Idea for making more effective use of game books in a campaign
This entry inspired by More Books, or Fewer Books? on Martin Ralya's blog, and a first draft of this idea appears in the comments there.
Hi, my name is Frank and I collect RPG books. I've got several book cases of game books, but when I actually start gaming, it's rare for more than a few books to come into play.
In my current Arcana Evolved game, Arcana Evolved, Transcendance, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monster Manual all get heavy use. Other books get minor use. I look up stuff occaisionally in the Players Handbook and have used a Dwarf NPC, and played with writing up a Spryte Rogue. Another NPC uses the Scout and Highland Stalker class from Complete Adventurer. One PC used some stuff from the Book of Roguish Luck.
I tried to use Mystic Secrets, but the players didn't find anything of real interest, despite it being freebie stuff (characters get a number of Power Rituals equal to 1 + Int bonus, plus more if their Knowledge (Ceremony) has more than 4 ranks). I've pulled occaisional monsters from the other monster books I have. I hardly ever use anything from the Players Guide to the Wilderlands, the campaign setting (and only one player looked at it, to choose his god for the Priest feat).
A variety of factors come into play in why this happens, but a couple critical factors:
First, it's only possible to really absorb so much material.
Second, since my players aren't as voracious collectors as I am, and some don't even like to read books, the players have very little idea of what might be in the other books I have on my shelf.
So here's a proposal for a way to gain more effective use of books in a game, by limiting the number of books in play.
First, the basic idea of the campaign is settled, including what the game system is. Then the core rule books for that game system are automatically included in the book set for the campaign (PH, DMG, and MM in the case of D&D. AE, DMG, and MM in the case of Arcana Evolved). Then, each player (including the GM), chooses one book. It's best for the group to choose these books together. A concensus process should be used to handle disagreement (so the GM, or anyone else, doesn't get to just veto books, but a book someone really is uncomfortable introducing into play also won't be brought in).
Then, each player takes their chosen book home and reads it. They should spend some time really reading the book. Their assignment is to be able to come back to the group and present just how that book will come into play. They aren't just picking one or two items from the book to use for their character, they're defining how the book will impact play (for example, several characters have evolved levels in my AE campaign, and they are constantly doing jobs for dragons - a definite tone has been set and Transcendence is being well used in my campaign).
After that, ideally the players would all commit to at least some time reading the other people's books. Perhaps each person reads one other person's book, concentrating on the highlighted areas or things that might be of interest to them personally. The GM might have to committ to more reading. Having multiple copies of the books would be good to speed up this phase.
Another possibility is for each player to commit to finding one feature in each book to highlight for play (so now in a group with a GM and 4 players, we have one more extensive presentation, and four additional nuggets for each book). Some kind of reward or recognition should be given to players (not the GM) who highlight things in the books that the GM could use against the players (a monster, a class that will be used by a major villain, an adventure seed inspired by something in the book).
Now sometimes there is some really cool idea (feat, class, spell, magic item) from a book, but there isn't enough material of interest to use the whole book. The hard line approach would be to say no. Leave that idea for use in a different campaign that does make use of the book. Another idea is to allow each player to introduce a small amount of material in this way. Ideally they would type up (or extract from a PDF) the little bit they are interested in, and that material would get added to the "house rules notebook." Of course there are possible copyright issues with doing this (but a group doing this for their own purpose, who own the book in question aren't really doing any harm). By doing this, the game isn't cluttered with books that really aren't being used.
Of course if the GM likes to use modules, they would be exempt. For one time monster appearances, the GM might be allowed to bring the monster in without adding it to the house rules notebook, though I'd be inclined to seriously constrain this. I think it would be much more effective if at most one extra monster book was used in a campaign, and a real commitment to regularly use those monsters is made. The group of course should negotiate exactly what the GM is allowed to use (and GMs shouldn't be forcing modules down their players throats).
I think to make the most effective use of this idea, even setting sourcebooks should not be exempt. As my example shows, a setting book that isn't being referenced is just clutter. So what happens if a setting is large, and has more books than players? Well, perhaps it's good that the campaign is constrained somewhat to a portion of the setting. Or maybe each player gets two books (but I suspect that would really wind up to be too many books). Maybe you can introduce the other books slowly over time. Perhaps a player is always allowed to introduce a cultural book for a new character (the 7th Sea setting comes to mind from this perspective). Another thought is that additional setting books come and go from play as needed (just like modules). If the book isn't one of the "chosen" then any idea from it that will stick around after the campaign moves out of that area needs to be entered into the house rules notebook.
What if this idea is appealing, but like me you have some players who just don't like to read? One possibility is to let them off the hook by using their slots to pull in books everyone is excited about (Transcendence would be perfect for this in my game).
I think there will be a cool benefit beyond streamlining the set of books in use, and increasing the players awareness of the content of each book. I think this process will give the players more buy in to the campaign. Not only do they know more about the campaign, but they've even had some significant input.
For my current campaign, my input would be the following:
I would extract Dwarves and the Rogue from the SRD and enter them into the house rules notebook. I might take the combat section (that I always reference in preference to the same section from AE) and put that into the house rules notebook. And then I'd put the PH on the bookshelf (ok, so for my current adventure, I might also have to extract a few spells from the SRD). I'd probably put all my additional monster books on the shelf (in fact, since I've started to use the SRD to pull text from to create my monster stat blocks, there's a real incentive to sticking with the SRD monsters). I'm really not sure what my one book would be. I'm really tempted to choose one of the environment books (Stormwrack, Sandstorm, or Frostburn).
What if no one picks a setting book? Well, perhaps that means no one is really interested in the setting, or perhaps it means the players aren't interested in where the PCs fit into the world. Using this idea doesn't necessarily prevent the GM from perusing other books outside the session. He can always bring material in through the house rules notebook (so can any other player).
Of course the books aren't chosen in a vacuum, so if the book you absolutely want in the game is chosen by someone else, well, that leaves you with another choice (or leaves them with another choice if your passion for the book is higher).