Not everything I look at gets a close read, if anyone was curious. Recent titles that stopped me cold:


Like…I can’t penetrate the text at all. Polaris is especially frustrating because it’s so well regarded and I want to know why! And I get bogged down in the flowery history text right up front and I quietly close the book. Again and again.

What are some titles that defeated you with their mighty meh?

97 thoughts on “Mehhhh”

  1. For Polaris try Thou Art But a Warrior. I remember it being cleaner.

    But then, I liked the text of Polaris (for reading, maybe not for learning).

    And the answer to your question is Star Wars Edge of Empire. Just could not. Not even. Not even a bit.

  2. What is Thou Art’s relationship with Polaris? Reskin?

    Haha re Edge. I remember jumping all over the text because I couldn’t deal with it as a linear document.

  3. Book of the New SunDying Earth.  Rococo fantasy ain’t my jam.

    Tribe 8 was utterly impenetrable to me.

    Oh man, those FFG Star Wars games … 500 pages each of tiny print sprayed with dinky icons and sweet art! These are games for shelfporn collectors and super nerds with Kryptonian eyesight and patience.  So unapproachable BUT I WANT TO LOVE THEM SO BAD because they have neat bits and they are Star Wars.

    I’m going to run the Age of Rebellion boxed set at some point for our crew even though I know that there are like a billion worthier games.  It will be my Rogue Trader!

  4. Some people like poetry, some other people are wrong and bad. 

    Cross-posted with John Aegard​​. I wasn’t saying he was wrong and bad. I was talking about Paul.

    Though since we’re on the subject….

  5. I struggled a bit with Analise – it does a really good job of explaining everything in detail but I had a hard time seeing the big picture and keeping it all in mind while I was deep in a subsection. Not a ‘meh’ at all, just a challenge.

  6. The Clay That Woke was right on the edge for me. Possibly for similar reasons as Polaris. Which…you know, poetry maybe? But I think it has a lot more for me to do with establishing expectations. As in, they take their sweet time telling me why they’re worth the effort.

    As a side note, I get deeply worried about passing along the tone and intent of all that purple prose (never mind the details required for a somewhat consistent SIS) when I know I’m the only one reading it.

    I was kind of on that like with Sagas of the Icelanders as well, but I sussed out the game as basically very violent family drama and didn’t worry so much about “getting Iceland right.”

  7. Much of the Exalted 1st Edition Fairfolk book… note that it was written by the same person that wrote Nobilis. 

    Also Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. I hear such great things about it, but my brain turns to goo when I try to read and understand it.

  8. I’ve had to struggle through a few over the years  but due to that I don’t remember them off the top of my head. Usually what throws me are the ones that bury their rules really deep in the language that I know I won’t be able to quickly reference the book during a game if I need to.

    I would also suggest Thou Art But A Warrior too. It’s really readable and the historical setting is intriguing.

  9. Shadows of Esteren. I don’t even know how the system works; I simply can’t dig into it. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a translation (I had the same trouble reading the Night Watch and Day Watch novels; something didn’t jive in the Russian-to-English translation, it felt…odd) or something else. But I can’t…I just can’t.

  10. Oh, I had trouble getting the actual flow of play by reading Marvel Heroic too. Like, it read okay, but the way dice flow worked at the table made no sense to me until I actually got to play.

  11. Block me too, Czege. Book of the New Sun is one of only three series I couldn’t force myself to finish growing up. The other two being Dying Earth (I hear you John Aegard​ ) and Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. I did manage to choke my way through an Ursula LeGuin anthology, but that was only by shear force of will.

  12. I recently tried to read both The One Ring and 13th Age, but ohmygod those massive tomes are just too much for me these days, and the presentation drags it out to a point where I lost interest before I get to the good parts.

  13. Burning Wheel. I just can’t understand WTF is supposed to be going on. I have a set of “collector editions” if anyone is interested in buying them from me.

  14. Oh, I’ll second Agone and Shadows, and add Nephilim and Mechanical Dream.

    Between translation of language and game style / expectations most French games I’ve ever tried have been rough.

  15. I’m not sure I want to respond publicly about impenetrable games, because my inner asshole is like the hulk and I have to keep that shit locked down. Can I say instead that I was highly impressed with the accessibility of Night Witches?

  16. I think this is a hard topic to talk about without Hulking out! Mostly folks are doing okay so far I think.

    Agreed with the accessibility of Night Witches.

