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I was musing to myself while mowing the yard yesterday, in addition to how much of a pain home ownership can be, about how role-playing sourcebooks are put together, to whom they are targeted, and how I, as a game designer, can create the most utility in my products for the widest possible scope of gamers. So, here I am bringing these thoughts to you, instead of speaking aloud to my yard equipment. Let's start with how we can make game supplements useful to Game Masters, without spoiling the good stuff for the players. Read on for more.
Something for everyone
There are two vastly different consumers of gaming products from the design perspective. First is the Game Master, who needs all of the pertinent information available on every person, monster, city, historical object, and piece of adventure fodder that might be included in a game. That is why the GM is using the supplement to begin with, after all. It helps to have detailed information already at hand to use as the basis for a game, especially for today's busy role-players trying to fit in a regular game between school, work, church, spouse, kids, and other obligations. It's rare for a GM to have the time to build something totally from scratch, so he or she pulls down a book from the shelf and uses, at least in part, some pre-generated adventure hook or scenario.
So, a Game Master needs to know the details. If a monster has a weakness, it must be printed there in the description. If a key NPC has special powers, those need to be included in the writeup. If it's a pre-generated adventure scenario, the various twists, turns, surprises, and upshots must all be laid out. New worlds need maps. New weapons need damage ratings. All of these piles of gaming stats need to be detailed for the Game Master to be able to use them.
This leads to an age-old problem. We all share books within our gaming group, thumb through things at the bookstore, and dig around for good gaming fodder on the Internet. I love an enthusiastic set of players, but my heart always sinks a little bit when one of my players walks into a session carrying the very manual containing that night's adventure, key monster, or special surprise. I trust my guys and gals to be able to play through it and not bring their out-of-character knowledge into the game, but I also want to offer something special to my players, not just their characters. In the moment that I pull back the curtain for some dramatic reveal, I want to see surprise, shock, fear, and all of those delicious and exciting emotions from the people sitting around the table. It's tough to do that when players are so easily exposed to the various tricks of the Game Master trade.
So, why not write for the players instead of for the Game Master? That's not a good option, because it requires leaving out all of the crunchy stuff that GMs need as a part of their complete gaming breakfast, like how many Hit Points the monster has, and where the secret passages are located in the forbidden tomb.
This leads to a third option. Why not provide material for both the Game Master and, quite separately, for the players? You see this done fairly often in book series that are delineated between being GM Manuals or Player Manuals. It's a good solution, but it really requires a lot of extra purchases by any given gaming group, which may actually be the point from the perspective of some publishers.
Many games shove the GM-specific information off into a corner, sidebar, or on the back page of the writeup. While this does keep players from accidentally stumbling over some potential spoiler, it doesn't do the Game Master any great favors, as it makes him or her constantly flip from one section to another to put the story together.
Lots of problems, but at least from my end, I think I've settled on a solution.
PDFs to the rescue
Electronic publishing provides us once again with its greatest asset: it provides us with options. By publishing with PDFs, either stand-alone or as a supplement to a traditional book with ink and pages and dog-ears, a game designer can provide two different products with great ease, making one for GM consumption, and one for players.
More than being a simple case of chopping out stat blocks and spoilers and then providing that whittled-down version to players, game designers can provide players with usable, in-game, in-character resources. While the Game Master's writeup on the vicious "Spider of Doom" details the origins of the creature, as well as information such as its habitat, strengths, weaknesses, resilience, and special abilities, complete with stat blocks and informative technical dialog, a separate PDF is provided to characters. This version doesn't contain any stats at all, but is written in the form of a police report, newspaper article, blog posting, or other in-character information that the Game Master can simply hand to the players and allow their characters to glean from it whatever information they can. When they read about the Spider of Doom's encounter with the National Guard, they won't read that it has a high Armor Class, but take away in-context information from the after-action report: "Third squad was then ordered to engage the creature using small arms, which were ineffective."
Isn't that better? As a player, wouldn't you rather have your character come across that report in a file while researching a previous encounter with this beast from beyond the veil, rather than read it in a categorized text box full of numbers and die codes?
As cool as it would be for every creature in the Monster Manual to have an extra page of color spread specifically designated for player consumption, that isn't likely to happen. It's also probably unlikely that every World Book will have a companion supplement written exclusively for players and their characters, free from GM-only information.
I feel like electronic files are the way to go with this. If the original product is a PDF, then it's easy enough. Simply include the in-character bits with the master file and the GM can print and distribute as he or she sees fit. In addition to that, plus as a supplement to any hard copy tomes that are produced, the publisher can simply provide the character versions of the writeup as free downloads, thereby driving traffic to the publisher or creator's website, and serving as a preview to the bigger and more complete version available for a nominal fee.
What do you think? Best idea ever, or the worst? Somewhere in the middle?
In any case, I think you can count on this from me as I continue to add product to my catalog and expand my terrible empire of RPG works. Maybe I'll even write up the Spider of Doom.