Dev Notes 11 - Why Make a Splatbook?

For the last month or so we have been ramping up our development of what we hope will be the first of several rules and background supplements for Steamscapes. If you have been watching carefully, you will know that we are writing a PDF-only release that will be a guide specifically for the Gunslinger profession. We will soon begin posting teaser information about that book, but in the meantime we thought it would be useful to discuss why we would even want to make such a thing in the first place.

Fascinating. Do go on.

First of all, I should explain the title of this post. We don't actually intend to call this supplement a splatbook, but we know some folks inevitably will, so we wanted to be up front about what that means to us. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, "splatbook" refers to a game supplement that focuses on one specific character type within a game world. It was coined back in the 90s at the height of the popularity of White Wolf's various lines of supernatural-themed games. (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, etc.) White Wolf came up with the brilliant design strategy of dividing their supernatural creature types into various factions ("clans" in Vampire, "tribes" in Werewolf, and so on) in order to heighten the social politics within each creature type. They then came up with the brilliant(?) marketing strategy of producing a sourcebook for every single one of those factions. Since these books bore titles like "Clanbook: Ventrue" or "Tribebook: Fianna," people started referring to them collectively as *books. The asterisk was later dubbed a "splat" and so we have "splatbooks."  

This proliferation of splatbooks unfortunately meant that some were better than others. Quality control became difficult, not only from a writing standpoint but from a power-balance standpoint where the rules were concerned. This was not just a White Wolf problem. It happens in numerous game systems written by a variety of companies. Many players have complained about splatbook-style supplements even in D&D from 2nd Ed through 4E, and they will no doubt complain about some of the D&D Next supplements as well.

Although White Wolf was somewhat unique in having released a splatbook that quite literally jumped the shark.

There are a number of discussions around the gaming community that disparage the very existence of splatbooks or anything that resembles them. There are companies that refuse to use the word at all. The most common design strategy in the Savage Worlds community is to release settings as one or two books and then only publish adventures or additional world information in supplements. This is helped by the fact that Savage Worlds is a very robust and flexible system without much need for additional rules. You don't need handbooks for each class because there are no classes.

So why is Four-in-Hand Games taking this dramatic step of going against the flow? Well, we see it as an experiment. We have some ideas about how profession guidebooks could be a positive addition to our game, and perhaps even to Savage Worlds in general. To show some of our thinking, we would like to present our foundational principles for designing these supplements:


1) Adventures are free. This may not seem like it has to do with the profession books, but it does. For several months now, we have been releasing free episodes of our ongoing adventure path on Studio 2 and DriveThruRPG, and we will continue to do that throughout the development of the Steamscapes game line. There will usually be a few sample scenarios in each primary setting book (the "continent" books), but if you want to find out what's happening in the story, you will always be able to download adventures for free. We also intend to release free Gazzetteers at the end of each published story line that will offer additional plot hooks for your campaign to explore after the episodes are finished. The reason this principle is important is that we do not want anyone to feel that the guidebooks are critical to their enjoyment of Steamscapes. You should never be required to purchase a guidebook to follow the main storyline of the world.

2) Everything you really need is in the setting book. Steamscapes: North America contains all the essential rules, gear, and background for running a successful Steamscapes game. Our next continent book, Asia, will similarly include another round of rules, gear, and background, but we are keeping those releases far apart and few in number so as to avoid spreading out the setting across too many books. The supplements will never include primary setting information or core rules.

3) Profession guidebooks should add rules details, not rules power. Here I would like to get a little more specific. If you look at the Gunslinger section in the Steamscapes: North America book, you will notice that it includes the new skill, Gunsmithing, and there are a few examples of Customized weapons such as a Gunslinger might make. A Gunslinger in your game may wish to use this skill to modify existing weapons or create new ones other than those examples. As a GM, you are welcome to decide how that works. However, if you want some more specific ideas, you can take a look at the upcoming Gunsmithing rules. These are going to be extremely detailed guidelines for creating custom weapons using the Gunsmithing skill. Is this required for your game? Absolutely not. Everything in our guidebooks should be considered optional. These rules are intended for players and GMs who want that extra detail.

4) Profession guidebooks should make someone excited to play their character. This is the key principle for us. The most positive aspect of those old White Wolf splatbooks was the flavor they provided for players wanting to roleplay a character from that faction. They offered new background information for the player as well as sample heroes of the faction to meet as NPCs or to use as iconic examples. We want to do the same for Gunslingers - we want to give background information that will make the players feel like they are experts in the field, and we want to describe a number of great Gunslingers in history (and also in Steamscapes) that characters can meet and look to as examples of the profession.


Watch here for teasers of these ideas and more in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments, please leave them on Facebook or wherever you saw this article linked.

-Fairman Rogers