Sunday 4 March 2018

RPG books as fiction

It seems to me that the majority of RPG books are in denial about their true function.

Most setting books maintain the pretense that someone's going to pick them up and run them, as written, straight out of the book. That someone out there will really run a whole campaign set in Your Made-Up Campaign World, just the way you wrote it, and that when their players ask them 'Who's the mayor of this town?', they're actually going to page through your Big Book of Made-Up Facts and give the answer that you've written down. Similarly, most adventure modules pretend - rather endearingly - that someone is actually going to run them exactly as written, right down to the read-aloud text. Monster books pretend that someone will actually use their monsters in play, giving them exactly the descriptions and statistics assigned by the book. And so on.

But even the briefest comparison between the way most RPG books are written and the way most actual RPG campaigns are played will demonstrate that this can't possibly be the case. For a start, how long is the average campaign, these days? Thirty sessions? Twenty? Ten? A 10-30 session campaign doesn't need whole continents worth of detailed setting information: one home base with 5-10 adventure sites scattered around it is closer to the mark. And yet campaign settings continue to be written as though PCs will wander around in them for years and years of real-time, roaming from city to city, province to province, like a band of high fantasy Marco Polos. They trade on the fantasy of a D&D campaign as something that might run more-or-less forever, rather than reality that you're usually looking at five or six interconnected adventures at best.

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No-one is ever going to use your road-by-road random encounter tables!

Adventure modules are, in theory, more realistic propositions, but they are produced - and purchased - in a volume that bears no resemblance to the rate at which they could actually be used. Plenty of people have bought all the D&D 5th edition hardback adventures - but playing through them all as written, at a rate of one session per week, would require a group to have been doing nothing else since 5th edition was released in 2014. The Pathfinder adventure paths are even more extreme: the Paizo forums are full of people who've read them all, but I would be surprised if anyone in the world had actually played them all as written from beginning to end. (You'd probably need to have been meeting twice a week, continuously, since 2007!) Then there are all the innumerable third-party modules which Bryce wades through so heroically over at tenfootpole. Many of those adventures probably aren't run as-written by anyone other than their playtesters (if they even have any), but people still buy them and read them. Browsing through the module reviews on RPGNow, DrivethruRPG, or DM's Guild, it rapidly becomes apparent that reviews by people who have actually played the modules, rather than just read them, are in a tiny minority.

Bryce often points out that the vast majority of adventure modules are written in a way which makes them almost useless for their supposed purpose of 'running a game in real-time at the table'. This is so obvious, and so trivially demonstrable, that its continued persistence strongly indicates that this is in fact not what most adventure modules are being used to do, and probably not even what most of their purchasers want them to do, even though it's exactly what most of their authors assert they are actually for. I strongly suspect that the same is true of most published campaign settings, monster books, etc, most of which similarly seem to be written with much more of an eye to being read than to being used. Not that there's anything surprising about this: after all, if people only bought the adventure modules, supplements, and campaign settings that they actually, seriously intended to use as-written, then the whole RPG book market would be a fraction of its current size. In the last two years, I've directly used six RPG books - Liberation of the Demon Slayer, Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence, Demonspore, Qelong, Death Frost Doom, and a couple of bits from Petty Gods - but, thanks to the magic of pdf-only bundle deals, I wouldn't know how to begin counting how many I've read. A hundred? More?

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Oh, Bundle of Holding. This is all your fault.

Skerples recently argued that there are three kinds of modules, which he calls 'modules as novels', 'modules as manuals', and 'modules as art'. I think he's onto something, and I don't think that it's only modules that his division applies to. Furthermore, I'd suggest that these three kinds of RPG writing correspond to three different ways of using RPG books:
  • RPG books written like manuals are best adapted to being used as-is at the table. Nothing else stands much chance of surviving contact with the chaotic process of actual play. 
  • RPG books written as art are best adapted to being used by people who are preparing or running RPG campaigns, and who are looking for material to adapt or borrow for their own games. Their true purpose is not to be used as-written, but to inspire GMs to come up with better material than they might otherwise have done. 
  • RPG books written as novels are best adapted to being read as a rather esoteric form of genre fiction.
This third one is one of the dirty little secrets of the RPG industry: that lots and lots of RPG books are bought and read by people who don't use them in play, and who know that they have no realistic prospect of ever doing so. RPG books written like novels proliferate not only because many people have no idea how to write useable adventure modules, but because that's precisely how they will be read by a large segment of their target audience. For such readers, reading the book, and imagining what the experience of playing it at the table might be like, takes the place of actually playing the game. As Skerples notes, 'If you're a big established game company with well-entrenched rich IP, your gamebooks can become storybooks.' (Anyone who remembers the bad old days of 1990s RPG metaplot will recall how literally this used to be the case!)

Image result for vampire masquerade giovanni chronicles
Thanks to 'adventures' like these, you too can have the thrilling experience of watching passively while super-powerful NPCs do things which will later be important to the metaplot!

