Monday, December 23, 2013

Peter's Do's and Don'ts of Game Book Writing

This is a bit rant-ish, but what the hell. I read a fair amount of game books, and I also write game books, and I use game books fairly often, too. But I also come at them with a critical eye towards making things better or more useful. Or, at least, de-cluttering them.

Tell me what you are, not what you are not.

A rulebook should tell me what the game is and how to play it, and not waste words telling how the game isn't.

If you feel compelled to tell me how different your game is from other games, do it in the intro or do it somewhere else, like a blog post or free ebook. Embedding it into the book and making me read it makes me feel tired all over. I feel like I paid you money to have you tell me what you're not providing to me.

This is especially true when I read some OSR stuff, because commentary on "what this game doesn't do" is aimed at 3x and 4x D&D. Now just imagine you're someone who never played 3x or 4x D&D - do you want or need to be told what the game isn't? If you write "this game does X, unlike how some other games do it" just think about how someone who doesn't play those other games will read it. "We don't provide X gold for monsters of Y level just because." Okay, so that happens in 3x D&D, then? I come from GURPS and AD&D and Rolemaster and I have no idea what the hell you're talking about.

Remember that game writing is technical writing, and I'm going to use this book as an inspiration for game and a reference in play. That's all it needs to be, don't spend wordcount on explaining what it's not doing.

Show what to do, not what not to do.

I have to admit I like Swords & Wizardry a lot, but there is this line in S&W Complete that made me roll my eyes:

"Russell: “Check for traps.”
Referee: “It doesn’t work like that. You can check a small mechanism
to see if there’s a trap in it, but you can’t just illuminate the place with
find traps radar.”

Okay, now I know how the game isn't played, hurrah. This isn't very helpful from a technical, use-the-book-to-play sense. It could have skipped right to "I look for tripwires" and shown me how it is expected to be done. Show me the right way and skip over the wrong way. Lead by example and don't include the bad examples.

Don't tell me how much the stuff I like sucks.

Kevin: "Do you have the new Depeche Mode record?"
Bruce: "Yeah it's over there, but it sucks."
Kevin: "Well, do you have the latest Pixies album?"
Bruce: "Yeah, but it sucks. All that new stuff sucks"
- Kids in the Hall, The Doors Sketch

I don't like it when a book's author, or editor, or designer, or whoever, tells me about how bad other stuff is. Sometimes, I like that other stuff, and that other stuff is why I'm here reading your take on the same or similar thing.

I have a nice set of Conan books that compile R. E. Howard's original stories in their original form - as typed, pre-edit, pre-publication, finished or not. It's a really cool series. But the first book's intro heavily implies (without naming either) that L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's Conan stuff is a cheap ripoff. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But I loved those books. They're the first ones I read. I like Howard's original stuff better, but I bought those collections of the originals because of the interest inspired by the later renditions of the work. Instead of saying "You might have loved those, but here is the original stuff - and I think you'll find it equally interesting or even superior" it instead comes across as "Liking those was bad, they suck."

Don't do that. It's bad form to insult your audience, and you are putting people who like what you have and like what you don't on the defensive. Sometimes I see this in RPGs - it's a whole "unlike in other games, this game does it right" attitude. You hear it in the "new school games with a sense of entitlement" rants. Telling someone who loves D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder that their game system's underlying assumptions are inherently bad is going to be a turn off. You're not going to win people over with "the game you like sucks."

It can be more subtle, too, when you tell people their play style sucks. GURPS did this, too. The 3e Basic Set discussed simple hack-and-slash gaming in a sidebar which ended with

"If you want to play a more "mature" level, and create a situation that actually makes sense, you have advanced to to level of adventure design. Congratulations, read on . . . "

Gee, thanks, now I feel great about wanting to have fun with my friends the immature way. You know, fighting monsters and taking their stuff in a bunch of tunnels full of 'em. GURPS 4e kept that line, but with a subtle-but-important tweak:

"If you want to create a situation that actually makes sense, you have advanced to the level of adventure design. Congratulations. Read on . . .

See the difference? One makes me feel like a jerk for wanting to kill monsters for their stuff, the other makes me feel like the rest of the chapter is there if I need it for more developed rationales and more verisimilitude in my games. Nothing is gained and a lot is lost with that extra snarky comment.

Think of this when you talk about other games to gamers who play them. Do you want those gamers to love the kind of games you do, too, or love them instead of the games they love now? Which is more important?

Look at it this way - Moldvay D&D doesn't come out and tell you AD&D sucks, or Pendragon sucks, or whatever else sucks. It comes out and tells what D&D is, that you can have basically unlimited imaginary fun with it, and here is how to play it. Labyrinth Lord does the same - it just plunges straight into it, taking as read that you're interested and want to learn the game without sarky asides at different games.

