Anomalous Subsurface Environment is a setting book that just happens to include a medium sized dungeon. It is a 100 page book. The dungeon part is pages 50 through 77, which is only 27% of the total page count. More than 40% is direct campaign background, 14% is new monsters, and so forth. Yet ASE1 is presented as a module (generally) and a mega-dungeon (specifically). It is my contention that ASE1 would have not been nearly as successful had it been released as The Land of One Thousand Towers campaign setting (with starter adventure included), and it would have done even worse as a cartoon science fantasy retro-clone (which it also easily could have been, with a few more classes and a chapter on combat rules).
Isle of the Unknown was sold as a hex crawl setting or location, but is also a bestiary. While I am not really interested in re-litigating whether Isle is a good setting, or has creative monsters, it seems uncontroversial, to me, to claim that it would have done better if it had focused on the lavishly illustrated monsters and wizards (say), instead of the mostly implied location-based adventure. Rather than “lack of fully realized areas,” instead the evaluation would be “each monster has a bonus encounter area detailed, all collected in the bonus hex map appendix.”
These are counterfactuals, so we can’t really know what would have happened, but examine for yourself what products have been successful. This is worth thinking about if you are making an RPG product. Consider what it is that people have already. How you position a product will guide people toward an evaluation yardstick. If you release something as a mega-dungeon, it will be compared to Barrowmaze, Rappan Athuk, and ASE. If you release something as a bestiary, it will be compared to the Fiend Folio and Teratic Tome. If you release something as a ruleset, it will be compared to Labyrinth Lord, ACKS, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And so forth. Think about, for one final example, how successful LotFP likely would have been had it been released as the Early Modern Weird Horror Historical Campaign Setting (which is actually just a hop, skip, and jump away from what is currently in the Rules & Magic hardcover).
A full new ruleset is probably the least effective way to present something given how saturated that particular market has become, unless you are specifically looking to appeal to the crowd that is interested in rules for rules’ sake (and in that case you really need to have new and interesting rules; an interesting setting is probably not enough). You can see this most clearly in the story games communities, where most of the successful products are innovative mechanically but often generic (or more kindly, archetypal) regarding atmosphere and setting. See, for example, Swords Without Master (wildly creative rules with an implied generic swords & sorcery setting) and Dungeon World (an unsurprising classic D&D setting variation on the elegant Apocalypse World engine).
Not often we get to see your marketing expertise. This post is valuable to me, thank you.
I often wonder if the setting book has a bad reputation in OSR circles, sure many of the 2e era setting books seemed like excessive fluff, and there’s perhaps some sort of expectation that a ‘good GM’ will write their own setting, but I think it’s a bit more then that.
A fetishization of “products that are usable at the table” means a setting but is always an auxiliary item, seen as lacking in rigor when compared to an adventure locale. That’s my guess anyhow.
I have a different take on ASE. I do see it as a module, primarily because I read through the development blog. To me, what makes it work or resonate so strongly in the internet, (I don’t have actual sales figures) is that it is clear that the author wanted something gonzo and wanted to play. The adventure is the main thing – the page count doesn’t reflect that but the goal of the book and the intent that comes out of it does. The setting grew around that. With some of the rule books it is the same, you are seeing what people are using, have used, and is successful. That is very different than the intentional imam going to write a gaming product that comes out sometimes. It is different – our brains can just tell – when something is played to test the product vs the product comes out of play. I think that is also why Dungeon World works as well, and in many cases better than a lot of products even though it is so traditional. The biggest change in Dungeon World is the chapter on telling you how to run the first adventure. That by itself is work the price of the book.
I concur that we are rules saturated, and as much as I dislike some of the more vile blogs out there, we have to ask do we need another version of the same game. Sometimes yes, when it comes from the intent of an adventure game. I think that is why adventures and monster books do so well relatively speaking. Setting books are just bad fan fiction. Which one came first from ASE – the kernel of the adventure with some cool ideas, or the land of a thousand towers with a throw on adventure. Many setting books, or rule books are the later.
I am hoping now we have filled the space so to speak, that we will realize that this game is a hobby again. You can tweak it all you want, but if it doesn’t come out of a desire and action of playing or tools to enhance that expierence, then it is just reading and publishing books (not games) for a very niche crowd.
Great post by the way! I like how this blog spurs thought about our hobby.