Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Business of Settings: Also Dysfunctional

Steve Winter (via Grognardia) posted some very apt thoughts on the inherent self-destructiveness of the business of selling RPGs. Because most buyers are players, the optimal economic move is to market more and more options to them, until the game eventually collapses under the weight of rules and choices and requires a reboot.

My reaction at first was, "That's true for games like D&D that focus on their mechanics and largely let players come up with setting material. But what about games like Vampire or Legend of the Five Rings that are strongly tied to a story or setting? Won't players buy setting-related material just because of curiosity and desire to follow the story?"

Then I realized that this "exception" actually proved the rule in a big way. Settings, too, are prone to glut. As more and more canon details are filled in, there is less and less room for maneuver in actual play, less potential for the surprise and discovery that is a major drawing card of this kind of game. In place of a sense of wonder, you get lengthy forum screeds from canon nerds pointing out the atrocity of Shareena, Fire Guardian of the Blood City, having a daughter in supplement X-22, when in AG-14 it clearly states that Fire Guardians of the Blood City are sworn to perpetual virginity.

I mean, have you seen a map of Greyhawk lately? (And they're wonderful ... but also restrictive canon in that once-wide-open world).

So the GM forbids players to buy setting books, or read setting material. Leaving aside the enforceability of that, it also undercuts the business case, because setting material goes back to being the less lucrative GM-only kind. And if the GM announces that the game is a home-brew and nothing canon should be taken for granted, then what's the point of the players buying the official material?

Eventually - and this isn't just in RPGs, but any world that generates a massive crust of setting detail - the need to purify and cauterize the setting takes hold, and you get the likes of the New World of Darkness. And the cycle begins anew ...

Looks like the best things in life are free .. or nearly so.


  1. I'd say it's pretty apt description of the RPG industry. I remember in the heyday of having weekly games, everyone arguing over what books they wanted use versus what books they could use. It was the second biggest source of contention in the our group.

    I think that players would buy books, even if you tell them not to assume anything canonical. Books are great place for players to get inspiration for their characters. In a good group, players and the GM will talk about character concepts before the game starts so everything is copacetic. Of course, this isn't always the case, some players will stamp their feet and throw hissy fits when you tell them they have change something about their character. But hey, what can you do?

    I'd also like to add; Milwaukee by Night sounds like an awesome setting.

  2. Great post. It's hard to say how much setting is "enough." Go old school (like the Wilderlands) and people complain that it's too wide-open, not enough "meat on the bones." Too much material is just as bad for the reason you mention. I don't know what the sweet spot is, but maybe it's too much trouble to worry over -- publishers know that people will buy settings for many different reasons beyond actually running it as written. I have bought settings out of curiosity, to enjoy a good read, because I enjoy the writer, and to get ideas.

    But yes, the publisher has to make the decision: are they publishing a tool for GMs to make their own world, or are they presenting a mostly-fleshed out world? The latter is the rule, though people certainly customize as they will.

  3. @Gene: Maybe the best compromise is to produce canon detail for those who want it but set a policy that the GM's game is sovereign and subject to change from the official version - much as Legend of the Five Rings RPG has done in its latest incarnation.