Roll Initiative: Why You Should Read Role-playing Game Rule Books
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Roll Initiative: Why You Should Read Role-playing Game Rule Books

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 31, 2013 | Comments ()


In junior high, I got a hold of a couple books from the Robotech role-playing game and was hooked for life. I think I only played actual role-playing sessions a handful of times with a couple of other social outcasts in the school library. To this day, I have an obsessive love for role-playing game rulebooks. Not the role-playing itself, though sitting around a table with pizza, dice, and piles of books is to me at least on even terms with hitting a bar with friends. See, there's something peculiar to the books themselves. They hold a fascination all their own, independently of their use for playing a game.

They are these piles of pages, thousands upon thousands, trying to describe the way that the world works. Or at least the way that a world works. Math and equations, rules upon rules. There's an old joke that role-playing games are just an elaborate mechanism for trying to trick people into doing math for fun. If that's the case, they're not very good at it, because most people who own more dice than a casino are already math geeks. These books are not just rules for a game though, they are physics dissertations for storytelling, extended attempts to try to take the processes that burn in the minds of writers and transform them into a rigorous logic.

And of course that's futile from a certain point of view. The vagaries of how a storyteller's mind squeezes blood out of a rock and creates art is not something that is going to end up captured by an algorithm and then outsourced to some subcontinental programmers. But it's not the destination that matters in this case, it's the road. It's the rolling over and over in your head the permutations for how stories happen, why events occur the way that they do. Role-playing game books, by trying to organize and categorize such things are like the feverish jottings of a writer trying to figure out how his own brain works. From the endless maps, and sketches of creatures that never existed, to the different conceptions of magics and deities, and of course the fantastic systems of morality like Dungeons and Dragons' model of alignment, these books are treasure troves of speculation on the ways we can think about how a world might work.

My favorite part of The Lord of the Rings was never the story, never the characters. It was the appendices, the mountain of errata compiled detailing lineages and histories, and so many beautiful maps. I'd sit for hours with graph paper, drawing versions of the familiar map of Middle Earth in one quadrant of a page, and filling in the rest of the page with the lands of another dozen trilogies. I've read the fake histories of a thousand worlds, studied the cosmologies of hundreds of universes, wallpapered rooms with the cartography of lands that never existed but always lived.

There is a problem with sports video games that can never be overcome, no matter the technology. It is not real and that disconnect washes out the suspension of disbelief necessary to experience the true heat of emotion. Winning the Super Bowl in Madden, no matter how high the difficulty, no matter what drama unfolds, can never match the feeling of watching your own team win the Super Bowl in reality. And losing on the game console can never match the emotional gut punch of coming up a yard short as time expires. After a real loss, every fan runs through permutations, categorizes what might have happened if only this had changed, if only that foot had come down an inch to the left.

Part of the magic of storytelling is the ability of a writer to make that emotional investment happen for something that is not real at all, so that even knowing intellectually that the words on the page are the arbitrary scratchings of another mind, we still argue with them as if they are reality. With role-playing games, there's an element of looking under the hood of storytelling, of meditating on just how powerful a force chance really is in making us accept something as reality.

And so those terrible dice clatter across the table. If we just sit around a table saying that we kill dragons, well we might as well kill three or a dozen. And we might as well say that we do it with one swing instead of two, or with half effort instead of all of it. Those games introduce rules to govern drama, tweak the boundaries of reality in order to allow for the incredible to happen, but with an ever present tension of randomness and luck to ensure that our walls of disbelief don't go back up.

Entire libraries of role-playing game books, enough PDF files to make your hard drive groan, and what do we have at the end of it all? We have people saying "what if this" and "what if that" over and over again, never taking a breath, never spending the long years it takes to overlay plots and characters onto the bare-bones of a setting. They are just raw creation. That's not to spit upon novels and movies in any sense, but only to highlight the profound beauty of shelves and shelves full of nothing but endless worlds in which to wander.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Dragonchild

    A properly crafted gaming system is a unique challenge all its own, especially when creating an artificial reality. It's at least as challenging as writing a novel, and man, have I seen some bad systems in my day.

