4E Prose, Terminology, Fluff, & Presentation: Spreadsheets or Haiku?
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  1. #1
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    Prose, Terminology, Fluff, & Presentation: Spreadsheets or Haiku?

    One subject which seems to be raging like wildfire across various threads here on the forums right now is not about the rules of D&D Next, but merely about the way those rules are presented.

    It turns out that this is a highly contentious topic. The opinions people hold are widespread and diametric, and very, very strongly held. Unfortunately, while a modular rules system can possibly appeal to different tastes in terms of mechanical complexity, the books themselves can only have one approach to presentation. That makes this a particularly difficult subject for WotC - there is no way they will able to not annoy a whole bunch of people, whatever they choose to do (unless they literally produce three different versions of each book!)

    UPDATE: I feel an edit to this article is in order because something isn't clear. In this article I'm not talking about about the amount of fluff/flavour text, and most respondents have conflated my use of the word "prose" with "fluff/flavour". 4E certainly has fluff text, and this article is not intended to argue otherwise. What I'm discussing is the presentation of rules: either in prose form (paragraphs) or table/data form; it's a layout issue. The two examples I used below illustrate not fluff/flavour text, but the difference between a paragraph and a stat block approach. Any fluff/flavour aspect that might be hinted at in the article is merely in the context of how it - if present - is presented, and whether any fluff present is intermixed with the mechanics or ring-fenced separately, and not in the context of how much fluff/flavour each has.

    Here are just some of the threads which address this topic:

    I've given my own opinion a number of times; some people agree with me, but it's clear that an equal number do not. This really appears to be a divisive issue.

    So, what is the issue? Well, to try and break it down into its simplest terms, it's about the language and layout used when presenting rules material. If I were to engage hyperbolic mode and create a witty and hilarious (no, really!) "scale" depicting the range of opinion, it might look something like this. Or it might not. Maybe a little. Anyway:

    Now, obviously that's me being a little silly. But I hope it gives you a sense of what I mean when I talk of varied opinions as to how the rules text should be presented.

    For the record, I am personally firmly positioned about 3/4 of the way between 1E (Gygax) and 3E/Pathfinder.

    On a very basic level, those who trend towards the "spreadsheet" end of the scale tend to do so in support of clarity; while those who trend towards the haiku end of the scale tend to do so in support of flavour and immersion. Generally speaking, the former support "fluff" text, but want it kept away from the mechanics with an iron wall, and the latter - with some exceptions - don't generally want a return to Gygax's specific personal writing style, but to a style which is more prose-inclined than table-delineated. I don't think anybody is advocating either of the extremes on my scale.

    Let's look at some examples. I'm grabbing these from the above linked threads, so thanks to those who originally posted them.

    Sleep (3rd Edition)
    Level: Brd 1, Sor/Wiz 1
    Components: V, S, M
    Casting Time: 1 round
    Range: Medium (100 ft. + 10 ft./level)
    Area: One or more living creatures within a 10-ft.-radius burst
    Duration: 1 min./level
    Saving Throw: Will negates
    Spell Resistance: Yes

    A sleep spell causes a magical slumber to come upon 4 Hit Dice of creatures. Creatures with the fewest HD are affected first. Among creatures with equal HD, those who are closest to the spells point of origin are affected first. Hit Dice that are not sufficient to affect a creature are wasted.

    Sleeping creatures are helpless. Slapping or wounding awakens an affected creature, but normal noise does not. Awakening a creature is a standard action (an application of the aid another action).

    Sleep does not target unconscious creatures, constructs, or undead creatures.

    Material Component: A pinch of fine sand, rose petals, or a live cricket.

    Sleep (4th Edition)
    You exert your will against your foes, seeking to overwhelm them
    with a tide of magical weariness.
    Daily ✦ Arcane, Implement, Sleep
    Standard Action Area burst 2 within 20 squares
    Target: Each creature in burst
    Attack: Intelligence vs. Will
    Hit: The target is slowed (save ends). If the target fails its
    first saving throw against this power, the target becomes
    unconscious (save ends).
    Miss: The target is slowed (save ends).

