Encumbrance and the GM

In my nearly 30 years of gaming, I have gone through predictable extremes in regard to printed RPG materials. I began as an extreme minimalist, drifted into dabbling, exploded into completionism, and am currently scaling back to minimalism (with some effort).

Perhaps the single most important reason for this reduction is space. My game collection occupies too much of it – on two continents. There is no way – not even if I were paid to run games all day, every day – that I could ever use all of it.

Why then, did I buy it all?

I know I am not the only one who has purchased such an extreme amount of material, nor am I the only one who has chosen to keep it rather than just sell it after reading. As I sit here with this on my mind, typing, eyeing the spines pressed tightly together in my over-packed shelves or piled on top of other things, I find myself classifying each book into categories:

  • Essential – The systems I play regularly, or that have been staples of play for most of my time as a gamer
  • Desired – Games I enjoy, and hope to play or run more often
  • Interesting – Games about which I was or still am curious, but doubt I will use as more than one-shots
  • Disappointing – Games whose promise was just inaccurate, but compelling marketing
  • For Reading Only – Setting-heavy material that I hoped (often unto disappointment) would add to my enjoyment of that setting, and inspire me to greater creativity.

In the unlikely event I were to pare down what I own, and to be honest we are talking about complete lines through several editions of extensively supported games, there would be some tough decisions to make. I suspect I would have to be quite ruthless and ask myself some fairly pointed questions:

  • Have you ever in the past, or will you ever in the future, choose a printed adventure over one you craft yourself for this game?
  • Does this source book or expansion set actually serve to enhance game play?
  • Which edition best balances the presentation of the setting with the presentation of the system?
  • Would you ever choose to run this game over one of the others?

Even looking at the stacks of games around me now, I can see a number of things which can not meet these criteria, and perhaps should be culled – despite the pleasure, or at least amusing conversations, I got from reading them.

As a purely mental exercises, let us imagine such a cull.

The lines for which I own the most material are from Chaosium and White Wolf. While both are significant sets of books and assorted paraphernalia, in the latter case, that is really an obscene amount of material when you consider how many editions, lines, games, etc. they have produced. While I chose to cease and desist from any further WW purchases with the advent of the New World of Darkness, we are still talking about virtual tons of material.

To set up this imaginary cull I must perforce ask myself: How much of it is useful?

For the White Wolf material, (with the exclusion of Ars Magica, whose supplements were all quite useful for me) that is a painful question, because in most cases I had greater enjoyment using the core rules prior to the release of subsequent material than after. Worse, in many of the lines, the conception of the core setting became muddied in subsequent editions, making it harder to unify player preconceptions and visions between those who got and so could use the previous edition, and those who did not and so could not. This in no way touches upon issues of writing quality – just on the utility each release had for me and my games. Other than ostensibly expanding my knowledge of the meta-plot, I cannot say they offered much at all, and what they did offer – I was often frustrated to find – seemed short-sighted and the victim of reactionary thinking. Despite the great talent working on each game line, schedules and other limitations had their usual effects on what could be done. I would read each subsequent release (during the Revised era, mainly as a substitute for the lack of real gaming) with growing dissatisfaction. As I consider all the material I own for the WoD, I would part with almost all of it. I suspect I would keep each Core Book and Storyteller’s Guide, and perhaps the annoying little book that would come with the screens, but sell the rest, because I am so unlikely to ever use it.

For the Chaosium material, let us focus on Call of Cthulhu for which I own complete runs from 1st edition through the 4th. While I have a lot of material released for 5th edition onward, I believe the first game I reached my saturation point for, was this. While with WW, I kept buying more product in hopes of recapturing that initial rush of inspiration, for Call of Cthulhu the attraction was in expanding access to views of the world in the 20s, and approaches to using the setting to construct challenging, intriguing, yet still survivable adventures and campaigns. As I made my way through the releases for 4th edition, and the companion fiction releases, and as I stumbled across the products for earlier editions, I began to see certain truths in how I ran my CoC games, and recognized that I had more than I needed to run all the games I could ever run in that line, for the rest of my life. As I consider the material I own for this game, I would part with none of it.

As a counter-point, I think I should add a coda about Palladium. I have never been interested in Rifts, nor do I expect to be. I have purchased nothing for that line at all, ever. Palladium Fantasy, however, I have purchased the entire line twice (both editions) over the years, and am glad of it. If they were to release a third edition reorganizing the material into some form of coherence – even if nothing new were to be added, I would buy it all again. Why? It has all proven useful and inspiring in my games. What makes this interesting to me, is that unlike Chaosium, which during the period in which I was an avid consumer produced primarily adventure and campaign supplements, Palladium stuck to setting books – like White Wolf. This means that it is neither a focus on setting material, or adventure material which is the determining factor, but something else.

I love these three sources of gaming equally. I truly enjoy running Chronicles in all of WW’s settings, and have numerous ideas for new ones even now.  I would add a Call of Cthulhu campaign to my busy schedule in a heartbeat were the opportunity to present itself. I am currently running a Palladium campaign, but if I were not, I would want to do so. What the above analysis shows me though, is that the support for each of these game lines has not been the same, although MY support of these game companies has been. I have purchased what they have produced, but in the case of WW, what they have produced has not matched my play style, and therefore not met my needs. They have entertained me, sometimes beyond measure, and some lines have done that more often than others ( I have to credit Richard Dansky, for example, for his exemplary work on Wraith), but I have to admit, I bought the books more out of loyalty than out of utility. Were I able to go back, I would not repeat the bulk of my purchases. Is that WW’s fault? Do they suck? No. The last time I checked there were no guns nor other forms of force present at the time of any of my purchases. The problem lay entirely with me, the consumer, and failing to recognize what I wanted in a product line.

What did I want?

I wanted them to do the work I do not have time to do, and envision things which have broader scope than I could myself envision. For CoC, that meant presenting material in the context of specific historical periods, and balancing the introduction of the Mythos. For Palladium Fantasy, that meant presenting the culture of Palladium, and the rich magic with which its denizens live. For White Wolf, I have to admit now – it meant giving me less. It was a World of Darkness, each spotlight they shone on the denizens therein, just left me wanting… less.

Caveat Emptor, I belatedly say!

Will there be a cull…? That is a story that has yet to unfold~

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