Which non-fiction books should I read?

edited December 2011 in Story Games
I know this is an unorthodox topic for this site, but SG is full of really cool and smart people and I'd like to pick your brain.
It's also a pseudo-necro of this thread. (Andy if you think they should be merged, go ahead.)

To make it more gaming related, tell me
a) what games you've run based on non-fiction books or
b) how you would run a game based on a non-fiction book that you recommend

I'm not really looking for philosophy, because I studied it and I already have a pretty good idea of what I still need to read. History, finance, sociology, anthropology and similar topics very welcome.
Bonus points if it's something outlandish, like an account of some obscure historical episode (Jason Morningstar I'm looking at you).


  • edited December 2011
    First read: On Rope: North American Vertical Rope Techniques
    Then watch: Nordwand

    Also, consider: Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069
    I could see doing games that dealt with generation gaps or a game played out in successive generations with each new generation responding to previous generations.
  • After reading The Last Mughal, which is about the Great Mutiny and the sacking of Delhi, I've wanted to run a game where the PCs live in a city that is on the verge of undergoing similar circumstances. I'm not sure I would make it a historical game, but I think that would be a good situation to launch a Burning Wheel game with. It's really tense and tragic. Maybe I'd do it just a straight situation of humans and imperial powers and the nastiness of war, though I've thought of making the city a dwarven hold that's fallen under the dominion of men, and who use the greed and godlessness of the dwarves as an excuse to sack the hold of its treasures.
  • edited December 2011
    Anyone playing medieval fantasy would do well to read A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.

    It's a wonderful history of 14th-century France which integrates the big picture very nicely with the small picture. Like, it's easy to write the Crusades as the narration of arrows across a map, or the Black Death as a well-notated pie chart. ADM is much more personal than that.

    I used it directly in the D&D4E game I was DMing. Almost every theme in the game was informed by stuff reported by the book.

    I made the church of Bahamut schism in the fashion of the Avignon papacy.

    I made my free companies much nastier than the typical harmless and merrie band of mercenaries you see in fantasy gaming.

    I put fractious little baronies at each others throats, with a weak and ineffectual central king struggling to raise taxes and ride herd.

    I had crusading dwarves warring to end the heresy of the Fang Thane and return the ancient cities of Moradin to orthodox worship.

    edit: ah, it is mentioned 2x in the other thread but it deserves a third mention so here you go.
  • edited December 2011
    Here are some nice nonfiction books with pleasant matches:

    Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, by Errol Morris. (Either you like Erroll Morris or you don't, and if you don't we can't be friends. Pair this with Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy and read it second, applying what you learn from Morris)

    A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil McGregor (Endlessly cool stories about obscure objects in the British Museum - and the Rosetta Stone of course - that knit together to tell the history of humanity. Pair this with Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schalansky, the most beautiful book I'll mention here)

    The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Gerard (a favorite of mine, maybe tastefully paired with Thomas Keneally's fictionalized account with extra murder, Victim of the Aurora)

    The Photographer, Didier LeFevre (excellent account of a dumb guy getting in trouble in pre-Taliban Nuristan - pair this with any of Joe Sacco's documentary work, like Footnotes in Gaza or Safe Area Goražde)

    Pity the Nation, by Robert Fisk, is an astonishing account of the Lebanese civil war and an unintentionally heroic portrait of actual journalists doing journalism (pair this with Mike Davis' breathless history of the car bomb, Buda's Wagon).

    The Reckoning, by Charles Nicholl, is compelling and great and filled with mystery and excitement, all revolving around the death of Kit Marlowe. (Pair this with Barry Unsworth's Morality Play or maybe Marlowe's own Tamburlaine, which writhes with political dog-whistling apparently)

    Hope this helps!

    Oh! If you've read A Distant Mirror and really want to get into it deeper, try Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena by William Caferro. A very dry monograph about how Siena dealt with Sir John Hawkwood and other villains. It will fill you with ideas.
  • I'm a particular fan of Victorian England, so I've run games based on Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which gives wonderful and shocking descriptions of prostitutes. Also of markets.

    A Taste For Murder is partly based on Mark Girouard's Life in the English Country House. His Victorian Pubs is particularly good, too, especially when he talks about gin palaces, which have largely been forgotten.

    Georgian England is wonderful, too. It was hard, for a while, to find a good sourcebook, but I finally found Frank McLynn's Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England. This has details of smugglers, highwaymen, poachers, wreckers and all the traditionally English things you can't really remember where they're from.

