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Old Screeds

Stross's Law [5 September 05] And the "Typical DM."

The always compelling Mike Mearls recently blogged about "Stross's Law," a rule he invented for RPG design. Please, don't miss his essay, and also visit the follow-up he recently posted.

Here is the law: "Stross's Law of RPG Setting Design: A setting element should never require more than two paragraphs to explain it in full." But that does not strike to the heart of the matter. Let me try to summarize Mearls's thesis, in not more than two paragraphs.

Most DMs, says Mearls, are creative types who use their own homebrew campaign settings and elements (monsters, items, PrCs, places, NPCs, etc.). These creative DMs look for inspiration and hooks when they read game resources. They tend to customize and adapt resources to their own worlds.

So up to a certain point, game resources aid these DMs in adding richness to their games; but after that point, offering too much information actually makes the resource less useful. When the text is too dense, when the detail, too specific, then DMs tend to feel stifled. They have to spend too much time removing extra detail in order to tailor the resource to their games.

This is exactly my own experience in Dungeons and Dragons and other games. One of the reasons I love RPGs is that I love the act of creation that comes from designing a world and populating it for my friends. I personally have always disdained published adventure modules and campaign settings because using them deprives me of a big part of the joy of playing. When I have used published settings or resources, I customize them very highly.

Martin Ralya has an interesting comment on this topic on his Treasure Tables blog. He suggests that we homebrewers should keep Stross's Law in mind when creating materials for our own use. Well, as someone who has spent way too much time writing my own game resources that only I will use, I can only say, "hear, hear"! Not only will brevity save you time as a DM, but it will keep you focussed on the important stuff, not bogged down in detail.

Reading on Aug. 30, I found Ian R Malcomson echoing Mearls, although he made no mention of Stross's Law and was, I'm guessing, coming up with the same ideas coincidentally. Talking about old published modules vs. new ones, Malcomson wrote:

Yes, the modules of the 70s and 80s (certain exceptions -- such as the DLs -- aside) were pretty sketchy, badly laid out (the text layout of ToH still makes my eyes bleed), and largely incomplete when compared to the more expansive styles that came up through 2nd Ed. But I think this is why some of us *are* nostalgic about those things. They were so detail-lite a DM was virtually forced to expand on them, a process that could be interesting if you either went for an explanatory ("*why* do those orcs and those gnolls live right next door to each other without a major war?") or a revisionist ("that's dumb ... so I'm going to change it") method.

A good DM (IMO) will, when expanding/revising/otherwise messing with a published module, always take that module within the context of the players (and PCs) of the group he DMs. So, when it came to those detail-lite old modules, you ended up with a detail-not-so-lite variant for play that was tailored to your group.

So what's the role of the game publisher in all this? Mearls has something to say about that as well. In the same blog entry, he writes, "Most DMs use their own campaign settings, write their own adventures, and even write their own game rules. In many ways, publishers are irrelevent to the play experience after a gamer buys a core rulebook." Note that he says "Most DMs." Mearls goes on to say that excess detail decreases the value to the "typical DM."

So, for "most DMs," for the "typical DM," clearly there is not much call for modules and supplements to the game beyond the core rules, or if there is, the best of them will be slight things, brief in detail, with lots of hooks for personal revision and tips for customization.

But wait! What's this in my August issue of Dragon Magazine? On page 35 there's an ad for a new campaign sourcebook, called Shackled City. It is a compilation of articles and modules (an "adventure path") printed in Dragon and Dungeon, all set in the same campaign world. 419 pages, $60. Oh, and on page 21, from Monte Cook, author of the DMG, a 640-page sourcebook called Ptolus, detailing a single city. And on page 18, I see that evidently there's a new "adventure path" going on in Dragon Magazine, and look who's written a module for it -- Mike Mearls!

Clearly there is a market for very detailed resource material, and talented game designers are writing it. In his blog, Mearls talks about that: "I also believe that there is a segment of the audience that wants of details. I think that the less someone plays an RPG and the more they collect/read books in the game line, the more likely they are to want details. I don't think this group is more than a small part of the RPG fanbase."

Well, this "small part of the RPG fanbase" is the primary market for Dungeon Magazine and many products from Wizards of the Coast and third-party publishers. In fact, although Mearls in his blog actually says that this is a small part of the fan base and implies that this small part is inconsequential (being comprised of collectors and readers rather than gamers), in fact this numerically small part of the fan base (if it is small, but grant that to Mearls) is in fact disproportionately important to publishers because these fans spend money.

And this small segment is, at least on occaision, the tail that wags the dog. The first edition Dungeons and Dragons ranger had no special ability to fight with two weapons. Neither did the Lord of the Rings' Aragorn, the father of all archtypal rangers. The reason that the third edition ranger has a two-weapon fighting style is because of Drizzt Do'Urden.

I think Mearls makes too little of the gamers who buy products from and play in pre-formed game worlds. The Forgotten Realms, and now Eberron, have attracted myriad fans -- and readers. Some players really enjoy gaming in a world they've experienced through movies and books. From the old Middle-Earth Role-Play game to the new d20 game based on the works of Robert Jordan, fiction is a strong way to attract people to games.

There's a bit of elitism as well in the idea that typical DMs create their own worlds. There is nothng wrong with using the work of others. We all don't have time to create and customize. Others don't have the creativity, but they are still great DMs.

So yes, for some DMs, keeping your game element descriptions brief is a bonus. For other DMs, richness and depth are advantages, not obstacles. Both approaches are valid. And although I am of the make-it-yourself school, I am grateful for the people who buy every supplement and module ... they keep great designers like Mike Mearls in business.

Home | This page last modified: 5 September 05