Too much prose in RPGs?

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I read this and wonder if I am doing too much prose, I do add some though it is like chrome, and not part of the mechanics, more just lorem ipsum due to not having outside artwork. Which I would like to have, though my books are map heavy, with the Eta Cassiopeiae one I am working on is 100 mb, twice what Solis People of the Sun is, and it has 60+ maps. I'm kinda a map junky I guess, I just try to keep it down size wise.
 

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I have to say, one of the things driving this is I've done a little bit of paid freelance RPG writing, and I've found myself trying to turn simple concepts into RPG-like prose. I would much rather write "furtive, scavenger" than "The <insert monster name> survives by stealth and caution, creeping through dungeons just beyond the range of adventurer's lanterns...etc. etc. etc." I could get so much more done if I wasn't constantly trying to compose unique prose each time.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I have to say, one of the things driving this is I've done a little bit of paid freelance RPG writing, and I've found myself trying to turn simple concepts into RPG-like prose. I would much write "furtive, scavenger" than "The <insert monster name> survives by stealth and caution, creeping through dungeons just beyond the range of adventurer's lanterns...etc. etc. etc." I could get so much more done if I wasn't constantly trying to compose unique prose each time.

I think that’s a perfectly valid way to present information. A handful of keywords for an NPC is perfectly usable. I’d say preferable. It’s both evocative and concise.
 

Haiku Elvis

Adventurer
I think it depends a lot on the nature of the setting. If it's a standard D&D like fantasy setting a few bullet points is fine as there is a shared background knowlege to fill in the gaps.
The more unique the setting the more need of explaination and background allthough that doesn't mean walls of purple prose suddenly become needed.
 

beta-ray

Adventurer
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.
Huh. Maybe that's it! I've read through some of their stuff, and heard great things about the system. I kind of hate custom dice, but aside from that, I had a hard time getting into the material. I want a good system to play Star Wars, but I could not get into FFG (plus I also hate how they themed the core sets). So, maybe you nailed what I am having issues with.

That being said, I like a little flavor, but not a lot of flavor. Dislike a lot of prose in my core books. I also don't want it just dry stats either, so I guess I am like the three bears or something.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
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:



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?

Freelance writers get paid by the word, so until that changes (which I don't see happening) RPG publishers will continue to release excessively verbose books. The exceptions I have seen is with the smaller publishers who are usually also the writers. An example is Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome, which released the Dolmenwood zine, Old School Essentials, Winter's Daughter and so on, you can see a much more concise style which lends itself to the adventure material being easy to use if you are running the adventure, rather than reading it. The Questing Beast channel calls it 'control panel' layout "Control Panel" Page Layout in the OSR - Questing Beast

I don't think the verbose style will go away because of the audience who buys RPG books to read and not play - which is what happens to most RPG books. There might be an imaginary meta-game that goes on in the heads of the audience for the books, where an imaginary game is being played as the book is being read, but which never materialises. The verbose style is better for conjuring up that experience, but it is terrible for using the book as a tool to run a game.
 
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Smackpixi

Adventurer
If I’m paying a writer by word, doesn’t seem like I’m gonna just go oh well, they wrote a crap ton more and turned a tt rpg adventure into a novel nothing I can do, no, I’m gonna edit and nerf all that crap and delete from the final version and not pay for it.
 

Freelance writers get paid by the word, so until that changes (which I don't see happening) RPG publishers will continue to release excessively verbose books. The exceptions I have seen is with the smaller publishers who are usually also the writers. An example is Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome, which released the Dolmenwood zine, Old School Essentials, Winter's Daughter and so on, you can see a much more concise style which lends itself to the adventure material being easy to use if you are running the adventure, rather than reading it. The Questing Beast channel calls it 'control panel' layout "Control Panel" Page Layout in the OSR - Questing Beast

I don't think the verbose style will go away because of the audience who buys RPG books to read and not play - which is what happens to most RPG books. There might be an imaginary meta-game that goes on in the heads of the audience for the books, where an imaginary game is being played as the book is being read, but which never materialises. The verbose style is better for conjuring up that experience, but it is terrible for using the book as a tool to run a game.

