RPG Writing and Design Needs a Paradigm Shift

Seems to me it's more like you don't care about those things. You can't just assume "nobody" cares because that happens to align with your preferences.

Play the game you want, but there's no call to make sweeping judgements that don't necessarily apply to anyone but you. We can only legitimately talk about our own preferences.

I think framing this as care rather than utility, functionality, and economy (both in terms of cognitive economy and table handling time) is the evaluation disparity that is going on here.

For instance, Harper's Blades in the Dark text is overflowing with evocative language. It drips with it. Now I've run the game so much that I don't really need to look up anything, including Duskvol's 12 districts and the idiosyncratic aspects of the large list of Factions. Take a look at the following entry for Ulf Ironborn:

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I can look at just a few of the demarcated sections of that entry and glean a tremendous amount of information to represent Ulf and members of his Crew (as both game engine machinery and fictional characters with motivations and distinguishing characteristics) in play. A few sentences and corresponding NPC tags and I'm there (a trivial few moments of scanning and parsing). If/when, I need more, I can go right back and grab more ("who are they allied with," for instance) with another trivial moment spent.

The utility, functionality, and economy (UFE for short) is immense.

Now there is an alternative way to present Faction information that is terrible for UFE. That alternative way is an extremely large collection of words and sentences and paragraphs without any eye-assisting, attention-grabbing demarcation of which the format successfully serves as "GM life hack." So basically, every time the information is required in play, an individual has to parse that entire field of text and do the winnowing down to the essentials they are seeking on their own.
 

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There was an old version of Fireball posted upthread than also had its duration listed as "1 turn", which struck me as odd. Is it possible that 1 turn didn't always equal 10 minutes in the earliest versions but instead meant what we'd now see as 1 round, or one player's (or side's) turn at the table?
That is an error that you see in early material, yes. Trying to do strict interpretation of D&D editions prior to 3e is not always productive.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
After numerous examples and pages of discussion, what I find I dislike about the 4e presentation (and this extends to most of the other ones) is the amount of properties stated before the effect’s description. If these things are going to be there, I’d prefer they be integrated into the effect’s chrome somehow.
🤷‍♂️ Matter of taste, I prefer the properties (called keywords in 4e) format, with a bit of flavor at the beginning
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
After numerous examples and pages of discussion, what I find I dislike about the 4e presentation (and this extends to most of the other ones) is the amount of properties stated before the effect’s description. If these things are going to be there, I’d prefer they be integrated into the effect’s chrome somehow.
FWIW, the keywords and other mechanical effects are after the fictional part in 4e
 

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kenada

Legend
Supporter
🤷‍♂️ Matter of taste, I prefer the properties (called keywords in 4e) format, with a bit of flavor at the beginning
It’s not that they’re bad per se, but I’d like to take more advantage of the layout the way other types of games do (particularly board and card games). I explore this a bit in post #250.

FWIW, the keywords and other mechanical effects are after the fictional part in 4e
I thought it was obvious when I used “effect’s description” that I meant the mechanical stuff, but maybe it wasn’t. I apologize for the lack of clarity. I was trying refer to the rules used for resolving a particular ability (such as what happens on a hit or miss) while being applicable to the different presentational formats that have been posted.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This is veering a little off topic but: the other benefit of "concise" is that the player is freer to personalize.

What if the player wants the fireball to just appear and not have to "streak" there?
That's a major change to how Fireball works, however, because if it doesn't have to "streak" (or otherwise travel) from caster to target it can't wreck on obstructions and could, in theory, be cast through a pane of glass, wall of force, or anything else that allowed line of vision to the target point.
 
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I think framing this as care rather than utility, functionality, and economy (both in terms of cognitive economy and table handling time) is the evaluation disparity that is going on here.