    The difference in styles is, I hope, fairly clear. Both are presenting similar information, but in very different ways. To me, they feel very different; neither is filled with paragraphs of torrid fiction or fluff text, but the former - to me - is more evocative than the latter. One interests and engages me, the other does not. One makes me want to cast a sleep spell, the other just lists the mechanical advantages of doing so. One feels to me like fantasy, the other just feels like information. It actually saddens me that our hobby, the hobby I grew up with, has reached the point where people consider a paragraph a turgid barrier of insurmountable difficulty. What happened?

    That's probably not even close to the best example of what I mean. The difference is even more pronounced when it comes to magic items (and if anyone wants to whip up some examples, I'd love to include them here).

    So, other than briefly mentioning my own preference above, I've avoided arguing my opinion so far in this article in favour of simply summarizing the discussion. To put my opinion shortly: I personally believe that greater gameworld immersion is achieved when the flavour is intermixed and thus harder to ignore (I find that 4E's powers in-game have a tendency to manifest as a non-descript attack roll and effect, though I'm sure your own mileage may well vary), whereas when playing a 3E wizard I "feel" more wizardly as I read the spell description. I recognise that some of you will feel that it's my own fault if I find it harder to immerse with one than the other, and that it's all to do with the player not the game, but you'll remember that I've already argued that game syntax and rules structure are as influential as the people themselves when it comes to how a game manifests itself at the game table, and that the same exact people will play differently when given different RPGs to play. So the presentation does have something to do with it.

    So that's one half of the debate. The other half deals with the concept of readability. Is a D&D rulebook designed to be read, or simply referenced? Again, as you'd expect, opinions are divided.

    When I was younger, I used to spend hours reading and re-reading my DMG and PHB and other books - both 1E and 2E materials. They engaged me; and they still do - I frequently pull them off the shelf and read a few pages. That consequently excited my imagination.

    I did that less with 3E, and I don't do it at all with 4E. With 4E, I just look stuff up, like I'm using a dictionary.

    Now you might argue that's not a problem. The books are rulebooks; their function is the same as the instruction manual for a VCR, not a novel. You use them to access information, but you don't buy them to read. That may well be true for many, but it isn't for me - reading those 1E and 2E books was an integral and pleasant - I'd argue vital - part of my D&D experience growing up; a memory I cherish, and one I'd love to experience again. But I can understand the position of those who simply want clarity of information and ease of reference: I don't share their desire, but I understand it.

    When I say I don't share their desire for clarity, I guess I should be clear myself - I'm certainly not advocating an opaque, incomprehensible wall of text. I'm advocating clearly written, engaging, well-indexed rules. I like clarity as much as the next guy; just not at the expense of readability.

    I'd also like to add that I'm not talking about pages of "story fluff" or filling the books with sidebars of torrid fiction. Hints at a default setting are fine, but I don't want to be swamped with one; fiction I get from good fiction novelists, and settings I get from setting books or my own imagination. I want the text to prod my imagination so that I come up with my own stufff, not tell me a story. I'm talking about the presentation of the rules, not fluff text.

    As I said, it's a contentious issue, and there really does not seem to be a consensus on it. In fact, it seems to get people quite angry in places!

    As a final note before I sign off - I'd just like to mention that I hope not to open the 5E PHB and see a sentence along the lines of:

    Play a dragonborn if:

    • You want to be scaly.

    Thoughts are welcome. I know this one is gonna be divisive, so please make sure you stay civil to each other.
    Last edited by Morrus; Thursday, 21st February, 2013 at 05:23 PM.

  2. #2
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    I have to agree completely with what you are saying. Well done.


  3. #3
    Well put, and I'm with you.

    I'd like a clarity-to-prose balance at or just below 3E, and want to see rulebooks that are engaging to read again , rather than just being massive tomes of reference material.

    There is a lot of variety in 4E, but a massive amount of it is lost to me because I just hate reading the material -- it's presented in a wall of boring sameness by the method or presentation.

  4. #4

    Completely agree

    Very nice post. Comletely agree with your points.

  5. #5
    Funny you posted this, as I was having the same exact thoughts while on my morning jog.

    I too feel this somewhat subtle issue has substantial ramifications on the way we play the game. And it is not just the way the DM uses terms - it is absolutely the way players do as well.

