‘20th Century Writers and RPGs’: 10 Influential Writers to Role Playing Games

As the title states, I’m going to be talking  about 20th century writers and role-playing games (RPGs). Particularly, I will enumerate 20th century fiction writers, who I think are influential to tabletop and computer RPGs by serving as inspiration for the aesthetics of the game or the content itself.

Why only the 20th Century? Well, RPGs as their roots in the 20th century, so it would only be appropriate to limit it to that century. You won’t find any mythology books or faerie tales on the list. So, as much as I would want to include the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and Lewis Caroll (if not for the reference to the vorpal sword!); they don’t make the cut.  And don’t get me started on Jules Verne. I have also excluded material from comic books or graphic novels. Those deserve an entirely new list all their own. Are the ground rules clear to you? Good. Onward to the countdown!

10 Influential Writers to Role Playing Games

10. Anne Rice

            To be godless is probably the first step to innocence…’

                                                                                    ———–The Vampire Lestat

Born Howard Allen Frances O’ Brien, this gothic fiction writer showed us a world behind the curtain of our daily lives. Before the advent of shiny vampires and daywalkers, there was the ‘Vampire Chronicles’. This collection of books focused on the dark world of vampires led by the main character, Lestat. Anne Rice created goth horror in a modern day setting years before the ‘X-Files’ declared that the truth is out there. She introduced us to a world in the shadows as majestic as it was horrifying.

Who wouldn’t want to live forever? Even if your answer is ‘yes’, Anne Rice showed that there is an exchange for that particular desire. This played with the minds of readers, wishing they were part of this realm of immortality. Wouldn’t you want to role-play one of the undying? She’ll give you a choice Lestat never had.

This was your dark fantasy setting in the current world. And, there are a lot of RPGs that use the fear of the hidden world around you as the setting of their story, such as ‘The World of Darkness’, and ‘In Nomine’ from Steve Jackson Games. These RPGs have one common theme: there are monsters hidden among us – and maybe that’s not so bad.

9. Tom Clancy

‘One must know something of the truth in order to lie convincingly.’

                                    ———–The Hunt for Red October

Thomas Leo Clancy Jr. is best known for his espionage and military science novels. This probably started his most iconic character, Jack Ryan, who stars in his first four novels starting with ‘The Hunt for Red October’. All of these Jack Ryan books were also translated into film. If you want government conspiracy theories with back channel negotiations and splinter cells, you can count on Tom Clancy to fill that need.

When it comes to RPGs, there are a lot of espionage-type games lying around, and some of his books have actually inspired computer games (like ‘Ghost Recon’, ‘Rainbow Six’, and the ‘Splinter Cell’ series). That’s not to say that his work hasn’t inspired many tabletop RPGs (‘Top Secret S.I.’ being one of my favorites). Whether it’s first person shooters or team scenarios, Tom Clancy has a major influence in RPGs. Lower your head for there might be a sniper lurking somewhere.

8. H.P. Lovecraft

‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’

                                    ————Supernatural Horror in Literature

If Howard Philips Lovecraft had more than just a cult following, he would be higher on this list. In fact, it’s his cult following that puts him on my list in the first place. When you talk about Lovecraft, one word comes to mind that will send shivers up your spine: Cthulhu. Brrr. The legendary creator of the ‘Old One’ and writer to the weekly magazine ‘Weird Tales’ inspired many of modern day writers today including two of my favorites, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. His horror fiction could literally drive not only his characters, but also the readers insane. In fact, there is an RPG entitled ‘Call of Cthulu’ based on his works. The goal is to last the longest before your character becomes insane. See that? Who would want to subject themselves to that sort of punishment? Apparently, the answer is a lot.

In spite of, and maybe because of, the depressing nature of his fictional writing (we can only hope it’s just fiction), Lovecraft provided the template of horror role-playing. The mood, the setting and the atmosphere of his world with Cthulhu set the stage for generations of horror fantasy RPGs.

7. Agatha Christie

            ‘The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.’

                                                —————Murder on the Orient Express

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie invented two detectives, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple (better known as Miss Marple), who were the main characters in her prolific career as a mystery novelist. Her style of writing immersed the reader in classic ‘whodunit’ scenarios that draw the reader in the discovery process, hopefully being able to deduce the culprit by story’s end. And though I’ve read a lot of ‘Hardy Boys’ and some ‘Nancy Drew’ in grade school, Christie’s detective stories were engaging enough to place yourself in the shoes of her characters. And isn’t this what some role-playing adventures are about sometimes? Discovering answers to clues and helping victims? Stealth and subterfuge? You have it here. Where there’s a mystery, you have Christie, and mystery is an integral part of many RPG experiences.

6. Isaac Asimov

            ‘Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.’

                                                                        ———Foundation

Where do I begin with Asimov? The Foundation Series? The Robot Series? Isaac Yudovich Osimov wrote these novels focusing on the historical future of the human race. Did you read what I just wrote? Is that even possible? Why don’t you ask him that? I’m sure you’ll have a heated discussion on the nature of artificial intelligence and morality. To say that the guy was a mind-blowing genius would be an understatement (he was a long-time member and vice-president of Mensa International). His theories in science, particularly the nature of artificial intelligence and the responsibility of discovery and creation in science, were what made his novels entertaining and dizzyingly metaphysical. However, one cannot deny his influence on RPGs. This is your classic futuristic setting, people. This is science fiction based on science. What else can you ask for? Asimov fleshed out a fictional world that role-players would be happy to explore and later on emulate in so many existing science fiction RPGs.

