In the video above, I talk about what I call “The Paradox of Lore”, as well as my thoughts on licensed settings.
Many games and settings come with a lot of lore. This can take different forms: The lore can be included in the core rulebook. It can be dispensed via dedicated source books. It can be included in campaigns. Or, when the game is based on a movie, tv show, or book property, the lore can be implicit, via the source material.
Settings With Significant Lore
I’ll mention a few examples below:
D&D / Forgotten Realms
This is the grand-daddy of RPG settings! Forgotten Realms has a long history, via a huge number of D&D editions, source books, adventure modules, but also books and video games.
Note that 5e handles this differently from prior editions: There’s no real Forgotten Realms sourcebook for 5e, aside from the “Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide” that only covers a small fraction. Instead, lore is included piecemeal in individual campaign books.
It’s important to call out that the setting is not static, either: There’s an large Metaplot that extends throughout multiple D&D editions. This describes larger events that transpired in the setting, which significantly shake things up (e.g. the Sundering before the 5e timeline).
Long-time D&D players might make assumptions about canon, while newer players or GMs might lack a lot of this context. Handling this can be challenging.
Runequest / Glorantha
Runequest’s Glorantha setting also has a reputation for rich and detailed lore. Similar to the Forgotten Realms, this setting has evolved over the course of 50+ years, and also sports a significant metaplot spanning the many editions.
The One Ring / Lord of the Rings
There have been many RPGs based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings setting over the decades. The most recent one is Free League’s The One Ring. Note that this is based on the books, not the movies.
The book only describes one region in detail, although more sourcebooks are undoubtedly coming in the future. But I mostly see this as an example of implicit lore.
Most players will have some level of familiarity with either the books or movies. But that’s also where the problem begins, as the level of knowledge will likely vary a lot from one player or GM to the next. The bottom line is that there’s a huge amount of lore when you combine the explicit lore from the book with the implicit lore from the source material.
There’s a reason that The One Ring refers to the GM as “The Loremaster”… :)
World of Darkness
This setting began with the Vampire the Masquerade RPG in the early 90s. Other games followed, such as Werewolf and Mage. An extensive metaplot evolved over the course of multiple editions.
Many Star Wars RPGs were released over the past decades, most recently by Fantasy Flight Games / Edge Studio.
The setting consists of the implicit lore that’s spans all the Star Wars movies and other media, as well as the explicit lore that’s spread over a number of books.
There are actually several alternative core books, each with a different focus:
- “Age of Rebellion” focuses on the Rebel Alliance’s fight against the Empire
- “Edge of the Empire” focuses on the Outer Rim; smugglers, bounty hunters, etc.; similar to the Mandalorian tv show
- “Force and Destiny” focuses on the Jedi
And a large number of supplements cover many other aspects and timelines of the setting.
Coriolis is an example of a modern RPG with its own rich setting, not based on any existing IP. It has some really interesting ideas. For example, it is inspired by middle eastern rather than western culture, which is a nice shift from the vast number of western culture inspired RPGs that are out there.
There’s a ton of lore in the core rulebook, as well as a bunch of source books. It’s a game I really want to like, but the amount of lore makes it daunting for me.
Why More Lore Isn’t Better
And I could name many more games and setting. It really seems like a lot of lore should be helpful. Clearly, more content must be better, to arm you with all the information you might need for your campaign - right? Well, not necessarily. Personally, I feel that this is only true to some extent; I find that detailed lore hurts more than it helps.
First off, it makes it much less likely I’ll ever read the book. It’s simply too big of a hurdle. Granted, that might be a me problem, although I know at least some very good GMs that struggle with large tomes as well. While I love learning and running new systems, I don’t actually enjoy the act of reading. It’s more of a chore to get through in order to learn and prepare for the game. I talked a bit about this in my previous video on How I evaluate and learn new RPGs.
Second, my memory isn’t great. I’m never going to remember most of the lore. And looking it up at the table (or even during prep) isn’t always convenient, depending on how well the book is structured. But many players are much better at this, or they might have simply played in the particular setting for far longer (e.g. Forgotten Realms). That means I’m always worried I won’t do it justice, or even violate canon in some way.
