Monday, May 2, 2016

There's No Such Thing as "Bloat" in RPGs, and Here's Why

If you've ever been a fan of an RPG that got popular, you've likely heard people talk about bloat. Not only that, but you probably noticed the conversation takes place entirely in the tone of voice one uses to discuss someone they thought was a good friend, who then got drunk at a party, slept with their significant other, and threw up right in their lap.

What gives, bro? You've been my game since high school, and this is how you do me?
If you're fortunate enough to have never had this experience, I'll give you a quick run down on the concept of bloat. Bloat is when an RPG publisher puts out so much material for its game that it is impossible, or at least quite difficult, for a player to keep up on all of it. It's a topic that's come up recently thanks to the popularity of Ultimate Intrigue for Pathfinder, but it's a song I've heard many times before. It was the theme song of discussions surrounding the new World of Darkness games like Changeling: The Lost, and the tune was stuck on repeat during the decline of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5.

I've got a secret to share with you, though. Bloat doesn't exist.

The Reason Why Bloat is a Figment of Your Imagination

Let's take a game like Pathfinder, for example. It's been around for several years now, and it seems like every time you turn around Paizo is putting out new material for it. There are new supplements, new splat books, new adventure paths, and even new DM tools like Pathfinder Condition Cards. You can buy these books physically, or buy them as .pdf files.

"Can" is the operative word here. Because, no matter how many books Paizo and other companies put out, you never have to buy more than the base handbook (and possibly a storyteller guide) to run their games. The same was true about the World of Darkness, Dungeons and Dragons, Savage Worlds, and the dozens of other RPGs out there that people have accused of getting "too bloated to play."

Holy shit, another book? How am I going to afford that?
Think about all this additional content like DLC in video games. Would it have been nice to get it included in the original? It sure would have. However, nine times out of ten, this additional content is made in response to a game getting popular... when it comes to RPGs, at least. The publisher sees that lots of people are playing their game, and those players are clamoring for more stuff like the initial release. So, that's what the publisher creates.

Now, there are two major complaints when it comes to additional content. The first complaint is that there's just too much of it. Even if a DM likes certain additional books, or enjoys content that fleshed out parts of the game that felt a little bare, taken as a whole there's entirely too much stuff to read, learn, remember, and use. If you feel that way, take a deep breath, let it out, and remember that you are the master of your own gaming group. If you don't want to use anything but the base book, you don't have to. If you want to use a certain setting, but remove certain classes or pieces of lore, then that's also your prerogative. The material is here to help you, and if it isn't helping, you don't have to use it.

The second major complaint is that publishers are just releasing new material to get more money out of their fans. To that, I have a very simple reply.


The Realities of Succeeding as a Publisher

The companies that produce the roleplaying games we love are, first and foremost, publishers. In order for these companies to stay in business, and pay their staff, we have to buy their stuff. Since the basic package of core rule book and storyteller's manual only goes so far before sales slow to a trickle, publishers need to keep coming up with new stuff to entice us to expand our collections. Maybe that means putting out a race guide, or maybe it means a supplement book with new base classes, spells, and feats. Maybe it means releasing a guide to your campaign setting, full of all the tasty fluff a DM could ever ask for to make games feel more organic and authentic.

I repeat, you are under no obligation to buy these bonus books, cards, map packs, minis, tee shirts, special edition dice, or whatever else a publisher releases. However, if you do, then you are choosing to support that company, allowing them to create even more stuff.

This sends messages loud and clear to publishers.
That's the part lots of players and DMs don't think about when they start throwing around their "bloat" complaints. They don't want Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, or the publisher formerly known as White Wolf to go out of business, because those are the people who made the games they're playing. The games these players ostensibly really like. And there are at least a few supplement books these players like, value, and are glad the publisher produced. But they're frustrated that there's just so much extra material that comes out when a game gets popular.

Publish or perish, my friends. When publishers stop releasing content, that's when the game dies.

Hopefully everyone found this week's Moon Pope Monday update interesting, and useful. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or just go to my Gamers page to get all my tabletop stuff. You could also check out the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio, where I get together with other gamers to make videos for players and dungeon masters alike!

If you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to donate $1? As little as a single Washington per month can have a big impact when it comes to getting you fresh, thoughtful content. Lastly, if you haven't decided to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not do so now so you never miss one of my updates again?

And, if you're looking for something new to read, you could head over to My Amazon Author Page where you can pick up books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!


  1. Oh, so THAT's what it's called. It's a topic that I've been thinking about for a while, too, and I seem to see a different side of it.

    Let's say that I am not playing vanilla Pathfinder but Pathfinder Society Organized Play, and the local GMs (particularly those who prefer to play at high, 7+ tiers) all have a penchant for hardcore dungeon crawl and combat scenarios. Now, I show up there with my core rulebook and my run of the mill characters--and promptly feel inadequate because other players have all these amazing optimized classes and feats from Ultimate Combat/Magic/Gear/Whatever (what some would call "bloat") that end any encounter before I can even roll my attack dice. Because I don't have access to any of that because I didn't pony up the dough for the extra books (which is the actual PFS rule: to use extra content, it must be both sanctioned for play AND you must own a copy of it legally).

    So, what should I do about this? Just suck it up and stop whining about the non-existent bloat? Or just stop playing with the cool rich kids altogether--that classic fallback solution of "don't like, don't play" (which disregards the possibility that PFS may be the only way to RP out here)?

    1. I'd say you tell the GMs about the problem so that they can see about evening things out, whether that means they limit the source books, they reign in the multi-book min/maxing, or assist you in improving your own characters to be competitive.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. If you believe that you need the latest books, sweetest base classes, and newest feats, I'd say that you're wrong.

