One of the greatest words we rpg players invented was the term splatbook. It’s funny, it’s descriptive and it’s useful.
Now, there is not exactly an iron-clad definition but the general consensus is that a splatbook is a sourcebook dedicated to particular element or facet of a game, such as a character class, nation, race or faction. It provides background and flavour and almost always new rules and options.
I’m fairly sure most players and GM’s love anything that enhances the immersion and flavour a of a campaign or a game world. I thumb through books that expand and enhance my worlds with almost pornographic glee. The joy of all those little seeds that are planted in my mind and bloom into big ideas can fuel weeks, months and even years of playing. The tiny intrigues of a city, the unresolved war, the suspicious sounds from the mine…
For obvious reasons, the first splatbooks came in the days when almost nothing was available but good ol’ 1ed AD&D (I still miss that relic of the past sometimes). There weren’t that many of them, but there were a few. But with the advent of the 2ed rules and the late 80’s / early 90’s system wars and explosion, the floodgates were opened.
And hooooooooooooooooooooo boy, there were a lot of ’em.
TSR, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and all the companies churned out books. During the 90’s, the sheer volume of choice was incredible. All the class / race books of AD&D, the Clanbooks for Vampire the Masquerade, the settings for GURPS – you name it. Hundreds of books and everything was possible. Or was it?
No, it was not. While it later became standard to trash 3ed D&D and 3.5, a lot of people forget just what a revolution it was. A standard ruleset for all things, massively simplified rules and best of all – the Open Game License (OGL). If you are unfamiliar with the OGL, it allowed any third party developer to make material according to the rules and market and sell it, provided a disclaimer and legal statement were included and no copyrighted material. Third party developers formed all over the place and no idea was too small or too crazy not to explore. With the advent of digital sales (meaning drastically lessened production and distribution costs), literally anybody could make additions to the game. Thousands of options were available.
I’m a shameless and massive collector – but I’m also a prudent one. I’ve always recommended that you should buy used books or the digital format, unless you absolutely need a physical copy or know that you would have great use for the book and cannot wait. So I have every single 1ed AD&D book, almost every 2ed AD&D book, every single 3.0 and 3.5 D&D book, an awful lot of Pathfinder books, about half of all GURPS 3ed books, all Vampire the Masquerade books and a lot of other stuff that I bought cheap, whether digitally or used. I recently started looking back at my collection, and it was an eye-opener – there is an awful lot of trash out there and a lot of times more choices do not mean better choices. The quickest way to ruin a game is to allow everything.
When splatbooks are done right, they enhance their world. The really good ones have given me a look at a living world full of potential but also leave room for my ideas.
When splatbooks are done right, they fill the gaps in a ruleset – such as adding useful and fluid rules for great battles, vehicles, the gods of a world or what have you.
When splatbooks are done right, they add options that make it easier for a player to create the character he or she wants.
When splatbooks are done wrong, they either hammer down the world or say nothing. In the former, there is no longer room for the GM or player to interpret the lay of the land. In the latter, you get no ideas and have basically wasted time and money.
When splatbooks are done wrong, they add terrible options that break or ruin a game. A class that makes all other or similar classes obsolete, a set of skills or feats or options that is so ridiculously overpowered that the game stops being fun.
And then there are the cases where a splatbook is both and that’s surprisingly common. The system I play the most these days is Pathfinder. One of my favourite supplements is the Advanced Player’s Guide. It adds six new classes, variants on the eleven base classes and a lot of other player options. Out of those six new classes, five are fine and one of them is in fact one of my all-time favourites (the alchemist) but the sixth is the most hopelessly broken thing I’ve ever seen and is strictly forbidden at my table. The few times I’ve been involved with society play, anyone playing that class always ruins the experience. Same with the base class options, most things range from fine to great but a tiny number has the potential to kill the mood at a table.
It’s easy to criticise the game developers and publishers for the constant flow of books and supplements, but it’s not entirely fair. The fact is, once a basic ruleset is out there’s only so much that the developers can do. It sells for a while and may even become a hit but once a certain point has been reached, it becomes necessary to sell more. Otherwise the company simply has nothing more to do, there are very limited ways to monetise the game. And yes, I know that my recommendation to buy used runs somewhat counter to this point.
So here’s this experienced fella’s tip to all of you, young or old. Read your brand spanking new splatbook carefully. Absorb what you like, ignore what you don’t and carefully test anything you intend to add to your game. I’ve too often made the mistake to allow something just because it looks good on paper. Save your money – nobody needs an expensive, new book that may not have any use. And have fun, whether GM or player. Allow and encourage experiments and creative thought and don’t take it hard if something that doesn’t work (or works too well) is removed or nerfed.
It’s just a game after all.