Referee’s Bookshelf: Kobold Guides to Game Design and Worldbuilding

I don’t jump for every offering from the fine folks at Bundle of Holding, but I do keep an eye on it because their PDF bundles are insanely good value. One recent bundle, in particular, looked to be extremely useful just on general principles – the Worldbuilders Bundle, which despite the name seems to have been a more general Game Prep Bundle.

Two of the books included that are the Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design – a compilation of the three previous Kobold Guides to Game Design with the articles rearranged thematically – and the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. These are put out by Kobold Press, the folks responsible for the late Kobold Quarterly magazine and who have now shifted their priorities to focus on their Open Design adventure-design-by-patronage project.

This background has, perhaps, shaped the focus of the Guide to Game Design more than a little. Kobold Press are mostly built around supporting recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons (including Pathfinder), and consequently a proportion of the articles in here seem to be more about “game design” in the sense of “writing stuff for Wizards of the Coast or Paizo or Kobold to publish for an existing game line” rather than “writing your own shit”. On top of that, there’s an almost complete failure to discuss the self-publication route, which in the post-Forge/storygames period that the original Guides came out in was a huge oversight and in these post-OSR days is downright farcical.

In addition, though much is made of the presence of a range of writers, the bulk of the book is written by Wolfgang Baur, who offers this infuriating mix pf advice which seems genuinely insightful, stuff which I strongly disagree with but can accept as reflecting a different game design philosophy or Baur writing for an audience which doesn’t actually include me, parts which kind of state the obvious, and one or two errors which are so alarmingly incorrect that they instantly cast doubt over everything else.

It’s the last part which is the fatal poison for me. I could accept all the rest just fine – I can see that what is obvious to me isn’t necessarily obvious to everyone else, and I don’t mind not agreeing with an article provided that it at least gets me thinking about viable alternatives to what is being said. But sometimes Baur will declare something to be true without really examining it and it just makes me go “what the fuck is this guy talking about? “.

For instance, in talking about the recent Spellplague debacle in the Forgotten Realms setting, Wolfgang takes it as a point of faith that the Spellplague couldn’t simply be retconned away. This seems to brush over a number of examples where an unpopular change to an RPG setting was, in fact, airbrushed away to a positive commercial reception. Both GURPS Traveller and Mongoose’s Third Imperium supplements for Traveller ignore outright most of the controversial and divisive setting changes that took place in MegaTraveller and Traveller: the New Era and seem to have thrived on it – GURPS Traveller, in particular, was explicitly set in a continuity in which the assassination which set off the rebellion in MegaTraveller never happened, and was not only the most successful Traveller line for years commercially speaking but is also highly regarded by Traveller fans specifically for its setting detail. Likewise, Paranoia XP was the most successful edition of Paranoia since the 1980s when it came out, dragging the game out of the doldrums that previous mismanagement had left it in, and part of that involved explicitly declaring a number of substandard supplements (and an entire previous edition of the game) to be non-canon.

Of course, the Forgotten Realms franchise has the novel line to consider – particularly since I suspect the novels have been outselling the game materials since 2nd Edition days – but on the other hand, by that token the Spellplague, motivated as it was by game design considerations, should never have been allowed to wag the dog in the first place. Furthermore, Games Workshop’s fiction line is, if anything, an even bigger concern than Forgotten Realms tie-ins these days, and Games Workshop have no problem with declaring novels non-canon.

So presenting contentious ideas without really explaining the reasoning which leads to that conclusion is one issue with the book, not least because when I notice Baur doing it my “is this guy bullshitting me?” instincts flare up. But the flat-out factual inaccuracies are even worse. The most glaring one I noticed was in a discussion of submitting articles or adventures to gaming magazines, in which Baur suggested White Dwarf as a possible venue for someone’s work. Here, in the context of talking about RPG design with a focus on modern versions of D&D, that advice is absolutely absurd. White Dwarf is little more than a miniatures advertising catalogue for Games Workshop these days, and whilst they very occasionally mention that WFRP and the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs exist (usually when a major release is happening), it has been literal decades since they actually provided a roleplaying article about one of their own games, let alone any of their competitors. It’s a closed shop which doesn’t even solicit freelance submissions to my knowledge.

