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[Half-Baked Spin-off] How Does the Book Carry a Message?

Started by Thunder_God, April 28, 2007, 03:12:22 PM

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In the original thread, Ron said the following:

QuoteShock as a game is the only science fiction RPG ever published. It's innovative, fun, and powerful. Shock as a book is an ashcan, despite its physical design. It should have been presented as an ashcan, under whatever business model, and treated by you, Joshua, as an ashcan, as I describe above. With that key and undetermined-length time period of plain old setting it aside for play and letting it recede from attention as a project. You didn't. And it just so happens that unlike (say) Perfect, the primary flaw of this particular draft/ashcan is that it fails 100% actually to explain how to set up play. By not doing so, we bought an unusable book and you picked our pockets. That is the only reason why Shock is not being played by dozens and dozens of groups worldwide, and garnering the accolades and financial success that the (invisible) game deserves.

Emphasis mine.

So here's the thing, how exactly does a game book explain how a game is set, how the game actually happens?
What is the difference between just presenting all the rules in order, and expecting the reader to create a mental model of the game, or initiate play, follow the orders step-by-step and see what emerges and, well, I don't know, what are the other options, which are what we should supposedly do?

Truly bemused,
Guy Shalev.
Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
CSI Games, my RPG Blog and Project. Last Updated on: January 29th 2010

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Guy, this is the big question! I think it's the direct practical question arising out of the "murk" phenomenon I posted about last year. The issue is not how to establish initiative and how to roll to hit, but rather to know when and how scenes start and stop, and when and how conflicts start and stop. It's definitely bound up with those elements of leadership and authority I wrote about as well. I've tried hard to overcome it with my last two projects and some other authors have been doing so as well.

I've think we've all become a lot better, in the last few years, at explaining "what to do" to fellow members of the gaming subculture. The breakthrough game for that was probably Dogs in the Vineyard, and certainly Burning Empires is remarkable for its explanations (and their order) even more so than its physical design. It's not just independent authors, either; both due to lurking at the Forge as well as to their own ruminations, a number of writers or line developers for non-independent games are really raising the bar for explaining to the intended audience.

How to do that for people outside the culture? It's a rough task. In many ways, concerns or expected material for people inside the culture actually throws up a barrier to understanding for people outside it. One really has to start from the basis of an empty page and to be prepared for reactions of "not really an RPG," all the way up to physical design. My It Was a Mutual Decision was written in this way, and as a first try, I think it was pretty successful.

So, aside from that and a number of other recent examples, like Breaking the Ice (the game IWAMD was inspired by), I can only say, by recognizing the question, you are uniquely positioned for working to solve it. We're in a period of major transition, as a design/commerce/play community, and by that I don't mean the Forge but the rather larger and more scattered group which includes the Forge (even when disagreeing with me or with stuff on it). It's exciting, and I can only urge you to put your best creative thoughts to work.

Best, Ron


Hm. I think the question is still there.

Sure it's a big question, but what stumps me is, that in a way I understand the difference, but can't put it to any good use.

I look at my games, and people say they don't get how the game rises from the text. I look at Capes, and know what they mean (I don't have the same understanding regarding my games, but that's to be expected concerning I have a perfect model of them in my mind). I look at games like say, Dogs in the Vineyard, and I can understand.

But in the end, both list each section as it comes into focus, telling you what to do, and when to do it.

To what do I attribute that one game leads to the reader having a model in his mind enabling him to play, and another doesn't?
How can I then change things in order to reach the desired state of things?

And yes, I understand that this is a big issue, and not just in role-playing, but in all manuals.
Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
CSI Games, my RPG Blog and Project. Last Updated on: January 29th 2010

Eero Tuovinen

As a practical question oriented towards explaining the hobby to newbies, here's my notes:
- Include a photograph or two of the actual seating arrangements and people playing. Show how it looks in action.
- Explain the agenda up-front: why the game is played, to what purpose. Both the internal purpose (creative agenda) and the external purpose (social and pedagogical benefits of play).
- Make the rules flex to the schedules and social relationships of the players; allow player roles to shift at first, to accomodate players finding their position in the group. Provide suggestions and assumptions about the social conditions of play, so as to orient the reader in terms of what the text assumes of her.
- Provide the rules in ascending order of complexity, concentrating on getting useful play going with minimal effort.
- Decimate the idea of rulebook as reference work. Either you use the book as a tool during play, or you don't need to open it during play.
- Provide optional, modular design that may be fitted to the particular wishes of the audience. The intent is not to create one game, but a set of tools that will adapt to the needs of the players. Do this while avoiding useless variants: each modular section should have clear, real-world reason for existing, no variety for variety's sake.
I composed the above list for my dream game, which is very much not directed at roleplayers. My small zombie game (which will apparently make it's debut sooner than the dream game, despite being two years younger) uses the following list:
- Rules no more than 8 pages A4, recommended < 4 pages.
- Extensive use of the boardgame conventions in explaining the rules: assume that "rounds", "counting score", "negotiation" and such are already transparent terminology for the players.
- Explain the rules in terms of the main cycle of play, the turn: list what each player does on their turn, in what order. Then go through each step in detail.
- Refer to the fictional part of play only in one place, provide one example of how it goes, and that's that. No extensive imposition of standards of correct roleplay, focus on correct use of narrative authority mechanics: correct play will follow.
- One allowed exception to the above is the tips & tricks section at the end of the rules: use that to provide an inspiring glimpse on the actual priorities of the players during game-play.
The former list is intented for a family audience used to reading magazines and hobby books. The latter is intented for boardgamers. You can see the differences.

