Sometimes I find myself in the mood to peruse a lore*-heavy game rather than work my way through a book-book. Ugh, fiction/non-fiction, so much work! I want a short, easy imaginative jaunt just long enough for a bathroom break. Or I’m between campaigns and I’m hoping for inspiration.
(*Lore for the purposes of what I’m going to talk about is all the fictional context of the game: locations, political and cultural groups, personalities, social trends, history, current pressures. I wrote a longer thing a while back about how to transform this sort of material with an eye toward story and not just facts.)
Not all lore-heavy games present their information the same way, or demand the same level of fidelity or commitment from the players. Due to my current interests and buying habits, I’m realizing they don’t make lore-heavy games like they used to. Specifically, lore today serves a different, more practical and focused function than ‘90s-era lore dumps. Once upon a time, I would just love to browse a setting+system+world and imagine the platonic play-ideal I could get if only the players knew everything as deeply as I did. Of course it never really happened. I think I was wishing for something bigger than that, more a shared faith or culture.
That’s not where games are at now. Recent examples: I cracked open Haunted West and boy is there a lot of setting, but mostly it’s real-world history lessons with a sprinkling of cryptids and weird west stuff. I can’t browse Haunted West because I can’t find any context to grab onto. Same with Coyote and Crow, which is nearly as huge. I’ve read Crow cover to cover and I still can’t figure out what society looks like beyond a futuristic utopia, or what thematic distinctiveness I might bring to a session of play. The game text offers a lot of history that highlights how the setting is different from our own, some notes about technology, but beyond that I just can’t find the context that would give me something to grab onto.
Suldokar’s Wake is an OSR-adjacent attempt at hitting the old style of lore-intensive play and it’s as good an attempt as I’ve seen in any game of the past 20 years: originally published as four zines, the third issue was dedicated to fleshing out all the most important parts of the game’s canonical setting, while making all of it game-relevant and tying it into its (very weird and bespoke) character options.
Modern indie games more often emphasize shortening the on-ramp to play as much as possible. It’s a laudable goal, and practical given the thesis that RPGs compete for our attention in a very crowded arena – why commit to weeks of reading when you could just boot up Elden Ring and have weird lore fed to you through play? But there have been trade-offs. I refute the hardest-edged indie rhetoric that says nobody has time for lore, and none of it matters if you don’t use it at the table. Similar to but different than the (much quicker) mood-board prep method, agreeing to defer to an outside body of lore is another sort of social ritual. I 100% guarantee making the effort to learn and internalize a game’s canon matters at the table – not better or worse, but different.
Six or twenty sessions of collaborative setting-making is a different way to engage with shared lore. It’s great, I love it (we recently wrapped up 20 sessions of Fellowship, which is all about collaborative lore creation), but it’s also a different experience than everyone deferring to a third party.
The lore I most often come in contact with in modern indie games fits broadly in three categories. They each have tradeoffs and strengths.
Lore as IKEA instructions: functional, minimalist, gets the job done as efficiently as possible. Blades in the Dark is the ideal example of this in my mind, as are most indie games that lean hard on players filling in the gaps (i.e. “play some Dishonored and watch Peaky Blinders”). It’s not “fun” to read, but this approach is eminently practical at the table. There’s a similar approach across the entire Forged in the Dark family: vibes guidance, and lots of quick setting bits explaining faction or setting features.
Another example that pops to mind is Electric Bastionland, which you can sort of browse in the beginning but mostly delivers its “lore” (such as it is) by whatever classes appear in your game. Shattered City did a great job of feeding a very weird setting to the players via playbook and faction choices. And Mutant: Year Zero and its follow-on games all feed the setting to you via their baked-in campaigns, which is great while you’re playing the campaign.
Lore as an IKEA catalog: Evocative, lots of context, an invitation to imagine yourself in the space. This is old-school heavy lore like you’d read in the first edition of Exalted or Shadowrun. Indie gaming has mostly left this approach behind – and boy do I miss it! It’s impractical at the table, demands a lot of time to go through (probably just the GM, as is typical for these games from that era), and requires critical reading/thinking skills to turn into useful material.
Now, of course there are endless piles of lore-heavy RPGs coming out all the time. They are, almost without exception, very trad offerings. Fragged Empire, Trudvang Chronicles, and Symbaroum all come to mind as recent-ish examples. All games I love to browse through sitting on the pot, and none of them will get played here. Eclipse Phase, Coriolis, Lancer and the new 2d20 Dune all have catalog-like browsing qualities to them as well (the latter having probably the most concise lore dump of an otherwise shockingly lore-intensive setting I’ve seen in a while).
And let’s not forget the Monte Cook Cinematic Universe, starting with the chonkiest boi of the batch, Invisible Sun. I still really enjoy browsing (and, sigh, buying) the game’s stuff, tons of context and interconnected ideas. MCG is probably the most committed to the form and succeeding at it.
Other examples include lush art spreads like you see in Coriolis, the deep-dive regional breakdowns in expansions for The One Ring, and evocative maps anywhere and everywhere. Of course what counts as “evocative” is up for debate! For my purposes, I found the district map of Satyrine from Invisible Sun (and all that accompanying art) far more evocative than the precise, facts-only hex maps of Glorantha’s Argan Argar Atlas.
Lore as IKEA warehouse kiosk: comprehensive, contexteless, pure reference. The canonical example in my own mind is The Guide to Glorantha. If I need to look something up it’s terrific, but you don’t browse the kiosk unless, like, you need to look at every bookshelf in the warehouse side by side. Gun and vehicle porn pages like you see in Cyberpunk RED and Twilight: 2000 are here as well. While some folks might get a tickle in their tummy looking over pages of guns (yikes, seek help) there’s no fictional context there to work with.
This is not a form that really sees much use any more. I tend to think of much older games with vast, established settings requiring this treatment: Traveller, Harn, Skyrealms of Jorune. More recent examples include the creature list in Tales of Xadia, the wonderfully detailed timeline in Modiphius’ treatment of Dune, and the third book in Unknown Armies 3E: just a list of stuff, without broader context.
To be clear, this is not a comprehensive breakdown. There are so many ways to present a setting, premise, or holding environment. But I feel like this catches a lot of broad approaches – and the main point is, it’s all about IKEA, either what’s in the warehouse (the game content), what you’re thinking about getting from the warehouse (your campaign planning) or what you brought home (actual play at your table). And I think we’ve given something up by eschewing the heavier formats. Funny thing about official lore, though: as much as anyone says these games are our own, it’s often (socially, practically) hard to treat big lore as optional. Imagine an official Apocalypse World setting book, with absolutely no changes to the game system.
You know what kind of real-world lore treatment I’ve never seen in gaming? Coffee table book guidebooks that came out in the ‘80s and ‘90s for many of the biggest genre series. They must have been wildly expensive to create, but just imagine a game world equivalent to the Atlas of Pern, or the more recent Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern. Lush illustrations, detailed maps, slices of life from the setting, an excuse to just lose yourself in the fictional world.