Tuesday, May 5, 2009

RPG Writing Style - Professional or Personable?

I mentioned a while back that in writing my own RPG, I have a tendency to drop into "professional-ese" because of the writing duties I have in my day-to-day employment, and as a result my rules writing starts to take on a dry, all too bureaucratic tone that I find, at best, frustrating when I go back and read what I have written.

On the other hand, I know that it's far too easy when writing in a casual or "friendly" manner to start getting sloppy and allow your diction and grammar to fall apart in an attempt to keep things loose and entertaining. It's the classic paradox of the formal college paper assignment - how to write something that won't put the reader to sleep, without becoming too informal and having your writing look like something cut and pasted off of a teenager's Facebook page.

Now, RPGs being an incredibly niche product, there is room for variation and games fall all over the spectrum. You've got games like Rolemaster or GURPS or Castles & Crusades that have a very "professional" feel to the writing. On the other hand, you have something like Hogshead Publishing's Violence RPG or Ron Edward's Sorcerer RPG, which are very informal and "talk to the reader directly", which is a big no-no from a formal writing standpoint (remember the old admonishment that a formal paper never uses "you" in refering to the reader). It seems like the more "indie" the game, the more informal the writing becomes, but this isn't always the case - most of the "retro-clone" games I've looked at vary wildly in terms of formality in the writing, sometimes within the same document - but some of them are written as formally as any commercial RPG product.

The Tankards & Broadswords RPG isn't meant to be a very "serious" game, and I do feel that, in terms of overall tone and "feel" the game is more like me (the author) having a chat with you (the reader/player/GM). However, I wonder whether or not this will be taken as a sign of "un-professionalism" on my part by those reading it with an eye towards deciding whether to take it seriously as a gaming product (as opposed to taking the gaming seriously, which I'm 100% against). Just as there's a critical difference between a "casual dress and grooming code" on the job and looking like a bum off the street, there's a critical difference between writing an RPG with a casual and informal style, and having your game look like it's patched together from texts sent out by a teenager.

So, gentle readers, what's your opinion? Do you feel that, regardless of the tone and seriousness of gameplay a particular RPG fosters, the writing should remain formal and professional, or do you feel that, if a game is meant to be a "beer and pizza" RPG, the writer should feel free to write in a "beer and pizza" manner (i.e., apparently drunk and suffering from indigestion)? Do you feel that, beyond making oneself clearly understood, RPGs shouldn't even bother aiming for a real "writing style" and could just as easily be banged out as a series of bullet points or Powerpoint slides (i.e., RPG as a System Resource Document) with the GM providing the flavor? Or do you feel that there is some importance in treating RPGs as a form of literature themselves, that there should be a tone, a feel, a subtle encroachment of mood that draws the reader into the "world" of the RPG?

Comments and questions are, as always, greatly appreciated.


Chgowiz said...

I think neither and both - I like RPGs to have a "style" that reflect their designer(s). High Gygaxian vs Jackson-GURPS vs FASA Mechwarrior - all had their tone. Compare the intriguing language of OD&D with Swords & Wizardry - same game, but different writers with different styles and I like them both.

Be unique. Be yourself. Be T&B. Put your stamp on it and that is what I would like.

(With a word verify like "kilted", you gotta be unique now!)

RPG Ike said...

I think Chgowiz has it right. You've got to keep your audience in mind, and your audience is someone who wants your writing to be accessible and entertaining. If you can write informally and remain clear, you should.

Kiltedyaksman said...

You can write formally while still being entertaining. It all comes down to command of the language.

Badelaire said...

"You can write formally while still being entertaining. It all comes down to command of the language."Well, true, but it still doesn't deal with the issue of "voice". If my writing is essentially "the author speaking directly to the reader", that is typically considered "informal", but if my RPG is filled with a lot of "...if one considers the development of their character...", then it's going to be more "formal".

I've seen RPGs that really are "the author talking directly to the reader". The two I mentioned in the column, Violence and Sorcerer, have very distinct "voices". Both are examples of the authors "telling" the reader about the game and giving examples.

On the other hand, there are a lot of RPGs out there that are essentially reference manuals or textbooks of a sort. They always refer to "the player(s)" and "the GM", never "you" or "your character".

