Game Text and Subtext (a diversion)

I realize that this should be the next in the series of posts I’ve been working on, but it ain’t. Rather, this is just something rolling around in my head on a Thursday afternoon…

During Game Chef and since, I’ve read a whole lot of snippets of RPG’s in development and a handful that have been published. I’m always struck by the kinds of play examples that people use in their texts. It’s apparent that a lot of people think that play examples aren’t necessary at all, still more seem to think that the only purpose they serve is to clarify procedures. There’s a heck of a lot more to them than that, and it’s important to write and implement them deliberately to ensure that you’re painting an intentional picture of your game, and that your play examples don’t carry an unintentional subtext.

When people read your game text, their comprehension will be informed by a thousand different factors: their experiences in life and game, their own personal knowledge base, their preferences of play, their baggage and their biases will all subtly (or drastically) change the game somewhere between what you intended to write and what they understood. This isn’t anything new: if you’ve ever been frustrating by a “talk past each other” conversation on a forum then you’re all too aware of the gap between delivered information and received information. Sometimes the package arrives in your house with merely a post office date stamp; sometimes its mangled beyond all recognition.

You can’t control the filters that your reader will have when they read your game, but you can help to insure your message against mangling by using deliberate layout and tools such as play examples in your text.

Some people don’t read play examples at all. As long as they have a full conception in their mind about what should be happening in a game (even if that conception doesn’t match what actually should be happening in a game) some people will skip right over the play example to get to the next meaty bit. Can you control that? Well, yes and no. Where your play examples are placed, how they are placed and how they are written will all affect the reader’s inclination to read them.

While there are people who can not and will not be persuaded to read play examples, many people will if they are small and manageable rather than long and unwieldy. However, for others, small transactions in play will not give them the complete picture they need to get a handle on the game as a whole, and will require longer, more involved play examples. Not all the people that are reading your game will have the same capacity or mode of learning, and by not paying sufficient attention to the presentation of your material, you may be turning people away from your game. So how to keep it short and yet go long? Duplicate your effort, if need be. Small parsed play examples through the text help to elucidate the transactions you are describing in game. Longer more involved play examples following a complete module of your game will help to unify in the mind of your reader the transactions you’ve presented and give them a sense of what its like to play the game.

Be aware too, that for many readers, the placement of the example matters as much or more than it’s length or content. If a reader must interrupt the flow of their comprehension of the procedural text to read the example, then they will likely skip it and move on, and their chances of coming back to read the example are lessened with every word that he or she reads forward.

When I was trained as a Business Analyst to write process and technical documentation, a lot of emphasis was put on white space, both in layout on the page, and as emphasis between the parcels of the information you are trying to deliver. When you deliver one full parcel of information , its a good idea to give the reader some white space to let their brain digest it before you pile on the next course.

Sometimes this white space is just white space like the line breaks between the paragraphs of this post, or the increased margins surrounding a cited quotation. However sometimes white space isn’t white at all; sometimes it’s the same information reiterated in a different, less formal, style to let the brain relax from theoretical construction and stretch it into creative exploration. So play examples, properly parsed, in the right moments allow the brain to stretch a different muscle using the same information and increase comprehension and retention of the information presented.

Of course, seeing as play examples shift the mind from the theoretical to the exploratory, its hardly surprising that the tone of the text matters too. If the examples don’t provide some creative colour and aren’t fun, or engaging to read, they’re less likely to be read overall. This effect is also cumulative: if the first examples in your book are engaging and colourful, the reader will more likely stick with you through ones that might need to be more boring later on. Likewise, you can’t just work hard to find the right tone on the first few and then let the rest be boring, because eventually the currency of those first few will run out.

Even if the content of the example is colourful, the tone of the writing to produce it may come off as entirely constructed and forced which will turn off a reader even quicker than boredom will, so you have to cultivate a sense of verisimilitude in the example or your reader will either start to skip over the examples, or will start to mistrust that they are accurate reflections of play.

