Monday, December 28, 2015


As someone who likes a wide variety of games, I have to ask: When did we become afraid of words?

Puny Designer Write Too Much

When I first introduced a group to Hero System, 6th Edition in preparation for a Champions game (which is still ongoing, by the way), the first hurdle I had to overcome was the reluctance to play a game that had so thick a ruleset. One huge book for characters, and one for campaigning? Madness...?

Nope. That doesn't seem like madness to me. Hang on, (rustles around in pocket) I think I have some better examples.

Madness is complaining that a boiled-down, minimalist rulebook that sacrifices complexity for speed of play and brevity of rules isn't "crunchy" enough. (You hear this a lot about "story" games. That particular pull tab is staring me square in the face, taunting, but no, I refuse to open that can here.)

Madness is complaining that a book is hard to understand, and using that as an excuse to not even open it to look inside. (This is literally what I had to overcome in the opening anecdote. This takes "judging a book by its cover" to new heights. Or at least widths.)

Madness is eschewing a larger edition of a book for an edition stripped of examples, detailed explanations, and cross-references that help make the rules contained within make sense. (This continues to be my argument against Champions Complete.)

House-ruling a game mechanic that you only skimmed over because your flawed memory of it didn't seem to work correctly? That's... okay, no, that's just laziness. But not reading and understanding the rule because it went into too much detail? That's pretty damn close to madness there, so I'll count it.

Gentlemen, the situation is deplorable. How did we get here?

No, really. I'm asking.

The conventional tabletop roleplaying game is made up, predominantly, of three things.

The first is people, either playing their characters or playing the world and adjudicating the cause and effect of everything in the game.

No matter what role each person has in the game, the second thing that they're all wrangling is ideas. They have mental pictures of what characters and scenery look like, descriptions of wounds and damage from fights, the assumed moods of non-player characters through the depiction of their facial expressions1...

But the players would just sit around the table staring at each other balefully and not getting much play done if it weren't for the third component: Words. Words are the medium through which the ideas that all participants have are communicated. Words are also the medium through which the designers' ideas of the game itself are communicated to participants.

So why are players dumbfounded2 with fear when the designer writes at length about the rules? It may be he has a lot to say on the subject.

How to Read a Thick Rulebook

And yeah, I realize just how condescending and snide that header sounds. Still, enough people seem to have trouble with the concept given the above rant-grist that a remedial primer seems like a good idea.

Start at the beginning.

No matter how thick a book may be, remember that it always has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's just that a thicker book has a bigger middle. The middle is not where you want to start. You want to start at the front part, just underneath the cover.

If you're familiar with a lot of the basic parts of tabletop roleplaying games, you may find that various parts of the beginning of the book are very similar. That's because a lot of rulebooks have a piece near the opening describing the basic process of roleplaying for newcomers. If you're already familiar with how that works, you're probably safe skipping that.

But there may also be parts in the beginning that it's not safe to skip. The designer might explain his thought process when crafting the rules, which would make certain rules in the middle more important than others. The designer might also encapsulate his system in a very brief overview, making the stuff in the middle easier to understand.

Don't Fear the Flavor Text

Jenna Moran's game Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is, by any metric, a rather thick book. And if you got a copy printed on the good paper, it's a very thick book.

Not all of that is rules. In fact, the actual rules take up very little of the book.

What's the rest of it? World and multiple playstyles.3 Jenna Moran crafted not just a ruleset, but a whole world which is literally custom-made for that ruleset to play in. And this isn't just a dry CIA-Factbook-style briefing on each district, this is a vivid, possibly even florid romp through each area, talking at length about the kinds of things that happen there and the sorts of adventures one could get into, were one inclined.

Were one to take the position that games couldn't be art, this book would have to be held up as a counter-example. It's pretty, it's prosaic4, and like I said, the rules take up a very small part of it. The rest is supposed to give you ideas about how to use those rules to their fullest effect. It's by no means mandatory reading, but it is good reading to do nonetheless, some time after you've found all the rules you'll need to play.

Make or Place Marks to Find Things Later

File tabs stuck in a book to find my place later

And now something I don't often do on this blogroll: Pictures.

Post-It™ doesn't just make note papers, it turns out. These little things are properly described in catalogs as "durable filing tabs," and they come in a variety of different colors. They take Sharpie marks well, and they make it easy to find things in the book that you know are important. Because you put them there with some prominent marking on them to show why they're important.

Some publishers also take this into consideration. That Hero System, 6th Edition books I mentioned above uses black bands in different places on the edges of each page so you can thumb your way to the correct section, if not the precise page within that section. Looking at the edge of that first volume of that set would tell you that about half that book is power descriptions. And if you can create a character that requires you to know the minutiae of every single one of those power descriptions, I want to see that character sheet.

Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying also tried something similar, but that didn't quite work as planned. Each chapter number was binary encoded in a set of four bubbles near the top of the page. If only the person on layout had taken the difference between cut and bleed areas into account.

If your thick book doesn't have any such convenience, and you don't want to spring for the "durable filing tabs," then hey, regular Post-It™ notes will do the job too. Just not in style. Or just write in your book. Sure, you'll ding its resale value, but if you understand it well enough while you own it, you might not want to sell it.

Not All Rules are Created Equal

There are basic rules, and there are advanced rules. There are required rules, and there are optional rules. The book might be full of rules, but you might not need all of them to play the game. Would you turn your nose up at a game with a thousand rules, if you only needed three or four of them to play?

This is more of a second-hand anecdote, but here I will point to (but not necessarily mock) Ryan Seguin of the Play Better Podcast4 who apparently had a very bad experience with GURPS once.

If you're a regular reader here, you know I've got a problem with that.

And while GURPS's rules can be nigglingly precise, I don't consider the ruleset all that voluminous, until you add in the mind-glowingly5 wide assortment of world books even in the pared-down fourth edition. Yeah, it had a "Volume 1: Characters, Volume 2: Combat and Campaign" thing going too, but compared to Hero System it was actually kind of dainty.

Anyway, getting back to anecdote, I have a theory why Ryan had such a bad time. On many occasions, GURPS has been described as "a toolkit," not just a game. Using the GURPS ruleset and intentionally leaving out the parts that don't fit, you can craft whatever kind of game you want, from gritty realism to comedic fluff.

Or to paraphrase another wise man, "Ryan went full GURPS. You never go full GURPS."

The lesson to be learned here is that there may be a small set of rules at the core of the game that you need to know. Beyond those, you get into optional rules which may further shape play, adding things like realism or genre enforcement, but you don't typically need to know those right out of the gate.

It's possible that Ryan and many like him might benefit from a much gentler introduction to the basic rules.7

Remember that complexity comes at a price

Simple games, or those games that rely more on the manipulation of narrative rather than simulating specific action and letting the story emerge from that, will by definition be simple. If you want more detail in a game like that, you typically have license to make up those details yourself.

Meanwhile, the closer your game of choice cleaves to a notion of reality and physical principles, the more precisely it has to model those principles. Doing so typically requires more rules to explain exactly what's going on. This is the nature not just of games, but of computational expense in general: greater adherence to a model requires more procedural description of the model, and that means more rules.

So how is it that games that intend to go into great detail, up to and including very specific and complex combat maneuvers and damage effects by hit location, are expected to be almost as brief in their description?

I'm not saying that strongly simulationist games are bad here. What I'm saying is that expecting a strongly simulationist game to express everything it needs to in a single trade paperback book with a sub-48 page count is folly. Expecting that from a pamphlet is stupidity.

More reality = more rules. It's that simple, ironically.

Practice, and you may find it becomes easier with time

It only hurts for a little while. Pick up one thick book, give it a browse, pick out the important bits, and you'll be that much more prepared when the next thick book comes along.

Help Stamp Out ...Whatever It's Called

Logophobia was the word I first stumbled upon when looking for the word to describe "a fear of words," but near the end of this writing, I remembered another word, which doesn't convey fear so much as apathy:


It's not illiteracy, since the person being discussed really does know how to read. He simply ...doesn't. And that is a shame. So many books, so many interesting ideas, so many ways to liven up Game A that are hinted at in the texts and examples of Game B or Game C, but which may never be realized because one book or another is too intimidating.

Well don't be intimidated! They're just words. Words describe rules. Words convey ideas. And if you play RPGs, you work with all of those on a regular basis. You have nothing to be afraid of.

  1. I have another post on this subject in the pipeline, and I really should crank that out. It contrasts this post in ways that kinda make sense.
  2. Emphasis on the dumb
  3. Fairly few examples, though, which is a problem. But it's a very pretty problem.
  4. You remember prose, right? That's the stuff in the books you bought before you start spending all you money on gaming books. You still read those, right? Right?
  5. This was a typo originally, but upon further reflection it made sense if said mind was blown with a significant portion of someone's nuclear arsenal. Which, given that we're talking about GURPS, seems somehow appropriate.
  6. Seriously, give those guys a listen
  7. I know that this statement could be taken as horribly condescending and boastful, like claiming that lesbianism can be cured with "a good stiff dicking." That is not the intention here.

1 comment:

  1. I love words. Of all the things humanity has created, they are the most amazing, beautiful and worthy of...nothing in particular, just worthy.