Any material that you put into a roleplaying game (RPG) of your design should be something that you want game masters (GMs) and players to make use of. Don’t put in cool background bits and then explain that they’re only there for color; you’re not going to detail them because no one should actually find out about them in game; etc. Anything you put into your game will get picked up and expanded on by someone. Anything fascinating will inspire someone.
GMs will use anything that you put into your game. They’ll just mutter under their breath about how annoying it is that you didn’t detail or balance things while they’re doing it. Putting something into your game and then claiming that you didn’t expect people to actually use it is short-sighted. If you didn’t expect them to use the material, after all, then why did you provide it for them?
You Aren’t Writing a Novel
The whole point of a roleplaying game world is to give GMs and players material to use in their games. You aren’t writing a static novel; you’re writing a fluid game world. Your material isn’t there to be marveled at but not touched — it’s there to be used. Everything you put into that game world has to be something that can be used by a GM and his players. If it can’t be used, take it out! If it can’t be used by someone then it’s a waste of space.
If you can’t stand the thought of what some gaming group might do to your precious plots and worlds, then you’re in the wrong business. Write novels. Write short stories. The whole point of a roleplaying game is that people will play with it.
This rule of thumb applies to those troublesome secrets I mentioned in an earlier article. If your world would fall apart if a secret was revealed (and you don’t intend for that to actually be an interesting plot), then don’t put the secret into your world! You must assume that any secret in your game world will eventually be revealed in people’s games. Everyone loves revelation scenes, in which great secrets are revealed. Lots of people delight in working cool secrets into their character backgrounds for the same reason.
The facet of human nature that causes players to work nifty secrets into their character backgrounds (and GMs to work secrets into their games) is the same trait that causes you to want to work cool secrets into your game world. Secrets and mysteries are fun, and having a bunch of them around for players and GMs to play with and make use of can be a good thing. Just keep in mind — always — that those secrets will be used, just like any other game material you provide.
As a side-note here, don’t waste space on material that will never see the light of day in a game. For an example of how not to do this, see Jeffrey Howard’s review of The Succubus Bride. A fair amount of space in that module was wasted on background information that the PCs had absolutely no way to discover. What’s the point of this? If you spend two pages of a ten-page module on material the GM can’t work into the game, then you’ve just sold him an eight-page module for the price of ten pages, and he won’t be happy about that.
Every time you write something into your game world, expect it to be used. Think about what would happen if someone played with your random bit of background story or your deep, dark secret. What would happen if it was revealed, mucked with, brought right into game? Then deal with that! If it would unbalance the game then find a way to handle that. Roleplayers are creative people and will happily do anything with your game world that interests them. That’s the whole point of roleplaying; it’s limited only by the imagination of the roleplayers.
Above all, you have to remember that your game world doesn’t exist in a vacuum. An RPG world is meant to be used. It’s a tool-kit, not a novel; a fluid resource, not a static repository of information. Keep this in mind, and your game worlds will be much more useful to others!