What are your thoughts on system-less worldbuilding/setting books?

Glade Riven

Adventurer
Just curious. Like the original Dinotopia books were more of an art and worldbuilding book, not actually related to tabletop or other media.
 

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aramis erak

Legend
I've generally found them amusing enough in waiting rooms, but not something I'd buy; I've had students, however, who absolutely loved them.

I have no temptation to use them in games.

The exceptions being the Atlas and encylopedia for Star Wars, and the tech manuals for Star Trek.
 

Dioltach

Legend
Aren't systemless settings simply fiction? If you have to adapt the information to your preferred mechanics, you might as well just be reading a novel or watching a movie.
 

aramis erak

Legend
Aren't systemless settings simply fiction? If you have to adapt the information to your preferred mechanics, you might as well just be reading a novel or watching a movie.
They are, but they're not the same as novels, prose, nor movies, at least, generally.

Look at shows like Walking with Dinosaurs, books like Atlas of Middle Earth, Star Fleet Technical Manual, Star Wars Essential Atlas (SW EA), A Tour of the Galaxy, or and of the Terran Trade Authority series' books.
Walking with Dinosaurs is speculative (and now outdated, due to increased knowledge) work, building a narrative and setting from archaeological descriptions, but, it really is every bit as fictional as Jurassic Park; it's just better researched and actively trying not to screw it up.
Atlas of Middle Earth is presented as non-fiction about a fictional place. So also is the SW EA, and the Atlas of Pern. But SW EA does add a bit of prose written in the style of a history text...
A Tour of the Galaxy is presented as if a scrapbook... but it tells a story in various things that shouldn't be in a normal person's scrapbook... Think of it as a scrapbook update built by an archivist with access to declassified records and the scrapbook of the main characters....
The TTA series presents as a series of historical texts...
And the SFTM is presented as a recovered leak from (presumably) the Enterprise computer dropping a bit of data before Uhura realized Starfleet wasn't there. (Tomorrow is Yesterday ST[TOS] s1 e21)

All of those are worldbuilding efforts that aren't games, nor novels, nor movies, nor television. They're Fiction presented in a manner consistent with non-fiction.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I prefer a setting where the game mechanics actively support it. Easy to see is a place where the magic system will impact the world.

Here's a quick example: Steven Brust has several series of books where resurrection is pretty straightforward. It makes assassination a tool of rebukement instead of the final step. And there are soul draining weapons that make resurrection impossible, but those are both rare and distasteful. Also almost everyone has access to some magic. A ruleset that did not support these would invalidate those as a setting.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
I think systemless setting books are excellent for dressing up settingless games, like mine. My favorite is my Skyrim game guide. Some of the rules bleed into it, like X spell costs Y magicka at base skill levels, but the maps, quests, NPCs, and countless details are pure GM fodder.

I prefer a setting where the game mechanics actively support it. Easy to see is a place where the magic system will impact the world.

Here's a quick example: Steven Brust has several series of books where resurrection is pretty straightforward. It makes assassination a tool of rebukement instead of the final step. And there are soul draining weapons that make resurrection impossible, but those are both rare and distasteful. Also almost everyone has access to some magic. A ruleset that did not support these would invalidate those as a setting.
Do not support and actively support are two different things. Active support would be nice: "here's a full description of how soul draining works with the rules." Lack of support is just a GM ruling or two away from active support. Where it gets ugly is conflicting with the rules. Rule X: "only the ResNow spell can resurrect people, and only 15th level priests can use ResNow." One rule can be circumvented, but if this last example is tied in with more rules, then I can see how the rule set could conflict with the setting.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Aren't systemless settings simply fiction? If you have to adapt the information to your preferred mechanics, you might as well just be reading a novel or watching a movie.
Not really. I mean if you provide a world map or at least a big region and then detail out everything about the peoples and nations that live there there mechanics are no big deal. I use old world stuff with different rules sets all the time. I could use GURPs with Greyhawk for example. To me the backgrounds and detail are what make a setting great. Now I know I am not in the mainstream these days. So not saying that is universal but for me it is.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
I've never used any systemless game setting books, like for Skyrim; but I have a handful of literary reference materials, in the vein of Atlas of Middle Earth and so forth which I've used both for Tolkein-based games and just for inspiration.
But most of all, i like thematic art books. One that springs to mind is author/artist Wayne Douglas Barlow, whose sci-fi "journal" Expedition and his hell-themed art books like Inferno and Brushfire I've found to be very inspirational.
 

Greggy C

Adventurer
Just curious. Like the original Dinotopia books were more of an art and worldbuilding book, not actually related to tabletop or other media.
Depends on the license. I could see how generic settings would blow up right now for all the people copying D&D mechanics.
 

gamerprinter

Mapper/Publisher
Not last month, but last year in December, I released The Planet Builder, as 3PP Starfinder supplement, but while its designed for use in Starfinder, it isn't even OGL. With the help of an astrophysicist, this supplement is a series of tables used to generate scientifically viable, entire star systems, and a planet point system allowing you to settle and grow a star system as a setting over time. I think it's usable even for fantasy settings, if you want a good idea of the star system your fantasy world resides. Of course it's probably more suited to a sci-fi, or science fantasy game. The rules are generic enough to be used for Traveller, Stars Without Number, White Star or any other game you feel such rules are suited. Not quite systemless - but in all practical sake, it is.

