I spend a lot of mental bandwidth on the question of what should be in an RPG book.
When you’re talking about core rules, that’s a fairly known set of issues. Finding a balance between teaching vs referencing vs being interesting is tricky, but it’s a known problem. And while I wouldn’t call it a solved problem, it’s a problem with a number of solutions.
Beyond core rules, it gets a little more interesting. The nature of books gets more diverse. Adventures, GM advice, setting bibles, rules expansion and lots of other core ideas kind of float around in that space. It makes the question of what makes for good supplemental material pretty complicated, because there are so many things that supplemental material might be.
For the moment, I zoom in on setting and chew on it a bit. This is on my mind since someone did a wonderful New York City Setting Book based on Vornheim. If you’re unfamiliar, Vornheim is one of the more interesting setting books of recent memory. It’s not a matter of content, but rather, one of style and presentation – it’s a book focused on very dynamically helping a GM fake a city in an interesting way.
Full transparency – it’s not entirely to my taste, but that doesn’t stop me from recognizing that it’s a great book and a great idea. Specifically, I strongly applaud the idea of creating setting material with a focus on what’s going to be most directly useful in play. I think there’s room for disagreement regarding what exactly is most useful while still acknowledging the utility of that approach.
But Vornheim also raises the very reasonable challenge – it works, so if it’s not for me, then it’s very reasonable to ask what would be for me. If I were to write setting material for myself, what would I do?
To this end, it’s worth looking at what problems I need to solve. Paradoxically, as a GM, I want material that excites players more than myself. That’s a tough row to hoe, because I can’t really expect players to read the same crap I do as a GM, so presentation and share-ability become much more essential elements to me than inspiration. Worse, I also want to leave lots of room for players to create content, which is almost like I don’t want setting at all, but I do. Setting provides a common frame of reference. The trick is discovering which pieces are small enough to be digestable, yet are strong enough to be load bearing.
I think there’s an answer, and as with many things, I think it can be found in the Amber DRPG – characters. The faces, to use our Evil Hat speak. But how do you express a setting as characters?
That’s the next question.
Of all things, I think Vornheim has a lot in common with Apocalypse world and its ilk. They all are designed with a very thin membrane between product and players at the table, and that’s admirable in many ways. ↩