Updated: Oct 17, 2022
We've all been there as GMs or Dms. We've run a campaign or two and now we need an injection of fresh inspiration. We don't want the next big homebrew campaign to be a mash up of the last ones or more of the same. When this happens to me personally as a GM, I like to immerse myself in fantasy shows and books (or sci-fi, depending on the game or campaign) and use the tone of the books or maybe some base ideas to inform my own game world. No, I'm not talking about lifting anything from the books themselves (though I will cover that in another post because it can be a fun tool for adapting novels or shows into homebrew games based on those properties) - I'm talking about good old fashioned inspiration.
With that, lets take a look at the Top Five Book Series I go to for recharging my fantasy batteries.
5. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
By George R. R. Martin
This is obviously a very popular (and infamously unfinished) series which spawned not only one hit show but two, with the more recent House of the Dragon and previously A Game of Thrones. Having been a television writer himself, George R.R. Martin taps into the cinematic qualities and Shakespearean moments which really can bring a campaign to life in new and interesting ways for TTRPGs. If you want your campaigns to have political intrigue and machinations, intense character interactions, and a large and epic scope - this is a good choice. I would even go so far as to say a campaign based around themes found in these novels would be great for heavy roleplay focused games, ala the old White Wolf Publishing classics like Vampire: The Masquerade or Werewolf: The Apocalypse or maybe to extrapolate that further into more modern games like Alien: The Roleplaying Game by Free League Publishing.
4. STAR WARS: THRAWN TRILOGY
By Timothy Zahn
Look, just hear me out. I know that Star Wars isn't traditional fantasy, but it's also not science fiction. Star Trek is science fiction, and Star Wars is a space opera, which is essentially fantasy reskinned as science fiction lite. This is why when people say "Star Trek or Star Wars?" I roll my eyes, because they are not even on the same coin. With that said, I also know that the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn is no longer canon, yet I believe that the books are still enjoyable and can give GMs lots of inspiration for their own campaigns or gaming sessions.
Aside from being an amazing writer and a super friendly guy (I had him sign my copy of Heir to the Empire and we chatted about Maine for like thirty minutes) Zahn really taps into what makes Star Wars great and what could also make it great as inspiration for your game sessions: Team Dynamics and Smart Villains. Grand Admiral Thrawn is arguably one of the smartest villains ever written in the Star Wars universe. He's constantly on top of the heroes of the story, and likewise the heroes all showcase what makes them...heroes. This can come in handy if you're looking to showcase moments in which your players can individually shine, as well as ways in which you can make your own BBEG stand out from the rest.
3. DRAGONLANCE CHRONICLES
By Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Let's face it - where would TTRPGs be without good old Dungeons & Dragons? Most GMs who do homebrew campaigns essentially reskin current 5E adventures or at least use the same sort of flavor homebrew that tastes a little bit at least like D&D. There's something to be said for the dynamic and character-driven moments you can find in the pages of the Dragonlance Chronicles. Dragons of Autumn Twilight hands down sent me spiraling into a world of love for Dragonlance, which is still my favorite D&D setting of all time. Caramon, Raistlin, Tanis, Goldmoon and the others are still so vivid in my mind and the first three books in the Dragonlance Chronicles should be textbook reading for anyone who wants to run a great 5E campaign. These novels chronicle highs, lows, and even character deaths with extreme skill and detail that make you feel like you're playing your own character in a game, which makes sense because the books were based on games the authors had in their own home. The War of the Lance, the overarching story within the books, is a great template for creating connective tissue in your own games as far as story threads and epic moments go.
2. THE SWORD OF SHANNARA TRILOGY
By Terry Brooks
Okay, I know people either seem to love or hate Terry Brook (I personally love him and have a few signed novels of his) but I would say his original Sword of Shannara Trilogy is one of the best things that GMs can read if they want to get an idea of how to create their own unique homebrew worlds which utilize elements from more well-established settings. Hear me out.
If you've ever read Sword of Shannara and maybe stopped there because it was too derivative of Lord of the Rings, I honestly wouldn't blame you. There's a volcanic mountain range in the book the characters must travel to with a magic item, and it all seems very much like a retread - unless you go further. By the time The Elfstones of Shannara starts getting interesting, Brooks has already put his own unique spin on an established genre overshadowed by Tolkien in very possible sense. Brooks' most unique traits within the Shannara series is his use of the setting as character, as well as the way in which each book or trilogy begins years down the road from the previous book or trilogy, featuring characters who are descendants of the originals. There is lots to get inspiration from here, such as crafting homebrew lore, repurposing well-known fantasy races (fantasy races in Shannara are a result of nuclear war in a more technologically advanced time which reverted technology to that of medieval Europe), creating new classes (Druids in Shannara are not anything like Druids in 5E, and almost more like Jedi, which to me as a GM was really interesting), crafting new ways to use magic items and create lore around them (The Elfstones, to me, are one of the most iconic magic items in fantasy) as well as depicting intense battles and fight scenes without being overly detailed, yet still making them effective. Not only that but you can see the evolution of his own fantasy world play out in his books. (Just do yourself a favor and don't watch the MTV Shannara show because it's not really like the books although I'm happy Brooks got a payday).
1. THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY
By JRR Tolkien
This book series is the granddaddy of all things fantasy, and thus all things TTRPG. Orcs, Elves, Trolls, and the like have all long been fodder for TTRPGs and without Tolkien, D&D might never have seen the light of day. I would say if you just really want to look at the foremost master of homebrew worlds, Tolkien has it all. He created languages, lore, and really harnessed the group dynamics that have been passed down to become the group mechanics in TTRPGs that we all know and love today. His iteration of the classic "adventuring party" was not exactly new, but the way in which he put his own spin on it is a lesson for any GMs out there, experienced or brand new. Your own spin is what will set your homebrew campaign or game session apart and really bring it to life.
Are there any book series you recommend for GMs or DMs to really get into a fantasy world headspace? Comment below!