Going with the above, it seems that my approach to this is to steal from other successful models of text arrangement. We'll see how it works.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Matt Wilson

Quote from: Thunder_God on April 29, 2007, 10:12:34 AM
I look at my games, and people say they don't get how the game rises from the text. I look at Capes, and know what they mean (I don't have the same understanding regarding my games, but that's to be expected concerning I have a perfect model of them in my mind). I look at games like say, Dogs in the Vineyard, and I can understand.

To be fair to Tony, Capes is a pretty complex game, and it doesn't rely on some of the foregone assumptions that Dogs does. It involves a lot of resource management and tactics, multiple conflicts on the table at once. It's going to be hard to explain no matter what.

People talk about games as user manuals, and my thought on that is how well those "for dummies" or "complete idiot" books sell. If a lot of people are buying "Adobe InDesign for Dummies" despite the 400-page manual, then maybe the model for my games should be the "for Dummies" books and not the original manuals.

What's in those Dummies books that makes them popular? Big headings, callouts, tons of examples, a more personal tone.

I haven't seen a review of a game yet that complained about the game having too many examples or over-explaining the rules. I'd love to be accused of that.


I'm just a player and reviewer who rarely follows Forge conversations, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

A quality Example of Play.  Such an example needs to clearly illustrate all the major rules while also being entertaining.  A part of RPG design is keeping reader attention and many Examples of Play fall down here by creating boring scenes.  Sometimes this means providing short examples to illustrate rules rather than relying on the reader to 'put it all together' when reading a chapter devoted to play.

No unusual terms.  Games that use a lot of game specific lingo are more difficult to follow than games that use ordinary terms.  In contract drafting one of the keys is to only define a term if its Necessary to do so and if the term differs from its Ordinary Meaning.

Don't look ahead.  Some games will refer to concepts that haven't been presented yet by providing bolded terms and page numbers.  I don't think this is useful.  The idea behind this design choice is to make it easy to go through and reference rules to gain a greater understanding of the product.  I think this would be more effectively accomplished through a well done Index, which includes bolding (or larger font) for those terms within the index.  The problem is that it's bombarding the reader with concepts and leads to the feeling that they need to understand the whole book in order to understand   This creates confusion and when a reader becomes confused they're less likely to finish reading the game.

Character creation should come early.  The character creation process and walking the player through it often teaches a lot about a game.  I find that games that explain all the mechanics before pulling me into character creation are often more difficult to follow.  Look at the big industry games like D&D and WoD.  Character creation comes very early in those games, and it serves to generate questions that are then answered through system discussion.  It focuses the reader's understanding of the game.


Actually Matt, I usually hate rule examples.

If I have the rule set in my mind, I can get caught on something small and niggling in the example and somehow it'd throw me off of the model I have in my head.
Don't remember examples, but I remember it happening to me in Nine Worlds.

I hate writing examples, but I know it's needed at some places, and that most people do get mileage out of examples.
Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
CSI Games, my RPG Blog and Project. Last Updated on: January 29th 2010

Jason Morningstar

Doyce has put up a series of posts over at Story-Games that seem directly relevant to this conversation.

C.W. Richeson, I agree with your points.  I can tell you from recent, painful experience that it isn't always possible to present information in sequential order, which leads to "see page X" references.  An example of this - in Grey Ranks, you play out the first of ten chapters right in the middle of character generation.  It teaches you how to play the game, and gives you a chance to flesh out your characters, and is otherwise pretty cool, but it required either putting character generation as the last portion of rules, or referencing material that hadn't appeared thusfar.  I wish it weren't that way, but it was the best of several suboptimal choices.  There are probably special cases where some of your other points might fall down for good reasons, too.  Not "have good examples", though! 


Jason: Sure, I'm not saying my points are absolutes or anything.  I'm sure there are many games that do what I say doesn't work there just fine.  Those are just things that have caused me to either lose some interest in continuing to read a book or that I've seen folk on, say,, mention were difficult to their reading of a product.


A good trick is to get someone to read the text and write down every question they have, at least for the first few pages. Every place where they go "hm, did they explain that bit yet?", "shit, I didn't get it, is there an example?", "okay, rules overload". That's incredibly helpful, and will help you solve the problems of your particular text.

(And just let me say: I'm happy this issue is being addressed. Thanks, everyone involved, for bringing it up).


Don't sweat it Matthijs, it's also my issue, sadly.

And well, that's how I redline texts. It doesn't matter if the answer is given later, I ask the question when I have it, where in the text I do.

If I ask the question again and again, I actually write it down on the text.
It's <I>very</I> time consuming. Reading for editing grammar, spelling, clarity, order and such. Sometimes it takes as often as an hour for 3-5 pages.

But it's totally worth it to be on the receiving end.
Guy Shalev.

Cranium Rats Central, looking for playtesters for my various games.
CSI Games, my RPG Blog and Project. Last Updated on: January 29th 2010