    In the end, though, it's about immersion. I get sick of gamers trying to "beat" D&D like Goldman Sachs trying to find a tax loophole. I remember one guy who posted on a board about how he managed to create a hypothetical 3rd Ed character with an AC in the 80s. I looked at the stat sheet and caused a LOT of ire because I said I would flat-out ban that character -- not because it was powerful, but because it made no sense whatsoever from a personality perspective. There was no emotional reason for the character to exist; it was just the result of cold calculation and parsing of game mechanics. The rulebook deliberately did NOT introduce constraints to prevent this abomination from existing because at some point, the authors of these rulebooks had to hope that the gamers would carry this world the rest of the way, from a system of logic & numbers to a creative result.

    For every hopeless romantic like SLW (who's welcome at my gaming table any day), there will unfortunately be gamers who enter these fantasy worlds to strip mine them.

  • Salieri2

    I can't be the only one who wants to see that header pic edited so that ALL the characters are doing the ScarJo Asstwist, can I?

  • It is so awesome to discover how many people also did this. I've got a whole shelf of different games I've never played. I've gotten so much pleasure out of reading the manuals, however. I always especially enjoyed sourcebooks and other expansion materials.

    I've always felt a bit guilty about having so much material about Nightlife or VTM or Spookshow or Underworld or 7th Sea or ElfQuest or any of the others crowding my shelves without having played in more than a few of them.

  • Rob G.

    I had no idea I wasn't the only one who grew up reading, but not playing, this stuff.

  • Mr_Zito

    Totally agree with you. I was never a big reader, but I read a lot of RPG books in my youth. I started playing really early because of my brothers, so as a teenager I was already kind of sick of playing RPGs, but I still loved to get new books, of new games that were launched or of new scenarios. That was also what made me learn to read in english. There was a long downturn for RPG in Brazil in that time, and there were very little books being translated, and I just decided I would start buying imported books and reading them, and with the little english I already knew, a dictionary and a broad knowledge of RPG lingo I was able to read whole books, and from them on I've been able to read in english. I haven't read an RPG book since I was 16 or 17, but there's a much bigger chance of me doing that than to actually play it, which I've long come to see as not as fun as I used to think.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    Critical hit, SLW.

  • BWeaves

    OMG, I'm not the only one? My boyfriend, now husband, introduced me to D&D back in the early 1980's, when he and his graduate student buddies and a professor had a game going. I loved just reading the manuals and fingering the dice.

  • Kballs

    Happy dice in the BWeaves household, I see.

  • BWeaves

    Especially that pair of D20's.

  • TheOriginalMRod

    Let's see I think we have three games going on in one form or another. Star Wars, The One Ring and Arkham Horror, which is really a board game so RPG lite, sort of... Lots of dice in this house. It would be interesting to do a mash up. I think that would make my character a slicer psychologist elf.

  • Superasente

    The nerd shame is palpable. "I just read the modules guys, I don't actually PLAY them."

    Bah. DMG fo' life.

  • jj

    I have a half-box-full of old MERP and classic AD&D modules I pull out every once in a while and read through. Strictly, as another commenter wrote, just to read, not to play with. The MERP ones are the best -- those thick campaign modules with beautiful art delving into the geography, geology, botany, politics, and whatever else you might want, of one specific part of Tolkien's world. What a wonderful part of my childhood that I can still get pleasure from.

  • Kahntahmp

    And this is why you shouldn't take RPG'ing too far.... ='D

  • BlackRabbit

    This was doubleplusgood.

  • Nicolae

    I loved working with others to create tiers of characters for conventions. Getting that next book which revealed entire new dimensions to groups would leave us all drooling in anticipation and arguing over the updates. DMs debating on what changes would be allowed in their worlds...