For instance, Harper's Blades in the Dark text is overflowing with evocative language. It drips with it. Now I've run the game so much that I don't really need to look up anything, including Duskvol's 12 districts and the idiosyncratic aspects of the large list of Factions. Take a look at the following entry for Ulf Ironborn:

View attachment 348456

I can look at just a few of the demarcated sections of that entry and glean a tremendous amount of information to represent Ulf and members of his Crew (as both game engine machinery and fictional characters with motivations and distinguishing characteristics) in play. A few sentences and corresponding NPC tags and I'm there (a trivial few moments of scanning and parsing). If/when, I need more, I can go right back and grab more ("who are they allied with," for instance) with another trivial moment spent.

The utility, functionality, and economy (UFE for short) is immense.

Now there is an alternative way to present Faction information that is terrible for UFE. That alternative way is an extremely large collection of words and sentences and paragraphs without any eye-assisting, attention-grabbing demarcation of which the format successfully serves as "GM life hack." So basically, every time the information is required in play, an individual has to parse that entire field of text and do the winnowing down to the essentials they are seeking on their own.
I think that entry works very well. I have zero objection to it. But I do think there are plenty of other approaches that can work, including more text. Some people simply like reading that material and it is what excites them about play even if others find it too much to parse (especially during play). Personal I like a solid stat block with mechanical info and a well written entry that priorities but doesn’t worship brevity. I also like if the writer has a format or pattern that makes sense like reverse pyramid. In my own stuff I try to keep NPCs to 1 paragraph if I can, two if necessary and three if I have no choice. With time sculpting this down has gotten a lot easier
 

Regardless of the quality of AD&D’s properties, the format has persisted. That’s my point. Everything 4e adds with keywords, action type, etc are all clearly an evolution of that format.


That’s why I’m suggesting to look at games other than tabletop RPGs. They manage to present effects in a clear and short format, often to players who have never seen them before the first time they’ve used them.

For example, these are abilities (as close as I can get to magic missile and fireball) from Middara, and adventure board game. These images are taken from Middara’s dropbox downloads.

Ruination is an ability from a summon, but it’s effectively an AoE attack. The bolded elements call out the game mechanics. SPELL 6 means to roll your casting die and add 6. The targets have to make conviction checks or take the result (Diem’s casting die worth of MAGIC DMG). The number in the circle is the SP cost to use the ability. You get SP at the start of your turn, which is spent to use abilities, move, etc. An Effect is a beneficial thing (like Haste) or negative (like Poison). Effects are tracked with tokens. Diem is the name of the summon.

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Life Tithe is a Discipline, which is how you customize characters. The XP cost is how many XP you pay to buy it. It costs 3+, meaning three plus how many other LVL 1 Disciplines you have. Disciplines with costs will have icons down the side. This one is “free” but can only be used one per turn by exhausting (i.e., tap) the card. Exhausted cards are recovered at the start of your turn. SOI is a standard distance. By default, it is four squares, but some things can increase it. The player with Life Tithe in our game has an item that increases SOI to six squares.

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Is this the best format? Consider Fireball from Magic: the Gathering. That page in particular is interesting because the sidebar itemizes the costs, type, etc like tabletop RPGs typically do for spells. You can see the card next to it (reproduced below). The cost (X + 1 fire mana) is in the “chrome” as is the type (“Sorcery”). It doesn’t bold elements like Middara, but references to costs (usually) use the formatting they use in the chrome.

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The issue I see with “natural language” in tabletop RPGs is it tries to avoid stating plain mechanics by describing them instead in rules-lawyerese. Consider this version of fireball from 4e that is only plain language. Note that I’ve omitted the action under the assumption that default rules needn’t be restating (and that casting as a standard action is the common rule). I consider the heading part of the chrome. Alternatively, it could be done as a symbol like PF2 does.

