Shortly after I got back into games as an adult nearly 10 years ago, I recall running an adventure that seemed thrilling at the time. I was running for two players, and they needed to delve into a Dwarven crypt to recover… well, something. 10 years ago, remember?
I alluded to massive traps scattered throughout this crypt, and built up a general sense of dread about the likelihood of character survival. They took the hook, and approached the dungeon with extreme caution. We’ve probably all heard jokes about searching every 5 feet–that quite literally happened in the first 60′ hallway of this dungeon.
And I allowed it.
And what’s more… it seemed fun at the time!
I tend to approach games as Oscar Wilde approached art–there are not good or bad games, there are fun and not-so-fun gaming sessions (and some games tend toward more of the former than the latter). By my standards today, I ran a “bad game.” But at the time, it seemed fun. No regrets–but lesson learned.
My post today isn’t about the philosophy of fun in gaming, or even about searching for traps every five feet. However, it is about something all too similar, and something that is becoming far more dreadful to me than that Dwarven crypt.
Why the hell are role playing game rulebooks so big?
You guys know I love Evil Hat, and the Dresden Files RPG (DFRPG) in particular. And now I’m going to pick on them for a moment. Taken together, the two core books of DFRPG are 688 pages. At a word density of 632 words per page (according to a word count of a text file stripped from the PDF), this is a total of 434,816 words.
As a reference, War and Peace has ~570,000 words (depending on translation). As a slightly more apt reference, the first five novels of the Dresden Files themselves clock in at about 480,000 words (calculated by applying the word density of Storm Front as reported by the publisher to the page count of the other 4 books).
The two core DFRPG books weigh in at 6.5 pounds, which is coincidentally enough about what the hardcovers of the first 5 books weigh.
I am picking on DFRPG here, but I’m sure these metrics apply to many other games; both D&D 3.5E and 4E require three core books, which are independently smaller but together roughly similar.
Checking for Traps
I remember long, lonely teenage days locked away in my room re-reading the ‘spells’ chapter of the AD&D 2E Player’s Handbook. I read that book cover-to-cover multiple times, and enjoyed it every time I did.
Then again, I enjoyed running a game that relied on checking for traps in 5 foot increments.
When I got back into the scene with 3.5E, I read the Player’s Handbook cover to cover, with the exception of spells. I read most of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but stopped short of reading the Monster Manual cover-to-cover. Turning the dial up to 4E, I read the Player’s Handbook (sans the Power descriptions), and skimmed the DMG and MM.
True confession time: I haven’t read all of DFRPG. Not even the first book. And yes, I’ve run multiple games in the system. How can I do this? A careful combination of intuition, relying on player knowledge, and good old liberal-arts-educated BS-ery.
I simply don’t have the stamina for reading RPG books cover-to-cover anymore.
Is this the right hobby?
Don’t get me wrong, I love owning, skimming, and referencing RPG books. For every one that I own and have read, I have two that I’ve merely skimmed, and probably another one that I actually haven’t even opened yet. And the advent of cheap PDF versions has done me in; I have a hard time saying no to a promising-looking book under $10. I seriously can’t tell you where all the PDFs I’ve bought even are. (I know I’ve bought the “Spirit of the Century” PDF on more than one occasion.)
And I’m not going to read them.
To be sure, I will cull massive amounts of information from them. Like an easily distractable alien at a petting zoo, I will probe each one of these books, somewhat at random, and combine “what I know about RPGs” with these facts to come up with “how it seems to me that the game might work.” I’ll combine this with my friends’ knowledge as we play the games, probably skim the book a few more times, and go from there.
What’s up, and how can it be fixed?
We gamers tend towards compulsion. It’s no wonder that a hobby that seeks to literally create universes should attract content creators who are meticulous and comprehensive in word and detail. Look at this blog, even: every time I sit to write an article, I tell myself “600 words. 900 words tops.” I’m always shocked when I see 1,200-1,400 words, and little that I think can be cut.
And there is hope. Paul’s upcoming Full Moon project aims to simplify and condense. I was extremely pleased to receive a review copy of another, Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog Kickstarter project, and find that it is 9 pages–including one full title page, one full dedication page, and one full page with a theme-setting quote. Vornheim is another example of a project that does two things right: one, it’s hella short, and two, the writing is so engaging that it’s actually fun to read. (That’s the last RPG book I’ve read more than once.)
I think the spirit of Vornheim is the primary fix. It takes the position that gamers are smart and creative people who need seeds (or ‘bridge supports’ as Bryan described), rather than full settings.
Taking it a step further, here are some ideas to shorten books.
- Drop the “What is an RPG” section. I know this is just a page or so, but seriously, are there other hobbies that prepare you for the hobby? If someone’s opened the book, they are “gamer curious.” Give them a book short enough to read in one or two sittings, and they’ll know what an RPG is.
- Simplify. As Paul described, Full Moon drops tagging from FATE’s Invoke/Compel/Tag mechanic. Why? Because its concept can be so easily described by invoking. I know there is ample debate on the interwebs about this–but truly, if we can start tending toward simplicity, we’ll begin winning battles against hypergraphia.
- Save the examples. If your rules are so complicated that they need examples, go back to “Simplify.” I’m toying with the idea of a book with two example sections: a transcript of “beginner play” at the top, and a transcript of “expert play” (hitting all the rules) at the end. Then, after you present your “grapple” rules, you can simply state that Page 67 shows grapple in use.
- Kill your setting. Settings should be just enough to plant ideas (again, see Vornheim). I love Houses of the Blooded, but damn, I feel like I need a Fodor’s guide to Shanri! Hell, I don’t even know if that’s the right word–if that’s a setting or a people or a person. If you really want a fully realized setting, publish it as a supplement, or even part 2 of a book.
- Schwag. I didn’t get in to it, but I’m sure one of the contributing factors to book size is that it is easier to recoup costs by charging more money, and it is easier to charge more for books the size of Rhode Island. So, find other ways to jack the price, if that’s the end goal. Include tokens, game mats, character folios, etc… Convert your compulsion from word count to “gotta catch ‘em all.”
Going back to the Wilde mentality, I know that I’m taking the easy route of being a critic instead of being an artist. Yes, I’m contemptible for it. Yet still, I want the authors and publishers to hear my cry: I’m not reading your stuff. I know that statement would have more impact if it read “I’m not buying your stuff,” but that simply isn’t true.
I’m still a compulsive gamer. Just one who is sick of reading.