Companion thread to yesterday’s awwwesome (mostly) discussion about impenetrable RPG texts. Same rules as yesterday: let’s talk about the texts, and not whether we like the games or not.
So I have some thoughts on what goes into great RPG text. There are many thoughts like it, but these are mine. And what I’m gonna say is entirely descriptive and not at all intended to be prescriptive.
I think in the small press universe, Jason Morningstar has cornered
the my market on extremely accessible game text. The introductory stuff is fast and makes it very clear up-front what you’re in for. The explanatory stuff is both graphically effective as well as clear and short without being overly terse. Night Witches for me set a really high bar on strong, clear, effective game text.
John Stavropoulos mentioned in the other thread the intersection of effective text and difficult games. So for me, the game that hits the intersection of maximum complexity and maximum clarity is luke crane’s Burning Empires. Given the extraordinary layers of system at work, the text kicks ass. Strong layout and good form factor help, but this is my best example of deep, deep complexity being explained well, pulling me into the game’s premise, getting me prepared and excited. It’s even pretty good as an at-the-table reference.
A more recent text that I think worked well is Mutant: Year Zero. Yes yes it’s 250 pages (and OMG when did the indie crowd lose their ability to hold a book for more than 15 minutes?) but it makes its promises as early as the back page blurb, gives the players what they need when they need it, piles all the GM-specific stuff in the back. It’s just…very very well executed. The art works, the text is clear (and it’s translated I think), it’s pretty easy to reference but not perfect. But in the space of sorta-kinda mainstream-ish games I think it’s super solid.
Looking at my shelves got me thinking about the stuff that I like in a game text.
* The text makes a clear and attainable promise to me about the game experience. This is why I hate — hate — leading with game fiction (and why The Clay That Woke was very close to a dealbreaker for me): Spend enough years reading game books, and it’s clear that the actual at-the-table experience bears no resemblance to all that wonderful fiction. It just doesn’t. Not ever.
* The material doesn’t intimidate me. Or, maybe presented more positively, the material is inviting and reassuring. Night Witches and Sagas of the Icelanders has a crapton of exotic stuff you need to get straight, but in both cases the texts have made it really accessible. The bullet lists of options and ideas that Jason uses in Night Witches are so choice; it’s nice to see that bullet lists have snuck their way into everyone’s heads as a great way to get lots of material into your head without feeling like you’re shoving lots of material into your head. But this is part of what’s killing me with Polaris: it’s not inviting, it makes no attempt to atomize down the stuff you need to know. It’s a big wall of lovely material that I know I won’t be able to replicate at the table.
* Graphic design. Huge. Motobushido is a pretty complex text but it is clearly and beautifully presented — another example of a recent favorite. It’s many orders of magnitude more involved than, say, Curse the Darkness, but Curse has made no attempt at clear graphic presentation. Nor does Clay — heck, Clay goes out of its way to be inaccessible (single continuous column, no section breaks, headers that aren’t even in fucking English for crying out loud). In the case of Clay, the promise is really compelling and the TOC really does work to get you to the material you need to look up, so I’m sticking it out despite the text.
* I think the promise of the experience is much more compelling to me than getting me hyped on setting material. Like…I could feel disaster looming with Rogue Trader weeks out from first (and last) play. The game slathers on the color and the fluff but never, not ever, does it tell you what to expect the play experience to be like. Because the experience is going to be shit if you run RAW, or it’ll be whatever the hardworking GM makes it into from sheer willpower.
* The ability to use the text as a reference later. Huge. Nearly impossible to achieve while also making it a readable linear document and a teaching tool. Makes me think designers need (if they can manage it) to quarantine their reading, teaching and referencing playtesters.
So. Anyway. My $0.02. What are the texts that work really well for you, and why? (Bonus points for texts that work for games you don’t actually like or play.)