The first bunch of books can be found here.
1. Bill Fawcett (editor) – How to Lose a Battle
There’s also a sequel, called How to Lose a War by pretty much the same bunch of writers.
The book consists of a bunch of historical battles where one side lost despite apparent edges. The general lessons seem to be that the most common reasons for these massive failures where either overconfidence or the lack of intelligence. Often both. Often the former leading to the latter.
2. Charles Nicholl – The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe
Apparently Marlowe wasn’t just a playwright. He was also part of the Elizabethan espionage machine, which did its best to ferret out Catholics and their sympathizers. Marlowe wasn’t a big player, but according to this book, its very possible his death was a result of these dealing. I won’t spoil it, but the book can be read as a campaign book. It has plenty of scenario hooks, NPCs and other setting materials.
3. Buddy Levy – Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs
A small group of unscrupulous and opportunistic adventurers go out and destroy a whole civilization against all odds and despite being told not to by their superiors. What’s more player character than that? The conquistadors also seem to be as resilient as PCs, as at one point Cortes has not one, but two cracks in his skull, but that only makes him camp for a while (couple of months actually) and on he goes.
Sure, through today’s politically correct lense, what Cortes did was wrong (and it was back then, too, if you think about it), but this is closest you get to these kinds of adventures in real life. There’s also enough politics to make it interesting campaign material for those who aren’t in it only for the massive, endless battlescenes.
4. Rob Alexander – Drawing & Painting Fantasy Landscapes & Cityscapes
I like to draw. I’m not good at it, but I still like it. However, I’m not offering this for just the fun of drawing. Instead, this book (and its kin, there’s plenty of books like this out there) is not only about the technique of drawing, but also about drawing inspiration, setting mood, and forming history through details. Of course, its hard to draw anything this complicated while running a game, but books like these help you understand what you should focus on in your descriptions.
And if you do have the time to make illustrations, why not? I’ve done it from time to time (though not anymore, since now my games tend to be very freeform and I hardly know what I’ll need beforehand).
Rob Alexander is best known for his work with Magic: the Gathering. You can see his art here.
5. John Howe – Forging Dragons
In the same vein, John Howe is probably best known for his conceptual work with Lord of the Rings. This particular book covers 30 years of his dragons, going through a multitude of ideas behind those designs.
6. Victoria Lynn Schmidt – 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters
A bunch of different character archetypes, divided into female, male and supporting characters. Both male and female archetypes are presented in relation to different gods from antiquity (for example Artemis: The Amazon and the Gorgon, and Hades: The Recluse and the Warlock). Each archetype is given typical personality, typical character arcs, and a bunch of examples among other stuff. Also, (probably the most usable part for the GM) each type has a villanous version of it.
7. Chet Van Duzer – Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps
Here be dragons might be mostly a myth (as far as I know, there’s only one real example of it), much of the empty areas in the maps were stuffed with illustrations of all sorts of weird things. This book explains why they are there and goes deep into the details on these old maps.
8. Paul G. Bahn (editor) – Lost Cities
A bunch of well illustrated introductions to cities all over the world, which – for some reason or another – were lost. Those reasons are explained as well.
9. Harvey J.S. Withers & Dr. Tobias Capwell – The Complete World Encyclopedia of Knives, Swords, Spears & Daggers Through History in Over 1500 Photographs
Not the most concise title, but it’ll do. The interesting part is that each weapon is introduced with a explanation on why it was designed the way it was and the historical context.
10. Roger Von Oech – Whack on the Side of the Head
This is Mark Rosewater’s favorite book. He’s been the very successful head of design for Magic: the Gathering for quite a while now, keeping the game alive, so he must have some idea of what remaining creative over a long period of time requires. Therefore, this is a sort of must read for anyone in any creative pursuit.