Fireball (Daily ✦ Arcane, Fire, Implement)​

A globe of orange flame coalesces in your hand. You hurl it at a point in RANGE 20, and it explodes in a BURST 3. Deal 3d6+INT fire damage to targets hit (INT vs. Reflex) in the burst or half on a miss.​
I think these vary in effectiveness of presentation. But, for example, the actual 4e presentation of Fireball is a lot easier to play with, IME. Your textualized version has to be scanned, and since every power will vary somewhat in format, it means overall handling time for power use (a very very common thing in 4e) will increase. I don't see what is being gained there. My comment on 1e's attributes is that A) several of the common ones are pretty uninteresting, like 'school', components (largely ignored in actual play IME), casting time (part of a rule so arcane I doubt 1 in 5 AD&D GMs even comprehends it, thus usually ignored), level (easily inferred) and Area of Effect (99% of the time this is restating part of the text and many cases conflicts with it). Range, Saving Throw, and Duration (though also often restating the body of the spell text), as well as the spell's name of course, are interesting. I'd have much rather had things like damage be up top and reduce the clutter there by moving other stuff into the body, and then making sure to NOT duplicate material between attributes and body.
 

Anon Adderlan

Explorer
But there already was a paradigm shift in this design space. It's called #MagicTheGathering. And I think it's as close to peak human design as we can get.

Beyond that, I go by a catchy set of design guidelines I call the Three Eyes: Index, Instruct, Inspire. A system needs to show the player where to find the information, how the mechanics work, and what can be done with it. And everything you add to the game should be doing all three to some degree. But here's the key: You need to account for the medium, as a website is not a book is not a card. Hell even a touch/mobile website isn't the same as a mouse/desktop one, and you can't design for both without serious usability compromises.

the rules are where the value is for them as a publisher because that's where their effort is invested.
Invested effort doesn't equal consumer value despite how much the producers may feel it does, and they need to get past that if they expect to actually market their work.

Which RPG rulebooks do you consider the best written overall?
#Wildsea

So, if I'm reading you right, your primary interest in a game's manual is not to actively facilitate the functional play of the game during play, but rather to serve as passive consumption/pleasure reading and/or/also the possible add-on of the text's color/"purple prosiness" piquing your interest in playing it at some point.
Far more RPGs are bought to be read rather than played however, and the reason 300+ page tomes are still a thing is because dividing them into several smaller works would be far less profitable. Much of what we're seeing is simply due to market forces.

I don't think the default of a rules system should be designed with bad GMs in mind and Bad players in mind.
A system can neither prevent unskilled players from performing poorly nor disruptive players from being disruptive. So if your game is about slaying a dragon and requires tactical thinking to achieve that end, then there's nothing you can do to prevent any player who is bad at tactical thinking from doing poorly, or taking actions which interfere with that objective from being disruptive, without entirely changing what the game is about.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I think these vary in effectiveness of presentation. But, for example, the actual 4e presentation of Fireball is a lot easier to play with, IME. Your textualized version has to be scanned, and since every power will vary somewhat in format, it means overall handling time for power use (a very very common thing in 4e) will increase. I don't see what is being gained there.
You do have to scan it, but the formatting draws your eyes to the mechanics. I’m not sold on incorporating flavor text that way (especially once it’s more than a trivial example like fireball), but I wanted include it in the example.

My comment on 1e's attributes is that A) several of the common ones are pretty uninteresting, like 'school', components (largely ignored in actual play IME), casting time (part of a rule so arcane I doubt 1 in 5 AD&D GMs even comprehends it, thus usually ignored), level (easily inferred) and Area of Effect (99% of the time this is restating part of the text and many cases conflicts with it). Range, Saving Throw, and Duration (though also often restating the body of the spell text), as well as the spell's name of course, are interesting.
That doesn’t really challenge my contention that 4e’s format evolved from those older formats. The designers obviously iterated across editions until we got what we did in 4e.

I'd have much rather had things like damage be up top and reduce the clutter there by moving other stuff into the body, and then making sure to NOT duplicate material between attributes and body.
I’m fine with common elements being put up top, preferably as part of the chrome (e.g., like how Magic puts mana costs at the top of the card). For everything else, I’d rather put it in the mechanical description with notation to identify the mechanical elements (such as bolded text or standard icons). Those elements should also have standard behavior. If something references RANGE X, it should be implied that you must have line of sight and effect to the target (per its definition in the rules). The description shouldn’t need to restate it every time.

Note that I’m not talking about flavor text. Like I noted above, I don’t know about incorporating it the way I did in the example. I think it’s more important the description be easy to parse than it is to be exceptionally flavorful.
 

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