A sore spot.

I think 90% of all writing about RPGs is terrible. Terrible for me, at least. It’s probably all fandoms everywhere, but gamers seem exceptionally unsuited to knowing how to talk about what they love. It’s either the greatest thing ever and will change the world or it’s the worst thing ever and anyone who says otherwise is stupid.

I don’t read reviews of roleplaying games. I don’t seek them out. If I stumble into one I click away immediately. RPG reviews are toxic and terrible. Oh, one exception but it’s a weird one: the Shut Up & Sit Down folks have a very similar aesthetic and set of values to how I think about games, and I’ve watched them dip their toe in the water now and again. They’re wide-eyed ingenues which is entirely to their credit. No enmeshed tribal identity to defend or slough off.

It’s the tribalism of course that makes 90% of all ttrpg writing terrible. I’ve said it before: It should come as no surprise that identity is such a recurring theme when talking about playing games about identity.

Actual play reports are my jam. Anyone who reads the Indie Game Reading Club (hello new collection followers! I know I’ve been mentioned a few times with today’s question) has seen my own approach. It is probably overwrought and definitely not a form factor that makes sense anywhere other than a social media platform. I have no idea how to monetize it. It’s a self-funded effort and it’s journaling therapy for me, so mostly it’s all good.

But actual play demands a few things if it’s to be done well. My unsolicited advice for anyone who wants to get in on the mad AP writeup cash:

* Play a lot of different stuff and break down whatever identity you have with a particular game or style or school or whatfuckingother divisions du jour there may be.

* Learn what rules do. Ignore what you want them to do.

* Develop a personal philosophy of what games are for. No seriously. What are they for? Your answer won’t be my answer. Do this so you can identify your own biases. Don’t try to ignore them, because you can’t. Just be aware of them.

* Nobody cares about the blow-by-blow of your session. Really. Nobody does. Try writing down a blow-by-blow description of your favorite song sometime. Write from 10,000 feet up: how did it feel? Where did the players engage or not? What surprised or delighted or disgusted you? Use vignettes to illustrate those points but juuust enough fiction to set up and deliver the point.

Anyway. Reviews suck.

0 thoughts on “Reviews”

  1. Boardgame reviews I get. I can’t fathom why RPG reviews are even a thing.

    Give me the back copy text and a copy of the character sheet and I can tell with 95% accuracy whether I have any desire to know more about the game than that.

    i.e. is it a genre/setting I’d find fun to play in. And does it do something other than be like D&D.

    If you can’t answer those questions from the sales copy and a character sheet, what the hell is a review going to give you…

  2. Half the APs I write are for the players and me as a memory aid about what happened during the session: more or less blow-by-blow. Helpful because it’s often 2-4 weeks between sessions.

    I know no one else wants to read that crap but that methodology tends to spill over intro my few “for public consumption” APs.

    If only my players could be convinced to supply the mad AP write up cash…

    With you on the reviews too. I’d rather read design notes.

    Most people seem to love reviews though. Especially the gushing or savage ones.

    As bad as many reviews are, they can’t hold a candle to the “Sell me on…” threads wasteland. 😉

  3. That FATAL review sure was memorable.

    In trying to figure out if RPG reviews are useful to me, I realized that I never actually read them. I listen to a podcast interviewing authors who hack games Modifier; hacking is actually commentary IMO), and to comments on new RPGs from people whose tastes I’ve mapped. I usually get from them a “three things you might like about this one” personalized to my own interests. “Sell me on” makes sense in that specific context.

    I think the last one consisted of “would you like to try Blades in the Dark so I can shake down the mechanics for a con run?” And then we did chargen; I think all I knew about it before that was a one liner about tone and setting. But that’s someone who runs games to our taste. (I was particularly amused that my character could wander off vicing and not make the next session.)

  4. I’ll admit to enjoying outpourings of enthusiasm of the form, “I love this game and must write about it.” They don’t usually sell me or unsell me on something, but they’re fun.

    I’m actually not that interested in objectivity or reviews which read like, “It’s my duty to review this thing. Here’s the contents. It’s okay.”

    Reading good APs (and those which don’t bore me are really rare; RPGs aren’t a spectator sport) can sell me on something. It’s the fault of IGRC that I sought out Sagas of the Icelanders and Mutant: Year Zero. And I know enough about Torchbearer to know it’s not for me.

  5. I didn’t think MYZ was going to be all that great until I read Paul Beakley talking about it here, and that lead me to a greater appreciation of Fria Ligan as a company, and then I met them in person in Sweden, and now I have ascended.

    But seriously.

    I sought out reviews of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying after it was released and it was difficult because I’d get hit in the face so often by people who thought the game had no system to create characters that I eventually gave up and thought, dammit, I can’t write games properly since people don’t understand them. I felt it was on me, not on the reviewers, and so I’ve stopped reading reviews of my work and instead focus on trying to be clearer in my game text.

