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The pros and cons of sourcebooks and settings

July 23, 2018

The Skyland Games crew was a bit divided about the release of the Han Solo movie. Some felt it was unnecessary and was a movie no one was asking for about characters of which we already know the fate. Others felt it expanded both the story and the universe in very cool ways. We can see an analog in RPGs and their respective supplements and expansions.

Today Wizards of the Coast announced two new worlds for 5e D&D: Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron and Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravinica. The Eberron update is digital only (at least for now) and the book for Ravinica won’t be released until November and represents the first cross-pollination of Magic: The Gathering lore making an appearance on the D&D side of the WotC fence.

This news comes on the heels of Fantasy Flight Games reprinting a special 30th anniversary of the West End Games Star Wars RPG. Recently I purchased both it, and two Force and Destiny sourcebooks: Knights of Fate and Unlimited Power. Staring at my formidable shelf of FFG Star Wars got me thinking: at what point is a system too diluted by supporting materials?

Fans of RPGs are familiar with the cycle: A core rulebook (or three) comes out for a system. Adventures, supplements and sourcebooks follow. Perhaps errata or an updated print run or seven. Finally the bottom of the barrel is scraped (for D&D often in the form of the Tome of Vile Darkness), and a new edition is released. Most recently we have seen this with Pathfinder and X-wing.

Reading through the old WEG Star Wars is a pretty wild contrast from a recent FFG sourcebook. The bibliography (they included one!) at the back of the WEG sourcebook is most telling: the original trilogy, their novelizations, a Han Solo trilogy of novels, a Lando Trilogy, and some art books for visual reference. In fairness, that was probably everything in print about Star Wars in 1987. Almost impossible to imagine thirty years later.

The player section for the entire system weighs in at 24 pages, and a full one-third of that is dedicated to a solitaire choose-your-own-adventure style introduction to the concept of roleplaying: making decisions and rolling dice to see what happens.

“This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster. An elegant weapon… for a more civilized age.”   – Obi-wan Kenobi

Is the system perfect? Certainly not. There are awkward combat mechanics, especially when it comes to starship combat. However, it does get you into playing the game quickly, and emphasizes not stressing the details as the GM. Between the two 144-page books included in the 30th anniversary reprint, you have everything you need to evoke the feel of the original trilogy and have a fantastic game.

On the flip side of the coin, I love having a Star Wars sourcebook library that is now the size of an old Encyclopedia Britannica collection. Each book is filled with inspiration from settings, equipment, encounters, and adversaries. However, it can be daunting for new players creating a character. It would be an awesome compromise for FFG to produce not pre-gens, but templates similar to WEG: familiar archetypes to which you can add a few skills, a description, a background and a motivation and get to rolling.

For D&D, each world at the peak of system bloat that was second edition seemed to have its own feel: Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, and yes, Forgotten Realms. I imagine these new 5e options will provide that same sort of tone-setting characteristics to make each memorable. Maybe that is one way to think of it – not as dilution, but a particular flavor.

Dungeon Crawl Classics has taken a similar approach with setting box sets: The Chained Coffin (Shudder Mountains), The Purple Planet, and very soon Lankhmar. Goodman Games has also recently released a post-apocalyptic version of their system called Mutant Crawl Classics (which is awesome and will get a much more in-depth review later).

Ultimately it comes down to playing the style of game you want to play. There are pretty excellent RPGs that fit on a single sheet of paper. In my years of gaming, it has mattered less what system or edition we were playing and more that we had an excuse to get together every week and have a great time. Nerds tend to desire an encyclopedic knowledge of subjects they enjoy. This works out nicely for publishers. Is it necessary? Maybe not, but it sure is fun.

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