During our last session at my friendly local gaming shop where I am a player in a Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition game I picked up a copy of the recently released Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons. I am currently running a 4e game where dragons are a major part of the story arc, so I was considering whether or not to purchase the title.
I skimmed the contents and I was a bit disappointed. This is not to say that the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is a bad product. I cannot endorse or denounce a work that I have not read completely through. What little I did read of the title was not what I was hoping to find nor was it a pleasant surprise.
In one part of the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons there is a detailed description of a typical dragon’s anatomy. The inner workings of the skeletal, nervous, and cardiovascular systems as well as other details are covered. This anatomy lesson is pure fluff in my mind. Possibly entertaining to some, but it did not convince me to buy the product.
I read some of the fluff out loud and with a sigh I placed the book back on the shelf. I then muttered out loud “What good is that going to do for my game?”
In response one of the other players said “Um, it’s called role playing!”
I chuckled but then it hit me – no, it is not called role playing. It is called setting. Details of that nature help to flesh out a setting. The reason that I was disappointed with the product was that it would not encourage the role playing aspect of my game. I wanted a product that would help create a sense of mystique and intrigue regarding dragons. A copy of Grey’s Anatomy: Newly Revised Dragons Edition is setting material that actually hinders the atmosphere that I want to create in my game. This fluff took away some of the mystique of the dragon mythos with its approach.
This setting material only provided in finer detail common concepts about dragons which I and my players already have. In other words, I do not need a picture of a dragon’s muscular system in order to understand that a dragon is a strong and fearsome beast. I do not need a comment on the size of a dragon’s brain in order to conceive of it as being smart. The stats in the system convey all of that information to me already.
What I wanted was to see material that would help me role play a dragon. Setting may help you understand a world, it may help you shape and define a character, but a setting does not provide you with role playing. Role playing is how you decide to portray the character within the setting. Setting and role playing are complimentary, but setting and role playing are not substitutes for each other.
Furthermore, and even more important, having a detailed setting does not guarantee that you will encourage role playing. Creating character incentives within the setting may lead to an increase in role playing, but providing details that are unlikely to be useful to the characters does not lead to drama or tension for the characters to react to.
Keep this in mind that next time that you work on the world that you are designing or are considering setting material for your game. If your objective is to flesh out the world in greater detail then any setting material that you want to use is fine, but if you want to promote role playing focus on the structure of your plot and character dynamics and tailor your setting to enhance those aspects of your game instead. Setting is a powerful tool that every Game Master must learn to use well, but do not think of it as the only tool that is available to you when running your games.
That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!