  17. It is really uncomfortable for me to publicly talk about games I’m not into! Let me challenge myself here…

    Luke can’t see this can he?

    … Mouse Guard. ;.;

    Mechanically I love it but the premise and setting aren’t my bag and I just can’t get into it.

    Now I’m getting angry and blocking MYSELF.

  18. World of Darkness really put me off. The writing style doesn’t work for me, and every time I’ve tried to pick it up and get into the mood I read a few sentences and promptly close the book.

  19. I feel the same way about Polaris, except I actually liked the poetry – together with the illustrations, it really grabs me. But I couldn’t get to a mechanical understanding of it, it seemed arbitrary and probably 2x the mechanical complexity to bring the fiction along. There’s a quick-reference PDF that makes the actual ‘moves’ way easier to understand.

  20. RPG texts are hard to write well. So hard that the vast majority of gamers in the history of the hobby don’t learn to play from reading a text, but from playing with someone who already knows the game.

  21. One Ring and Mutant Year Zero are recent ones for me; it’s all about the size. I can’t stand the idea of another 2-300 page tomb tome. I want to see it boiled down to 12 pages, then diffed against a similar distillation of two systems I’m familiar with.
    EDIT: What’s especially dumb about this for me is that I think I want to play exactly what these games are doing.

  22. Paul Czege I agree, I think it’s because it’s actually a fair investment before there’s any sort of payoff. I suspect for the average person, the idea that to sit down for an evening of play with friends to enjoy yourself requires ten hours of study and preparation is bonkers.

  23. This is some low hanging fruit, but Shadowrun 5th.

    I was so excited. Surely, I thought, this time they would know how to write a rulebook, even if they keep it at a high crunch level. I was wrrrooonnggggg.

  24. A gentle note for a little course correction: I’d like it if we could talk about difficult texts (and why) and not per se games/settings/premises you do not like.

  25. Yeah SR5 was the first thing to came to my mind but my reaction could not exactly be described as “meh” but that thing that happens where you scream but no sound comes out.

  26. For me its always hard when fluff and crunch are mixed together. Artful wording is ok, but when I am trying to parse the rules I don’t want the setting bits getting in the way. 

    Also I really need to see what the point of something is before we get too deeply in to it. I don’t want to read a page on a part of the system and still not know why this is part of the game.

  27. So, in terms of text readability, I’ve reached an age where I have to take my glasses off to do anything on my cell phone, so lots of tiny print is game kryptonite for me.

    In terms of actually parsing the rules and understanding how to play, I think it’s been a while since I picked up something that confused the hell out of me. Games are getting a lot better at that, and I don’t generally see an attitude of “well, it’s your fault if you don’t get it”, at least not from the designers themselves.

  28. Mechanical Dream. Mechanically I get it, I’m not convinced it works all that well, but I can understand it, I think. What really stumps me about that game is how entirely foreign it all is.

    It’s hard to find a common reference point to anchor it. Even times where I had moments where I was coming to grips with it some new element would get introduce and it would slip from my grasp again.

  29. Ryan Good  That’s it. That’s definitely part of why I have trouble with Shadows of Esteren; they mingle fluff with the rules so much it becomes tough to tell what is important and what bits I can skip over.

  30. FWIW, the teeny-weeny font used in Hillfolk has forced me to put it down many times.

    As for the text itself, I found HeroQuest 2 pretty impenetrable, even contradictory.

    Ralph Mazza I can’t believe you don’t like Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. I will now block you in spirit.

  31. Yeah, I want a game’s procedures to be outlined clearly somewhere — mixing game rules in with fiction can really make a text inaccessible for me.

    The mental theater in my head where fiction is replayed cannot coexist with the analytic bits necessary to grok a game.

    This is why there are zero universes out there in which I am a book critic.

  32. oh oh oh a seriously difficult text was Houses of the Blooded. I did manage to read through the whole thing, but it was a Herculean effort, between actual physical problems I had with the book (it’s too small and chunky and the type size is too small) and it affects a non-standard grammar and writing style which are very high barriers for me to read through.

    Also Apocalypse World for the same writing style issues. And for procedures that were in some cases very nebulous and I was unable to turn the rules-text into a list of actions and decision points that I could use.

  33. +1 for Nobilis! Love the parts I’ve slogged through but man… all those Flowers…

    Also Unknown Armies was a pure joy to read for me… Saw someone getting stuck there… I guess this is a matter of taste and flavours.