And this doesn't even begin to cover many other variables. What about profanity? Do you write your rules with a certain maturity level in mind for the reader? What about slang and other twists of language that might make comprehension difficult for other age groups or nationalities? For example, as a New Englander, would I ever use the term "wicked" in my RPG the way some New Englanders use the word (as another form of "awesome" or "great")?

These are issues that go above and beyond the balancing act between formality and entertainment.

Wickedmurph said...

Isn't the first rule of writing "Know your audience?" With that in mind, I think you need to decide who your target audience is, and write with them in mind.

I think that a lot of RPG stuff isn't done that way, though. The author writes in a format that he/she is comfortable with, and crosses their fingers.

If you decide that you are looking to appeal to a casual-gamer crowd of various ages, then base your writing style on that. Conversational, without being too "dude, roll the dice already" and probably without profanity.

I've always liked to keep the conversational parts to the sidebars or advice sections of rules, and be more "systems document-y" when you are dealing with the actual rules. There are some things that demand as much clarity as possible, and rules is one of em.

Aaron said...

I write professionally, and I think I do it almost too much, so that it doesn't sound... real, I guess the word is.

I think for the 24 Hour RPG Design Contest I'm going to come up with something completely ridiculous so that I can't possible be serious while writing it. That might help me break my terrible habit.

Helmsman said...

I think there is a place for both. I write my rules in clear crisp language never conversing with the reader directly. However when I go into examples I do, often using stereotypes directly related to geek culture to get a chuckle. I've also looked at running story-lines carried through in the examples. And sidebars and quotes at the beginnings of chapter can often carry across flavor that the basic rules shouldn't.

Kiashu said...

Well... personable takes more words, professional (assuming no MBA-speak) is concise.

Nowadays my preference is for professional in the rules, and personable in the setting stuff.

I don't like the indie trend of mixing up your design notes, game play advice and rules all together; that goes hand-in-hand with the "personable" style. I like to be able to find what I'm looking for, when I'm trying to find out how much damage a 9mm does I don't want to read about your views on violence in rpgs, or how to handle PCs who go psycho. Just give me the fucking stats, and put your views and advice in separate chapters.

So there's a place for both kinds of writing, but the personable writing should be clear. If you can't make it clear, go professional instead.

Robert Fisher said...

Some games have strong themes—whether serious or tongue-in-cheek, and you want the writing to reflect and reinforce that. I’ve never seen such themes as a requirement, though. I enjoy more generic games too.

Whatever you’re writing, any formal rules that don’t contribute to clarity might as well be ignored. Likewise, informalities are fine as long as they don’t muddy the waters. It really seems like a false dichotomy to me.

I have always thought that the majority of a RPG system could be more clearly communicated through bullet-points, enumerated procedures, tables, etc. I still think some prose is usually needed to, though. I think Traveller often did a pretty decent job of this. Perhaps best in Starter Traveller with it’s separate rules booklet and tables/charts booklet.

Plus, if you are writing one of those games that is trying to present particular themes, you’ll generally need prose for that.

Timeshadows said...

Both, or what one could call, 'Business-Casual'. :)

Questing GM said...

Formal for crunch but friendly on the explanation.

Presentation and flow of information (whether crunch or fluff) is very important (to me) and there are some game books I've read that are terrible at it which can lead to many redundant arguments if they could only see it from a different perspective.

MJ Harnish said...

I also think there's room for both.

I prefer games that speak to me as the reader - it makes the text far more enjoyable to read. However, it also makes it very difficult to find specific rules fast in the context of play. For example, Dogs in the Vineyard is a very enjoyable read but it's hard to quickly extract the rules from it as a reference. In contrast, rulebooks that read like text books or technical manuals are painful to read - reading most of the games modeled on D&D, etc. is not enjoyable. The books are easier to use as a reference though.

Badelaire said...

A lot of great advice here, folks. Thanks very much for all the time you've taken posting on this topic. My latest idea for handling this is to be found in my post "Tankard Tips and Broadsword Basics".

If you haven't read it, take a look and tell me if this sounds like a good compromise.

Anonymous said...