6 August 2021: Manuals Can Only Suggest Flavor

Here’s another unsolicited opinion: Game manuals can only suggest flavor for your game. They can’t actually provide it. The gamemaster and the players are the actual providers of the essential character of the game.

The assumption here, or course, is that we’re talking about published adventures and/or settings. While there can be flavor to the way rules are written… well, should there be? Or should the rules just be easy-to-follow instructions that support your own creativity?

We know that no one actually runs and plays published adventures exactly the way they were intended to be played. Everyone drifts, fudges, or makes house rules. We all tweak content to suit the player characters, our interpretation of the setting, or because we have our own ideas that we think are better than the material as written.

As I’ve said before and will say again, the book is not the game. The game is the creativity and social interaction taking place around the table. It’s like saying the recipe is the dish. A lot can happen when you cook it, even if you follow directions to the letter.

Manuals Can Only Suggest Flavor

This is one of the reasons I view artwork as entirely optional for tabletop roleplaying books. Can it be useful? Yes. Can it be nice to look at? Absolutely. But is it necessary? I’m unconvinced.

You may have used some illustrations from your favorite game book within your game. How do you use it? You show it to your players, of course. But, do you also have to describe what the monster is doing, what spell the villain is casting, how the magic item works? Of course you do. The illustration is, at best, helping a bit with the heavy lifting. You’re still the one doing the lifting.

Do you read all of the flavor text in an adventure out loud, or do you paraphrase? Even if you recite it verbatim off the page, is that the only description you provide? Of course not. You have to interpret the actions of the player characters, in the context of the scene. Then you have to describe what the monsters, adversaries, and non-player characters are doing. The material in the book is a starting point.

It’s the gamemaster providing the flavor. The players are providing the flavor. If the book provided the flavor, we’d all be having the same experience with a game, as setting, or an adventure. We know that’s not true. A great GM, a fantastic player, can elevate bad material. A poor GM or unengaged player can ruin the best-written supplement.

Manuals can only suggest flavor. The people around the table actually supply it.