  34. I really love playing Apocalypse World, I even value the book as a reading experience to some degree because I like Vincent’s voice so much, but for an RPG I prefer more procedural writing than is his wont. I’m not sure I’ve read AW all the way through because I find it so difficult to process.

    (I love you Vincent, you know that!)

  35. Oh, and the Doctor Who game frustrated the hell out of me. It’s the first RPG text I’ve read in many years that wasn’t the voice of a single author/creator, so that may have something to do with it. But I found the quality of the chapters to be wildly inconsistent. Some were amazing, clear, and hinted at a really cool game. Some were total hackjobs. And there were so goddamned many instances of, “Make sure and do what the GM says. The GM is the arbiter of everything. When all else fails, the GM’s word goes.”

    (I get that that’s very standard. I can’t stand it.)

  36. I also can’t make it through Book of the New Sun, but I really like Dying Earth and the Lankhmar stuff.

    I couldn’t finish reading Blood Red Sands. I don’t know if it was stylistic, or just that there are SO MANY RULES that it’s hard to keep it all clear in my head.

  37. Paul Beakley  I second the TABAW (Thou Art But A Warrior) suggestion! All the drama, tragedy (and rules) of Polaris, but without frost elves!

    Brand Robins  sorry, but I too was not able to slog to the end of Nobilis 2nd edition (but I was able in the first edition, at least…)

    These days I refuse to read gaming manual longer than my attention span, so there are a lot of gaming text that I could list, but I don’t think it would be fair: it’s not the way they are written, it’s the number of pages.

  38. I don’t want to come across as sounding like I’m correction you in any way Paul Beakley (said with a HUGE smile), so I will simply agree that Polaris can feel a bit dense. Luckily I got to play it with some experienced players, and it blew my socks off!

    You also deserve a huge pat on the back for one fantastic choice of animated GIF to pair with this post. Kudos!

  39. Too wierd for my tastes.  That older pulp stuff always treads the line with me.  There’s a good bit of Howard I’m happy to never read again too.

  40. Craig Maloney I learned a trick to reading World of Darkness books: Skip the first 30+ pages. They’re just mediocre fiction that has zero bearing on the actual game. 🙂

  41. The one WW game I’ve read is Adventure, and the fiction/setting stuff was the best part of it! Honestly, the first half of that book is one of the most enjoyable RPG reads I’ve ever had.

    Second half, not so much.

  42. The opposite of this thread would also be super interesting. What games text are easy to read, understand, use, and reference. Bonus points if the games themselves aren’t super simple.

  43. I think the point of nerdy9th is that you talk about stuff you love without also criticizing it, even if there are parts you don’t totes love, and no one in the thread is supposed to harsh it either. 

    It’s to avoid that thing where people talk about things they love, then I come into the thread and also talk.

  44. Brand Robins Mr. Beakley has already ruined most of my hobbies, I don’t know if I could deal with two of you crashin’ my party. I’ll never get my groove back at this rate.

  45. Tim Jensen What’s even the point of a text that’s unusable without having first played the game that it purports to record and communicate? (For the record I didn’t have that problem with Polaris but it seems like a germane question)

  46. Shreyas Sampat That is a great question. While you’re never going to get 100% usability with a game text, it might be a reason for a better edition. Or to rethink the format of ‘game text’ in the first place. Case in point: Mouseguard Second edition. It looks like a board game.

  47. This thread also demonstrates another difficulty in the issue in that much as we all seem to agree that game texts have a poor history of instructional design, we also have few universal standards to baseline.

    Like, we started with Polaris, and maybe half the thread agrees it’s hard. The other half found it usable and beautiful. Similarly Nobilis. Ditto Tribe 8.

    Some of the examples are translation issues (the French games) and some are expectation and subculture issues (World of Darkness), and many are just different preferences.

    Which means that to make a better text you might have to actually contextualize, research, and test the text as text in addition to game as game.

    And few folks seem to have time or focus to do that. It’s hard, considering how low the return on game design most often is already, to invest that much effort into the really unfun part, especially when it doesn’t seem to have a direct impact on sales or popularity.

    (Though I’m sure it has one, don’t get me wrong. It just isn’t as obvious as other impacts. For an example see Immortal 1st ed.)

  48. I agree with everything you said, Brand, though I do think we have a standard: textbooks.

    Also, I love what you said about text testing. I spent a year or two doing that.

