Friday, October 14, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Writer's Voice in RPGs?

One of the greater joys of heavy-duty rpg tinkering is that I never seem to come away from doing it without learning something unexpected. In the last week of transplanting alien hybrid brains into a Stormbringer body—done and a total pleasure, thanks for asking—I felt like I left the project with a great deep appreciation for what into the host body.

I could probably write a string of (likely not-heavily) read posts about what rocked that old warhorse mechanically, but perhaps the strongest impression came from the least quantifiable one: how distinct and wonderful the writer's voice is in the rules sections. And when I mean the writer, my gut is guessing one of the two co-writers in particular, Ken St.Andre of Tunnels and Trolls fame.

What exactly makes for a strong authorial voice is a tough thing to pin down in a neat teachable bullet-pointed list. In truth, it's more like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: you know it when you read it.

It's the quirky phrased section on the binding of demons or what may lie behind a multi-dimensional gate. It's the explicit reveling in the asymmetry and fine distinction of the various starting backgrounds in the Young Kingdoms. 

It's the enemy of the bland and dry. It's the lack of fear of expressing a strong opinion. It's the reaching through the page to address you directly, and it transcends the relative strength or weakness of the rules mechanics themselves.

A number of other rulebooks of that time pop with similar distinctiveness: the baroque, wide-reaching descriptions--and snarky, sometimes defensive polemics--of Gygax in the first edition DMG; the gonzo kitchen-sink charm of Holmes in the first Basic iteration; the huffy calls to medieval fantasy realism in Chivalry & Sorcery; and the glowing recounting of Saturday Night Specials by Barker in Petal Throne.

Sadly as I thumb through rulebooks as early as 1981 voices that have become fainter and tamer over time. As much as I love me some retro-clone most have—somewhat by necessity—written out that voice. Sure we have nice, clean, accessible copies of those games, but I miss the voices of the original.

There has been some recent and welcome trend bucking fortunately. Chris Hogan's Warhammer hack, Small but Vicious Dog, one of the inspiration points for my hackery, leaps immediately to mind.

Take this description of Elves in the character races section:
All elves are metrosexual minstrels and archers who fly into fey rages when provoked. The elven ability to lose it in spectacularly violent fashion has been clocked at “Nought to Feanor in 4.2 seconds”. Most PC elves are filthy tree-hugging pseudo-Celtic Wood Elves, although the Sea Elves who hang out in coastal cities seem to be a kind of Elven gap year backpacker. No one’s quite sure what the mohawked, spandex-wearing paramilitary Riverdance troupe known as Wardancers are supposed to be, apart from FABULOUS!”
Attention neo-classical game designers—and I am putting myself on notice here too--you will have to find your own path to idiosyncratic glory like above; but please, please loosen the collar, stretch a bit, and just let it rip. 


  1. I wonder if the move against prose is a part of this? If text is devalued then flavoral text is also.

    Having said that, I read a recent Pathfinder module that had plenty of verbage that used the term "meme" (in the debased, internet sense of "fad") in part of the setting description. Such a modern term used in a slangy way in a medieval(ish) fantasy context is jarring to me.

    But yeah, what Chis did in SVD was inspired.

  2. My personal feeling is that authorial voice started to die when game designers began to see it as "unprofessional." I'm also sure that the move to treat RPG rulebooks as if they were technical manuals has a lot to do with it as well.

  3. I could argue that a strong "voice" is actually more efficient than dry-as-dust text, since it conveys more information. There's no way to rewrite that SVD passage to an encyclopaedic style without either losing a lot of what's implied or making it much longer. Sure, it's more subjective, but I don't think that's a bad thing in an RPG.

  4. @ Trey and James
    Technical manuals is a good way to put it. Many rules sets feel to me like they are written in a clinical void by technicians rather than as pugnacious and creative hobbyists making a case for why their system rocks.

    Though there is a certain schizophernia when it comes to setting description, there the frustrated novelist syndrome seems to let fly. But even there is something lacking.

  5. My best guess is that a lot of the classics weren't written with production in mind. At a certain point, RPG writers became paid per word freelancers, so anything with a lot of flavor or personal approach was just edited away (or not written at all knowing that it would be edited away).

  6. @John
    Very true. The inspiration for this post came when I was re-writing certain sections of the original and thought to myself "this is nowhere as good".

    It lacked the punch by deflavoring it and I found myself having to just rewrite a whole section to at least make it some other kind of beast entirely.

  7. Though there is a certain schizophernia when it comes to setting description, there the frustrated novelist syndrome seems to let fly. But even there is something lacking.

    I think it's because they're frustrated novelists of Extruded Fantasy Product sorts of novels which are themselves pretty damn flavorless.

    Combine that with the misplaced desire to write a complete story rather than suggest possible stories and you get bad setting stuff.

  8. @Scott
    The perils of free-lancing. Much the same could be applied to print journalism in general these days.

    Good point: the broader bland inspires bland.

  9. I want a rulebook, not an essay. Dry-as-dust text is fine by me so long as it gives me the rules I need to run the game.

    In point of fact, if the example given above is illustrative of what other folks want in a game? Color me happy I've got a rules set I'm happy with and won't be replacing any time soon.

  10. My personal theory is that the greater precision in rules writing required by Magic: The Gathering and its multi-thousand-dollar purses pulled the rest of the game industry along with it in the 90's, until technical writing dominated over "you-figure-it-out" for most product lines.

  11. I suspect that as games became more complex the authors felt that they needed to use more precise language -- this is the technical manual aspect mentioned by all those clever boffins above -- and so text with flavour and character got eased out.

    This may be why some of the indie-type games read better than they play, and it's certainly why Small But Vicious Dog was such a joy to read; I fully expect it to play well too, if I ever get the chance.

