Some Thoughts on Setting Books

This 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 articulates a lot of the negatives to many setting books. I mean, the way he feels about setting books is pretty much the same way I feel about megadungeons… it’s all just too freakin’ much.

To mirror his disclaimer (something I often find useful) this is all just my feelings. This is in no way meant to imply that I think anything he said is wrong – or anything similar to that for anyone else who doesn’t like setting books (or at least, encyclopedic setting books).

It’s just… I really like setting books of the “here is the history of the world (!)” variety.

I knew I loved setting books when I read this one. A sourcebook for Battletech, this old Star League book is written in the manner of a history textbook from the future. Long accounts of battles fought, laws enacted, rulers changing, etc. It’s pretty dry stuff really. And I loved every minute of it. When I play Battletech, I don’t run Star League era… ever, but this book just fed my enjoyment of the setting because it gave me insight into what set the stage for all the wacky events that follow it. It gave me a historian’s view of a fictional future and gave me a window into the motivations and mindset of the characters that inhabit this universe. I don’t really give two tugs about which Cameron was First Lord when… but the reading helped me to have a completely different appreciation for the Battletech universe.

I don’t expect people I play with to be BT nerds the way I am… I sometimes wish they were but hey, life ain’t fair. But all that information, all that glorious history can’t be boiled down into bullet points and convey the same magic.

For my own enjoyment it’s all about what the setting book brings to the table. Is it an enjoyable read in it’s own right? Does it inspire me to want to do new and different things or incorporate some of its ideas into my own games? Do I find myself wanting to share it with others? I’m pretty sure that if I’m excited about it, well, at least a few of the players I know would love to learn more.

Now – I completely agree with WoZ’s post in the whole thing about city books and the exhaustive lists of shops and streets and NPCs… that just feels weird. It’s my beef with megadungeons… just wave after wave of details that grind you down until you’re ruined. It’s also a distinction I make between setting books and adventures. When I’m reading an adventure and there is a PILE of backstory that I realize the PCs are never (and I mean NEVER) going to interact with – and don’t even need to – then I’m probably not going to run that adventure.*

When it comes to adventures – backstory should be minimal and should really only be important if it can be important to PCs. Otherwise, it’s just wall hangings. But a good setting book (and good is subjective) should be able to inspire with its breadth not bog you down in details.

Ultimately, to each his own. I’ll leave off with this thought. I picked up Vornheim a while ago… honestly from the glowing reviews it got from WoZ. It sounded neat and I really had been on something of an old-school kick. But damned if I get it. I mean to say – I don’t get it. When I bought it I spent about 20 minutes with it… and just had to put it down. I came back to it a few days later and really tried to absorb it, to “get” what made it so special and fascinating. I didn’t ever get it. I was clearly not the target audience – which is fine – because other people obviously love it. I only bring this up to say, I hope that we both keep getting the setting books we love. Even in this era of bullet points and instant news and textbooks designed to look like magazines (a real thing) I will always love a block of a book that tells me the history of a land or time that never was.

Thanks for reading.


6 responses

  1. This is a major reason I enjoy talking with you. You and I have differences in how we approach RPGing, but we talk about them (or blog about them) in a respectful manner. I enjoy your blog and your points of view.

    Thanks for thinking my opinion is worth a damn enough to A) write a post in reaction to it, and B) check out Vornheim based on my reaction. 🙂

    In the end, to me, RPGing is about having fun, having a few laughs, and sharing an adventure/story. Whether rules heavy, setting fluff heavy, or lite- fun is what it’s all about.

  2. Thanks for your kind words. I do appreciate your blog and yeah, I get a lot of inspiration from the OSR and its associates even if I am not really an active OSR player myself.

  3. Have you seen the new MIdgard Campaign Setting by Open Design, your post made me think about that book.

    1. I read your post about the Midgard monsters. I’ve considered looking into the setting – they did it for AGE system too, right? Thanks for the recommendation.

      1. yah they did, the one i bought was made for pathfinder

  4. Oh. I didn’t know they were doing Pathfinder for Midgard. I will check that out. Thanks again.

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