  • Superasente wants to be Dean

    I have a "Supernatural" role-playing PDF based on the TV show if you want a copy. It's got monsters and weapon rules, as you would expect. The really fun parts however are the rules for navigating the ambiguously-incestuous homosexual relationships you MIGHT run into as a player.

    That last part isn't true.
    You're sure to run into them.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Since Supernatural is based on the "Hunter" setting of the World of Darkness series, that seems a bit... meta.

  • This is literally the story of my life. I love my RPG books. They sit tucked away in boxes and hidden storage spaces inside of ottomans and stacked up underneath piles of character sheets, map sketches and errant dice. My own little treasure trove of lore and rules and legends.

    And while I may have dozens of D&D splat books and half as many Pathfinder behemoths, the real gems are the ones that you have, not to play with, but just to read. That battered, used copy of Legend of the Burning Sands or the brand-new, bought at Gencon copy of the setting guide to Anima, a game you've never known anyone else to play or even have heard of.

    There's nothing like finding a new book that excites you, even if you never get anyone to sit down and play with you. Those ideas will show up later, in campaigns, in writing, or just in conversation and that is worth every last penny.

  • Daniel Valentin

    I've derived more enjoyment from reading RPG books than many novels of the same genres, and being a fan of RPGs who NEVER has anyone to play with, I've had to be satisfied with just reading the fluff. I could recite you every clan, bloodline, major NPC and storyline of Vampire: The Masquerade by heart.

  • MachineGunJeanMaurice

    That was awesome. Being in my thirties, I remember when video games came packed with background information about the world we were to evolve in. I recently bought Wing Commander III of an online website specialized in selling games that are old but good, and the "fluff" was simply amazing.

    Aside from the necessary info on how to play the game, there's s\this whole introduction manual to the Carrier you'll be flying in, with false advertisement, and news articles.

    To me playing games in those days, meant a far deeper experience than today. The old Warcraft II came with pages and pages of lore, legends and history of Azeroth. It made it seem that much more real. The last game I bought came with a 12 page manual, 6 of that being instructions, 3 of that being a description of the world and creatures in it, 3 more of credits and warranty info. It's a sad devolution in my mind.

  • Sunsneezer

    You're just not looking at the right place or playing the right games man! The best RPGs out there integrate an incredible amount of lore IN the actual game experience. My favorite part of Mass Effect is to hear and read every bit of background information and fictional science as it is presented to me in strategic order. Also, reading every bit of backstory on computers in Fallout and every book in Skyrim as I find them is a much more immersive experience than reading a booklet. How is that a devolution?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    If you haven't done so already, you should check out the Kobold Guide to World Building and the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design.

    I own the latter. It's a great compilation of article by the former and current leaders of RPG design for Pathfinder and D&D.

  • Stephen

    Then you get Grimtooth's Traps to fuck with everyone who you let into those worlds.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I would, but that book is so old, I probably can't use it in my games anymore.

    I've got another one; the best RPG fluff book I ever read: Faces of Evil: The Fiends. Chock full of background information about Planescape, one of the best settings ever published, frequently hilarious as well as scary.

  • Stephen

    The great thing about Grimtooth's is that it all follows the old AD&D method of describing traps so you can add whatever mechanics your new system would need.

    For instance, a long hallway, the center (underneath unseen by the players) is balanced on a pivot. Like a giant seesaw.

    Assuming a typical rogue X amount of feet ahead of the main group scouting, when the rogue passes the pivot while the part is on the other side the rogue goes down, the party flies up (to smash into the ceiling/spikes/empty air for falling damage) then tumbles into the rogue on the now ramp/hallway.

    Or a room filled with copper pieces like Scrooge Mcduck's vault. When the greedier members climb onto the pile the door closes and shocking monster that swim through the coins attack. Since copper conducts electricity ...

    If you know how to torrent you can still pick up the whole series.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Ooh, nasty. I like it. I'll take a look (and hang my head in shame).

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