  • edited December 2011
    This is good stuff!

    The worst thing about this thread is that A Distant Mirror and Crime & Punishment both seem to be out of print and existing copies are obscenely priced on amazon. My cart already holds more than a hundred pounds of books without them. Perhaps I should just shell out for a kindle instead.
  • Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures A nice overview of Wade Davis' work interacting with people around the world.

    The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern Worl Davis talking about cultural diversity

    More locally focused books (I'd start with the two up top first)
    Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache Western Apache use of places names, relationships with the landscape and all around mind shifting book

    And closer to home
    Zuni Ceremonialism

  • Oh, and if you run any modern or near-modern "caper" style games, Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems is more useful than it sounds. Particularly the chapter on physical security (pdf) and its "How to steal a painting" side-bars.
  • Trade and Markets in the Early Empires, edited by Karl Polyani.

    I can't seem to find a new copy for sale (or a reasonably priced used copy, for that matter), but doubtless you can find one in most university libraries.

    The main idea put forward in this book is that the common capitalist claim that market trade is somehow rooted in human nature (caveman A has salt, caveman B has meat. They trade, and now they both have some salt and some meat) is false. Market capitalism is a social construct, and one that appears much later than trade through governing bodies (ie caveman C lords over cavemen A and B, taking away their salt and meat and redistributing it in a relatively fair manner).

    I'm not a historian or an economist, and I've no idea just how historically accurate Polyani's ideas are; however, the book does offer a wealth of small details that are very useful when running a game set in a pre-capitalist society, and offer some good ways to make Ye Olde Adventure Supply Shoppe or the Big City Bazaar a fundamentally different experience than the modern shopping experience.

    I've recently used it to model the economy of the city-states in my Apocalypse World campaign.
  • edited December 2011
    Posted By: mease19Also, consider:Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069
    I second this one. I read it like 14 years ago and I've been watching it come true ever since.
    Posted By: akooserLight at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing CulturesA nice overview of Wade Davis' work interacting with people around the world.
    Wade Davis is pretty amazing. He's also done a number of lectures over the years for the CBC that you might be able to download and listen to while doing other stuff.

    And I, too, have had some trouble finding Karl Polanyi books, ever since I heard a program about him, also on the CBC.

    And some of my own recommendations, in order of personal preference;
    License to Kill by Robert Young Pelton (mercenaries).
    AK-47 by Larry Kahaner.
    Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins.
    The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern by Alex Owen
    Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking 1880-1920 by Pamela Thurschwell.
    The Invention of Telepathy 1870-1901 by Roger Luckhurst.
    Overworld: The Life and Times of a Reluctant Spy by Larry J. Kolb.
    The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History by Philip Bobbitt (a history of the European stat system and international politics).
    The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West by Toby E. Huff.
    Through the Crosshairs: A History of Snipers by Andy Dougan.
  • edited December 2011
    How about some management books? :-)

    My father was a factory and quality manager at a plant for many years. When I showed an interest in his work he gave me these two books to read.

    The goal
    It reads like a novel, and teaches us much about doing things in sequence. :-) Everyone I have recommended the book has loved it.

    Out of the Crisis
    Actually, I only read the first few chapters of this one, after that it got pretty gritty. But they taught me a lot about how things can be done better. And the advice given applies to almost any area, especially if the task involves many people.
  • edited December 2011
    My two favorite "Interesting if true, but how do you prove it" books:

    The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has the added bonus that it was part of the Science behind Snow Crash. Could be a real interesting resource for a game set at the dawn of human civilization.

    The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead actually does make some testable predictions, which is neat. Could be used as the premise for a cosmic-level transhumist game.

    Both make you think, and both could easily spawn an RPG setting or three.
  • Posted By: JohnstoneConfessions of an Economic Hitman
    You can watch the film on YouTube, in full, by the way. A little conspiracy-esque, but very interesting stuff. Is the film based on the book, and to what extent?
  • in addition to my recommendations in that old thread, some good non fiction on two topics that I think are trending crucial


    jane jacobs' the death and life of great american cities
    jan gehl's life between buildings: using public space
    dj waldie's holy land: a suburban memoir ( I ran a con game of lacuna set in a quasi los angeles inspired by this book)
    iain sinclair's lights out for the territory: nine excursions in the secret history of london
    kenneth jackson's crabgrass frontier: the suburbanization of the united states
    rebecca solnit's wanderlust: a history of walking
    james holston's the modernist city: an anthropological critique of brazilia