It would be interesting to do some kind of word count analysis (if you had another axis by which to measure word efficiency), and see if there is a clear difference between outsourced freelance writing, in-house writing, and one man shops.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
If I’m paying a writer by word, doesn’t seem like I’m gonna just go oh well, they wrote a crap ton more and turned a tt rpg adventure into a novel nothing I can do, no, I’m gonna edit and nerf all that crap and delete from the final version and not pay for it.
Eerr, yeah, that's why a publisher will set a word count budget. It is far easier to fill a book with text than it is to produce syncretic writing, layout and design, which is why it is very rare.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
It would be interesting to do some kind of word count analysis (if you had another axis by which to measure word efficiency), and see if there is a clear difference between outsourced freelance writing, in-house writing, and one man shops.
It is not always going to match up like that, and I am sure you can find counter examples. It is simply much more time consuming (and therefore expensive) to produce a "control panel" publication than a standard book layout. A publisher is left with the problem of how to pay a writer and designer to produce such material, pay-per-word is a well established model, although perhaps there are some alternatives. That is one of the reasons you do not see it much. Another factor is that the reader-buyers, that is those that buy to read rather than play make up the vast majority of the audience/market for RPG books. They, by and large, want the verbose style to read, not the control panel style to play.
 

They, by and large, want the verbose style to read, not the control panel style to play.

A forum thread is pretty weak data, but based on the responses here I'm not so sure that's true. The verbose style may be what people expect, or at least accept, because it's what they are used to. But I wonder if it's really what they want.

Do you know the story of SawStop? My understanding is that he shopped around his patent to Jet, PowerMatic, Delta, etc., and they all said, "We've done focus groups, and nobody wants more safety features."

What they didn't understand is that most buyers equated safety features with "crap that gets in my way." Not "invisible stuff that saves my fingers."

So the SawStop guy started his own company and is KILLING it. (And has started making videos with his own finger as the test subject, instead of just hot dogs.)

Lesson: companies...entire industries...easily deceive themselves about what their customers really want, and assume it's what they're already making.
 

Bilharzia

Fish Priest
A forum thread is pretty weak data, but based on the responses here I'm not so sure that's true. The verbose style may be what people expect, or at least accept, because it's what they are used to. But I wonder if it's really what they want.

Do you know the story of SawStop? My understanding is that he shopped around his patent to Jet, PowerMatic, Delta, etc., and they all said, "We've done focus groups, and nobody wants more safety features."

What they didn't understand is that most buyers equated safety features with "crap that gets in my way." Not "invisible stuff that saves my fingers."

So the SawStop guy started his own company and is KILLING it. (And has started making videos with his own finger as the test subject, instead of just hot dogs.)

Lesson: companies...entire industries...easily deceive themselves about what their customers really want, and assume it's what they're already making.
I know nothing about SawStop, but I take your point. But don't books such as "Neverland" counter that in any case? - ie. publishers are already savvy to a more utility-based approach, and are releasing books like this - just not very many - and not from the traditional RPG publishers. Notice in this case although the author is not the publisher directly, it is the author's project, he wrote and illustrated the whole thing, with a bit of help.

Purely anecdotally (but not entirely forum sourced) I would say at least 90% of rpg purchases are not played. I have seen a reference to this in the past, but I am afraid I do not have the source saved. RPG companies have discovered there is a market for quite lavishly produced rpg supplements, see Kickstarter - lots of writing, colour, magazine style layout, colour illustrations and paintings. Whether or not they are used in a game is incidental.

This means that the question of utility is low, since only a small portion of the buyers will use the publication live in a game. Compounding this, if you go for a more concise, useful style, it is actually less desirable to the 'readers' because utility-style is not that enjoyable to read as prose. Whereas the wall-of-text style is usually quite enjoyable to read, it is just horrible to use when you are running a game.
 
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Lesson: companies...entire industries...easily deceive themselves about what their customers really want, and assume it's what they're already making.
Well said.

In addition, as has been suggested, I think a number of RPG writers are frustrated (meaning failed) novelists, and see their work as a venue for that failed aspiration.
 


. Compounding this, if you go for a more concise, useful style, it is actually less desirable to the 'readers' because utility-style is not that enjoyable to read as prose. Whereas the wall-of-text style is usually quite enjoyable to read, it is just horrible to use when you are running a game.

