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Close to the Edit

The Vorpal Sword Went "Snicker-Splat"

by Ross Winn
Nov 11,2004


The Vorpal Sword Went "Snicker-Splat"

There has been an awful lot of disagreement with how I used the word splatbook in my Requiem for a Dream column. It frustrated me to no end. So much so that I nearly, but did not quite, invoke Godwin's Law. There were a couple of reasons for this.

The first charge was leveled in the most offensive manner possible. It was in all caps, and contained profanity. While I personally have a mouth like a sailor on a three-day bender in person, I generally don't use a lot of profanity here. is a family site aimed at the widest possible demographic in gaming, so cursing isn't cool in and of itself. Now I know the fora get a bit raunchy from time to time, but I think it is important to get your point across without profanity whenever possible.

Aside from the profanity in the title, there was another issue; that I did not understand the meaning of the word splatbook. I disagree; I just think that my definition is different than the definition of my critics. Splats got started a long time ago. They existed for nearly twenty years and were consistently good sellers in the marketplace, and no one had a name for them and no one really knew why they did so well. Someone at White Wolf was very smart. They looked through their RPG collection and saw a whole lot of supplements that did well, they came to a few conclusions, and this is why we have what are now called splatbooks.

The term came into general use when some internet users got tired of differentiating between all of the different book types in the World of Darkness. They used the general term *book. The * is sometimes is called a splat. Enough said. However most of those internet users still didn't understand why the books were built the way that they were, and why White Wolf supplements sold so well in comparison to supplements for a lot of other games. The components of a splatbook were not new. The idea was not new. The execution was not new. White Wolf may have been better at it than anyone else had ever been, but they were not the first.

I think I know why, I think I always have, and here is the semantic disconnect. For a long time the RPG community marketed supplements to primarily GMs. This is a horrid idea from a business perspective because the RPG publishers were constantly cutting their market by a quarter. Games like Traveller had splatbooks twenty years ago; we just did not know what to call them. Eventually this very smart person at White Wolf, or possibly at Lion Rampant before there was a White Wolf, made the connection.

Splatbooks are supplements aimed at players, that illustrate something that players a generally more interested in. If I am playing a Marine in Traveller then I will be a lot more interested in Book 4: Mercenary than my buddy who wants to be a pirate. If I want to use the new supplement, and if I am a good player, eventually my GM will cave. If I am then a lot more effective than my fellow players then they will want this same kind of flexibility and either go out and get their own copy of Mercenary, or go buy High Guard or Scouts, or some other book that accomplishes the same goals. Eventually everyone will want to see if someone else's character is better then theirs is and buy the other books as well. Instead of selling three books to one guy, I have sold three books each to four guys, for a total of twelve. From a business perspective, this makes a lot more sense.

The new World of Darkness publishing model capitalizes on this to an almost ludicrous extreme. We start with one book, The World of Darkness. This book contains all of the core rules. Then every other book, literally every one, is a splat of one kind or another. Vampire: The Requiem, the forthcoming books for Mage, Werewolf, and whatever other elements they choose to add to the World of Darkness. Remember when I called this an almost ludicrous extreme; what makes it not ludicrous is that it works. It works ludicrously well, and White Wolf is the number two company in RPGs because of it.

Each splatbook explodes some element of the game into smaller elements, or clearer focus. Then the next book explodes something into even smaller elements, or clearer focus. This can go on ad infinitum, but without careful planning it can become much too complex and the game world too static. This is why White Wolf chose to restart the World of Darkness in the first place. There was too much information for anyone to keep it straight. Any attempt to break away from the mold of the presented world is met with resistance. As Justin said there was no mystery in the old World of Darkness, and they wanted to change that. Then someone mentioned that the market may grow with less complexity, and the deal was sealed.

Fatsplats sometimes introduce a new element as well as delineating several subsets of that idea. In The Requiem we introduce Vampires, and then we explode the term into five families, called Covenants in the text, and then it gives even more possibilities to come. By the way, no one seemed to like my allusion to the mafia in the text of the original review column. They were instead under the impression that I didn't understand the difference between Covenants, Bloodlines, Clans, or whatever. I do understand the difference; I just put a lot less importance on it. There are some neat effects of mixing covenants and bloodlines within Requiem. Yet to my mind you could refer to them as anything you wanted, it doesn't change the real point. Which is that every player wants their character type to have a book of his or her own.

There are a few more elements a successful splat needs to have, generally, to be a success. Splats need Shiny stuff, hard stuff, and soft stuff to appeal to the widest possible audience. Why, you ask? Well, here is some more history for those of you newer to the hobby.

In the dawn of RPGs, we were pretty lame. People generally had never done this before and they did not have the internet, or really any reference for what made a good game. We were shooting from the hip. We had read Lord of The Rings, and that was about it. We had played a few wargames. However we needed everything written down for us. So books that just had locations, items, personalities, those made a certain kind of sense then that they do not, generally, do now. As the market became increasingly entrenched, those books became less and less marketable. Until now where we see a model almost unrecognizable, in terms of sophistication, to what had gone before.

One example of this is the adventure module. Once it was the entire reason that some companies published games. There were whole series of modules; there were linked series of modules. The product category was profitable. Now modules are nearly unheard of. So while you may see campaign books with broad strokes for what some adventures might contain, you will almost never see the details the way they were presented then.

Some other smart guy, somewhere else, thought in three terms. Now I do not know what he named those three terms. Different designers I have worked with have had different terms that they used to describe these three ideas. Nor do I venture to guess who 'he' was. However, I am sure he came up with terms that are analogous to hard stuff, shiny stuff, and soft stuff.

'Hard stuff' (also sometimes referred to as 'crunchy stuff') can best be described as the actual rules system additions that allow new abilities, new powers, or new situations. This is important to the players because it generally adds abilities or ideas that are less common or unavailable in other character types It doesn't really matter whether it is rules for ambush, or rules for building N-space reactionless drives. These expansions of the game also make it important for the GM to own the book, but I still believe that the true aim is at the players.

'Soft stuff' is the absolute opposite of hard stuff. This is the fiction, setting, and feel that makes the game world compelling. Soft stuff is not related to the rules at all, but it gives a context to the rules that is unavailable in other types of game material.

As an aside I think that this is the major failing of White Wolf in the last ten years. Too often they have concentrated too much on the realm of soft stuff and neglected the other two categories, and I think their products have suffered for it.

'Shiny stuff' is the glue that holds the players and the GM together. Commonly the material interests both. The best example of shiny stuff is new equipment for the game. New guns or weapons, new spells, new defenses; as an admitted 'gearhead' the shiny stuff has always been the glue that held supplements together for me.

Now supplements that do not have all of these elements generally do not do as well, and are not around as long. Many companies have realized that this formula works. There have been splats for D&D3e, and they have sold well. Books like Tome & Blood and Song & Silence are, I think, examples of the form. While sometimes these splats from other companies miss the mark, by leaving out one kind of stuff or another, they are obviously influenced by White Wolf.

So while I understand the opinions of those who took me to task for my treatment of the word splatbook, I do not agree with them. They choose to believe that splats are something formed by and for White Wolf, and I disagree. While they may have improved the form, they didn't create it, and they have no ownership of the idea. They simply copied the examples of those who had gone before them and improved upon the execution.

Finally, I want to apologize for losing my temper in the forum, and thank stephenls for allowing me a window to explain further the context of my argument.

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