Reading RPGs

Illustration of a bookJudging by posts on, a lot of the RPGs sold these days primarily get read, put on a shelf, occasionally referred to, read some more and never actually played.

Unlike a lot of people, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Not fundamentally, anyway. People enjoy themselves in many different ways. If someone has fun reading about a setting, or imagining themself as one of the canon characters, or dreams of running campaigns in the game world (but never actually plays in it), I see almost nothing wrong with this. Fun is fun, so long as you’re not hurting anyone.

(The one problem I could see with this is if RPG designers start designing games primarily to be read, not to be played. Some games seem like they’ve moved in this direction, but I’m not at all convinced that it’s a major problem in the industry.)

And yet a lot of people make a sort of ascetic argument that the only legitimate way to enjoy an RPG is through actual play. No one should own any games that they don’t use; strip away everything that isn’t ‘necessary’; winnow your collection down to X number of systems; so the argument goes.

It feels a bit like this attitude comes from the same place as the “all worldbuilding must get used on the players or it is bad” idea. Specifically, it comes from that same attitude that everything must be “useful” and “accomplish” something. ‘If something only looks pretty but never accomplishes anything tangible, it’s useless.’ ‘If you know a fact but never use it, learning it was a waste of time’ — and general anti-intellectualism coming from this. Those kinds of ideas. If it’s not clear, I disagree with those ideas; fun is worthwhile, and not everything needs to “accomplish” tangible “results”.

It also feels like this attitude is yet another exercise in geek self-loathing. Humans find reasons to look down on others, and on themselves. Geeks are certainly no exception to this, what with the myriad ways geeks find to look down on one another. Some gamers look down on others who only read games; I’m pretty sure there are also people who read games and never play them because they’d never stoop to actually playing those silly things.

One criticism I can kind of understand is that owning a ton of books is a waste of money and space. If you’re just obsessively hoarding multiple copies of books with no intention of actually using any of them, that could be harmful — to your budget, to your relationships, to your ability to find a place to sleep, etc. It’s important to respect your budget and balance gaming purchases with other areas of your life. None of us should feel pressured (either internally or externally) to buy more than we can afford. But still, buying lots and lots of RPGs could just mean that you get more enjoyment out of dealing or collecting than playing, which is a legitimate way to be. Again, I hope the industry doesn’t become slanted towards this particular way of enjoying RPGs, but I don’t think there’s a real danger of that.

Another criticism of reading books rather than playing them, one I make myself, is that it can be easy to fall so in love with canon that you either feel a need to info-dump all of it all your players, or that you’re unwilling to change it. I’ve had two GMs now, one in a GURPS Traveller game and one in Hârn, who had vast collections of their chosen settings. They had a hard time not showing off their collections, in fact; any slight offhand mention of a detail in one of the books would often mean a fifteen-minute derail while they hunted down the precise facts in some obscure supplement, even if it was almost completely unimportant to the game in progress. It seemed that they felt guilty for enjoying their large collections, and their guilt demanded that they exposit at their players as much as possible to make it feel like their collections were actually ‘useful’. In fact, I’d say they were so enamored of canon that they were unwilling to let the PCs change anything. Because of that, nothing meaningful could happen in the game, and “adventures” basically consisted of sightseeing expeditions through static worlds.

That’s not to say that loving canon is inherently a bad thing. I love Hârn — I sought out that campaign because of it — and there are a lot of other published settings that I enjoy reading immensely, too. That enjoyment is just as legitimate as the enjoyment I get from actually playing in published settings. The thing is, those two forms of fun shouldn’t, and needn’t, come in conflict. It’s possible to love canon while still allowing it to flex where the game requires — and, of course, I think most people do this. It’s also possible, if you love canon to the extent that you’re not willing to let PCs mess it up, that you just enjoy reading those RPGs and not playing them. That is also a completely legitimate way to be, but it’s then important to recognize that fact and then communicate that clearly to potential players.

Also, not everyone has gaming groups that are infinitely flexible. When I was in Taiwan, finding people willing to play HârnMaster, for example, was like trying to find hen’s teeth. Poring over gaming books was the one form of enjoyment I had with them at that time. And even if you’ve managed to find a group who have compatible personalities, schedules and tolerances for Monty Python jokes, it’s unlikely that you’ll all want to play all the games you’re interested in. Even if you were, it’d mean playing each game for only a short time.

I feel like gaming in general would be better if people could admit that reading RPGs is a fine way to enjoy them, as is playing them. There are many wonderful ways to enjoy RPGs, all legitimate.


Reading RPGs — 4 Comments

  1. Some RPGs, such as Jenna Moran’s 3rd Edition of Nobilis, really blur the distinction between RPG as artifact to be read and artifact to be played (whatever that means, exactly! do we think play means something obvious to everyone? is writing about a game or setting you like a form of play?).

    The only thing I’d add to your essay is that it would be beneficial if more publishers thought about the readability of the text. Was it edited? More than once? Is the font big enough to read? Is the paper too shiny to read comfortably? Did any thought go into whether the PDF was very navigable and readable on a tablet? Is there more than one way to learn about the world, or does everything come through fiction or exposition (I prefer RPGs that exclusively do the latter, unless the author is really good, like Jenna Moran)?

    • I don’t think writing about a game or setting you like should be considered play, but I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. Actual play is not the only way to enjoy a game.

      Some RPG publishers seem to be designing their games primarily for collecting, rather than readability; that explains some of the “huge, obstructive background art” issue, I think. But I suppose there are people for whom beautiful presentation — regardless of readability — is an important selling point. Hmm, how much of the RPG market really is aimed at collectors?

  2. I have to admit to being a serial RPG reader and a book hoarder in general. I do eventually end up folding information I’ve acquired into games, etc., but the process takes years, and I DO sometimes find myself showing people info acquired in that manner. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen excessively. Usually I realize that it’s taking up too much time at the table or mid conversation and wrap up the explanation.

    • Some of the information is just plain helpful, of course. Your exposition about the Nash Quad in Bootleggers’ Bible, for example, helped me envision the setting that much better. You did a great job of striking that tricky balance between too much information and too little.

      And hey, being an RPG reader and collector is nothing to “admit” — makes it sound like a bad thing! The only problem is if it starts to affect other people’s fun.

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