    As another example, consider the 3e feat "Power Attack". As a DM, I can get creative with the description of the use of this feat, so it has more game immersion:

    The orc chieftain grabs his battle axe with both hand and swings at you with all his might with a primal howl.
    (roll Power Attack)

    A player can still do this, but at some point, needs to tell the DM he/she is making a "Power Attack". Thus, the use of rules terminology can instantly pull you out of the gaming moment.

    Another example is saves. One approach is to be descriptive, more like in 1e:

    You need to save versus spells.
    vs. 3e:

    You need to make a will save.
    Maybe in 5e:

    You need to make a save versus a mental attack.
    Here, the more the descriptive, the more immersive/evocative the combat becomes.

    There is no quick fix here, but a trend towards using less rules/game terminology and more descriptive text of actions, spells, etc., would be a good goal for 5e in my opinion.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
    When I was younger, I used to spend hours reading and re-reading my DMG and PHB and other books - both 1E and 2E materials. They engaged me; and they still do - I frequently pull them off the shelf and read a few pages. That consequently excited my imagination.

    I did that less with 3E, and I don't do it at all with 4E. With 4E, I just look stuff up, like I'm using a dictionary.
    Just for curiousity, how old were you when the first 2 editions came out? I know when i was in my teens I read them a lot more than I do now. I don't disagree with you that the 4e stuff is more like a manual than a fantasy novel.

  7. #7
    Grandmaster of Flowers (Lvl 18)

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    Personally I don't think prose and clarity or readabiility or reference are in conflict.

    I believe the solution is bold and colors.

    Write in beautiful and engaging bits of prose. A nice clear group of sentences of the magical world of lethal dungeons and awe inspiring dragons. Just bold and colorize the gameplay important parts. You'd can still describe the wiggling of fingers before a glowing pea shoots out and bursts into a roaring flame.\ like a lone lion leaping on the zebra that is the smelly foul goblins that are the target of the warping of reality that only an arcanist can perform. The melting silver chain of the chief and his pained screams that accompany the pressureless flame roasting him and his kin to death mean nothing to those who are just referencing the 5d6 fire damage and dexterity save but the details are no less sweet. Sweet indeed.

    The colors, Duke! The Colors!
    Last edited by Minigiant; Sunday, 6th May, 2012 at 03:03 AM.

  8. #8
    I very much agree with Morrus on this issue. I also think he frames it well here (I was involved in one of the linked threads and his summary is fair to both sides I believe).

    Really this OP hits the central issue: they can have modular rules but not modular formats (I suppose they could technically have modular formats but doing so would scar the designers for life and result in monstronsity worthy of Frankenstein).

    I have to say this is a critical issue for me. Flavor matters. Being inspired by the text matters. Having a full explanation of the rules (rather than an ambiguous line or two) matters. For me if the format the books like 4E, then I just won't play the game. When I open a players handbook I want something I can sit down and read. I do not want a tech manual.

  9. #9
    I am with you too.
    I am still reading my Planescape and Birthright books more and more. I am even read some excellent writing from the 3e era (Witchfire trilogy and Monsternomicon from Privateer Press were a pleasure to read on their own).
    Unfortunately there in no 4e that read outside from the context of learning and relearning the rules.
    Also the 4e adventures were really horrid. Not the material but the approach, the presentation and the layout. It fealt more like a series of combat encounters than a fantasy rp story.

  10. #10
    Muad'Dib of the Anauroch
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    I completely Disagree about not Agreeing with you...

    Seriously though, I think I mostly agree with Morrus. I want something a little more like the 3E presentation than the 4E presentation. Not necessarily the actual presentation, but a similar form.

    I want the mechanical parts of something clearly shown, whether in a table or a table like format within the description of a mechanic (be it a spell, or other mechanic). But I also want imaginative fluff, though presented in at least a high school reading level. And, I also want the fluff to reinforce and/or expand upon the raw mechanics that are presented.

    I don't want fluff presented with a mechanic that has no relation or resemblance to the mechanic (or vice-versa). I also don't want fluff that creates ambiguity or confusion, or contradicts the presented mechanics.

    I believe that with a little effort, a prose explanation or description can both support the mechanics, and inspire the imagination.

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