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Too much prose in RPGs?

In the last week or so I've acquired a bunch of new RPG material to read:
- The "Bitter Reach" campaign for Forbidden Lands
- I pre-ordered (post-KS campaign) Stonetop and got some materials
- The huge Humble Bundle that includes the 661-page Rappan Athuk, the complete Dungeon Crawl Classics game, and a lot of other stuff

In perusing all this material, I realized something: RPGs have so much descriptive prose that I have trouble "getting" the materials.

I don't want to dismiss the efforts and talents of the writers. I've done a little bit of published RPG writing, and it's hard. It's much easier to, say, design a monster mechanically than it is to put those ideas into good prose (which includes avoiding clichés).

But...I don't actually find it useful. The opposite, really: it gets in my way.

I do have two 5e adventure modules I bought a while ago: The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse and The Corruption of Skyhorn Lighthouse, by Kelsey Dionne, and they were a breath of fresh air. Instead of long, descriptive prose, much of the adventures are described in a consistent, concise shorthand. Areas (e.g. rooms) have subheading such as "Development", "Transition", and "Dramatic Question", and under each heading are succinct bullet points. Easy to scan, easy to grasp.

And here's an example of an NPC, all of which follow a similar format:

Silvara, N merfolk scout
“No chance o’ pearls or gold was worth coming to these blighted waters.”
• Appearance. Fishbone crossbow. Arm tattoo of an orca, her totem animal.
• Does. Echolocates with tongue clicks (she has 10 ft. blindsight when she does so).
• Secret. Is dodging a deep gambling debt owed to Captain Annabel Lee.

That is plenty of information for me to bring Silvara to life, but most RPGs would have used a short essay to describe Silvara, and while I might have appreciated those writing efforts, it would have actually made it harder to absorb the pertinent information. As DM I'm perfectly capable of translating Silvara's summary into prose for my players, but when I'm trying to understand the adventure the prose doesn't help.

This sort of reminds me of going to conferences and attending presentations in which the slides are bullet points of the exact same thing the speaker is saying. It takes me all of 30 seconds to fully absorb the page full of bullet points, and then for 5 minutes I have to listen to the speaker say the exact same thing in a more long-winded way.

(Total aside: the best Power Point presentations I have ever witnessed, on multiple topics, are by Lawrence Lessig. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, do it. He's amazing.)

Anyway, I will continue to buy and pore over RPG materials, but I wish more people would adopt/refine Kelsey Dionne's approach. And I'm sure there are lots of games/supplements out there that do use this approach, I just haven't seen a lot of them. (Suggestions welcome.)

Thoughts?
 

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payn

Legend
Ah, I expected this to be about rulebooks and not adventures. I dont mind the prose in adventures at all. I really enjoy reading about the people, places, and things that make up the adventure. Some might find themselves limited to the script, but I always take it as optional or supplemental and change whatever I feel like. Though, im not much for a person to conjure something from nothing, im much better launching off somebody else's work and bringing it to life.

Though, I do understand the mixing of mechanical bits with prose and how that might be confusing or make a product hard to use. I could see both being used where you get the prose but a nice little executive summary is placed at the top that lays out the skinny of what you need to run the place, person, or event.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I don't want to dismiss the efforts and talents of the writers. I've done a little bit of published RPG writing, and it's hard. It's much easier to, say, design a monster mechanically than it is to put those ideas into good prose (which includes avoiding clichés).

But...I don't actually find it useful. The opposite, really: it gets in my way.
I think it all depends on taste. Some folks really like a lot of lore, others less so. I've seen RPG rulebooks which read more like technical manuals, and RPG rulebooks which feel more like travel guides or novels. I prefer something in the middle, I think.
 

Haiku Elvis

Explorer
In some the atmosphere and the setting is such a big part of the game the prose/lore is needed as much as the mechanics, at least on the first read through but when you are playing you need to get to the details and not be scanning pages of text so swings and roundabouts really.
To be honest it's more about layout than anything else but I have to say 661 pages! If it doesn't have the secrets of the universe as well as at least one good sponge cake recipe tucked away in there with the magic and armour rules I think a stricter editor was needed.
 