  49. Taking textbooks as a standard is presuming the primary purpose of an RPG text is instructional. No way. The primary goal of an RPG text is inspirational. Textbooks exist in a context where reading them is mostly mandatory. If an RPG text doesn’t inspire in some way it doesn’t get played or talked about. No one plays an RPG because the text is rigorously instructional, or because the text is a good in-play reference book.

  50. Well, I see them as a standard for how to deliver complicated, specific information. I look to them for layout tips and stuff like that to get procedures across.

    There’s room to inspire in the words. That you have to do that I take as a given. It’s just that in addition to that, I feel you have to deliver the important game information like a textbook. A good textbook.

  51. As long as your inspirational text doesn’t cloud things too much. Being inspired by game text is awesome, however if I can’t figure out how to translate that inspiration in to game play, then the inspirational words were wasted. 

    If I am reading about the main mechanics of a system, my preferred style to read is short examples of play, followed by a break down of how that scene played out mechanically. The example of play should inspire and guide the reader. The break down can (and should) have flavorful word choices, but the intention and execution of the mechanics should be clear.

    All that being said… I honestly draw most of  my inspiration from the art. The text gives me the context for the visual stimuli, and the instructional parts of it give me a way to actualize my inspiration.

  52. I have toyed with the idea, in the past of making a game with multiple books that have roughly the same information in each, but presented differently.

    The first would be “read this to get pumped” and would be art and prose heavy, all about inspiration and tone setting.

    The second would be “read this to learn” and would be a procedural text that described the flow and mechanics of play with lots of examples, diagrams, etc., organized in such a way as to be read start to finish to give a total scope of play.

    The last would be “read this while playing” and would be a crosslinked encyclopedia of rules, set to make it easy to find both a discrete rule and reference interlocking rules for quick reference in play by those who already know the basic flow.

    But, there are two problems. My first experiments with this went badly, as I didn’t target a specific demographic well enough, and as it turns out “gamers” undifferentiated is a horrible group to try to write for, as they all already think they know what a game text should look like, and all disagree about what that is.

    Second, it’s just so much fucking work. So. Much. Work.

  53. My attitude is: present the procedures in the order you’re using them when playing, provide thorough procedural diagrams (bulleted rules summaries, flowcharts, whatever) for use during play, and sprinkle liberally throughout with the words and visual treatment needed to get people excited without being opaque.

  54. If have trouble seeing the point of needing RPG text to be inspirational to get people to play. Board game texts are not inspirational and more people play those than play RPGs. Early CCG texts were not inspirational. They were horribly laid out micro sized print on a single giant sheet of paper that folded up like a road map. And yet an entire gaming industry was spawned that dwarfed the rest of the hobby in short order.

    I’m rather inclined to think that RPG texts written to inspire, have as their primary purpose inspiring the author…not the gamer. Which is totally fine. Creators should be inspired by their own creation. But I think its a mistake to believe that its the inspirational text that got people pumped about playing the game.

    This may just be the dedicated board gamer in me, but I want to be inspired by the game play experience, not the text. I only need the text to teach me how to get the experience reliably.

  55. Now I see why Ralph Mazza​ has never properly understood fictional positioning.

    AKA, did we really just discover a new way to have the rollplay/roleplay debate?

  56. Ralph Mazza​ you’re treading similar ground to something discussed recently in my circles: using board game design as a means to influence RPG desgin. I find the notion, especially from a rules/mechanical standpoint, tasty.

    If I could glean rules for an RPG as quickly as I could from a board game, I’d be a happy man. And I think this especially applies to indie games more so than trad RPGs. All the rulings and handwaving is assumed in lots of trad games; not so in the indie ventures I’ve read. There is new posturing and player-GM or player-player interactions that indie games must describe that traditional games just assume you already understand (for better or worse).

    Coming from a very traditional gamer background, this stuff is hard to wrap my head around. I’ve read Burning Wheel three or four times, and I’m still learning the nuances of play and trying to shrug off all those years of D&D.

  57. I agree with both Adam and Ralph on the utility of board games. I wish I didn’t hate them and refuse to play them. It’s like eating your vegetables for me!

  58. Oh man, Continuum….

    Paul Beakley​ did you ever play that one? I know of someone who did and with your love of time travel it may be you….

  59. Just listening to Theory from the Closet #70, Paul explains a bit about how, in The Clay That Woke, he’s really trying to evoke the setting with the writing and why.  Starts around 37:15.

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