In my opinion, history is largely unimportant; what matters is only what happens at the table. Having a very rough sense of how we got here, and perhaps a few important events, is helpful. Everything else may or may not be interesting to read, but almost certainly won’t matter for the actual gaming sessions.
As someone who mostly enjoyed Science, Math, and Languages in school, I always found history extremely dry to get through. The same is true for fictional history in games. And while real life history is important to know (at least some of it), fictional history isn’t. I just find myself bored to death when I’m confronted with a long chapter of fictional history that I’m almost certain will have zero bearing on my actual game sessions.
Why I Don’t Like Licensed Properties
Licensed properties are especially challenging.
Let’s take Star Wars as an example:
There’s just so much lore available, if you count all the movies and tv shows (especially everything that Disney has been churning out recently), that it’s impossible for me to keep up.
When I watch movies or tv shows, I mostly enjoy the vibe. While I envy people that can quote movies years after watching them, that’s not me. I usually can’t remember the characters’ names, even while I’m watching. I’m embarrassed to admit that I often barely manage to follow the plot. And I usually zone out during prolonged action scenes. It’s all about the atmosphere and vibe for me.
And that applies to Star Wars as well. I love the overall vibe, and the types of stories that have been told in this setting (some more than others… I especially like the ones that take place on the outskirts, e.g. the Mandalorian, with its Wild West feel). The setting clearly has great potential for RPGs, but while I would play in a Star Wars game (and I have), I would never ever run it, because there’s no way I would do the lore justice.
I would totally run a homebrew Sci-Fi game, though, which might liberally borrow Star Wars elements and feel. I don’t particularly care about Star Wars as a brand, so this would provide everything I’m looking for in a setting like that. I might even mention Star Wars to the players as a touchpoint, so they have a sense of the vibe I’m going for, while making it clear that the campaign won’t be set in the actual Star Wars universe.
The same thing applies to Lord of the Rings:
I’ve read and enjoyed the books (although I gave up quickly on the Silmarillion…) and watched the movies several times (except for the hobbit movies, which were just a money grab). But there’s no way I could do that setting justice. If I end up with a player who’s a huge fan of the books and successfully made their way even through the Silmarillion, they would likely be utterly disappointed with my superficial portrayal of the setting.
To go on a bit of a tangent, let me point out another problem with licensed properties:
Licenses eventually expire, leading to orphaned games. That was the fate for all of the previous Cortex based games, for example: Firefly, Marvel Heroic, Smallville, Supernatural, Leverage, BSG, etc. Not only does this mean no new material, but the old material is no longer available for purchase either, neither PDF nor print. With some games, that represents a huge loss!
I do make occasional exceptions with licensed properties, of course. E.g. Free League’s recent Blade Runner RPG seems manageable because there are really only 2 movies. I have only skimmed the book, but it seems to strike a good balance with how lore is presented.
I’m also generally ok playing in a licensed setting, as long as I don’t have to run it. For example, I’m currently playing in a Fallout game, and while I’ve played and enjoyed (though not actually completed) some of the video games, I wouldn’t consider myself super well versed in the setting. But I do get the vibe, and that’s sufficient - even if I might occasionally have to ask the GM to remind me who the “Brotherhood of Steel” is, or other specific parts of the lore.
But whenever possible, I’m a big fan of games that go for a similar vibe as a licensed property, but with the serial numbers filed off. We’ll cover a few examples later.
My Preferred Approach
What I really need from a game are just some broad strokes. Really just enough to trigger my own creative juices, whether at prep time or during the game itself, for more of an improv experience. Maybe high level descriptions of a few places and what makes them special. Even just a few adjectives or bullet items can be sufficient, rather than long prose. Give me some NPCs, plot hooks, random tables, and I’m good to go!
You’ll find that games take very different approaches to handling lore. So let’s look at a few examples of games that I believe handle lore well. Note that that doesn’t mean I consider all of these perfect games. I’m just evaluating them here based on how they convey the setting.
Note: This is much easier to convey in my video, where I flip through the books mentioned below, in order to illustrate how they handle lore.
Forged in the Dark (FitD) / Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA)
PbtA games, i.e. games based on the principles from the original Apocalypse World game, are known for their genre emulation. This is coded directly into each game’s mechanics, e.g. in form of playbooks and moves. But I feel it was the Forged in the Dark games, a distant derivative of PbtA, that took this to the next level.
