As RPGers, we all love game lore. It’s usually what attracts us to a game in the first place. But how much lore is enough? Just as important, how much is too much?
Those questions have been percolating in the back of my mind for years. They bubbled up with force last year, when Peggy and I began writing Valley of Plenty, a campaign pack aimed at new and veteran players in Chaosium’s game world, Glorantha.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Glorantha, it’s the creation of the late, great Greg Stafford. The quality of the world is evidenced by the fact that Stafford is more famous for its creation than for his absolutely seminal contributions to RP game design, specifically storytelling game design. I’ll probably go off on a tangent on that later, but for now let’s stick to Glorantha.
The setting has been around since the ’70s and has always had a rabidly loyal and creative fan base. Over the years, many of those fans transformed into official content creators working with the incredibly prolific Stafford to shine light into every corner of Glorantha. The amount of official lore available for Glorantha is staggering. Add to that the “accepted lore” that fans adhere to whether or not it has been published and you have a mountain of lore as tall as Kero Finn (a mind-boggling high mountain in Glorantha) that pulls you in as strongly as Magasta’s Pool (a giant whirlpool in Glorantha’s ocean).
That depth of lore is a double-edged sword when writing for a highly developed setting like Glorantha. If you frontload your book with a massive lore-dump, new players may look for something more accessible to play and experienced Glorantha players will probably skim your treatise at best. They’ve read it all before. So, what to do?
I take the approach that lore is like a bag of frogs. If you hand your reader a bag full of squirming, croaking frogs, they probably won’t appreciate it much. If you reveal the frogs one or two at a time, your reader is more likely to appreciate their bright colors, leaping prowess, or kissability.
Here are the rules that I came up for myself when writing Valley of Plenty. I’m sure I broke most of them, but my heart was in the right place (safe in a jar, far from a would-be assassin’s reach):
1. Assume that your reader is familiar with the information presented in the core rulebook (either RQ:G or HQ:G) for Glorantha. If that book has already explained how the world was made, who the Lightbringers are, and how magic works, you don’t need to repeat it unless it’s required to make some divergence in your work clear. Provide references to other books as needed. Avoid rewriting the wheel.
2. Assume that your reader has a job that is at least as demanding as yours. Most gamers aren’t the kids from Stranger Things. They’ve probably got jobs, significant others, families, etc., that leave them with limited time to play or run games. They’d probably rather spend that time playing or preparing for a game than reading a lengthy sidebar devoted to ephemera that doesn’t directly impact the story. A game book shouldn’t make unnecessary demands on its reader’s time.
3. Avoid large info-dumps. Try to break information up into smaller, more easily digestible bites. If possible, spread them out like little treats throughout the book. Readers are less likely to skim a small section or sidebar than a wall of text. This isn’t a criticism of their attention span, by the way. It’s just a recognition human nature (mine included), particularly in the digital age.
4. Leave out stuff the reader doesn’t need to know. This can be tricky, especially when the goal is to immerse a reader in the setting and culture of the book’s setting. Small glimpses of daily life, superstitions, religious practices, and so forth are excellent ways to reveal the game world to the reader. Don’t leave out everything that doesn’t directly impact the story, but be very particular about what is kept. A brief explanation of why the Orlanthi hate dogs adds to the player’s knowledge of the world and provides them with RP fodder. It’s bound to come up in a game at some point, even if it’s not in this one. A detailed description of the types of minerals used to produce the vibrantly colored pottery of a specific clan is probably less useful than the simple observation that the clan knows the secrets of producing such pottery.
5. GMs and players love handouts. A good selection of player hand-outs are extremely valuable to both players and their GM. They lift some of the responsibility for teaching the players about the setting from the GM’s shoulders and give the players something they can read in between games. This keeps players “in the know” and helps maintain their interest between sessions. Remember rule 3, and avoid the temptation to turn hand-outs into huge info dumps. A better approach is to break player hand-outs up to support the progress of the story. This allows you to hand out info as the PCs need it, making it more likely that they’ll be aware of it when the time comes.
These rules are my own, which I use to govern my tendency to hare off down rabbit-holes when writing. I’m not presenting them as rules YOU should follow (or even care about). I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how to handle passing lore on in a way that appeals to readers who are not intimately acquainted with a setting’s lore as well as those that are.