Some game books, I read them and I immediately want to play.
This doesn't mean what you think it means. I don't mean: I read the book and decide the game is good and better than all the others and has an awesome premise or system. I just mean they have a weird something where I feel like I need to play them, soon, for some vague reason I do not entirely understand that is not related to how much I like the game itself considered outside the book.
Call of Cthulhu is better than Chill 2e in nearly every way, and I will and have run CoC much more than Chill but, to me, the (often very well-illustrated) CoC book is just a book--whereas the Chill book is like play me, play me, play me...
B/X D&D has no special attraction for me over AD&D, 5e or any other D&D (or Warhammer, for that matter)--but B/X is the one where, flipping through, I think I have to playyyyy...
As a system, I like DC Heroes much less than Marvel FASERIP--but the DC book is the one that I just end up staring at over and over. And the new DC adventures with the beautiful color pictures? Don't care at all.
I think I know why, but it's weird:
All these books are under-illustrated.
The illustrations aren't bad, and they aren't just sparse (though they are that)--they also studiously avoid the central ideas of the game.
While Call of Cthulhu gives you images of cultists and cosmic monsters pretty early on, here are Chill's first three pictures:
There's PCs, there's monsters, there's a spooky house--but no scenes.
Similarly, here's some typical DC Heroes art:
These are both from Mayfair--who had a house style--but Basic D&D also has some of this. It has plenty of images of D&Dish characters doing D&Dish things, but the really typical activity--adventurers confronting exotic creatures in an exotic environment--is missing (unless you count the dull monsters in the intro adventure, which I don't, really). None of the pictures are as evocative as that one in the AD&D PHB of the dwarves confronting the magic mouth, for instance, or A Paladin In Hell.
There is a weird knife-edge here for me: no illustration (Shock, Dread) or generic illustration (AW, Top Secret SI) do nothing for me. Great and lavish illustration I appreciate, but don't give me this weird must-play vibe.
It's something like this: the heroes are illustrated, clearly and well. The villains are illustrated, clearly and well. But the book has not smashed them together yet--it has not described the connective tissue that puts them together.
There is this teetering feeling that something needs to happen--like a chessboard all lined up, just sitting there. Just as all the sofas and hay bales become ominous as soon as the movie starts because you know it's a horror movie, all the illustrated banalities become animated with possibility when you know they're supposed to result in dazzling murder, confrontations on Apokolips, the domains of Asmodeus.
Like you're reading...
The alligator is a large, powerful reptile, sometimes growing to a length of almost 15feet. It makes its home in rivers and swamps, and...
...and this is undeniably pointless prose on its own but underneath there's this shadow awareness that spends the whole time you read dreaming up horror-things to do with an alligator.
And something in that is powerful--because RPG texts depend on giving intimations of potentia--that dizzy, wonderful first-page-of-the-novel feeling where things could go in any direction. And when you finally do read the introductory adventure at the back of the book it is always so disappointing where--given all these options--they narrowly chose to take it. Better to spin out the readers dreaming about what's possible instead of subjecting them to the leaden realities of modules and examples where the monster waiting to ambush them is Sturgeon's Law.
I don't know if this feeling is unique to me or, even if it's not, whether it can really be usefully harnessed--who would want to intentionally create the feeling of a half-made thing? And is it even really possible to do genuinely well?
Part of this might just be the simplest trick of literature--describe in words so much more than you can show, creating a semisensed world in the mind--but supplemented with solid pictures of the principle characters to ground everyone at the table in the same reality.
I only know I keep staring at these books, year after year, not running them, not wanting to--really, when I think about it--but feeling like not doing it leaves something strangely unsaid.
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