    intergovernmental panel on climate change's 2007 synthesis report (sadly, overly conservative estimates)
    john maynard keynes' general theory of employment, interest and money (or read a summary like keynes: a very short introduction )
    andre gorz's a critique of economic reason
    karl polanyi's the great transformation: the political and economic origins of our times
    david graeber's debt: the first 5000 years
    ajay kapur's "Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Imbalances" (this pdf used to be available online but citigroup has been disappearing it), you can google for summaries
  • edited December 2011
    Posted By: Paul T.Posted By: JohnstoneConfessions of an Economic Hitman
    You can watch the film on YouTube, in full, by the way. A little conspiracy-esque, but very interesting stuff. Is the film based on the book, and to what extent?

    The film (Apology of an Economic Hitman) hits pretty much all the salient points that are in the book. There's more detail in the books, although I still felt it was a little bit abstract. His follow-up book, The Secret History of the American Empire covers some other peoples' stories as well, and gets into more detail.
  • edited December 2011
    Marshall asked me how I was introduced to Generations: The History of America's Future.

    I honestly don't quite remember. For some reason I was looking at their later book that was just on America's 13th generation (the name they use for "Gen X," or people born 1961-1981), which was called "13th Gen" (did this influence Vampire? dunno. The comic Gen13? probably). Either it was in the bibliography of some other book I had read, or I found it on the shelves at the local library (I used to scour them pretty thoroughly back in the day), and it caught my eye. I'm pretty certain nobody recommended it to me, though, although I could also have found out about it from a magazine article. Anyway, I thought is was interesting, so I checked out Generations.

    One thing the book did was explain each generation's opinions about generational theory. I found that they explained my own attitudes and opinions very, very well. In like 1998, not long after I read it, I was explaining it to a guy I was in a band with, who was born c.1971. He said "I don't believe in different generations." So I read what the book said his 13th Gen attitude would be and why he wouldn't believe in generations and he said "Hey! That's exactly what I believe! What the hell book is this?"

    So there's a funny anecdote for you, since I don't remember the real answer.
  • Anything by Harvey Pekar, but especially his slice of life stuff. This kind of thing has really inspired me when it comes to the day to day lives of characters when running Mouse Guard or FreeMarket.
  • Man, seriously, if you haven't read it you really, really should: The Communist Manifesto by ol' Marx and Engels.

    And if you're feeling up to it, Das Kapital Vol. I. David Havey makes reading it bearable. But what's really, really spooky about it, as much as academically I've had to wrestle ceaselessly with various strains of Marxism, is how he explains capitalism and things like the current financial and cultural problems we're facing, like two hundred years ago.

    If you haven't read any Marx, you have no idea how markets operate. None whatsoever. Literally less that zero.

    Also, similarly, if you have any interest in the operations of power within society, you should read Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Like with Marx, I consider those who've not read Foucault and study government and power naive at best.

    Neither of these authors are without their faults, but they are absolutely essential and critical introductions to thinking about the two largest social forces: the State and the Market.
  • A second recommendation for The World Without Us.

    Also, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse, both by Jared Diamond. In terms on understanding what happens when radically different societies come into conflict, and why well-established civilizations go under, they're great, and make great food for thought for 'fallen empires' type games, ala the current D&D setting, and of course Apocalypse World.
  • Hi Gregor! Long time no hear. How are you doing my friend?

    Let's say you picked a really interesting topic here. Two books immediately pop in my mind.

    The first is The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia a book that demonstrates how you don't have to search for incredible settings in fiction, because human history has much more than any fictional setting could provide. The geographical and storical setting of the Silk Road is my favorite, and seeing a game about it would be just great.

    Also, how about 1421: The Year China Discovered America that's a very interesting history that has only recently been uncovered. Imagine, Cristoforo Colombo seems to have been aware of the existence of the 'new continent', and had been navigating with chinese maps!

    Then since you are a perfect italian speaker, and since your country has a shared history with Venice, you could find a book like I servizi segreti di Venezia. Spionaggio e controspionaggio ai tempi della Serenissima quite interesting.
    Imagine. CIA, KGB, Stasi, Gestapo, Mossad, you name it. The basis of espionage and the very concept of secret services has been laid out by Venice, and all modern intelligence agencies are based upon that very model.

  • Thirty Years A Detective, Allan Pinkerton's roundup of property crime in 1800s America. If you ever wondered how to be a professional thief or con man in the Old West, you need to read this book.

    Best of all, it is freely downloadable from the superheroes at archive.org
Sign In or Register to comment.