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The How-to of RPG How-to-ity

Started by Jack Spencer Jr, January 21, 2002, 01:07:28 PM

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Jack Spencer Jr

In another thread, Ron posed an interesting question:

QuoteNow we have the interesting question, how well does a given how-to manual actually work? There are plenty of them, and I imagine - can't say for sure, don't know - that there are at least a few different ways to organize them. I wonder which might be best for RPGs, or rather, for a given RPG?

It is a problem since it would be for a given RPG that would work best, not general rules.

We could try to come up with general rules for organization which a given game should simply break if it would be beneficial.

Generally, most how-to books are indeed reference books.  Just a specialized subset.  

One type of How-To is like the time-life building stuff series.  I don't believe this model would work well for RPGs.  This model is mostly step by step instructions towards a finished product.  RPGs may have some sort of goal, even if that goal is simply a continuing story or whatnot, but it's not like I need a table, I follow the steps and build a table ->BAM!<- It's done.  IMO, ideally a RPG is never "done" or if it is, that's a matter of personal preference.  In any case, I don't think this model would be useful to a RPG.

Maybe your instrument analogy would work here, Ron.  A how to play an instrument?

Maybe a how to write stories or other such books somewhat closer to the medium of RPGs would work.  (acting, etc)

Then again, maybe not.  I've read Elements of Style and seem to recall a good deal of it was "don't do this" sort of advice.  Good advice for writers who tend to make those mistakes *looks innocent* but I doubt a good how-to book has too much negative advice like this  e.g. Do not hit your thumb with the hammer.

We want to know what to do, not what not to do.

I suppose some advice of this sort is unavoidable, but it needn't be the mainstay.

I seem to be losing it.  Mayday Mayday.  Going down.

I turn the discussion back to the floor, as it should be.

Jason L Blair

Quote from: pblock
Maybe your instrument analogy would work here, Ron.  A how to play an instrument?

All the instrument books I've read (of which I have read a few, despite the fact I'm only pseudo-tolerable at one) work from small to large. Well... they start big (theory!) and then go into the singular (notes) and then into the multiple (songs!).

Now, I realize this doesn't mesh with Ron's instrument analogy (which, if I remember correctly, is more about the players as musicians and their mad-skillz as the instruments) but I still think it fits. Let us call it "J's Instrument/Book-Building Analogy."

Most books I've read are built of this.

etc (GMing advice, scenarios, etc)

I think it does make a certain sense. It also facilitates a certain approach to the world. The characters are presented first. Perhaps because they are most important? In most games, gamers want to be the stuff of legend. It makes sense they are presented first.

The rules are second. The rules are how the individual (and all that entails) can affect/be affected by the world (including other individuals, their mental/ethereal selves, etc. Stay with me.).

Structuring a book where the rules are presented first puts the world in the cherry spot. The importance is shifted to how things work together. Then, after that, they look at the individuals.

I can't really think of any groovy analogies... Does anything get what I'm saying? Does anyone care? Disagree?


So, to recap, an RPG written like an instrument lesson book is actually pretty standard. And not a bad analogy.

God... how much did I ramble...
Jason L Blair
Writer, Game Designer

Ron Edwards


I just remembered that">this thread on the Sorcerer forum batted around some notions about the order/organization topic for that game. It might be interesting or relevant to the topic here.


Jack Spencer Jr

Quote from: Key20Jason
The characters are presented first. Perhaps because they are most important? In most games, gamers want to be the stuff of legend. It makes sense they are presented first.

Well, I'll disagree with you there, Jason, since that assume a predisposition on the players' part.  Maybe they don't want to play the stuff of legends.  Maybe they'd rather be the C3-PO than the Luke Skywalker.  That may be unlikely in most cases, but it's beyond the scope of this discussion to deal with that, but let's take it as read that it's possible.

But I feel that character creation comes first (or early) anyway. Why?  Because it's the stuff that the players' will be able to deal with and/or control and/or otherwise effect during the game.

This is probably why Sorcerer is organized the way it is (see link above).  Kickers and such are something that the player can have an effect on, as per how Sorcerer is played. (and probably one of the stumbling blocks for someone coming from more typical RPGs to such games since they're used to the GM controlling all of that stuff)

Maybe we should how the analogy at arms length a bit.  Analogies can make things very, very confusing quickley no matter how tight the analogies are.

We're talking about RPG books as How-to book.  OK, How-to what?  Play a game.  Naturally.  From here, it depends on the game what should go where and why.

Of course, the typical organizational model should not be ignored as it's what people are used to and, therefore, can be used to put people at ease with the air of familiarity.  Unless you'd rather break that convention in hopes of starting a new convention and you're certain you're keeping the reader with you all along.

I do have a problem with the standard organization:

etc (GMing advice, scenarios, etc)


character creation
combat system
magic system
other dangerous stuff mechanics


character creation
general system
combat system
magic system
play stuff
more setting

Basically, these models or overviews include several assumptions which may not be true.  It assumes that the players make up character, and that this requires some form of process to make them, That there is combat, magic and a fixed setting.