If your game really is inherently better, you won't need to tell me. I'll notice.

If you've told me once, it's enough.

You really don't need to beat stuff into my head. Tell me once, in one place, and refer back to it. Don't keep repeating yourself. By the second time I read something I'm checking to see if it's the same as what you wrote the first time. By the third I'm wondering why you think I need to hear it again.

If it needs to be in multiple places, fine, but use page references to point back and forth between instances of the same thing. Even then, ask yourself, do I need to repeat this rule, this example, or this suggestion again? If you are even a little bit unsure, cut it.

Be Consistent.

Some of us read and check references and remember what you write. So try to be consistent. I recently dinged DCC for this in my review. It harped on how illogical heaps of coins for treasure and sages getting paid in gold for knowledge, but said to pick any treasure system you want (all of which provide heaps of coins for treasure) and then listed sage prices in coins.

Mistakes happen, but so does playtesting and peer review and proofreading. Little bits will get through but you're going to want to ensure the system as a whole makes sense. If you have a consistent message in the writing, it will show through. Consistent doesn't mean rigid, of course. You can stay modular as long as modularity is part of the message. S&W does a pretty good job of this - it provides support for Ascending AC and Descending AC, different Saving Throw breakdowns, and different initiative systems, without any issues I can see. Why? Because it presents them equally and explains how to do them and says, pick one, and trusts the GM to do so. GURPS thrives on this, and is so Rule Zero heavy that you really can't get started until the GM briefs you on what's used and not used.

I'm sure some RPG designers, and readers, have different opinions on this. But the above is stuff I look for, and I notice. You can really sum most of it up as "Be positive and just show people where the fun is. Don't insult them. And proofread for inconsistencies."


  1. "If you've told me once, it's enough."

    I get where you're coming from on this, but I think there's a decent set (the ones with keyboards who have read TG, anyway) that like important things to be repeated both for emphasis and osmosis.

    I think SJG, with sometimes arbitrarily-seeming fondness for tight wordcounts, has left us thinking that the best way to write - maybe the only way - is "say it once, and respect your reader enough to not repeat it."

    But I think there's a large chunk of the population who would like to see that more as "say it loudly once, say it as a reminder in other critical places, and page reference everything else."

    I'm not sure I can settle on who's got the better point, but it is a flaw of how GURPS presents material: you'd better be good with search terms, or be capable of digesting 40,000 words of not-repeated technical prose.

    1. I'm find with reminders and pointers - but for goodness sakes don't explain the rule to me again and again. It's there I see the most errors, too, because it's not explained the same way . . .

  2. It's funny, that's how I always felt when they tacked on "Basic" Dungeon and Dragons and "Advanced" D&D. I always enjoyed 'Basic" much more than "Advanced" but back in the day you weren't 'cool' (for nerds) if you didn't play AD&D. It kinda turned me off of the whole game and I moved on to other things.

    1. I like Basic more now, but yeah, it had the rep as "kiddie" D&D. Too bad.

  3. "If it needs to be in multiple places, fine, but use page references to point back and forth between instances of the same thing."

    Personally, I despise having to keep flipping back and forth through a book in order to understand how to do something. If I want to know how tripping an opponent works, don't make me flip back and forth between two (or three, or four) different sections and try to figure out how those sections work together. Put all of the rules for tripping under the heading that says "Tripping" (or whatever). If that means you repeat a some sentences between that section and the section on "Shoving", so be it.

    1. Fair enough, but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about telling how Level Draining works on page 17, and page 22, and under three different kinds of level draining undead. If you're going to put it under the monsters anyway, then you don't need it elsewhere. And if you're going to define it as a term of art just like you would HP or ST or Armor Class, then you don't need to re-explain it. "Drains 2 levels (see p. 17)" is fine.

      For your example of trip, it's bad if you explain on one page how trip works, and then how trip works when you mention later that I could also trip someone, or how trip works when you're costing it out in a point-buy sense, all in different spots. This is why I say

      "If it needs to be in multiple places, fine, but use page references to point back and forth between instances of the same thing. Even then, ask yourself, do I need to repeat this rule, this example, or this suggestion again? If you are even a little bit unsure, cut it."

      The example you give, I think is of something that could really benefit from repetition. The examples I gave above are places where it really doesn't benefit from repetition.

      Explaining all of something in two spots that makes sense is fine, but it's something you really need to ask yourself if it's necessary. All to often, it's not, and the explanations conflict in some why, or make it harder to read the book or know where to look for the definitive answer.

    2. I agree with Blackwood on page references in GURUS. I would gladly pay more money to not have to flip through pages all the time. I feel seeing See pg X is probably the most annoying thing in GURPS.

    3. The cost of eliminating page refs, though, is an enormous book, a huge increase in the possibility of introducing error, and a very cluttered book that's like to be harder to reference than one that points you back and forth.

