Yes, it's the dreaded "R-word."
You didn't think it was just for school, did you? Take it from a long-time gamer -- you will never escape the need to do research, even in role-playing. And if you are the Gamemaster, you will especially need to do your research.
Okay, now that we've gotten the obligatory message out of the way, let's talk about how you can use a number of sources to add to your role-playing or game-mastering. And if you don't understand why I'm telling you this, then go back and read the first three installments of this column, as well as the foreword of just about any role-playing game on the market. After all, you didn't think that E. Gary Gygax and Mark Rein·Hagen came up with all those neat ideas on their own, did you?
Speaking of which, let me make one thing perfectly clear right now -- for those of you gamers out there whose research materials begin and end with whatever new supplement the gaming company du jour has just released, let me say that while these can make fine additional materials, you ought to do your primary research using more reliable sources. Supplements can often sacrifice accuracy for playability, and if they are the only materials you've read, you can get caught with the proverbial egg on your face when you come up against someone whose knowledge comes from more reliable sources. If you're the Gamemaster, this can be even more embarrassing, so make sure you have your bases covered.
For background research, your local library is still without a doubt the best place to begin. There, you will find an infinite number of books, periodicals, tapes and videos on any subject you could ask for (provided, of course, that you're willing to look), and all are available for your perusal free of charge (a plus for the typical gamer, who generally suffers from a lack of funds). Head over to the card catalog, and check out the subject you are interested in (say, medieval France) until you have accumulated a base of materials upon which to draw. Jot down the titles, authors and catalog numbers (this last is very important, as you'll no doubt remember from grammar-school English class), and then head into the stacks. Give each of these materials a quick skim, if you can, and take notes or photocopy the most pertinent sections.
Having done your reading, you might want to invest in some maps of the area in which the game is going to be set, and seeing what is in the immediate area. After all, you don't want to put your Garou caern in the middle of a landfill! I put the use of maps to good effect in one of my Werewolf games; Rock Creek Park, just three miles outside the campus of Georgetown University (the player characters' college), made an ideal location for the players' sept, and using an actual place also gives it that little extra touch of "realism."
If you need a break from the books, you can always use other sources as research, too. Want to give your combats a more realistic feel, as well as see if that character with the 2 Strength really can wield that broadsword the way his player says he can? Then check out a fight practice of your local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. It's one of the best places to learn about armed and armored fighting, as well as other assorted "period" (ie, medieval) practices such as brewing, costuming, illuminated manuscripts, calligraphy, and many more! What more could a fantasy GM ask for?
For those GMs running a martial-arts campaign, try sitting in on a practice session at a local dojo; the phone book ought to yield some possibilities (needless to say, it would be wise to clear this sort of thing beforehand; it will increase your chances of a return visit, and you don't want to give your hobby a bad reputation, do you?).
I realize that the prospect of research may seem daunting to the beginning (and even to an experienced) GM, but the rewards will more than pay for the time and effort spent. Your players will be able to learn all sorts of neat things, too, like cool martial arts moves you've actually seen performed (and they thought the stuff from the movies was neat...), as well as realistic use of medieval and modern weaponry ("But you'd need to use both hands to swing it like that!"), not to mention aspects of various cultures (Yes, learning can be fun!)
Well, what are you waiting for? There's a whole world of information to add to your game out there! As they say,"Get cracking!"