I think it all depends on taste. Some folks really like a lot of lore, others less so. I've seen RPG rulebooks which read more like technical manuals, and RPG rulebooks which feel more like travel guides or novels. I prefer something in the middle, I think.

What I do like are short bits of fiction, but on their own pages and clearly separated. That way my brain can more easily context switch between background color and necessary information.
 

innerdude

Legend
Have been noticing this exact problem with the FFG Star Wars rule sets.

Have you seen how thick those books are? Edge of the Empire is 445 pages. Age of Rebellion is 460. And this is full-size 8.5x11 pages with tiny, miniscule font. The font is so small I can hardly read it if I'm wearing my contact lenses rather than glasses (yeah, yeah, middle age and needing bifocals or reading glasses, whatever 😛).

But the problem is exactly as described. There's sooooooo much filler prose, it's crazy. Ideas that could easily be explained in 2 sentences and a simple visual or graphic get sprawled across 4 or 5 paragraphs or more.

By contrast, one of the absolute best examples of tight, concise RPG prose is Ironsworn. The book is 280 pages, but it's a 6x8 inch page size, with very large font with tons of white space and liberal use of headings and dividers to conceptually "chunk" content together. It's so easily digestible, and greatly facilitated by having a stellar visual layout and document design.
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
Some game books seem like they are written to be read more than played. I'm function first so I prefer them to lean more towards being clear and concise without a lot of clutter. Enough lore and background to support the scenario but as I will doubtlessly throw out a lot of it its not a big pull for me. Those 5e modules you describe sound like what I would find appealing. The OSE modules I have are like that, key parts of each area in bullet points making it quite clear what is going on in a room with a quick glance.
 


payn

Legend
Have been noticing this exact problem with the FFG Star Wars rule sets.

Have you seen how thick those books are? Edge of the Empire is 445 pages. Age of Rebellion is 460. And this is full-size 8.5x11 pages with tiny, miniscule font. The font is so small I can hardly read it if I'm wearing my contact lenses rather than glasses (yeah, yeah, middle age and needing bifocals or reading glasses, whatever 😛).

But the problem is exactly as described. There's sooooooo much filler prose, it's crazy. Ideas that could easily be explained in 2 sentences and a simple visual or graphic get sprawled across 4 or 5 paragraphs or more.

By contrast, one of the absolute best examples of tight, concise RPG prose is Ironsworn. The book is 280 pages, but it's a 6x8 inch page size, with very large font with tons of white space and liberal use of headings and dividers to conceptually "chunk" content together. It's so easily digestible, and greatly facilitated by having a stellar visual layout and document design.
FFG is known for that tiny print in hundreds of pages stuff with their RPG line. I enjoy it for their settings books that are not really intended to be straight adventure material, and largely mechanics free, but yeah I know what you are talking about.
 

And, honestly, I'm perfectly happy to pay for the extra page count of the prose, as long as it is separate from and visually distinct from the necessary information. And it doesn't work if most of the required information is in stat bloc form, but some of it is buried in the paragraphs.
 

Retreater

Legend
It depends on the lore. I really like the WFRP lore, because I feel like I can understand the Old World setting. When it's high fantasy with long proper names that are unpronounceable, I zone out.
Adventures could be presented better for my tastes. Necrotic Gnome's OSE adventures are usually easy to read and concise. I don't want paragraphs of text getting in the way of something that should be easy to reference during play.
 

J.M

Explorer
Agree with the OP. I think the issue is that, consciously or not, most RPG books are written for the solitary reader, rather than someone running a game. Optimizing for quick reference at the table and conjuring a scene with concise, evocative language, is more akin to writing a technical document than a novel.
 

In adventures...
I don't want to see large bits of world lore unless that lore is in an organized sourcebook section. I don't mind prosaic description of the conflict and scenes, but I don't want 3 pages per scene or more as a general rule; I prefer 1 per scene and maybe 1-2 per chapter. Some of the prose in FFG's F&D Chronicles of the Gatekeeper is there because us playtesters asked for more details.

In Rules
Skip the bleeping short stories. Most designers really don't do fiction writing all that well, and they suck to read, so I pypass them habitually now. Prose form rules, however, I don't really find much issue with, tho' FFG could use a tightening up and use a larger font. At least the examples are mostly a match to the prose.

