Both games are mainly character creation and rules, and in Traveller's case I learned about the Third Imperium from snippets here and there from the adventures, supplements and the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society.
So it never really felt like learning lots of background. It was just stuff that I learned as I was going along, and it was never hard work.
(Call of Cthulhu obviously uses real history, mixed with the monstrous. There's a small amount of backstory regarding the war with the elder things and shoggoths, but that's in Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness rather than the rulebook.)
And the other contemporary games of the time (the early 1980s) were mostly the same. AD&D was just rules. Tunnels and Trolls, and GURPS, likewise. I never played RuneQuest or Empire of the Petal Throne, the two background-heavy RPGs of the time.
Somewhere along the way (I guess in the mid 1980s with the arrival of Skyrealms of Jorune and MERP) increasingly detailed backgrounds became vogue. I remember in the 1990s remarking that I didn't like reading RPGs because they had too many words.
On reflection, it wasn't that they had too many words. After all, I still read novels.
But I really didn't want to have to learn another set of complex rules that didn't really change how the games are played. As far as I could see, there really wasn't that much difference in terms of the Chaosium system, the Traveller system or the AD&D system. They were all rules that just governed whether you succeeded at doing something, and one was pretty much like another.
At the time, I was also heading towards simpler systems. I realised that most dice rolls in RPGs were just answering a yes/no question, and I ended up running my games with players rolling two dice to see what happens. At the time, this was a bit weird. Now I run Fate Accelerated, which has a little more structure, but not much.
I guess I don't have the temperament for system or background mastery.
Twenty years later
Twenty years later, my views on RPGs haven't changed.
I know this because I recently bought Over the Edge (OtE) and various supplements from Bundle of Holding. I had high expectations because OtE has a great reputation, but I'm afraid I found it full of words.
OtE rules: surprisingly complicated
Character generation was okay, although more fiddly than I was expecting. The simplicity that I recall from the reviews at the time (3 traits and a secret) is complicated with fiddly rules for hit points and optional rules for experience dice.
The rules were also more complex than I expected. The rules for most things are fairly simple - roll some dice to beat a target number, where both the target number and the dice you roll vary (but not by much). But combat, inevitably, takes up several pages and contains range tables and special cases that, for me, do not appeal at all.
Background: blah blah blah
Then we hit the background, and goodness that's a pile of text I will never, ever read. There are descriptions of people, factions, places and more. There are maps, and room-by-room descriptions of some key locations. Some of these are annoying - such as the room-by-room description of a hotel. I know what a hotel looks like - what I really need to know is why this one is different.
(It's this kind of thinking that lead me to create Tales of Terror, which is nothing but story ideas.)
I know a lot of people like this sort of stuff - and it leads to system/setting mastery which is a draw for some. But for me, mastery is in simplicity - what is the least I have to do to run a compelling game session. I'm all for being prepared, I can improvise most things as long as I know the key points. But that's all I really want - the key points. Unfortunately I found the key points buried in OtE.
To be clear, I don't mind learning background. But I want to do it as I'm doing something else (enjoying a novel, watching a movie, reading or playing a scenario), not as an infodump.
For me, OtE also suffers for not being clear as to what the PCs are up to. I suspect it's a product of it's time (and was also a problem with Traveller and, to a degree, Call of Cthulhu) so I think this is only something I'm noticing from 2017. I suspect that most of my games these days are convention one-shots means that I'm looking for more direction here than OtE was ever going to provide.
To be fair, OtE does have a go, by encouraging players to give their characters reasons for being on Al Amarja (OtE's fictional Mediterranean island). But that's something that needs to be done as a group, and for me I'd rather the game was narrower in scope and gave player characters a defined role.
So there we go. Over the Edge has too many words for me, but I accept that I'm a bit unusual in that department.
Maybe one day I will play it, but I'm unlikely ever to run it.