Let’s take Blades in the Dark (the first FitD game published) as an example, as think it handles this extremely well. Out of 320 pages, about 70 are dedicated to the setting (and this is a relatively small book with a 6x9” form factor). The first part of this is all about the vibe of the setting. The first 15 pages do most of the heavy lifting and describe things like the overall setting background, weather, a couple factions, etc.
This is followed by a section per district. Each district is presented on a double sided spread along with a rough map and some artwork to convey the overall look of that district, followed by a list of 4 landmarks, a few details, notable NPCs, and some traits that describe things like wealth, safety, and criminal or occult influence. So really just enough to get the creative juices flowing when the players decide to check this district out, without requiring me to memorize or painstakingly look up any actual lore.
And finally a bunch of lists and random tables with things like rumors, factions, random streets, buildings, people, devils, and scores (i.e. adventures).
Scum & Villainy was the first FitD game published after Blades in the Dark, and it is modeled very closely after BitD and uses a similar structure. Instead of districts, you have systems and planets. The rest is similar. This game is great for emulating Star Wars, Firefly, or other Space Opera games.
Warlock! and Warpstar!
I know I keep mentioning these games, but I really do think they are great examples!
Warlock! is an awesome game on its own, but also does a great job capturing the vibe of old-school British games like WFRP.
Warlock’s Kingdom book describes a few locations with broad strokes and is peppered with imaginative random tables throughout. You can either roll on those during prep or at the table, or simply read them as inspiration. I also like how it describes the overall world, as well as one of the larger cities. That way, you have plenty of setting material for both rural and urban adventures.
There are some additional source books, all of which are short and cover a specific aspect. For example there’s a book that describes how to run pirate or seafaring campaigns. But these are totally optional, so you can pick & choose whatever setting elements you care about. It never feels like you have to get any of them.
Warpstar! accomplishes the same thing for Sci-Fi and can be used for Warhammer 40k games, but just as well for other Space Opera like Star Wars, depending on what aspects you focus on.
As one of several games based on Mork Borg, Pirate Borg uses the same underlying system as well as a similar aesthetic. The game takes a very unique approach to conveying the setting. Instead of a traditional book with chapters and such, the book takes a very visual-first approach. Both the system and setting are described on spreads of pages with vibrant and evocative artwork that include tables, bullets, or very short paragraphs of text.
I have to admit that the somewhat over the top style, where every page uses a wildly different layout, fonts, and vibrant colors, isn’t my general preference. I’m leaning towards a more traditional way of structuring and presenting the content. Having said that, it’s hard to deny that the style does a great job at conveying the vibe of the setting. And while I find it a bit harder to navigate the book, the tables and other content are excellent. I think the book very much succeeds at what it sets out to do, and it’s fun to flip through!
Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC)
DCC takes a different approach by not really worrying about the setting at all; there’s no concrete lore at all!
The rulebook includes some good GM tips to keep in mind, for example the fact that most people never even travel beyond their little town, so the world is vast and unknown to them. Instead, setting elements are gradually established by the GM as part of running the various modules. While I haven’t run an actual campaign in DCC, I think this would actually work well.
Not having any canonical setting that the players might have varying degrees of knowledge about seems really freeing.
Broken Compass is a unique pulp adventure game. The default setting is set in the modern times, emulating video games or movies like Tombraider, Uncharted, or National Treasure.
But there are also setting books for the Golden Age (1930s, think Indiana Jones or The Mummy), and more. There’s no detailed lore at all, but rather lots of advice on capturing the essence and vibe of those settings.
I could name a bunch of other games, but hopefully this was a representative subset of games with different approaches to lore. It’s also worth noting that aside from fleshed out settings, there are many great system neutral tools that can provide inspiration when needed. I’ll talk about those in a future video.
I hope I was able to convey why, at least for me, more lore isn’t necessarily better. In fact, I strongly feel that “less is more” when it comes to lore, even if this feels counter-intuitive. Which is why I refer to this as the “Paradox of Lore”.
The next time you’re in the market for a new game, perhaps try out a game that takes a more minimal approach to its setting. You might be surprised and find that this works better for you than you expected.