5. Arthur Conan Doyle

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’

                                                —————The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

We have now reached the middle of our list with Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle. Unless you’ve been living under a rock under the earth, then you have probably heard of Sherlock Holmes. One of the grandfathers of modern crime fiction in the 20th century and influence to Agatha Christie who came earlier on this list, Doyle has imprinted himself on the psyche of anyone and everyone who has ever read his novels with Sherlock Holmes. The chase for clues. The thrill of discovery. These are all Doyle’s influence on many RPGs. And, just as is the case with Christie, how can you ignore a good old-fashioned mystery role-playing game? It’s elementary!

4. C. S. Lewis

            ‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.’

                                                            ————-The Magician’s Nephew

Ah, wish fulfillment. Many children want to be princes or princesses, superheroes, or explorers of foreign lands. Wish fulfillment is also one of the hooks of RPGs in the first place. In that case, welcome to the world of Narnia. Clive Staples Lewis’s now classic ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ is the ultimate wish fulfillment for young readers: all within the comfort of your chair. Or closet, for that matter. Readers were transported to this world of high fantasy with the Pevensie siblings on adventures in Narnia in the name of its patron, ‘Aslan’. Yes, the novels had Christian and biblical references. Was it effective? Ask the millions of readers who devoured the Chronicles when it was released.  Its readership still flourishes today. The language was also appropriate to its young audience and was neither intimidating to read nor preachy. And it’s not only children who read it. It is also one of the best reads to introduce people to high fantasy. And maybe they’ll get a piece of Lewis’ moral ideals in the process? For Aslan!

3. Frank Herbert

            ‘I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.’

                                                                               ————–Dune

Arakis. Dune. The Spice. Frank Herbert’s seminal novel ‘Dune’ is considered by many as the greatest science fiction novel of all time. That says a lot. Let’s process that statement for a moment. Greatest of ALL time.

Frank Patrick Herbert Jr.’s ‘Dune’ saga spans about one thousand years of science fiction history integrating concepts such as evolution, ecology, politics, religion and power in a fictional galaxy centered on a planet full of giant worms that produce ’the spice.’ You had here historical progressions of existing families, political ties, assassination, intrigue, and Bene Gesserit training that would put Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training to shame. You can try your Jedi mind tricks on Paul Atreidis if you want, but be ready to be eaten by a sand worm. Stick to deflecting blasters with that lightsaber, Luke!

Herbert created his own galaxy that spanned millennia in detail. He mixed religion with science and made it all the more believable. Few words can describe how geeky that is. Many science fiction RPGs have taken a page from Herbert’s creations. And there is a lot of lore to use. Do you agree with me? Stop shaking your head or I’ll feed you to the sand worms.

2. J.R.R. Tolkien

            All that is gold does not glitter, not all who wander are lost…’

                                                            ———The Fellowship of the Ring

Near the top of our list (surprised he is not at the top of this list?) is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Professor Tolkien is considered the father of modern fantasy literature. His works include ‘The Lord of the Rings’(trilogy), ‘The Hobbit’, and ‘The Silmarillon’ (posthumously collected and edited by his son). This is high fantasy that covers four ages and effectively over three thousand years of created mythology. From the Silmarils to the One Ring, Tolkien created a world-spanning, historical high fantasy world complete with family trees, origins of the universe, and different languages meshed into an elaborate fictional domain with characters that run the gamut of virtually every single fantasy role-playing character you can think of. This was no mere hack-and-slash adventure book. He made characters with character. And still, in spite of all the information given, Tolkien left us wanting more. This is what happens when you make up stories in a fox hole during war time with all the bombing going around. There’s a fine line between being shell-shocked and inspired. Maybe he was both.

Why Tolkien over Herbert? Because high fantasy trumps science fiction in my book. Just ask the granddaddy of table top RPGs and arguably computer RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons. Am I right? No arguments with me, my precious.

In any case, even with Tolkien’s genre spanning influence to high fantasy, he only makes number two to my list of influential writers to RPGs. Which leads us to…

1. Edward Packard

Who? Never heard of him? Maybe you haven’t. I had to look him up because I kept on reading his material for so long, but his name never stuck with me. Nonetheless, he is number one on this list.

Packard was the inventor and writer of the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books. That’s right. Choose your own adventure.  He invented the format in 1969. According to an interview in the Lakeland Ledger dated March 27, 1984 (see? I do my research.), it took him six years after that before a company wanted to publish his books. Bantam books did so and the rest was history. He used to write six to seven books a year then, later two or three.

So, why is he the number one author? Whereas all the writers and books previously mentioned let you just read and disappear into other worlds, his second-person fiction writing allowed you to make choices within the books themselves while you were reading them. Done with a page? What would you do? Where would you go? You were given choices. Then the adventure would continue. Depending on the choices you made, your adventure would change. And that element of ‘choice’ really runs to the very core of any RPG.

Nowadays, Packard owns a company called U-Ventures and releases applications for iPhone and iPad based on his previous books. Take a trip down memory lane and read his novels again; or, if he is new to you, start on a new adventure with any of his books. The choice is yours.

So, that’s my list. Give these authors a try. You might be even inspired to play a role-playing game afterwards… if you aren’t already.

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