Front-Loading Fluff, Part 2

Today I’m going to continue my discussion on the front-loading of fluff and why it tends to be a bad thing. I talked about the matter a bit with a friend, and he was able to distill a few important points about it. It’s a common enough problem – many different games are guilty of it, to varying degrees – and it really shouldn’t be.

The key problem when a game designer front-loads the setting material in an infodump fashion is that we’re getting told all about the world without ever being given a reason to care. While a good GM can take most blocks of information and dig a few plot hooks out of them, a game designer shouldn’t make ‘chisel things away to expose the hooks’ by the default option.

Every game world is a world rich in conflict and risk. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have any compelling aspect to hook characters into. This shouldn’t be a problem; a good designer will put the conflicts up front in the setting material, so that even if you discover you hate the rules or the setting as a whole, you still might get drawn in to try it because the hooks are there and you can immediately spin out stories around them.

There are plenty of games where this is done in an utterly mediocre fashion, and that’s fine as long as the hooks are there and the rest of the game is passable. It may never be your go-to game, but it can catch your attention. This category includes the completely generic hooks being pitched as if they’re new, sometimes in fashions that are painfully dated: princesses to be rescued, Christian-like churches in need of crusading heroes, Mysterious Dark Lords threatening the golden age of peace that shouldn’t even exist in the first place. They tell me that your setting is, at least, compatible with the familiar tropes of gaming.

Then there are those that do it badly; they are, in the words of the friend I spoke to, those that dump the world on you without bothering to give you a reason to care about it. These are games that run around trying to show you how cool, inventive, thorough, deep, or complex their settings are without ever cracking the setting open to show you the hooks inside. They don’t even offer the generic approach, choosing to dump a block of world information in your lap.

Some people will be able to slog through this morass of information – often information that turns out to be utterly exhaustive in detail without providing useful hooks, points, or guides – to find the occasional meaty nugget of value. Many others will simply put the book down and walk away. This is a shame, because the premise of the game is often interesting enough to have potential, and written well it could be a winner.

So what’s a game designer to do?

  • Isolate the major conflicts of the setting, and figure out how you can inject players into them.
  • Don’t put a giant block of setting information at the front of the book.
  • Do mingle world info into mechanics where it seems relevant. Doing racial mechanics? Include world info on those races at the same time. Pathfinder’s core book does this excellently.
  • Don’t expect anyone to care enough about your world to read through the extensive guide you’ve written until you give them a reason to care. They’ve picked up the book; the opening pages are your chance to sell them on what you’ve made.
  • Try your best to break the setting up into easily digestible chunks. Monte Cook Games does this effectively and smoothly.
  • Get a professional eye to help you do layout and typesetting. Having someone well-versed in these skills will help keep readers from drowning in text and re-shelving the book.
  • Get several people to help you proof-read the book. Ask them to look for things where you have pointless overlap, and places where it feels like you padded the setting to try to make it feel bigger. Adjust the former and trim the latter. Those of us reading your work will be grateful.

You may, of course, be the rare genius who can ignore all of this and create an intensely compelling setting to read anyway. The odds of you being that person are slim, however, and even that genus might want to consider making the core book something lean with a good punch to it. Save the heavy fluff for later setting releases if the core book does well enough; if it fails to sell because you crammed the heavy fluff in the front, you’ll never get to release the later ideas.

That’s all for today! Tomorrow I’ll be going back to solo-play games, as my wife and I are planning to run one and we’ve narrowed our options down; I intend to discuss why we set aside some of the ones we did and what appeals about the ones we have on the list.

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Front-Loading Fluff, Part 2

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