Well, not necessarily all of these assumptions take place, but there a quite a few assumptions in RPG design like it's stuff you must have.  Maybe it's better to have, but not all of it is must have.

It seems to be a matter of visualizing how the game is played, figuring out what tools provided by the game are the most important and then organizing it accordingly.

Some of this is a real "which came first, chicken or egg?" problem.  Is the character creation rules come before the setting material then you might make a munchikn combat monster for the Transpotting RPG, which won't work too hot. And so on.

Like the chick/egg question, I don't think it really matters in the long run.  Setting, Rules, Character Creation will all need to be ingested by the reader at some point.  How much does it really matter what order they're in?

Jeez, now I'm rambling.

Joe Murphy (Broin)

It *does* matter what order the chapters are in, pblock. Read Continuum? :) Lordy!

The game is so incredibly dense, packed with information, new systems of physics, game rules *and* invented language that the *book* is practically 4-dimensional space, never mind the setting. In a way, it would have been better suited to a hypertext document. (and writing games for the web is a whole other kettle of worms.)

Every time a word is referred to, there's a page reference to where it appears elsewhere in the book. The index is huge. Gargantuan. It took me three read-throughs to get it.

Anyway, enough awe. Sidebars. Sidebars are rarely used well. One could theoretically summarise certain topics in the sidebars of certain chapters. So in character generation, the sidebars would give examples of how the game statistics translate into real world values. Or give examples of play.

Plus, if you have three-ring binder games, you also allow the GM to expand or contract chapters as he sees fit. In a sense, order is an illusion.


Le Joueur

Lest it get lost, this thread was spawned by Ron's cited link.  I think it goes a long way towards explaining my thoughts.

Why do I start with the character stuff (well, actually I start with the 'everything stuff' and then go back over each thing)?  This is because, as it is illustrated with template characters (and their pictures), it becomes one of the major selling points for the visual impact of the product.  Otherwise it flows from most concrete to most theoretical.

Hope that helps.

Fang Langford

p. s. Okay, here's an idea that an aspiring writer ought to have no trouble selling: Playing Dungeons & Dragons for Dummies.  (I'm serious, the 'Dummies' people would probably go for it.)  I'm not a writer.
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!


Aaah... "D&D For Dummies"... its such a good idea I'm suprised its not been done.  Or at least, to a certain extent it has been done, but its probably sufficiently long ago that the topic needs to be re-tackled.

OK, this idea really perks my interest.  So here is the sem-serious suggestion that the Forge should conspire to produce such a work [it could even be called "Under The Hammer" .. :) ]  except not for D&D - RPG For Dummies.

We all know that far too many RPG's wast time, space and money reproducing a "what is RPG" section and a "how to play" section and a "how to GM" section.  I do not, however, think that most tubes of oil paint come with instructions on "Perspective" or "Composition".  We do not expect the practitioner to learn at the same time they buy their tools.

So I think theres a niche here for a How To book.  Then RPG supplements themselves can be about THIS world and THESE mechanics rather than trying to cover all the generica.  What I would see here is:
1) the traditional discourse on how we got here
2) discussions of GM and players roles and their permutations
3) discussion of Fortune, mechanical and resolution styles and at least one of the polar models
4) possibly things like relationship maps
5) Premise, theme etc etc

I personally would also militate for advice on staging, presentation and composition, if such can be constructed.  A work like this would, IMO, signpost the maturity of RPG's.  For the last few decades we have been accumulating data, thrashing about in the murk of our own prejudices and assembling, more or less from nothing, a domestic theory and model of RPG.  It aint complete, but it probably is the right time to consolidate these issues into a work that, like the ideas, is applicable to ALL games rather than shoe-horned here and there into actual games themselves.

So - anyonie thinks its doable?
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


I think it's definitely doable.  Indeed, there's an early '80s book along these lines, albeit oriented towards the fantasy genre -- Through Dungeons Deep: A Fantasy Gamer's Handbook by Robert Plamondon.  It's where I first came across the idea of a "storytelling campaign", long before White Wolf was even a magazine.

I'll dig it out tonight and post a table of contents and some of my favorite bits -- maybe it'll inspire someone.  :-)


Tim Gray

Quote from: contracycle
We all know that far too many RPG's wast time, space and money reproducing a "what is RPG" section and a "how to play" section and a "how to GM" section.  I do not, however, think that most tubes of oil paint come with instructions on "Perspective" or "Composition".  We do not expect the practitioner to learn at the same time they buy their tools.

The RPG analogy to tubes of paint would be NPCs, flashbacks, scene description, maybe even combat mechanics.

A game book would be seriously flawed if published with *no* information on what RPGs are and how to play. That would mean it was incapable of functioning as a standalone product - of us would complain about that, and someone new to the hobby would shelve it in confusion and never return.
Legends Walk! - a game of ancient and modern superheroes