If you don't do it yourself, it can be a bit counter-intuitive to think of RPG books being read as fiction. After all, the world is full of actual stories by professional authors, most of which are rather better-written than the average RPG sourcebook: so why read an RPG book when you could read a novel instead? But I suspect that what such books primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead.

RPGs are hardly alone in this: it's well-known that people buy cookbooks on cuisine they'll never seriously attempt to cook, guidebooks on places they have no real intention of visiting, magazines full of detailed reviews of things they'll never be able to afford to buy, and so on. Reading about things usually isn't as satisfying as doing them, but it's much easier and less risky: reading an adventure module and daydreaming about playing it is a pleasant and undemanding way to spend an hour, whereas actually running it would require time, organisation, commitment from several people, and a real risk of failure or disappointment. I'm pretty sure that Paizo, at least, are well aware that more people buy their adventure paths to read than to play. Their whole business model makes a lot more sense once you recognise that they are primarily in the business of putting out monthly installments of shared-universe fantasy serial fiction for an audience of long-term subscribers, rather than that of producing usable adventure modules for people to actually run at the gaming table.

(Thus Bryce's endless complaints about D&D modules which dictate what the PCs should do, thus nullifying the point of the players turning up in the first place. Once it's understood that, in many cases, there are no players and never will be, the complaint becomes moot...)

Now, reading RPG books as fiction is a pretty harmless pursuit - and it's certainly one I've engaged in myself at various points in my life, when my circumstances made actual gaming impossible. However, problems can arise out of mismatched expectations - and the books themselves often aggravate this, by pretending to be things that they quite transparently are not. I recognise, of course, that the same book can serve different functions to different people: after all, many groups apparently do play through Pathfinder adventure paths exactly as-written, even though I struggle to understand how. But all too often, RPG books are riddled with what I've sometimes seen described as 'cargo cult design': the insertion of material (e.g. backstory, read-aloud text, extensive NPC statistics, price lists, floorplans, etc) simply because the authors have seen those things in other RPG books, rather than because they actually help the book to function in its primary role. Of course, I don't expect any author of RPG books to actually admit that their books are primarily intended to be read as fiction rather than used at the table: doing so would destroy the whole illusion on which the 'RPG book as fiction' subgenre is built. But I think that a bit more honesty and clarity about whether a given book is actually intended for use directly as-written or as a source of indirect inspiration, and a bit more effort devoted to matching form to function, could often go a very long way!


  1. Thanks for the shoutout! This entirely jives with my view of things.

  2. Fascinating analysis. I know I go back and read early adventures like Tegel Manor and Keep on the Borderlands just to enjoy them. I like Bryce's criteria for a good adventure and have actually tried to change my style to make it more DM friendly for play at the table.

  3. Hi Joseph ! Once again a great post ! After reading it, I just wonder : aren't modern adventure modules a substitute for the gamebooks of before, when the latter industry was thriving ?
    My question may seem awkward because I'm French, European. I actually knew gamebooks before I knew Rpgs (since we could get gamebooks, i.e. mostly translations into French of "Fighting Fantasy" and "Lone Wolf" easily at the local school's library); perhaps that was not the case in America.

    1. I'm British, so I can't speak for the US market, but gamebooks were certainly very popular in the UK during the 1980s and early 1990s. I'd always assumed that they were simply rendered obsolete by computer games, but I can see how reading an RPG adventure module could function as a kind of substitute gamebook, if you were reading them and thinking: 'If I was playing this, at *this* point, what *I* would do is *this*...'

  4. Hey, Joseph, long time lurker lobbing first post here.

    My experience mirrors mundialecter's, I went through a spate of reading White Wolf's setting books as a player of... the card game. And got immense enjoyment out of the things, I must add.

    Only years later, once I started RPGing in earnest, did the plain fact that these books were utterly unusable become evident to me.

    1. This is the thing, though, isn't it? They were only 'utterly unusable' if you bought into the lie that they were actually meant for use at the table. When you were reading them for fun, and to learn about the imaginary setting, you were actually using them as intended, even though the original writers may have been reluctant to admit it!

  5. Exactly: my case is absolutely illustrative of what you're expounding here. My first casual readings while loitering around the LGS led the RPG tapeworm to burrow into my cortex, the many years that this took nonwithstanding.

    I'm not so sure about the authors' reluctance, though. Maybe the very first ones to dip in that water would have been, but as companies of WWs and TSRs punching weight got aboard with the method to push units out of shelves, it must have become practically an in-house guideline.

    Even now, I don't find myself at all averse to mixing setting storytelling with rules writing (you recent Scythian post handled this beautifully), it's just that the writers/publishers got rid of the baby along with the bathwater and then got themselves vasectomized for good measure.

  6. Alas, most game writers have the literary skills of Gygax rather than, say, R. E. Howard.


    1. Indeed they do. That's why I think people must read them for their meta-fictional appeal - in most cases, it can hardly be for the quality of the prose!