That part is subjective, though. Even if just “reading” I prefer the concise, structured format. For example, I haven’t actually played Neverland yet, but I love reading it.

TBH I have yet to discover any RPG material written so well that the words themselves give me pleasure. Not like I will read Anthony Lane, for example: I will read any movie review he writes (or anything else: his coverage of the last couple Olympics is a joy) even if I have zero interest in the movie.

No, I read RPGs for the creative ideas, not the actual writing.
 

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.
Agreed, Ironsworn is pretty 'tight'. It explains itself and gets on to the next thing without beating anything to death. OTOH it does clearly tell you what is important and reinforce it. Seems like an interesting game, though I have not played it.
 

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.
I thought 4e's little sidebars were pretty well done. They pushed this further over time and the later books have a lot of little bits of stuff, including some very brief 2-3 paragraph 'fiction' that illustrates the material and gives you ideas about how to use it. In terms of adventures though, I tend to agree with your OP, its mostly better to keep it short and sweet. If there's exposition that is required, then it should probably be done in some intro paragraphs to the adventure, or to the section, with specific areas and NPCs being focused on a very few instantly salient points that will convey the concept, plus any required mechanics.

And, frankly, I won't even pick up 400 page rule books at this point, lol.
 

Some game books seem like they are written to be read more than played.
Because they are. I’ve seen insiders discussing the customers who read but don’t play bandy around the figure of 50 per cent. And those are buyers who aren’t actively gaming at all, not gamers who have bought a book and haven’t gotten around to using it yet.

Look at Paizo. The foundation of their business is subscriptions to adventure paths. Chapters are released monthly, and each takes around 10-15 sessions to run. That’s if the subscriber is even running an active game - which most aren’t. So what fraction of AP chapters sold is ever used in a game at the table? I’d be surprised if it was even 25 per cent for the early chapters, and much less than that for later chapters.

In that light, and assuming Paizo and WotC have even the crudest outlines of customer behviour, is it surprising these books are designed to be read rather than used as play aids at the table?
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.
It is. And it’s a distinct skillset from writing creative content. But it’s not a skillset that’s so difficult to learn that it can’t be incorporated into publisher processes and style guides. The basics of effective instructional design is using bulleted lists, sidebars, clean layout, and rendering all processes as numbered lists. And even descriptive prose can be written in a concise manner.

But this doesn’t happen. At least with the big publishers, who are wedded to their walls of text model. Most of it is the commercial incentives cited above - catering to readers rather than gamers. But part of it is just lazy traditionalism - designers and publishers presenting content the way it has always been done because that’s the way it has always been done.

It’s worth noting that the most effective, innovative presentation today comes from indie publishing, including the OSR. A lot of gamers love the style of publishers like Necrotic Gnome. And yet WotC continues to churn out books that don’t look any different in layout and design from what they published 20 years ago.

Some new-ish adventures are hundreds of pages long and most of it is fluff that the authors expect you to memorize prior to play. I just don't have the server space for that in my brain these days.
I’m the same way. The assumption that I’m going to read and memorize even a 32 page adventure that will take me multiple sessions to play is unfounded. I’m not 20 years old anymore - I can hardly remember what I had for lunch yesterday.

Which is why I’ve come to prefer PDFs rather than print adventures - I can copy and paste the content into a format that’s effective for me at the table.
 
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It all depends on the purpose of the writing. I like rules that are clearly presented and concise. I like setting information that’s evocative and inspirational.

Each has a place. But they should be distinct.
Right, so, when I'm about to run an encounter presented in a published adventure; I want to know what it accomplishes, plot-wise, who's involved, and what things could potentially happen, and where each one might lead next. NPCs should be from 1-6 simple statements, depending on how important they are or how many ways they could be interacted with.

Its great for designers to present some kind of 'color' material for a setting, or the setting elements of a game, that isn't really optional if you're going to make the thing come to life. OTOH walls of expository background info is largely useless to me in most cases. Game systems do need to tell me how and why, but don't get carried away. Some 'lore' is fine, that was always a welcome thing in later 4e products, but its best kept distinct from the "and here's how it works" rules text.
 

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