So today I’m going to talk a bit about fluff – the non-mechanical aspects of setting, character, and so on – and how much you can get away with front-loading fluff in whatever you make. Related, why GMs shouldn’t hand their players a document on their setting and expect them to read it.
So one thing every game needs is fluff; the ‘soft’ counterpart to the hard rules of the game. This can come in several forms, but you can generally codify it as setting material. It’s vital, unless you’re playing a minimalist game where the GM is expected to create the setting from scratch.
Some games will put this out in front, so that people can get excited about the setting before they ever see the rules. Some put it all in the back, figuring that people will want to know the game is playable before they buy it. A few mix it up, interspersing bits of fluff in among the crunch. While these are all viable options, I’ve come to the conclusion that the worst model is heavily front-loading the setting. This being my opinion, it may well be different for you, so do consider what I’m going to say with a grain of salt.
When you put the setting material out front, if I just pick the game up, I’m going to flip your book open and suddenly be wading through a world that I have no contextual map for. Yes, I understand that the idea is that I’ll open it at the very beginning and start reading through, but that isn’t how it works in practice. I’ll flip the book open near the beginning to see what’s there, what interesting things might catch my eye.
Numenera does an excellent job with this, for example; at the same time that it’s showing me the Types, it’s also describing the world these Types exist in, providing context for the setting and system at the same time. Pathfinder also does this; while the core rulebook is light on setting, flip it open and it tells you in the opening segments that this is a game built on fantasy tropes. The section on player races gives me world context because it gives me social information about the races, but it doesn’t hand me a fifty-page treatise on elven history.
This is important; you need to ease people into your setting. Giving a short chapter with a recent history before showcasing the mechanics is great. If I open there, I can flip to the beginning and read 5-10 pages of information to give me context about the mechanics I’m about to poke through and a feel for the world. Even better, give me a glossary to go with it. Not only do I enjoy seeing the ways other people describe familiar RPG terminology, it’s a chance to introduce me to the slang and specifics of your setting without drowning me.
On the flip side, unless your system is meant to be able to handle a universal array of settings – like the Fate Core system can – don’t simply dump unfiltered and unexplained mechanics on top of me at the front. Don’t simply show me a ‘Gene Trooper’ class without some form of explanation in the text of it as to what this thing is and where it fits in the context of your setting. This can be as simple as a paragraph near the beginning that describes it in-world as an elite shock trooper created by the fallen nation-states of the past, now developed into their own self-perpetuating force by way of mercenary forces and nations that still have access to functional gene labs.
So, in short, provide me with a dose of your setting to get me interested, but leave the heavy lifting for chapters later in the book. When you give me the mechanics, have enough in place for me to understand how this is meant to simulate the setting, even if you need to tuck snippets of fluff into the mechanics to do so. I don’t want to read a book on drow history to be able to understand the drow racial option. I don’t want to be presented a Gene Trooper as if it had the same instantly-understandable cultural weight as a Wizard or a Jedi.
This shifts over to my caution for GMs as well. I understand that if you have a custom setting, you’re going to be incredibly proud of it. All 200 pages of 8-point font, even the section on how sanitation is handled via pits of green slime. There are two pages of house ruled tucked into the back, and you expect everyone to be up to speed on it before the game starts.
You will be disappointed. I promise you that at best you will have one player who reads the entire thing and absorbs it. The others will skim a bit, possibly find the house rules, possibly not. One player won’t read it at all, expecting you to provide the information once the game gets going. The one person who read the house rules will be the only one to try to do things The Right Way; everyone else will just be baffled and confused when they learn you changed how things work. They won’t know anything about the world.
So instead trim your work down. Make a list of important countries and why they’re important. Do the same for the cities your players might reasonably know about. Make a timeline for the history that your players might know, in-character. Stick those three things up front with the house rules. Make it ten pages or less, and make it a specific document you hand out; offer the detailed work up as something additional if the players want to learn about the setting in detail.
You’ll be much less disappointed, because they’ll all have a handy short reference to the things that matter and the things that catch my eye when I open a game book in a store. You can seed everything else that you figure matters in during gameplay. Front-load a little, provide context, and have the rest available when it becomes necessary.