Friday, April 06, 2007

When one book is enough

I like supplements just as much as any other obsessive RPG enthusiast. I've got so many 3.5 books that they literally bend the shelf they sit on in my game room. Admittedly, I'm not the completist some collectors are; I still don't own several late 1st edition hardbounds. But then I don't really consider myself a collector, despite owning a vast swath of RPG books. Nor am I the kind of guy who buys a gamebook just to read it. Hell, I've never read huge portions of the text in several of my 3.5 books, mostly because I don't need someone else's D&D fluff. But new monsters, magic items, or crunchy character bits? Pile 'em on, baby!

But there are many other games where I just don't have any interest in more books. Maybe this is because I don't need another game in my life that comes a zillion supplements to absorb, but my shelf o' Traveller crap suggests otherwise. Interestingly enough I generally buy Trav books for the fluffy parts. Few mechanics outside Books 1-3 interest me. On the other hand, I would totally run a Traveller campaign using just the original books. Or Starter Traveller. (Don't let the name fool you. It's basically a sleek update of original Traveller material and probably the best incarnation of the original game.) If I didn't feel like wrestling with the vast Third Imperium setting, I'd just generate a subsector and drop the PCs somewhere near the middle of the map. No biggee.

Which is sorta my approach with a lot of games for which the supplements never interested me. I adore the original Empire of the Petal Throne, but I have no real interest in further delving the depths of Tekumel lore. If I ran an EPT campaign and the PCs went outside the scope of the original book, I'd just make some shit up. My version of Tekumel would never win the M.A.R. Barker seal of approval, but that sure as hell wouldn't stop my group from having some rocking adventures. I feel this way about a lot of good games. The Feng Shui faction splats are probably chock full of gaming fun, but do I really need them to run a game that focuses on bullet ballets and kung fu shenanigans?

It was Warhammer 40K that got me thinking about this subject. Nowadays there's all these splatbooks that tell you exactly what you can and can't do with your army. And since almost all play seems competitive league or tourney style, those restrictions are ironclad. While I'm happy that the game was successful and lotsa people play it, I can't help but think that something has been lost since the days of the original Rogue Trader hardbound. That one book was the secret key to unlocking a new universe of brutal sci-fi adventure. Without the splats and the official novels and all, it was a half-described world of amazing potentials. Everything published since then has only boxed in that creative energy.

You can see a similar story with every other successful sci-fi or fantasy property in the hobby, whether we're talking about various D&D worlds, Traveller, BattleTech, Exalted, Glorantha, or the World of Darkness. Of course you can ignore the info contained in the new Cobblers of Faerun supplement if you want. I'm not one of those guys who is always whining about someone else writing in the blank spaces within a setting. Nor am I arguing that do-it-yourself is the one true way to run a campaign, though I think I feel less creatively cramped in my own homebrew sandbox. I turn around and make campaigns that are little more than bad pastiches of my favorite geekiana, but sometimes I find that more rewarding than running someone elses bad pastiche.

But there's no right or wrong here. An armful of setting books can be a real aid in creating and maintaining an internally consistent campaign. While a homebrew allows your personal creativity a freer reign. If I have anything to say here I guess it is this: Supplement-aholics may find it refreshing to do a homebrew for a change. Homebrewers may find that letting someone else do the setting gruntwork frees up some energies to devote to other parts of the game. And while the standard model for success in the industry is to do a whole line of books for a game, there are plenty of single book games out there worth checking out. My personal favorite at the moment is Spaceship Zero, but there are plenty more out there.