I’ve been reading a lot of BattleTech books recently, and it struck me that there is a huge difference in how recent Dungeons & Dragons and BattleTech books present their rules and mechanics despite both being very rules-heavy, combat-focused games.

One of the most noticeable difference is in the balance between the amount of story and rules material in a book. In a D&D book, story elements are often a secondary focus to new mechanical options such as racial abilities, feats, powers, paragon paths, and monster stat blocks. While race and paragon path entries often include story elements, the focus is almost always on the mechanics of the options. An average BattleTech book on the other hand is almost entirely story material with only a small selections of new rules. For example, in Wars of Reaving, the first 196 pages are all story with only about 50 pages of the book focused on new rules. BattleTech books also routinely include short stories at the beginning of the book, or in the case of the core rulebooks as an introduction to each chapter.

Another difference is in how the story information is presented. For D&D, story elements are often described from an outside point-of-view and are generally made generic in order to be easy to fit into a variety of settings. BattleTech story elements on the other hand are written from an in-universe point-of-view and are tightly coupled with the game’s setting. For example, Technical Readout: 3085 is written as an in-world report to members of the Republic Armed Forces and describes how each of the new units in it fits into the game’s setting.

These differences seem to stem from different development philosophies for the games. For D&D, Wizards of the Coast has focused on producing lots of character options and monster stats with the expectation that Dungeon Masters will expand on the relatively small amount of story material to create their own worlds. For BattleTech, Catalyst seems to be primarily focused on advancing the setting’s storyline and presents new rules material only as needed. One interesting thing about BattleTech is that the core rules of the game really haven’t changed much in its 25+ years and the mech and vehicle designs from old books are almost always usable without changes. D&D on the other hand has seen large changes in the mechanics, particularly with 3rd and 4th edition, that make old rules material difficult to use with the current edition of the game.

I’d be interested in seeing a fantasy game take an approach more similar to BattleTech. For example, what if D&D had been released with the Nerath setting as a focus of the books. The player’s handbook could describe the character options most prevalent in the Nentir Vale while the monster manual would be written from the point-of-view of a sage in Fallcrest cataloging the dangers of the region. Then expansions could focus on different regions of the world and events that advance the timeline such as the Abyssal Plague. These sourcebooks would add to the setting while also presenting new options relevent to the story elements. For example, a book on the Winterbole forest might introduce mechanics for druids.

As neat as I think that approach would be, I can see a few drawbacks of it. First off, I know a lot of people who dislike the idea of a more explicit default setting (sometimes because they want a different setting to be the default and other times because they prefer homebrew settings). Another potential problem is that having more defined ways that elements fit into a setting can make groups more reluctant to use material that has been placed in a different part of the setting.

What do you think? Would you like to see more games that take a setting-driven approach like BattleTech or are you happier with mechanics-focused releases like D&D 3.X and 4E books?

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5 thoughts on “Fluffy Crunch

  1. Dragon Age is that setting-driven fantasy game you’re talking about. (among others, I’m sure) I hadn’t played the video games, so I was going into it fresh. What I found is that I could instantly define my character as a character instead of a set of stats and numbers. In D&D, I find that my best characters are the ones that glom on to some flavor tidbit that is buried in the books. As a player, this is fantastic. Even more, the rules and the setting are more tightly woven to really enhance the feel of the game.

    But like you said, as a DM, I like to have my own world to work with. The world is the DM’s playground, and if that’s all set up, then it can be hard to make it my own. It’s like playing with someone else’s character. But if I don’t build that great setting for the other players, including a few tweaks here and there to mesh the generic rules into the world, the players don’t have that investment.

    And that’s mostly the difference. For a game where the DM is either new or just wants something easier to run, published settings are easier to use. They have lots of background and story material all presented. For DMs who want more control over their world and want to run with their own ideas, you need the generic rules to work with.

    1. While Dragon Age does have its strong default setting and a more story-driven approach, I don’t think it goes as far in that direction as BattleTech does. I’d guess that Green Ronin also doesn’t have the freedom to advance the setting in the same way that Catalyst can since it is a licensed game.

  2. I really appreciate the fluffy crunch of the recent WotC book Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium. With the notes from Mordenkainen and the side comments from the apprentice, that book was full of flavor, awesome adventure seeds, as well as new equipment and items. One of the best examples of crunch/fluff balance IMO.

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