Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Being something of a world-building aficionado, I love a good glossary/encyclopedia at the end of a fine novel. Good supplementary material of this sort shouldn't be strictly necessary for the understanding/ enjoyment of the work, but it ought to enhance what's already there, and if there are sequels (and with fantasy fiction there usually are), tantalizingly hint at mysteries to come.

Tolkien, world-building master though he is, doesn't provide the best of these to my tastes. Mainly, this is because he was doing something different in his appendices.  He offered up several essays to expand or explicate his background, not give a ready reference or lay the foundation for sequels. No, interesting though Tolkien's Lord of the Rings appendices may be, I don't find myself revisiting them. They're just too weighty.

The the best, in my mind, is the "Terminology of the Imperium" in Frank Herbert's Dune. Not only does it support the text for readers of poor memory or with "exotic" word difficulty, but it expands upon the text in ways that feel like bonus value. There's nothing really there that you need to "get" Dune, but it certainly increases the feeling of depth in Herbert's world. Herbert also gives us some short Tolkien-esque essays as well, which are really good, but the "Terminology" is where it's at.

I've on occasion tried to use a similar device/technique in gaming. I know some might be critical of this. Their response will be something along the lines of "if the players need a glossary for your game then it's too complicated!" but I think that's a simplistic view. The exoticness of the names in Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne might be an impediment to some players (after all, a lot of people have a hard time remembering everyday English names), but does that mean they should be barred from playing in worlds with more challenging linguistic backgrounds?

Surely the litmus test should be: is the supplementary material enhancing the enjoyment of the players, or is it serving the ego of the world's creator?

Now, there's no reason it can't do both, but the former, I believe, is the essential ingredient.

Anyway, I first tried something like this back in the days of  second edition of AD&D. Our campaign was suitably in then-current fashion of "EPIC!" and had a large cast and a continental sweep. Tad William's lists of people, places, and things (broken up by culture) from his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy was the model followed. The player's at the time liked this, and I was pleased with how they utilized it in play, but my tastes have changed, and I now find this style of campaign suboptimal.

I did use a similar approach in a GURPS fantasy game several years ago. It was less well received this time--or at least it was utilized less in session. Maybe it was the player group, or maybe feeling they were a part of a "meaningful" storyline made the player's in the AD&D game more interested in savoring detail. Who knows?

In preparing my current game, I did sort of a "pitch" document for the players so we could get on the same wavelength. A portion of that was a short "encyclopedic glossary" as sort of flavor text. This time around, I didn't intend (or expect) player's to use it at gaming sessions.  I just wanted to help them get what I was going for. Largely, I feel its been successful in that regard, though maybe one of my player's may jump in here and say otherwise...

Next time, I'll post the text I gave the players--both to further my ongoing digressions on the campaign, and as one example of how I think a glossary can be used to enhance play.

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