Setting Books Have Been Ruined For Me- And Why I Blame Zak S.

Up front I want to point out an important part of this post- It’s even in the title: ME.  I want to avoid calamitous outrage, arguments, hullabaloo, and hubbub.  I am stating that this is my beef with setting books, and not that I think that there is a right way or wrong way to enjoy them.

Tossing the Blame

I can sum up how setting books have been ruined for me in one word:  Vornheim.  It’s an amazing book and pretty much has set the precedent on how I now view and approach other setting books (even ones I’ve read prior to reading Vornheim). I did a review of the book when it first came out.

How and why I blame Zak for ruining setting books for me can be found in two examples- one is Vornheim itself.  The presentation is amazing and it has more useful information about Vornheim in its 75 page than other setting books do at 100+ pages.  It is usable (immediately) at the table and not only that, but it’s EASY to utilize as a tool!

Two- is a post by Zak that deals with things I’m going to babble about in this post (and his will probably be more succinct and eloquently than I will…  Oh well thems the breaks).

A snippet from Zak’s introduction in Vornehim would not go amiss here: “Too often, I find, city supplements start by inspiring you and finish by exhausting you.”

While his comment is about city supplements, it is easily transferable to most Campaign Settings and how they are, generally, laid out.  Campaign Settings spend too much time on exposition about things/events that *REALLY* don’t matter…

The reason I say that these things don’t matter is because they hardly ever come up in play.  Sure the exposition may be a great story, or background info, but why do I need to read four (or more) pages about the great war that happened 1200 years ago, and how it shattered the Elven kingdom?  I’d rather see the info imparted in a single paragraph.  Better yet, do it in a few bulleted points, l

ike so:

  • 1200 years ago the Elven Kingdom summoned an Elder God.

  • Elder God tore the Elven Kingdom and their minds asunder.

  • War ripped through the land.  Bringing plague, strife, and death.

  • War ended after 50 years.  Elven kingdom was destroyed and Elves became strange, haunted things.  War saw the birth of the Dark Elves.

This approach is simple, easy to remember, and doesn’t overburden the GM with superfluous information.

I feel bad when I’m running a game and I HAVE to explain a piece of history or whatever to the players because I know that they are going to lose interest.  Their eyes glaze over, the phones come out, or whatever…  but they’re gone and then I have to wrangle them back in.

Largely I think the problem is two-fold in how it is handled in this format.  One- it’s just like a lecture and trying to focus on it is annoying and boring.  Two- The players can’t interact with it, kill it, steal it, fucking it, or worse…  So why bother?  Many players, in my experience, seem to take the, “The GM will remind me again of the important details when they come up again” philosophy.  I honestly can’t say I blame them, even if I do find it off-putting.

In the past when I HAD to do some sort of explanation of the past, I usually tried to handle it as a flashback.  Let the group actually live the history.  They played the famous historical characters and actually make the decisions and shape the history.  They sure remember it then.  Sure what I had “planned” in my head for the War of the Ragged Bone Spurs ended up turning out differently, but now it’s their war…  their history…  The negative to this approach (if it can be considered one- because in the end it is STILL role-playing) is that it takes up more time and can slow down a campaign…

In my experience the buy in for a campaign and its “history” needs to be low.  Players are not going to remember all of this crap, plus their character sheet stuff, plus all the other players info, etc.  The only time they remember anything (in my experience) is when it directly affects them. They may not remember the story about the greatest thief in the world stealing from a beautiful princess very well, but they’ll remember him when they wake up and he’s taken all of their hard earned loot.  Now when they research him in an attempt to find him and break off his toes with a tack hammer, they’ll remember the stories and events.  And that’s if you even feel the need to relate them.

Another issue I have with setting books is they contain (mostly) long-winded prose set up to inspire the GM, and give them the flavor of the world, but largely I think it bogs down play by having to flip through the book(s), keeping extensive notes of events and crap from the book, and remembering everything about it and your own session notes, etc.

