Well... I think the actual skill in technical writing/documentation/manuals (and thus presumably games presented in a similar format) is actually KNOWING WHAT TO PRESENT. The single most common flaw with this kind of writing is that the writer is almost invariably an expert on the subject they are writing about (or invented the game/whatever) and they will almost surely not be able to inhabit the mind of a person coming in cold and trying to grasp the material! Thus the technical approach usually fails because it assumes the reader has a whole lot of context which they usually don't have.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?
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.
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.
Honestly I never had an issue with the way WotC presents stuff in a big way. I mean, 4e rules material was pretty focused. The 'lore' was sidebared, NPCs/monsters are stat blocks, etc. The problem with their ADVENTURES was always the horrible 'delve format' where basically each encounter would be described and then IN ANOTHER PART OF THE BOOKLET they would provide the stat blocks and such. UGH! what a craptastic format that was. I haven't looked at any 5e adventures TBH, but hopefully they've got rid of that junk.
The 5e rulebooks though, they're not too bad in terms of prose, the problem is the rules themselves, which are just not there. Also the format is somehow really hard to reference, things are not properly ORGANIZED, but the text is clear enough and there isn't an excess of extraneous material. Their class write ups for instance are not bad at all.