      Hyperlinking them in PDFs would be awesome, though, but duplicating them in books would be a nightmare from a production and use standpoint. I think GURPS does pare it down a bit too much sometimes, but I'd rather flip pages than re-read the same thing in a dozen places in a giant book.

    4. I agree that some referencing is necessary but it is difficult when building a PC to have to keep flipping through a lot of books. Maybe there could be a quick review of what the advantage does for the PC in relation to the setting. Also a quick review of the advantages that the monsters have and their effects on combat would also be useful in the writing below the monster because I have over looked the advantages at times.

  4. All good advice generally, but I think the warning that there is no "find traps radar" is a reasonable one, though it might be expressed more economically. Even if the description of the skill explains its parameters in detail, explaining its limitations seems reasonable. There are certainly games out there, and particular GMs, who do recognize "find traps radar", such that the distinction is a useful one.

    And I agree with [b]bblackmoor[/b] that a little repetition might be desirable in some cases, particularly where there are important synergies in the rules (as there are frequently in GURPS), and expressly discussing their interactions might be helpful.

    1. See, that specific one gets under my skin, and I can find a lot of examples of it in recent books. It's more helpful, to me, to define that stuff under "Find Traps" and explain there how it works or not. Do we need an example of play that shows people doing it wrong? I don't think so, and I went decades without play examples showing people being silly new school gamers doing it poorly because they don't get it . . .

    2. Actually, let me take this a bit further. Let's say some GMs do, indeed, let Find Traps work like broad-spectrum trap-finding radar (instead of the narrow focus that S&W RAW allows for). All the example does is tell them they're playing the wrong way. Does this add anything? It's a nice little comment in the book that says "You are actively ignoring the intent of the rules and having the wrong fun."

      I'm arguing you just show how it's meant to be played, and then let the GMs and players take that wherever they are going. Express it clearly (Find Traps is for checking small mechanisms, wide areas should be handled by GM judgement based on player descriptions of their actions) and then give an example of it done that way. Then move on. Your work as a writer is done.

      Using an explanation of the wrong way is something I also address in the first point - tell me what your game is, not what it isn't. That example is telling me what it isn't.

  5. I agree with your comments about it is useful to show readers what you mean. It really helps me to have worked examples for how to do things like find traps or to see monsters hidden in cobwebs in the ceiling and stuff like that. Also a lot of explanation of how magical spells and powers interact in dungeon delving is also useful to me.

  6. Coming as I do from a 100% PDF based game collection, I will say that one thing that would really help every game that follows the "page reference" model is to enable these as hot links to the pages in question if they're in the same supplement. That sort of making use of the technology is a godsend.

    And in your example of the "bad example" from S&W - it isn't just an example of a bad use of the ability, it's an example of a bad DM. "That's not how it works" is too aggressive. A simple "Where would you like to search for traps? You have to be a bit more specific" would have sufficed, instead of rule shaming your players.

    1. I'd love to take it one further, where if you mouse over a page ref, it brings up in a bubble the short section of the rules referenced. I'm not talking five pages of text, but something that doesn't make you jump back and forth in the doc would leverage the power of the digital medium pretty wholly.

  7. Pretty much agree on everything here. I'd also add a couple "Do" which can be related to ones already mentioned above:

    1) Provide clear play examples.
    After a long technical chapter on something, I LOVE reading a good play example, I find it really helps me understand the mechanics explained previously.

    2) Make your own word definition, keep it clean, provide a lexicon and use it consistently!
    For example, I like when a RPG book uses something like this "if Joe does Grapple on Josh, do Contest vs STR, then you are Grappled", each term having a clear, searchable, indexed, definition and rule for it.

    3) Duplicate EVERY single table used in the book somewhere easy to find, print and use.
    There's nothing worst than having to look in a 400 pages book for THAT one little table during a session or character creation.

    1. Yes, yes, and yes.

      I always skim books for examples and read them before anything else. I often read the example before I read the rule.

      And let me - and Doug! and Sean! and every other writer! - tell you, you find the big gaping flaws in your own work when you sit down to write the example. "Hmm. . . I can't explain this" or "Hey, it's not supposed to do that . . . "

      So it serves a couple of purposes, and they're interesting in and of their own right. They're what make the game rules come alive.

    2. The "easy to print out" thing bit me with TG, though. "why is the table ONLY in the back?!" Well, because you're going to want to consult them regularly in play. "Why didn't you put it in the main text also?" Because every word is tracked.

      If I had it to do over again, I'd have asked for an exception to be made here. The Training Bonus Table should have also been in the main text.

    3. Or have put it in the main text and then argued for it to be put in a free 2-page PDF. It's not like having it gets you anywhere without the book, much like the technique cheat sheet just tells you how much you are missing not having Martial Arts.


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