Great Texts

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.)

0 thoughts on “Great Texts”

  1. The teaching tool / reference text is one of those really difficult problems to overcome. Complicated boardgames sometimes have two completely different books, one which functions as a tutorial, and one as a reference, but I don’t think that’s tractable to tabletop role-playing games.

  2. Yeah, I’ve thought about the Vlaada approach myself! I think some of the freestanding Replays kind of work that way. They’re not tutorials but you get to see what you’re in for.

  3. Actually that reminds me that the manga-style procedural illustrations in Tenra Bansho Zero were fun too. Not totally useful but they kept my eyes on the page.

  4. One of the things that made the text for World Wide Wrestling effective for me is that Nathan was completely unafraid to simply repeat things. Where something is relevant, he explains it, just about every time it comes up. This makes it longer, yes, but it means that it is a pretty good teaching text (because you can easily see what is repeated and skim past to the new), and a very good reference text (because if you look up something with the TOC, related concepts will almost always be explained nearby).

  5. A thing that helps me is images (pictures, graphic layouts, whatever) that are relevant to the text near them. It both helps me remember what is on the page, where it is in the text, and what the context I’m reading it in should be. 

    Pendragon 4th did a kick ass job on this, 5th a bit less so.

  6. Oh yeah, huge.

    There was this thankfully short lived fashion at the Forge to dismiss art and graphic design as frippery. I remember stumbling across that and thinking whaaa?

    Really vital to learning and retention.

  7. I keep wishing I could write in collapsible outlines. See the shape of the whole thing on one page, zoom in two or three levels of detail depending on how much I want to drill down, turn on the “designers commentary” layer when I want it or off when I don’t. Actually, now that I’ve framed it that way, it may be doable. I should get on that in my copious free time.

    For ruleset a that have a reference form and a learning form — that’s often what game aids are for. Combat flowcharts, the stupidly large “player screen” of all the Shadowrun 3e modifiers, people have even made Fate cheat sheets.

    In my experience, players and GMs value making these things themselves as a means of learning and internalizing the material.

  8. Paul Beakley  you might have done too good of a job with the opening post because you covered most the things I am looking for. And since my Indie game play is sort of limited I might not have much else to add, but I will try anyhow. 

    White Wolf normally has their books front loaded with fiction. I normally skip past all of that in WOD books and save it for last. That much fiction bogs me down right off the bat. 

    Like FATE or not, I really like the Dresden Files books. Part of the reason for that is that the book has a running 4th wall breaking, rather meta and self aware commentary from some of the characters of the Dresden Files. It feels like you have a some funny friends explaining the how and why of a complex board game.

  9. Concepts for later: game text as a narrated PowerPoint presentation, with the slides being the reference game aids. It really is the designer sitting down to describe it to you.

    I think one thing that makes RPG text tricky in general is that you’re often trying to convey both atmospheric and procedural information about the same stuff, at the same time. Those are not, shall we say, synergistic goals.

  10. Paul Beakley — how do you feel about the format of games powered by the apocalypse? Many seem designed for people to be able to play from limited knowledge just by picking up their playbook, and maybe a general move list. It’s rarely formatted like that for the GM, but I think it could be.

  11. Depends on the game!

    For example, I think the actual Apocalypse World text is itself not the best example of a game text. I found the tone intrusive at weird times, structurally it’s really solid, but it’s also kind of hard to find things.

    Honestly that’s all that comes to mind right now. It’s been years since I read it.

  12. I will second the mention of TBZ; that was one of the most inviting and enjoyable texts I’ve read in a long time. I felt no conflict of expectations when I got it to the table. Also learned a forever life lesson (“Always leave the play space cleaner than when you found it.”)

  13. I’m going to say the old Amber Diceless. The conflict resolution mechanics amount to “whoever has the highest stat wins, unless it’s close and there are unfair advantages in which case it’s up to the GM” but then there’s a sizeable essay on what combat is supposed to feel like, with tons of examples. I find this a really useful to get into the designer’s head for adjudicating the nearly free-form game that follows.

    Oo, I get bonus points, I don’t play it (the books are delightfully noir but play always seems to go gonzo), but that essay is lodged in my mind.

  14. I need a copy of Prince Valiant!

    Those are both really solid. I paged through Do somewhere and the presentation was really nice.

    I’m sure Paul Czege​ would say nobody ever played a game because it had nice white space, but good grief it’s true that I’ve not played a game because the presentation turned me off. Honestly it doesn’t seem like this should be an Impossible Thing, exciting/inspiring text that’s also presented well.

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