboration! :)

  3. For Japanese society, development, and the Shogonate culture, you would be hard-pressed to find a better read than "The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa"

    Wikipedia has a pretty good page on him.