Excavating Worlds

Tim Maly @ 27-11-2009

Can you keep a secret? Despite being a total nerd, I somehow managed to grow up without playing a single full D&D adventure. It wasn’t because I was too cool for it or anything, I just didn’t have the right friends. But I wanted to, let me tell you. Desperately.

So I bought sourcebooks.

Dragon's Gate grottoes

In case you somehow ended up on a website devoted to science fiction without learning this, sourcebooks are supplementary materials for game settings. In order to play a roleplaying game you need the core rulebooks, for whatever system you are using. The sourcebooks are strictly optional. They’ll be full of interesting locations, sketched histories of cultures, maps, key people, adventure ideas, and other trappings that a game master can use to flesh out his or her realm.

They are labour-saving devices for GMs. You mix them with the core rulebooks and then you set adventures in their worlds.

I bought so many of them.

Planescape, Dark Sun, Rifts: Atlantis, Mutants Down Under, GURPS Cyberpunk, Invid Invasion, Spelljammer, Aurora’s Whole Realms Catalog.

Some of the best went beyond books. Box sets that you could unwrap, pulling out lovingly rendered maps, quick reference cards, special tokens, and all the trappings of a military or exploratory expedition to another world.

Sourcebooks are underrated as a literary medium. I’ve never read a single Star Wars novel and frankly, I’ve been led to understand that they’re pretty uneven in quality. But Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels? A crisp summary of much of the extended universe from the perspective of the spaceships used by its inhabitants? Riveting.

The value of a good sourcebook is something Jorge Luis Borges would understand, I think. Borges was an Argentinian writer who never wrote anything longer than a short story. Sometimes he’d come up with an idea that required an entire book, but he’d realize that the book would be excruciating to read. So he’d write critical reviews of hypothetical books. [The Adam Roberts Project engages in a bit of that sort of thing right here at Futurismic, by the way – Ed.]

The folks who made Piratology understand. They create these tomes that are more like a collection of artifacts for you to piece together than a book. Sure there’s a thin plot to hold it together, but that’s a formality. The real joy is in the scrap of coded paper and the folded treasure map.

Retro Studios who made Metroid: Prime understand. In the first game of the trilogy there is barely any story to speak of. Instead, there’s the archaeology of a story. You can reconstruct it if you take the time to scan the environment and then read through the messages and lifeform data that you collect along the way.

There is a magic in sourcebooks. You don’t get the story all at once. You piece it together yourself, filling in the gaps. You’re given brief timelines, descriptions of key locations and people, and so much room for your own imagination. You come at it non-linearly so your experience is uniquely yours. The brutal massacre of Abalonia by the Betans takes on a new meaning when you come across the entry for Cetalia which describes how the Abalons drowned an entire city of people, just because they traded with the Betans. For the person who read about Cetalia first, the Albalonians had it coming all along.

Which brings me to the new monthly column that Paul’s asked me to write. The concept is this: What happens when a sourcebook gets written in public? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m eager to find out. [image by kevinpoh]

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Tim Maly lives in Canada, splitting his time between Montreal and Toronto. He’s one of the co-founders of Capybara Games, and created Project Wonderful with Ryan North (who did all the heavy lifting). These days he’s working on education using virtual worlds with Pleiades and making financially sustainable art with Public Recordings. He used to teach debating and public speaking and every now and then he’s asked to explain what social networking is to an audience.

He writes about architects, cyborgs, and our weird broken future at Quiet Babylon and is @doingitwrong on Twitter.

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6 Responses to “Excavating Worlds”

  1. Robert Grant says:

    I too have never played a game of D&D in my life, and to be fair, through the sex, drugs and alcohol-fuelled haze of my teen-punk years I never wanted to. But now that I’m older, it’s amazing how many of my favourite fantasy writers got their start as callow youths writing scenarios for D&D, a head-start that they almost all acknowledge with misty-eyed fondness. Maybe if I had joined them, I wouldn’t be struggling so hard in my own writing.

  2. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    As a friend of mine likes to say, “Maps are gamer porn.”

  3. meika says:

    roleplayers on googlewave are colonising some space there, musing on these very topics, (BTW if you want an invite contact me via the website link) roleplayers actually beat porn colonisers of new mediums, porn pushers are the mimic fantasists, roleplayers lead the way. “centrefolds are porno maps” might be more accurate.

  4. Kian says:

    I started quite late compared to many people I know and ended up becoming quite addicted for a while. What I really enjoy about RPing is that its not necessary that the plot is the greatest thing since sliced bread or that the world is beautifully designed (though they both improve the quality of the game) but its how you shape the world around you and the player interaction in doing so.
    I do agree source books have some absolutely stunning bits of fluff text and help construct fantastic scenarios. I especially like Infernum (a system based in hell), which constructs a hell that Dante would be proud of.
    A fate based fan made system which is currently in the evolving process of creation by people I know can be found here (http://secretsofsusarra.blogspot.com/) if you are interested.

    Look forward to reading your posts.

  5. Sam says:

    I also always wanted to play D&D, but never ended up doing it. I had all sorts of books as well. I don’t think I ever played more than an hour of D&D. I do remember playing the TMNT roll paying game with some strangers at a convention once. That was pretty cool.

  6. Tim Maly says:

    Meika: I buy your argument for advances in interactive tech. Your Second Lifes, your BBS, your Google Wave. But I think that porn got there before us in film, TV, DVD, etc.

    Sam: The worst part for me is that I had some friends who wanted to play but got so caught up in the set up that we’d never, actually, you know, play. One of my friends had an elaborate plot laid out for a Robotech series of games that in all honesty would have been a better fan fic than a game. He wanted me to play a character from the show. I wanted to be someone else.

    Another friend really, really wanted to play epic table top battles. So we’d construct these 10,000 point Warhammer Epic armies and spend hours placing them. And then it would be time to go home. Every time!