Changing My Underwear Isn’t Hard…  So Reading a Campaign Setting Shouldn’t Be Either

When I look at campaign settings such as Eberron (one I ran games in for YEARS), Freeport, Pathfinder, etc the campaign info contained in these books are well over a hundred pages.  In the case of Freeport (which is a systemless setting) it weighs in at 257 pages…

I read the damned thing, tried to run a few games of it, and found I had to make most of the stuff up on the fly because I didn’t take extensive notes, and couldn’t remember the 80 shops and 300 NPCs per district…

Now some people may love this level of detail in a RPG setting, but that is unplayable to me.

When you look at Vornheim, the “setting” material goes from page 6-10.  Then there are 3 locations that are actually adventures, but still give the feeling of the weirdness of Vornheim (even if you never run the adventure).  After that it is all a bunch of glorious tables and charts that let you make the setting yours.  You don’t need to remember all the shops in all the sections of town or flip through the books pages.  Just roll a few dice and boom!  You’re good to go.

Personally I don’t think setting books need to contain long-winded explanations of how the world is in shambles (I’m sure that the players and GM will do that themselves as they interact with the world and cause chaos.).  Keep it simple, easy, and readily accessible so it can be used in play.  As I stated before, do it in brief points and then give them the tools to make the world their own.

Aside: I do have to give props to Newt Newport, author of Crypts and Things for keeping the explanation of his setting down to roughly 6 pages and giving a bunch of different suggestions, themes, and tools to help create adventures in his world.  

Also I have not read Carcosa yet (I’m so ashamed).  While I’ve heard that it is “bare bones,” I think that it’ll be more up my alley in terms of how it is presented and executed.

Into the Future

My goal this year is to publish my Hubris setting, and I’ll be taking the inspirations, realizations, and lessons I’ve learned about how I want to use and present a campaign setting.

We’ll see how it goes.

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About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

9 responses to “Setting Books Have Been Ruined For Me- And Why I Blame Zak S.

  • ClawCarver

    I couldn’t agree more. One of the best lessons I’ve learned from the OSR is to avoid writing reams of obfuscating prose and strip things (rules, background info, whatever) right down to the minimum necessary to get playing. (Basically bullet points, like you say.)

    Also, as far as conveying a flavourful setting with maximum efficiency and minimum verbiage goes, have you seen Towers of Krshal? It makes even Vornheim look bloated and verbose!

  • Geoffrey McKinney

    I thoroughly agree. I second the recommendation of Towers of Krshal. I think you’ll like my Carcosa and my Isle of the Unknown. I HATE having to wade through text in a RPG book. If I can’t use it on the fly, or if I can’t use it after browsing through it for 15 minutes, I’m typically not interested.

    • wrathofzombie

      Thanks for commenting Geoffrey. Both of your setting books have definitely piqued my curiosity and interest. Carcosa is actually next on my “to buy” list.

      I agree- if I can’t find it in a few minutes at the table, I don’t need. it.

  • shortymonster

    I am far too guilty of filling a lot of my game design writing with more fluff than would ever be used. I actually gave up on an idea because after four pages I went back to re-read and realised how totally useless almost everything would be to anyone who wanted to run the game. If they wanted to read a great little story, I was doing fine, but as a useful tool to bring a game/setting to life, it was like walking through peanut butter.

    • wrathofzombie

      What is awesome though, Shorty is you looked at it with a critical eye and recognized that. I’ve seen too many setting books where it is apparent that the author fell in love with their world/words and just kept going… And it becomes more of a short story, rather than a RPG setting.

  • Some Thoughts on Setting Books « The Rhetorical Gamer

    [...] post started life as a reply to a post at the Wrath of Zombie’s blog about setting books. It’s a good post and clearly [...]

  • >B

    Mike, you’re the one that got me on this OSR kick in the first place. You and I both wanted to love, love the Freeport book. We both came to a similar conclusion on it too. These days I’m saying “don’t tell me what the place is like, give me a table that will show me what the place is like…” So, of course, I’m all “hell yeah” over here when you preach it.

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