Worlds of Design: The Plight of the New RPG—Quality of Writing

Some small publisher/self-published RPG rule sets suffer from poor grammar and syntax. Some RPG creators need someone to edit their writing for quality of communication as well, especially for clarity—rules are no good if the reader cannot understand them.

editor.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Your grammar is a reflection of your image. Good or bad, you have made an impression. And like all impressions, you are in total control.” Jeffrey Gitomer

We Need Editors​

I started writing this after reading 15 pages of a nicely presented hardcover RPG that suffered from woefully substandard language.

If you’re a board gamer, you’ve probably read rules that were incomplete and confusing, if not worse. Can you then play the game? No. Many rules in original D&D were like that, but how to play was passed from one group to another, and you had a GM to decide how it was going to work. I recall our group thinking that hold person did something quite different from what was intended, because that’s how the rules read.

At GenCon some years ago I attended a few panel talks about the need for editing of small-scale RPGs. Freelance editing can be fairly expensive: perhaps one cent a word or a little less, depending. (For comparison, writers of RPG materials, who now usually work for hire rather than for royalties, were only paid two to five cents a word last time I checked, unless very experienced and well-known.)

My thought was “I don’t need detailed editing,” and I’ve been writing all my life, but I also benefit from a wife who likes to find any hint of a glitch in what I’ve written. My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish” (2012, McFarland, still in print) required no editing for language from McFarland. And I hope “Worlds of Design” rarely requires editing.

But the reality is that everyone can use an editor. For those new to writing, including RPG writing, their experience is probably more like one of my computer networking students: some were very good but most needed a lot of coaching to improve.

What Are You Trying to Say?​

I’m not talking so much about how well the writing conveys what was intended, I’m talking about the details of grammar and syntax. Though there are certainly RPG creators who need someone to edit their writing for quality of communication, especially for clarity—rules are no good if the reader cannot understand or worse, misunderstands them.

You must write for your audience. You don’t want the kind of jargon-filled, turgid, and sometimes deliberately obfuscatory writing common in academic circles, you need to write clearly and concisely in everyday words (I’ve violated my own advice in this sentence, haven’t I?).

Clear Language​

One mark of quality in an RPG is the skill with which language is used. Not everyone is good with language, and many sometimes use words that don’t fit or simply leave things out, or don’t catch incorrect spelling despite the ubiquity of spellcheckers. Unfortunately, the reader with a lot of experience—it’s a matter of experience more than education—encounters a speed bump every time substandard grammar/syntax is used. Those speed bumps detract greatly from the meaning the writer is trying to convey. At worst, the reader will stop reading because it’s too painful, or because it reflects so badly on the writer that the reader assumes what the writer is saying won’t be worth reading.

How important is it to use perfectly standard language in your RPG rules? If you’re doing a low-budget RPG to sell a few hundred copies, perhaps non-standard won’t bother the readers. But if you’re putting your rules in hardcovers and using graphic enhancements (art etc.), then the standard of your language ought to match the standard of your physical presentation. Otherwise you risk putting off too many people in your target market.

If You Can’t Afford an Editor​

Professional editing is expensive for a small publisher/small print runs. What do people do as an alternative?

If there’s someone in or associated with your group (like my wife) who is able and also willing to check your language for free, that’s very good. If you have several reader-playtesters (as novelists do) they might spot and highlight language problems. If you know other RPG creators, perhaps you can swap your services, you read their rules, they read yours. It’s usually easier to spot problems in something you didn’t write, than in something you wrote.

If you’re submitting your rules to a publisher, good writing is even more important. As well-known author Glen Cook (Black Company, Garrett, etc.) said about fiction writing:

A carpenter needs to know how to use a hammer, level, saw, and so forth. You need to know how to use the tools of writing. Because, no, the editor won't fix it up. S/he will just chunk your thing in the $#!+ heap and go on to somebody who can put together an English sentence with an appropriate sprinkle of punctuation marks.

This can just as easily apply to game writing.

Your Turn: How do you ensure your writing is clear and concise?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Unfortunately, for a long time schools taught that "close is good enough" (for everything, not just language). That attitude results in many errors, and in creators who just don't care about how they write.

Further, some English instructors tell students that being precise and following standards of grammar is unimportant - I've heard profs say just that. Others go to the other extreme, focusing so much on "rules" that they don't recognize how the language changes over time, or how breaking a rule can be effective.
It is hard to balance between being so creative that you have a mess few can understand or enjoy, on the one hand, and falling into a foolish consistency that is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I'm a believer in teaching kids to master the rules so they can more meaningfully break them.
 