For a fantasy setting, knowing what planets or other astral bodies are adjacent to your setting world might have some impact. For example if a large Jovian gas giant is adjacent, if it were too close, chances are nearby planets get ripped apart by the gravitational forces and made into asteroid belts. If the Jovian planet is far enough away, though, it could cause major tidal shifts and/or earthquakes to happen when the gas giant passes by, which could have regular mini-apocalypses on a regular basis that would affect the societies of such worlds.
 
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Randomthoughts

Adventurer
I've gotten a few systemless books for reference or inspiration. A few for Star Trek and Star Wars. Got an atlas or something for Witcher. An artbook for Cyberpunk 2077 to get into Cyberpunk RED (and after watching Edgerunners). And an artbook/guide for The Dragon Prince since my kids are fans, and in prep for the Cortex game. I also really like the Destiny videogame world so the closest I could get is a video game strategy guide (which was useful). Oh, and back in the day, I got the video game guide to Street Fighter to help with the RPG.

The OP didn't ask this but if the thought was making one to use it in a TTRPG, I have always avoided that with one exception: the Dragon Kings supplement when it was systemless (now, it's been converted to SW, PF and 13A) bc of my love of Dark Sun. Otherwise, any systemless book would have to overcome a very high bar for me to be remotely interested. There's just too many fascinating settings out there already!
 

For OSR/rules-light games, I dig them. Provided that the ideas are good and interesting. A lot of times when I read setting book, it's not the mechanics that I'm the most excited about anyway.
 

dbm

Adventurer
I have a collection of these. Setting bibles of different kinds are great for this purpose. I have them for Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time. Even Glorantha has a pair of system-less setting books. I also have four art books by Simon Stålenhag - Tales from the Loop and three further treatments.

The bibles for the two books which have been adapted officially (ASoIaF and WoT) are based on the original works, they aren’t written from a game perspective.

As a person who likes generic systems resources like this are excellent to pair with you favourite flexible rule set.
 

aco175

Legend
I recall something back in 2e days about city books where there were a few books with various businesses in them. I had a couple that I liked reading, but never used any of the shops in the campaigns. They just did not quite fit. I'm not sure I would buy something like that again.
 

... of the Terran Trade Authority series' books.

They're Fiction presented in a manner consistent with non-fiction.
I loved that book. I only ever had the first one, but it strongly inspired me with the ships and the implied setting. Later, when I came across Traveller, it was the foundation of my setting. Although, sadly, I had long since lost it from some moves since then.

Wow. Hit in the nostalgia, there.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Interesting - when I read "worldbuilding books" I expect to be talking about books that tell me how to build a world, not books that have already built one for me.

And on that basis, yes: systemless worldbuilding books are a great idea.
 


Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
They are, but they're not the same as novels, prose, nor movies, at least, generally.

Look at shows like Walking with Dinosaurs, books like Atlas of Middle Earth, Star Fleet Technical Manual, Star Wars Essential Atlas (SW EA), A Tour of the Galaxy, or and of the Terran Trade Authority series' books.
Walking with Dinosaurs is speculative (and now outdated, due to increased knowledge) work, building a narrative and setting from archaeological descriptions, but, it really is every bit as fictional as Jurassic Park; it's just better researched and actively trying not to screw it up.
Atlas of Middle Earth is presented as non-fiction about a fictional place. So also is the SW EA, and the Atlas of Pern. But SW EA does add a bit of prose written in the style of a history text...
A Tour of the Galaxy is presented as if a scrapbook... but it tells a story in various things that shouldn't be in a normal person's scrapbook... Think of it as a scrapbook update built by an archivist with access to declassified records and the scrapbook of the main characters....
The TTA series presents as a series of historical texts...
And the SFTM is presented as a recovered leak from (presumably) the Enterprise computer dropping a bit of data before Uhura realized Starfleet wasn't there. (Tomorrow is Yesterday ST[TOS] s1 e21)

All of those are worldbuilding efforts that aren't games, nor novels, nor movies, nor television. They're Fiction presented in a manner consistent with non-fiction.
I have at least one of Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority books. Visually stunning and definitely inspired me for sci-fi gaming.

FYI, his setting HAS gotten adapted for RPGs.
 

aramis erak

Legend
I have at least one of Stewart Cowley’s Terran Trade Authority books. Visually stunning and definitely inspired me for sci-fi gaming.

FYI, his setting HAS gotten adapted for RPGs.
I've been aware of that since before 2004.... I've got two adaptations, but that's utterly irrelevant to the books themselves, which predate the RPG by 30 years.
 

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