      The very scenario you mentioned is one that a core character, using core feats, could still survive and do well in. Maybe you're not as flashy as the ninja, or as out-there as the gnome gunslinger, but I have never yet seen a scenario where a base class, built with feats from the core rulebook, won't stand up on its own.

      If you feel you NEED the additional stuff Paizo has released in order to compete, I would respectfully suggest you go back to the drawing board and re-do your math, because the tools you have available in the core are more than enough to get through any level-appropriate mod, assuming you and your compatriots can work together.

      However, the big, fat asterisk at the end of that is that you can still pick and choose what you want from the full list of legal options. You don't have to buy everything to use Core and the Advanced Player's Guide, or the Advanced Class Guide, if that's the one additional book you want. Shop smart, research what you actually need for your concept, and use that.

    4. "...The very scenario you mentioned is one that a core character, using core feats, could still survive and do well in. Maybe you're not as flashy as the ninja, or as out-there as the gnome gunslinger, but I have never yet seen a scenario where a base class, built with feats from the core rulebook, won't stand up on its own."
      Respectfully, I would have to disagree. In the narrow reference framework as, let's say, a vanilla Barbarian in Pathfinder, using Core Rules only means I can't take Raging Vitality, which means, if I go unconscious, I cease raging immediately, lose the HP gained, and run a very real risk of dying. RV is considered to be a "must have" trait or something of a cornerstone feat when playing a barb in PF. So much of the really nice stuff, and even some of the more mundane "mainstream/accepted stuff" comes from the ancillary materials. Now, do you need them? Well, sometimes no, but in the case of the aforementioned PF barbarian, it can mean the difference between death and getting the friendly party cleric to heal you before you hit - CON in HP and have to reroll another character. Yes, you CAN make a CRB-only Barbarian, but in my opinion as someone who has tried to do this, and played several "RAGESMASHKILL" characters in Pathfinder, you are going to be severely gimped by doing so. There's also a ton of materials in the materials not in the CRB but from the extra materials that make Rogues in PFS not only exceptionally better (a whole tier or two better, I would calculate), but much more fun to play. So I will agree that maybe in some cases you don't need the flashy extras, but they can make a very real difference in your experience with your character and your group.

    5. That's where we have a difference of opinion on the Barbarian. I would never take Raging Vitality, and would instead focus on other Rage Powers that dovetail with feats, fighting style, etc.

      Player strategy is just as important as what options you're pulling from. If you feel that being limited to the Core Rulebook's Rage Powers limits you, then you'd presumably play a different class than barbarian. If not, then you'd need to find a strategy that makes up for the fact that you don't have access to the archetypes or later powers you'd prefer.

      If you feel that makes you somehow less powerful, then I'd say it's time to go back to the drawing board.

    6. The same things you'd do if they were playing Traveller and you wanted to play a fantasy game...either get another game running in parallel (if they or someone was interested) or go looking elsewhere.

      There's a huge difference between a minimax dungeon crawl game and a more fun and atmospheric type game. In a less combat focused game you can be a major part of the action without a character that is tuned to the limit for combat crunch.

    7. You should know your also allowed to use books that your gm owns so talk to your gm about it then hit the srd

    8. You should know your also allowed to use books that your gm owns so talk to your gm about it then hit the srd

    9. @Neal: I feel the differences in our views are too different to reconcile over an internet argument, so I will refrain from trying to further strengthen my points (respectfully, of course). Let's just say that I'm in the same camp as Jack here.

      I would like you to clarify one more thing, though, if you don't mind. If the core classes with proper core feats are just as efficient in combat as the hybrid and advanced ones, then why did Paizo feel the need to release the Unchained versions for three of them, in your opinion?

      @Unknown: Thank you, it'd be a great option if anything except PFS were played regularly out here. :-)

      @Nicolas: Is that a new rule? Because in my copy of the PFS Campaign Guide (the section on the Additional Resources), it's the player who must bring a copy of the additional rules he uses, rather than the GM.

  2. I have to agree. As a DM I try and limit my games to the PRD but will allow other books with pre-approval. That way none of my players needs to actually buy anything if they do not want to. I understand why CORE is a thing, but I'll never play it in PFS. If they went to a PRD model, I could get more into it.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I agree that "bloat" is largely in the imagination of many players. For the most part, as stated, a publisher has to... y'know... *publish*... if they're going to survive and thrive. The only real "bloat" occurs if the publisher's system *requires* a number of books in order to make the game playable (the commonly accepted range is 1-3 books as "standard" -- a core, the equivalent of a GM's guide, and possibly a monster/subsidiary book to support the other two, a la' DnD being the upper 3-book range of "acceptability"). Anything more has to either be justified by the expectations of the setting and/or the general acceptance of the fans (such as is the case with WoD products -- each splat is playable within its own book; if, though, you want to properly cross-splat in a group, you need multiple other books. This, though, is perhaps the singular exception I've noted over the decades of where such a range -- requiring 5-7+ books -- as a "core" is okay, largely due to the vast material presented and the devotion to each splat that the individual books each cover).

    (Sidenote: more often, for me/people I've known, "bloat" was more often used as a term to refer either to proportionally overly powerful/under-challenged PCs *or* to a setting -- usually a given table's/GM's setting -- wherein "everything and the kitchen sink" is thrown in left, right and center so as to give the appearance of being in some cases too Monty Hall and/or too "soap-opera-meets-hyper-random-amounts-of-bleah" on a week-in, week-out basis. That, to me, is something that occurs for many groups with much greater frequency than the "bloat" being referred to in this blog-topic... just saying...)

    EDIT: Dammit -- doesn't let you adjust things w/o deleting, apparently. REPOST FROM DELETION

  5. I enjoyed reading this and of course, you're absolutely correct about 'bloat' being a figment for additional content. However, I feel a core ruleset can also be 'bloated' in the first instance.