Nation Builder, the 6th book in the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds series, has just been released. Aimed solidly at fantasy, it sounds pretty promising.
World Builder was a so-so resource, so I’d say skim before you buy, or wait for a review. (Via Gaming Report.)
I’m curious, I have several of these books, but I’ve honestly not made any use of them at all. Have folks found them truly useful? I guess the names one would be useful if I didn’t have some older resources (Judge’s Guild’s Treasury of Names plus various articles from Dragon and Different Worlds).
Of course I also don’t do that much world building.
I really can’t tell what segment of the RPG market this line is aimed at.
I’ve read World Builder and skimmed a couple of the others, and at first blush they seem like they’d have wide appeal. Once you get into them, though, they really seem to be filling out weird niches.
World Builder, for example, is almost obsessive in its level of detail — and it seems like only a correspondingly obsessive GM would be able to make full use of it.
I’ve skimmed it for ideas a few times, and there’s some good material there for that purpose. But I’ve never gotten my money’s worth — and it’s definitely not what you’d think of as a book on worldbuilding.
The latest title, though, looks more broad-based, and worldbuilding on the macro level is such a rich topic that there’s always room for more/different approaches. Worth a look, I’d say.
In a way these are sucker products. I think many people like to read and dream about this sort of detailed material. The problem is that for the most part, it never sees play. Certainly in a narativist or gamist game, most of this detail is lost. Even in a simulationist game, the detail is usually lost, especially if it’s not in an area the players and GM are actually interested in exploring.
Books of names are cool. But what’s actually most useful in the game is a single sheet of names, divided by culture if appropriate. Ideally there is space to write what the name was used for beside each name. A game with a variety of cultures and businesses to name might not get away with a single sheet, but as few sheets as possible should be used.
Sometimes I have spent 10s of minutes in a game session trying to create or express this kind of detail. And for the most part, it’s worthless. I think sometimes it’s just a way of stalling because I can’t think of anything actually interesting at the moment.
I’ve certainly wasted many hours preparing price lists and figuring out incomes. For the most part, all of that is wasted. Who cares how much duck costs at a tavern. What is more useful is 2-4 price tiers, and then let the GM or players fill in detail if necessary (“You are served a heaping platter of duck and unusual vegetables, along with a glass of fine white wine” after the player pays for a “fine” meal).
Oh, I’ve used some of my extensive research in the past. I once did some research on donkey and camel water capacities and how much water people needed in the desert. This allowed me to spell out the resources needed for a desert excursion. And since most of that was done outside a play session, it didn’t hinder play (ok, you’re going to need this many camels and wagons etc.). Of course the question is did we even really need to know that? I probably could have just told the players, ok, you need 2 camels per person and that will give you a 2 day reserve of water. If you go with a 3rd camel, you can increase the reserve to 5 days. Players then decide how much money (resource) to spend, and play continues.
Yet I still keep buying these books… And these days I don’t even read half of them. But boy, do I have a good sized collection of these.
I should have learned from my experiences with the AD&D Dungeoneers Survival Guide and the Wilderness Survival Guide. Lots of cool detail, that really didn’t matter. Oh, I remember running a detailed cliff climbing after getting those books, but boy, what a waste of game time. Knowing that there’s an overhang which means a DC 20 climbing check doesn’t further either a gamist or simulationist agenda unless the climb is structured so the player actually has meaningfull choices. If it just breaks down to a GM specified series of rolls and DCs, well, that’s just a “roll until you fail” situation where there actually is an end in sight… Far better however to distil that climb down to a single roll, with a DC stated to the player so they CAN make the one meaningful choice – do I climb or not?
As to nation building? I wonder how much use that will actually be? I guess if you run a political game, it might actually be useful, but I wonder how many people who run such games actually need game specific resources for that… I guess cultural information could be useful for setting up player backgrounds (and things like background feats or the like), but to some extent, especially for a gamist game, you’re better off deciding what bundles of abilities you want, and then slap a cultural name on top of it.
I guess it’s no wonder so many people shudder at simulationism because the drive for this kind of detail which is possibly simulationism supporting, is so poisonous to a gamist or narativist agenda. And much of the time, I think the detail is even misguided even when the agenda is simulationist. I know my successefull simulationist campaigns were really based on a pretty light amount of detail (the RQ one really only depended on a map with some evocative detail, and Cults of Prax, with a bit of stuff drawn from other sources).
In fact, one of the things I have recognized as the most valuable resource to me is evocative maps. A wilderness map with cool locations indicated on it, and enough “realism” to satisfy my “inner simulationist” can fuel a whole campaign. A dungeon (or other “site”) map with some cool features marked, but that will be easy to draw out on the battle mat makes for a great session resource. I can use the detail (even if the players never see it) to help me set up encounters, and provide occaisional non-combat challenges.
My most favorite resource of such “site” maps is Dungeon magazine, particularly pre-D20. The newer Dungeon magazines no longer have the small adventures that worked so well for me in the past. They also have really pretty maps, that aren’t always easy to render on the battle mat (it would be cool if they could make PDFs of these available that you could print out at battle mat 5′ to the inch scale).
For campaign settings, Wilderlands of High Fantasy or Blackmoor are really all I need. Forgotten Realms was too expansive, and didn’t have the interesting little details that the Judge’s Guild maps have that drive my imagination. Some of the newer campaign settings have beautiful poster maps, that have almost no detail at all.
“Sucker books” is harsh — but in a lot of ways, I agree with you. That sums up my experience with heavy-on-the-details titles like World Builder pretty well.
Actually, I think that’s part of why I often dislike prep so much — because I worry about needing to include some impossibly high level of detail. Hmm.
On the other hand, some books include details that I find quite inspiring — the AD&D2e Arms & Equipment Guide was full of these, as was Aurora’s Whole Realms Catalog.
I’ve also done some freelance work for Tabletop Adventures, and their products are all ready to use descriptions for details in different types of terrain.
So if the PCs are traveling through a forested region, you can read a couple of flavorful (but not impactful) descriptions — the key being that it’s done on the fly, no prep needed. Those are neat, and different from World Builder (et al).
Hmm, I just had an odd idea… Write an book on how to use these types of books. Perhaps evaluate as many as possible, so that people who already have a library can easily reference it.
The book would be well indexed, so you could sort of look your question up in the index, and quickly get to an entry. So for an example, the entry on Names, Taverns and Inns would list the various references (for example, Extraordinary Book of Names p.162, but it would also list other supplements that have lists of Tavern and Inn names).
But still, I think most of this material is of very limited use. Some of it does make for good inspirational reading, but trying to use it during a game session is probably a loser.
I think your idea would work better online, rather than in print form.
As a blog/site/whatever, it could be more easily updated — I suppose PDF (with updates) would work, too. I suspect the audience would be too limited for a print product — how many GMs have several of these books?
But online, with good navigation, that could be nifty.