The origins of role-playing are, at least according to most sources, pretty much equal parts miniatures wargaming and fantasy fiction. The impact of a handful of books on the design of original Dungeons & Dragons remains obvious even in the latest edition of the rules some 30 years later, from the Vancian-inspired “fire-and-forget” magic system to the common races (half-elves and hobb…I mean “halflings” being things I’ve only encountered in Tolkien and D&D, just to name a couple).
Despite these literary origins, many of the character options available to players are poorly represented in those handful of texts, and the huge body of fantasy literature published in the intervening 30 years provides a much more fertile field to search for inspiration. To that end, at the prompting of a couple of my players/co-DMs (thanks, fellas), I’m throwing a few reading lists together that I think are great sources of character inspiration for prospective players (or DMs looking for something to help them get a handle on a tricky NPC).
I’ll be the first to admit that not all of these picks are absolutely tops in the genre fiction field as far as overall quality goes…I’m more interested in well-defined and interesting characters, even if the plot never quite came together or if some of the other characters in a given book were a little flat or uninteresting. I’ve also, as a matter of principle, tried to avoid actual game-derived fiction, as it only serves to reinforce (in most cases) the stereotypes about different character types that the game takes as fundamental assumptions. I’m also not about to suggest the list is even vaguely comprehensive — it’s driven by the vagaries of my own reading and my somewhat shoddy memory. Anybody reading (all three of you) should feel free to throw your $.02 in the comments, and maybe I’ll nick some new reading material myself. So, all disclaimers aside and without further ado…
So you want to play a barbarian?
1. Conan: The easiest place to start, and the one most folks will think of first, is Conan. In fairness, there’s some quality barbarian goodness to be had in some of those stories, so I guess it passes the sniff test for our purposes. Howard certainly presents a barbarian that isn’t a) a moron or 2) entirely one-dimensional. It just almost feels like a cliché for me to even recommend it.
2. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: Heavy emphasis on the Fafhrd here. While a thief by trade, the burly northman is another nice example of a non-stupid barbarian. I’ve never really understood that whole archetype, honestly. Where did it come from? Conan’s no dummy, and neither is Fafhrd, but both are warriors that rely on enormous brute strength and come from “primitive” (read “non-urban”) backgrounds.
3. Belgariad: We’ll come back to these books again, no doubt. While the storytelling gets a bit repetitive in the Eddings’ corpus, character has always struck me as a strong point in all of their works. The Belgariad gives us yet another complex barbarian in the form of Barak, a literal interpretation of the Norse “berserker” in his transformations. Again, not an idiot, though he’s a bit more prone to boneheaded moves and the “let’s just smash it all” school of strategy and tactics.
So you want to play a bard?
1. Poetry: Seriously. Even if you hate it. It stocks the brain with the odd bit of poesy that can infiltrate your character’s vocabulary to good results, used sparingly. It also gets you thinking descriptively, and a convincing bard should be able to throw a little off-the-cuff flowery description around now and again. “Period” poetry would be good, though the language differences might be a little jarring and would sound forced at most gaming tables. I’d recommend against modern stuff and the tendencies towards blank verse — for this purpose, go find some good flowery rhyming Romantic poets (Wordsworth or Coleridge) or even some of the more formal Victorians (Tennyson’s good for this).
2. Spellsinger: Alan Dean Foster’s series is great for the music-as-magic motif, and the central character’s modern origins make his mindset easy to associate with for readers. And really, I’d rather have a player with a bard character that spouted appropriate (if anachronistic) song lyrics than one who never mentioned music except to announce his intention to activate a class feature.
3. The Little Country: My wife swears by this one for the bard players out there, and from what little I’ve gathered (having not had the chance to read it entirely), it certainly sounds like just the ticket. Fey, music-as-power, art-as-magic…
So you want to play a cleric?
This is a tough one…so much rides on the particular setting in play, not to mention the particular deity (if there’s a broad pantheon). To that end, I can merely recommend some things that feature religion as a major factor to the characters and their development.
1. Dune: Paul Atreides is a messianic figure, so the religious issue is pretty obvious. While the book is science fiction, it still gives a strong central character that is in many ways a religious leader, and Paul’s wrestles with the burden of being a religious leader as well as a political figure and leader of an army.
2. The Elenium: Eddings again. While the Pandion Knights are closer to paladins, a few are far enough over on the clergy end of the spectrum to be useful to players of clerics as well. Sparhawk himself is a little too much the soldier to really qualify, but his supporting cast work nicely.
3. Mythology: Bulfinch or Edith Hamilton. Look at your chosen patron deity/pantheon, and find some similar myths to use for raw material. After all, Pelor isn’t too far removed from Ra or Apollo in theory. Look for the common threads that run through Sun God myths and away you go. If you’re feeling like some homework, dig around in Joseph Campbell’s collected works a bit, too.
It’s not much, but it’s a start. Future installments will cover the rest of the core classes, and then maybe move on to more general character archetypes (the Merchant, the Soldier, the Scholar…that sort of thing). If I think of additional selections, I may throw them in a future installment, or I may just put ’em in comments. Please do the same, as I need more stuff to read.