In Settings
I don't mind lore unless it's in story form. Again, good designers tend to be better technical writers than narrative writers, and it shows. Some exceptions apply; John Wick's Orkworld is a case where the stories are the setting as known by the characters... and are classical style educational lore. The problem with Orkworld is that John's not great as a Technical writer; many rules are unclear.

Overall...
I don't really have any nostalgia for super-condensed rulesets sans examples and explanations.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
I fully agree.

This is why I don't buy premade adventures. Most of the time, it's a neverending stream of prose of things I don't care about and you have to read dozens and dozens of page to get a few nuggets of useable material. I think separating fluff and lore from the actual content is a good practice.

But it's very common, in my opinion, for RPG books to be designed to be a good reading experience (from page 1 to the end) rather than being a good referencing experience (which should be the goal). Many of the books I owned were a blast to read from start to finish, but when came the time to use them at the table, they were unusable. Referencing was hard, every important info I would need was hidden in paragraphs of text.
 

innerdude

Legend
In Rules
Skip the bleeping short stories. Most designers really don't do fiction writing all that well, and they suck to read, so I pypass them habitually now. Prose form rules, however, I don't really find much issue with, tho' FFG could use a tightening up and use a larger font. At least the examples are mostly a match to the prose.

So much this. I can't +1 this enough.

*Honestly, this right here is one of, if not the biggest turn-off for me around the World of Darkness products from the '90s / early 2000s.

The first 20+ pages of every book is a long, meandering, generally mediocre (or worse) block of prose trying to "hook" me into the game.

Seriously, enough already. Just explain the mechanics and teach me how to make a damn vampire!

*Edit: To clarify, the effect of the prose/tone of the WoD books elicits such a strong negative reaction from me that I've never given any of their products so much as a hint of consideration.
 
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So much this. I can't +1 this enough.

*Honestly, this right here is one of, if not the biggest turn-off for me around the World of Darkness products from the '90s / early 2000s.

The first 20+ pages of every book is a long, meandering, generally mediocre (or worse) block of prose trying to "hook" me into the game.

Seriously, enough already. Just explain the mechanics and teach me how to make a damn vampire!

*Edit: To clarify, the effect of the prose/tone of the WoD books elicits such a strong negative reaction from me that I've never given any of their products so much as a hint of consideration.

I agree with you about the WoD stories. On the other hand, I do occasionally read some fiction in rule books which I enjoy. But it's usually a page at most.

Honestly I'd rather read examples of play, in "play script" form, than fiction.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Completely agree with the OP. Sometimes I think that, when someone says a game is "rules-light" or "rules-heavy," what they're unconsciously referring to is the literal weight of the game books. :ROFLMAO:

Good prose is nice for pleasure reading, but imo a good RPG rulebook is a (semi)technical manual, and should be full of bullet points, flowcharts, tables, and other highly-formatted information. Setting lore and atmosphere is important, of course, but I like those to be visually separated from the presentation of the rules themselves, into their own sections, illustrations, and sidebars.

Adventures are similar, imo. Prose is helpful for establishing context and lore, but that should still be separate from the adventure itself-- especially for scenarios intended to be setting agnostic. I much prefer tight descriptions of places and NPCs; maybe some Q&A-style dialog starters; diagrams of relationships, plot points, chronology, etc; and clean maps and statblocks close to where they're referenced.
 


Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
Agree with the OP. I think the issue is that, consciously or not, most RPG books are written for the solitary reader, rather than someone running a game. Optimizing for quick reference at the table and conjuring a scene with concise, evocative language, is more akin to writing a technical document than a novel.

Totally agree. Not all but many, and I think I see it especially with smaller games.
 

gorice

Explorer
I agree completely with these criticisms. Fortunately, there are a few good adventure writers out there, though most seem to be OSR-adjacent. Actually, Kelsey Dionne is the only person I've seen making 'trad' adventures to the same presentation standards you get in old-school dungeon crawls.

I will say that I liked what Fria Ligan did with the Alien RPG, where you get your moody walls of text, but the important mechanical stuff is in little white callout boxes.
 

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