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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
As an audience if you want to see more editors the best thing you can do is reward publishers who spend less on art and more on edits. This is kind of the bottom line I think (perhaps not applicable to kickstarted RPGs though as their funding is generated in an entirely different way). People have high expectations around art: they want art every 5 pages or so, they want quality art (preferably color art), they want good cover art, they want NPCs and monsters illuminated, etc. Art is very expensive. Publishers largely are responding to that expectation.
Unless we are talking about friends and family this is not how I think most consumers make their purchasing decisions. It has to fill a need and meet a level of quality I want to pay for. Maybe it isn't "fair" to small publishers to expect evocative art, great formatting, interesting and play tested rules, good writing, and almost no typos. But that's why most people are not going to be successful at it. It is hard work to put out an even decent product and even great products are highly unlikely to make anyone rich in this industry. But I'm not going to be guilted into buying aesthetically unpleasing and poorly edited products.
 

Unless we are talking about friends and family this is not how I think most consumers make their purchasing decisions. It has to fill a need and meet a level of quality I want to pay for. Maybe it isn't "fair" to small publishers to expect evocative art, great formatting, interesting and play tested rules, good writing, and almost no typos. But that's why most people are not going to be successful at it. It is hard work to put out an even decent product and even great products are highly unlikely to make anyone rich in this industry. But I'm not going to be guilted into buying aesthetically unpleasing and poorly edited products.

No one is telling you that you are morally obligated to buy a poorly edited or poorly drawn RPG book (in fact I was talking about rewarding publishers who put resources and time into making sure their books are well edited). My point wasn't you should feel guilted into buying stuff. You are free to buy whatever books you like. But my point was if people value editing (which was the topic at hand) then buying games that put a premium on that is one way to see more such games. Now if you also value high quality art, then you value high quality art, and that is entirely your choice to spend your money how you see fit. I understand that. I was a huge fan of the original Ravenloft line and started losing interest once they stopped using Stephen Fabian's art (because art can be very important for especially mood and making the content more engaging and inspiring). But there are a lot of gamers I am sure who don't realize one of the reasons more money goes into art than editing, is because of the expectation that there needs to be a piece of art every five pages (and a lot of companies that can't afford it, want to look like WOTC). And my point was simply that that expectation is something that is set by purchasing choices. Some people I am sure would be fine buying games with great editing and less art, especially from smaller publishers (where that trade off is more likely to be an issue). And the other half of my point wasn't about purchasing, but about reviewing and talking about games you like if you think the publisher is doing something you like (like putting a higher premium on edits than on making sure they hit benchmark of art every fifth page).

And to be clear, since I am a publisher, I am not such publisher. I like having art every fifth page or so when there is a budget for it. But I can also see that there is probably room for smaller publishers who set a different expectation on art in order to meet a higher expectation on other fronts.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
EXACTLY!!!

There are some creators who do this. For example, DCC is doing this with their Kickstarted Lanksmar setting. They'll release portions of the book in PDF for backers to review and point out any issues. They have a reporting system to report typos and other errors which is nice because it is easier to manage and avoids some of the concerns with creating "negative press" for your work.

I think one reason this isn't done more is that many backers can become quite toxic if deadlines are not met and if creators set deadlines for too long of a period it discourages backers. Also, some of these same toxic backers can be very nasty when a non-polished version of the content is released for comment.

I am not optimistic that crowd funding editing via Kickstarter will work for many small publishers or single creators. But for established publishers who are already veterans and skilled at project management and can afford good editing teams, it is very helpful to catch minor errors before committing it to print.
It’s absolutely not a replacement for proper editing but it is one tool in the toolbox that can help.
 

Joe Pilkus

Villager
As a professional editor: one cent a word? Wow! I usually charge 4-6 eurocents/word, and I have colleagues who charge in excess of 100 euros per hour (which works out at around 10 eurocents/word). And then there's VAT on top of that.

But here's a cheap alternative if all you want is to find the typos and mistakes that your spell checker doesn't catch: the Read Aloud function in Word. It forces you to go through every single word, one by one. If you have the patience to do it (luckily you can adjust the reading speed), and don't let your mind drift, you'll catch almost every single mistake.
Some small publisher/self-published RPG rule sets suffer from poor grammar and syntax. Some RPG creators need someone to edit their writing for quality of communication as well, especially for clarity—rules are no good if the reader cannot understand them.