This is not an obscure or easily missed situation; it is infamous within hobby gaming in general, and in particular something involved in the RPG industry should really be expected to know. Even if you were somehow unaware of it, five minutes of fact-checking would quickly clue you in. I may be sounding unreasonably angry about this but when you are offering career advice to aspiring writers – which is essentially what Baur is doing here (and certainly the tone he takes suggests he considers that to be his task) – it’s an amazingly shitty thing to give them false information which will cause them to waste their time.

I mean, maybe this was just an error and Baur typed White Dwarf when he meant some other publication. But remember, this is a compiled reprint – there’s been plenty of opportunity to correct this if it was a typo and no correction has issued forth. The inescapable conclusion is that Baur actually meant to say that – in which case he is being either pointlessly deceptive or, more likely, spectacularly out of touch. These are not qualities you want in someone giving you this sort of advice. The White Dwarf thing is an error of such a magnitude that, having noticed it, I find myself second-guessing everything else Baur says. He gives a specific list of books you should use when playtesting 3.5E D&D; can I trust that or do I need to go and do all of Baur’s research again for myself to make sure he hasn’t slipped up again? When you’re dealing with a man who has somehow failed to notice that Games Workshop has shunned all things D&D since the 1980s, you kind of have to check a compass when he tells you the sun rises in the East. Maybe this is a fussy, irrational thing, but in the space of a sentence Baur shat away all his credibility in my eyes, and when Baur’s essays take up most of the book that’s kind of a problem. Because of this, I can’t even recommend the book to the audience it’s supposedly intended for – folks who want to create content for Wizards or Paizo or otherwise want to make a career out of their hobby – because ultimately it doesn’t pass the basic fact-checking test.

Of course, you don’t need to check facts so much when you’re making up your own, which is part of why I found The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding somewhat more useful. It helps a lot that the spread of contributors to the project is substantially broader this time and Baur is carrying less on his shoulders. It also helps that, although I’m not entirely in sync with Baur’s philosophy of RPGs and GMing, I find him much more on the ball when it comes to worldbuilding, not least because he and I both agree that super-completist, encyclopedic worldbuilding isn’t actually called for in RPGs because there comes a point when the level of detail you present becomes a barrier to entry – if people believe they can’t effectively run the gameworld you’ve presented because they’d have to digest too much information in order to do it justice, they’ll ignore your gloriously-crafted Skyrealms of Jorune deal in favour of something a little more simple and approachable.

In fact, I found that even the designers whose overall design philosophies I don’t find very interesting actually provide insightful and useful essays here. Monte Cook has a good one addressing the differences in approach between worldbuilding as a referee (where plagiarism and directly using other people’s material isn’t just OK, it’s just plain sensible), worldbuilding as an author (where the worldbuilding is for the purpose of being the backdrop to one story) and worldbuilding as a game designer (where you need to create a backdrop which will serve for potentially thousands of different stories, so you can’t just have one big bad and one culture that gets the main spotlight and so on).

The overall course of the book goes from broad brushstrokes (essential philosophies of worldbuilding, whether to go from a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach or a mix thereof, to more specific aspects (there’s multiple articles on designing religions, for instance), and rounds things off with thoughts on how to help other people work with your world, or working with other people’s worlds. In this case Janna Silverstein, whose professional background is as an editor for tie-in fiction, has a particularly valuable contribution with an essay of her own about what considerations are involved when you’re working with someone else’s IP. As a whole, even though its focus tends to be towards Dungeons & Dragons-esque campaign worlds a lot of the time, I find The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding to be much more useful – not least because it actually tackles the subject matter of its title (unlike Game Design, which should really be called The Complete Kobold Guide to Supplement and Adventure Design given how little focus it has on making your own game as opposed to making content for someone else’s).

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