Finally, especially after working on that last one, you need to examine the examples you’re presenting not only for their effectiveness in communicating the process of your game, but also for the social milieu they illustrate your game as encouraging. Because your play examples are the <echo mike> Example of Play </echo mike> you should be acutely aware of the fact that you are setting the expectations of behaviour in your game. If, for example, you include player banter to give it a sense of realistic colour and that banter includes one player dismissing another player’s ideas, you need to be aware that you as the creater of the game have said that it’s not just allowable to do so in your game, but that it’s par for the course. That milieu might be your intent, or it might not. My point is that you need to be aware of what your examples do to the subtext of your game.

Lastly, I think it needs to be said that just like there are people out there that wouldn’t read a play example if you tied them down to a Bond villain device to make them capitulate, there are people who will only ever read your play examples. I know people who read the back cover of a book to get the jist of the game’s theme or context and then open the book to go right to a play example to see if it’s the kind of game they’d like to play. Many of these people make purchasing decisions about your game based on that experience alone, and if they are turned off by what they see, they may never give your game a second chance again.

Tall order? Hells, yeah.

8 thoughts on “Game Text and Subtext (a diversion)”

  1. Nice post, even if off topic. I like to think that Dogs is a pretty decent example of this being done well, though there are others.

  2. Actually this has quite a bit to do with induction (the process by which the text influences play). You can think of the text as the recollections of the players of a historical encounter with the designer. In that vein, typical text is the designer discussing or telling you what’s going on. The examples are the designer playing things through with you. Which one is better does very much seem to be a personal inclination.

    Personally, I view the examples of play much like proof. They are demonstrations of principles, showing the why and how of the game. Interestingly enough, I’ve never remotely considered them representative of real play. I find it surprising and intriguing that there are people who do.

  3. Wow. I think I disagree. I don’t think that’s ever happened on this blog before!

    I like long, completish examples of play. The ADRPG, Theatrix; I think first-edition BESM had some of them too. Princes’ Kingdom is good on this, though it could stand more. Nobilis gets close, but then cheats its ass off with the cutscenes. Requirements: Must show the actual system in action. Must distinguish between what players are doing/saying and what characters are doing/saying. Ideally in dialog.

  4. Jim,

    Are you disagreeing? I’m confused! Long completish examples of play are great, it just important to know where to put them. In my mind, they’re the “Longer more involved play examples that follow a complete module of your game”. Do you mean that there shouldn’t be the shorter, parsed examples *as well*?

    That makes me think of another really important consideration, though: consistency. If for you, the long complete examples are what help and in the first chapter(s) you’ve parsed small example through text followed by a long complete example at the end of the chapter, then you should feel safe skipping through the short parsed examples in knowing that there are long completeish ones coming up. The text shouldn’t fail you in delivering.

  5. Mo, maybe I overinterpreted what you said, yeah. Let’s see. In a character-creation chapter, frex, I’m cool with short examples at the end of every section. IIRC, RQ2 and probably RQ3 did this well.

    What I insist on, at whatever length is, tentative claim: an RPG session is a conversation inflected by rules producing an experience. There’s more to say about it than that, but I want play examples that show how the rules inflect the conversation and what kind of experience can result from that. I think that imposes a brute minimum on length. Frex, it MAY NOT play fast and loose with the character-player distinction, therefore it has to be at least long enough to distinguish between what, say, Jim does and what Citizen Simian does. e.g., if you write that “Captain America rolls for initiative,” I’m going to get angry at you.

    How far apart are we?

    I don’t think play examples should be skipped or be written to be skippable, fwiw, maybe because my learning style makes them really important to my understanding a game. Perhaps, and I’m reluctant to even suggest this, other people have different learning styles and different needs/interest in play examples than I do.

  6. Jim,

    I don’t think you’re disagreeing with Mo at all until your last point “must not be skippable.”

    To which I’ll answer, yes, that is your learning style. But writing them so they can’t be skipped by someone with a different style is a sure way to make sure that people with those styles hate your game.

    Writing to fit as many different learning styles as possible is a huge goal in education, and I don’t see why in RPGs we should possibly set the bar any lower and insist that one style be catered to over the others.

    What I would be able to agree with you on (and think Mo might too) is to say, “Its really important to have good AP examples that really do show off the game as an intrinsic part of the text that gives people who learn through those play examples what they need to learn the game.”

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