We Need Editors​

I started writing this after reading 15 pages of a nicely presented hardcover RPG that suffered from woefully substandard language.

If you’re a board gamer, you’ve probably read rules that were incomplete and confusing, if not worse. Can you then play the game? No. Many rules in original D&D were like that, but how to play was passed from one group to another, and you had a GM to decide how it was going to work. I recall our group thinking that hold person did something quite different from what was intended, because that’s how the rules read.

At GenCon some years ago I attended a few panel talks about the need for editing of small-scale RPGs. Freelance editing can be fairly expensive: perhaps one cent a word or a little less, depending. (For comparison, writers of RPG materials, who now usually work for hire rather than for royalties, were only paid two to five cents a word last time I checked, unless very experienced and well-known.)

My thought was “I don’t need detailed editing,” and I’ve been writing all my life, but I also benefit from a wife who likes to find any hint of a glitch in what I’ve written. My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish” (2012, McFarland, still in print) required no editing for language from McFarland. And I hope “Worlds of Design” rarely requires editing.

But the reality is that everyone can use an editor. For those new to writing, including RPG writing, their experience is probably more like one of my computer networking students: some were very good but most needed a lot of coaching to improve.

What Are You Trying to Say?​

I’m not talking so much about how well the writing conveys what was intended, I’m talking about the details of grammar and syntax. Though there are certainly RPG creators who need someone to edit their writing for quality of communication, especially for clarity—rules are no good if the reader cannot understand or worse, misunderstands them.

You must write for your audience. You don’t want the kind of jargon-filled, turgid, and sometimes deliberately obfuscatory writing common in academic circles, you need to write clearly and concisely in everyday words (I’ve violated my own advice in this sentence, haven’t I?).

Clear Language​

One mark of quality in an RPG is the skill with which language is used. Not everyone is good with language, and many sometimes use words that don’t fit or simply leave things out, or don’t catch incorrect spelling despite the ubiquity of spellcheckers. Unfortunately, the reader with a lot of experience—it’s a matter of experience more than education—encounters a speed bump every time substandard grammar/syntax is used. Those speed bumps detract greatly from the meaning the writer is trying to convey. At worst, the reader will stop reading because it’s too painful, or because it reflects so badly on the writer that the reader assumes what the writer is saying won’t be worth reading.

How important is it to use perfectly standard language in your RPG rules? If you’re doing a low-budget RPG to sell a few hundred copies, perhaps non-standard won’t bother the readers. But if you’re putting your rules in hardcovers and using graphic enhancements (art etc.), then the standard of your language ought to match the standard of your physical presentation. Otherwise you risk putting off too many people in your target market.

If You Can’t Afford an Editor​

Professional editing is expensive for a small publisher/small print runs. What do people do as an alternative?

If there’s someone in or associated with your group (like my wife) who is able and also willing to check your language for free, that’s very good. If you have several reader-playtesters (as novelists do) they might spot and highlight language problems. If you know other RPG creators, perhaps you can swap your services, you read their rules, they read yours. It’s usually easier to spot problems in something you didn’t write, than in something you wrote.

If you’re submitting your rules to a publisher, good writing is even more important. As well-known author Glen Cook (Black Company, Garrett, etc.) said about fiction writing:



This can just as easily apply to game writing.

Your Turn: How do you ensure your writing is clear and concise?
Great article! In the nascent days of my company, Professor's Lab, I focused almost exclusively on proofreading & editing. Later, I added the twin arrows of design analysis and playtesting to my development quiver. What I found, 80% (or more) of the time designers were the ones penning the rules and would often leave out information, most notably because they knew the game so well or gave it such short shrift it would make no sense to any reader. While it's not my primary job, it is certainly lucrative and highly rewarding to assist others in this hobby of ours.
 

I got my first professional translating job 25 years ago this September. I got a series of lucky breaks and moved into financial translation (for accountants) and then tax and legal translation. Just the other day I was translating a document about the legal system of a small Caribbean island for a Canadian court. This weekend I'm working on a company's justification to the tax authorities of a rather dodgy deal, and a brochure about a private bank's services, then employment contracts for a university's HR department.

Roleplaying material? I'd love to make a living editing that kind of stuff!
As a Shadowrun player, I would say "a company's justification to the tax authorities of a rather dodgy deal" is that kind of stuff. :)
 

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