  6. I certainly don’t seek out reviews. I do read a few here and there because a blog I’m following has posted a review of a game I play or am interested in. But I don’t think they sell or unsell me on a game.

    I did read reviews more back in the early days, but then at that time the sum total of my RPG exposure to anything outside my play circle was magazines (Dragon, White Dwarf, Different Worlds, and The Journal of the Traveller’s Aide Society, with an occasional other magazine (like Judges Guild Journal, Dungeoneer, General, Heroes) and whatever RPGs and modules I saw in the store. So yea, I read most everything in the magazines.

  7. Paul Beakley I absolutely agree that good AP writing is all about shaping a compelling narrative, in particular how the players/GM were feeling about how the game was unfolding, what was suspenseful for them, etc.

    I do like the Gauntlet’s ‘skimming’ approach – they play a ton of stuff, and talk about how it went. (They started off with a strict no-AP policy but that seems to soften a bit as the series goes on.)

    A lot of RPG reviews are like: – philosophy

  8. Now I’m envisioning a madlibs style AP template.

    We had the most [emotional adjective] time in [campaign/system name] last night!

    As you may remember, the party’s [2-word role name] [context, no more than 8 words]

  9. Cam Banks MHR was a great litmus test for most of Paul’s rules above. The first time I ran it all of the players hated it, mostly because it didn’t work like their preconceived notion of how all supers RPGs should work.

    And, yeah, the omni-present “But there’s no chargen!” complaint was the worst.

  10. One thing I’d like to see more of would be general essays about topics in RPGdom, with discussions along the way of how a particular product or products fit in. A new RPG could be an excuse to generally discuss a subject, and mention how the thing under discussion fits in.

    For example, a discussion article on Arthurian RPGs talking about Pendragon, Keltia, Mythic Britain, and Age of Arthur along the way, and how they fit in, would be an interesting read if decently done. Or the role of character relationships in PbtA games RPGs with mention of games such as Sagas of the Icelanders, Urban Shadows, and Monsterhearts.

  11. Paul Mitchener yeah, that’s how most of my AP/deep reads end up anyway. Talk a little about the particular game as a lead-in on some larger topic. It’s a pretty fruitful approach.

  12. I think the writing I like tends to be either like what Paul Mitchener​​​ describes like “discuss Arthurian RPGs”, where the compare and contrast gives me traction and points of reference, or the very personal reactions best summed up in AP overviews. I like interviews of game developers, too, because it can bring out nuance.

    Reviews per se aren’t as useful to me for reasons it’s hard for me to get at. Possibly because games are such a group experience, so APs are more helpful at speaking to that.

  13. Because shaping compelling narratives is way harder than it looks.

    Which is why it’s impossible to get any decent Patreon money out of my format. You can’t see the craft because it’s “just words.” If I were doing a video version you’d know I had to spend $$$ on a camera and mike and post-production and whatever else.

    It’s the same dumb monkey brain thing that makes us think heavy things are worth more. /rant

  14. (Nate Parker AP stands for Actual Play.)

    I love a good RPG review, but they are quite rare. To mee, a good review needs to presents the facts (i.e. what is in the game) in a neutral way (not presenting them in a good or bad way to fit their opinion), and then tell me why they think it’s good or bad. This way, I have enough info to understand both the hame and the review while still being able to judge by myself if it’s good for me. Even if the reviewer and I have totally different taste and preference, I can still learn something interesting from this kind of review.

    A mediocre review will give some facts and say they love it or not, without explanation; not as interesting, but at least I have some facts to judge by myself. A bad review will present only opinions, maybe with some biased facts. If well done, it can still be fun to read/listen/watch, but as areview, it’s useless.

    I can’t bring myself to read or watch an AP. Some are probably great, but my eyes just glaze over.

  15. For me, I just want to know how people I like will respond to stuff and what they will say. I’ll search out the person first and read/watch various things they say. If they happen to cover something I’m interested in, that’s even better.

  16. I agree with your assessment of reviews to a point, but admit I enjoy reading them, all with a grain of salt; however, I assert that as much as you dislike reviews, you write them none-the-less; but, you do so the way I enjoy them, not a dry read through, but an honest play report of “hey, my friends and I played this game. This is how it shook out for us. This worked, this didn’t ” etc. That I like, and wish more “reviews” were like that: less “reviewy” and more nuts and bolts.

    Couldn’t agree more on the “no one gives a shit about your play, by play session report”. In college, I had an acquaintance in a basic education class needed to graduate. Our whole relationship was based upon the fact we both dug RPGs. I hated Thursday mornings as Wednesday was his game night, every Thursday I was “treated” to “oh my god Dude! Last night my 7th level magic-user….”

    I hated Thursday mornings.

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