  7. RPG closet dramas, in a way?

  8. This blog looks like the fodder supreme.

  9. This is very true. I just checked out Savage Worlds: Deluxe Explorers Edition from the library, a game I know I will never run and will probably never play.

    I thought I might pick up some mechanical ideas that I could adapt for my mutant D&D game that I may never run. I soon got bored with the explanations of why you use different dice for different things and started flipping through for setting information, because Space 1889 and Weird Wars sound fun and interesting. Alas, this is not that book.

    But what you're talking about is exactly what I was doing. Actually getting 3-4 friends scheduled for a game, prepping a game and running it is a big scheduling and social challenge. Flipping through a sourcebook for coolness requires no commitment at all.

  10. (I *have* sprinkled treasures from your table in my Lost Mines of Phandelver module that I'm sporadically running with my wife and kids.)

  11. I just found your blog, and it's absolutely great. Thanks!

    You say that you "don't expect any author of RPG books to actually admit that their books are primarily intended to be read as fiction rather than used at the table". Well, Justin Alexander found almost exactly that, coming from (then?) Creative Director at Paizo responsible for their Adventure Paths, James Jacobs :

    "Seriously, though... adventures do sell. Paizo more or less exists as a game company today (and not merely as an online RPG store) because adventures sell. If they're done right. And by "right," I mean "fun to read."

    Because I suspect that the majority of adventures published by game companies are never actually played by most of those who read the adventures.

    Now, don't get me wrong. I LOVE hearing stories about how much fun folks have had playing adventures, and I'm really pleased with how robust our messageboards are with just this type of feedback, but the truth is that there are more gamers than there are gaming groups. And you don't STOP being a gamer when you're not actually playing an RPG.

    So, gamers who don't currently have groups and gamers who want to enjoy their hobby on days when they're not gaming need something fun to read. And adventures, which tell stories, ARE fun to read. (If they're built to be read.)

    If someone plays an adventure that Paizo publishes, I count that as MUCH as a successful adventure as if someone reads an adventure and uses an idea in his home game AND as much as someone who just reads an adventure one rainy afternoon and enjoys it."

    ( You'll find the link to the forum post in the article.)

    1. Huh. That really is honest. And I note that, in the same ENworld thread, 'Windjammer' identifies exactly the same three audiences that I discuss in this post...

      The fact that Jacobs is prepared to be that open about this is probably a big part of why Paizo's APs have been so successful. They have no illusions about the kind of product that they're producing. I see you've posted the same link over at tenfootpole, which will hopefully help Bryce with his bewilderment over Paizo's writing style...

      Glad you're enjoying the blog!

    2. I just read that Windjammer post you were refering to. I was a bit surprised by his (her?) claim that WotC modules "are solidly geared towards GM running module as written". He's refering to 4th edition, which I never read, but I would not say that 3rd or 5th edition modules are organized to make the GM life that easy : they still need to read lots of description to get to the important parts. My "favorite" example are the read-alouds that don't mention the presence of obvious monsters (so a GM reads or paraphrase it, and then reads the rest of the entry for himself while the players talk among themselves... to then announce "oh yeah, there is also an owlbear eating in the center of the room. Sorry!")

      Maybe that's nothing compared to Paizo's adventures? I never read one.

    3. Paizo's similar to the 3rd edition module style, as that's what they started out writing. (5th is a little less bloated, as it doesn't demand giant stat blocks on every other page.) I gather that 4th edition was more geared towards play in the sense that 4th was all about tactical miniatures combat, so 'adventures' were essentially just a series of highly detailed set-piece combats strung together: lots of maps, stats, rules, and tactics, and not much of anything else. I haven't actually read any of them, though, so I'm just going on hearsay...

  12. Looking back at this post, I believe this is why I've always stood out as a complete outsider when it come to the game with the most complex love/hate relationship I have: Exalted.

    It appears the Exalted fanbase has very much committed to the idea of Exalted-as-the-setting-written-by-people, whereas I've always more been in love with the potential the setting has to offer, willing to use it's elements and concepts but not being bogged down by pet NPC dickery and railroading metaplot. The more the game line developed and the less it wanted to be usable RPG material and the more it wanted to be a grand narrative. Which was what dragged down White Wolf earlier titles. In the end, Exalted was not able to escape it's pedigree and became dragged down in the very same nonsense it tried to avoid, like a child repeating the same life mistake their father did even as they spent ten or twenty years going "I will NEVER be like you!"

    1. Well, if ever there was a game in which repeating the same mistakes as your predecessors was thematically appropriate, it was surely Exalted...

      But, yeah, Exalted is a classic example. The system is a mess, but the material produced in the first year of the gameline - corebook, Dragon-Blooded, Games of Divinity, Scavenger Sons - added up to a compelling and eminently gameable setting. The rest of the line, despite intermittent flashes of brilliance, was essentially just a decade-long downhill slide into trivia-choked oblivion.

  13. Hi Joseph, I've found this article really interesting and I'd like to translate it for the free French translation website PTGPTB. Of course, I won't do it without your authorization. Is there a way to get in touch with you? Thanks!