What’s in a Book?

If you have never done so, stop and think about what goes into a good RPG book.  Not the RPG, but the book itself.

There are a lot of challenges a designer faces when it comes time to design the book.  An RPG potentially needs to do 3 things –
1. Teach a game,
2. Provide and engaging read,
3. Serve as a reference

This is the project management triangle of game publishing – at absolutely best you can pick two, but on many days you’ll be lucky to get just one.  If there’s a game that has ever successfully done all 3, I have not seen it.[1]

But it’s not the only choice that needs to get made – completeness is also a spectrum.  To illustrate, look at Evil Hat’s two big games – Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG.  Fate is a fairly lightweight system, but those are *huge* books, because we made the decision to really talk everything through.  They’re iceberg books – the amount that actually comes up in play is much smaller than the body of information presented, but that large body is what supports the tip.

The problem is, this is daunting for many.  The idea that Spirit of the Century is a pick up game seems preposterous if judged purely by page count. So there is an impulse to step away from that level of completeness in order to provide something easier to digest.  Rules that add complexity get trimmed, edge cases get smoothed down, complex sets get standardized, all in favor of striking a balance that serves a different set of priorities.

And this is an important thing – something really critical to understanding Fate and the role of Fate Core – these are not the *right* choices, they are the choices which *best serve* the goal.  The Fate Core book is, effectively, the 101 on Fate.  It covers the basics, teaches you how to use it, and gives an implementation that works very well for a core set of activities. But like most 101’s, it is a foundation that will largely get discarded in detail (though not in spirit) as you proceed along the path of mastery.

We talk a lot about “dials” in the rules, as a way to adjust certain rules to certain effects, but even that is a streamline.  When we say everything in Fate is a dial, we really mean *everything*.  The four outcomes? Dial.  Stress and consequences?  Dial.  The fate point economy? Dial.  I can change every one of those things in substantial ways and still have a game that is recognizably Fate.  And that’s the point.

The secret of Fate Core is that there really is no core, or rather, what core there is is so small that it wouldn’t even cover a piece of paper. Fate is a tool to create and resolve interesting situations and respect what’s important.  But like most such simple premises, it spawns a thousand questions which – if answered – result in some really big books.

Why does this matter?  Because it means that Fate Core is going to be flawed.  Not just because it’s a human endeavor, but because it’s a snapshot of a certain set of priorities, and those priorities are not going to suit every gamer and every game. Hell, many of them do not suit *me*.  But despite that, it is critical that there *be* a baseline, for without that discussion is difficult to pursue and, by no coincidence, if that baseline is accessible, then it is easier to discuss.

So, read Fate Core.  Learn from Fate Core.  And when you reach the point where you want to change things to fix them?  THAT’S where the journey really begins.

1 – If you think a game has, and that game just happens to be your favorite game, then it is possible that you are a tiny bit biased. 

8 thoughts on “What’s in a Book?

  1. Ryan Macklin


    I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, especially as I was putting together Mythender, working with Lenny on Fate Core’s word budget, etc. And I see the list as larger:

    1. Teach a game,
    2. Provide and engaging read,
    3. Serve as a reference
    4. Not intimidate a reader

    Point #4 isn’t solely about book size, but that’s a decent chunk of it. And on our best days, we’ll maybe hit three of those. And lately I’m wondering if we’re too readily throwing that fourth point under the bus in the books our hobby creates.

    – Ryan

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Hmm. I admit, I would totally have folded #4 into #2 – it’s important, but I’m not sure it’s separate, specifically because every action I would take to address is an action I would take for #2.

      That said, I might *expand* it – there’s a marketing sort of angle which might be boiled down to “Make a book that someone *wants* to read” which would include intimidation, but would also include things like not having creepily sexist art on the cover, making an artifact that you want to pick up, things like that. Really, that’s the umbrella of a good *product* irrespective of content.

      Now, *that* I would say is important, but as I think about it, I’d still eave it off the list for a simple reason – that is not at odds with any of the other priorities. It’s something you should do, but it doesn’t demand tradeoffs in the same way that choosing between 1, 2 and 3 do. So, definitely agreeing that it’s important, but I’d categorize it differently.

    2. Ryan Macklin

      I used to fold #4 into #2, but a switch flipped last year that made me re-think that–and solely about production, not marketing. But I think it’ll take a blog post to unpack those thoughts. In short: #4 is “will someone pick up and try the book” and #2 is “will someone be engaged once they do try the book.” And I separate them because I have seen many books fail at one because they weren’t both considered in production.

      – Ryan

  2. misuba

    When I publish a game, it’s going to have five sections: Why to Play, How to Play, Troubleshooting, Final Thoughts, and Reference. It’ll have those marks on the edge of its pages to mark each section (what the hell are those called?). I will make a point, on the back cover, of how one can look at the edge of the book and see how tiny the How to Play section is. And of course I won’t stop there; I’ll do some YouTube videos as well. ALL THE WAYS TO LEARN.


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