  12. I think related to the sense of a real person's voice is a sense of that person's design choices. Chris does that well too.

    It's a small step from trying to hide the writer to trying to hide all thought behind the rules. But a writer presenting rules as covering all contingencies is at best being naive at worst disingenuous. I want to know what the tricky bits are, what trade offs were made, and if rule A doesn't work a possible B. I want to know what the goal of a particular subsystem was (maybe I can tinker to make it work better). These don't make the writer fallible in my eyes, but real. And I think it would push toward making our game more "platformy" as Zak calls it.

  13. I was surprised and pleased when I gave OSRIC a thorough read. After the few initial chapters, once it gets into some of the DMG material, I found it was well-written and full of personal (authorial) observation, advice, & wit.

  14. Thank you for touching on a huge pet peeve of mine. When I was first getting into gaming 20 years ago, many (most?) rulebooks had at least a smidgen of authorial voice--and the concomitant sense of fun and excitement that comes along with it.

    I think Roger the GS nailed it: what little authorial voice remained in RPGs seemed to largely evaporate in the mid-90s, and I'd peg M:tG and CCGs in general as a leading cause of ushering in a new era of anal retentive, technical manual-style writing in gaming. I remember seeing the shift in my beloved GURPS books; despite the fact that 3rd edition didn't change over the course of the 90s, the tone and content of the sourcebooks definitely did, going from fun and inspirational to dry, technical, and packed full of long stat blocks.

    This is why I can never fully refute my teenage fandom of Palladium; to this day, they continue to stand as examples par excellence of a distinct authorial voice.

    Speaking of GURPS, although most of the fourth edition books follow the patter of late-third edition books, I'm thoroughly enjoying the 4th edition of GURPS Horror; Ken Hite is one of the few designers out there who still writes in a distinctive voice. Take this nugget I just read last night: "Flare Pistol: This single-shot, break-open weapon is the best thing to shoot at mummies. Ever."

  15. I'd guess that part of the issue is the vast amount of awful writing advice given to folks in the business/science/etc. fields. Basically, non writers writing for non readers who imagine there is some way to be objective and keep thier own views out of thier writing and somehow that is a useful goal. Of course there isn't and it isn't.

  16. Mention of GURPS suggests another possible factor: the first games were the author's whole and original own creation: they weren't trying to emulate a genre or fit a product line or plug gaps in a publishing scheme - they were direct evidence of the designer's wild and crazy imagination. Later games were "an RPG about..." (often about an existing license/property, even with the serial numbers filed off), and that's a fundamentally different design task.

    Of course, Stormbringer might be the exception that proves the rule...

  17. There's some RPGs out there where a strong authorial voice is still present,though mostly in indie gaming. Best current "mainstream" example would be Luke Crane in the Burning Wheel book. It's all the more impressive in how well that style helps communicate what is a very crunchy system.

  18. Chris, here it is in a nutshell: most people can't write. Good writing is interesting and coveys information in a concise manner. Unless it needs flowery prose, then it does that, too. Using a lot of technical jargon that lacks soul is the sure sign someone was trying way too hard to appear "professional", and instead stepped into the realm of boring as hell. The idea that you can't inject humor is a byproduct of graduate school seminars that hammer into your head the notion that any sort of dry wit destroys the point you're making. It's the high school English teacher who finds nothing funny about Chaucer and only wants to focus on Ye Olde Englisheeee. Etc., etc. Thankfully, all the good writers ignore this stupid advice and just write however they want, cranking out the good stuff. All the hacks end up doing documentation for Microsoft Word.

    I'm not saying all the OSR guys are terrible writers, I just think they're misinformed about what make something fun to read. People can rant all f'n day long about wanting rules, not fluff, but I'd rather read Chinese stereo instructions than another lame ass roleplaying book. Case in point: HERO 6th. Steve Long is a lawyer by trade, and it certainly shows. The most boring rpg I own by far. Runequest 2nd edition by contrast is interesting, funny and does more in 90 pages than any rpg I've seen in the past 10 years. Take this however you will...

  19. I inject the fun into my games, not the rules, but I can see why some folks like to do it differently. That's no problem, I just have a different opinion.

    And my expressing that opinion is, by no reasonable definition of term, a "rant".

  20. I think Raggi's voice comes through in his LotFP rules as well as several of the modules. (Though I'll admit whenever I read his stuff I substitute my original death-metal Raggi voice for his regular nice-guy Raggi voice that you hear on the podcasts.) The history of the dwarves revealed in Hammers of the God is worth the prove if the module alone, just to give me ideas about how to think about a setting's history. And Vornheim has Zak's 'voice' in the text and the artwork.

  21. brain not working .... "worth the price of the module alone".

  22. I think the drift from authorial voice to none has more to do with the drift from one person wrote this to a team wrote this and someone else edited it to provide one voice. That process by definition removes the idiosyncratic flavor to avoid easy identification of who wrote what. Indie products are still written by a single person, so they still have the voice.

  23. Agreed on the clones and issues of the intimate audience but I also see scale bloat substituting for "flavor."

    The Necromancer Wilderlands box (2006) covers the exact same territory as the four Wilderlands pamphlets plus Map Book 6 from City-State of the World Emperor (1980) and multiplies the verbiage (brute machine count) from maybe 80,000 across the original five books to maybe 430,000.

    Over and above how the writers get paid, the theory is a bigger product is a bigger pot in which to brew richer ideas...and also a bigger price point to justify its shelf space.

    But does the "neo-classical" Necro box contain 500% as much "flavor" as the pamphlets?

    As others have noted, we see this in genre fiction, too. I blame the economics of Stephen King and now the Web for that, but that's a whole other mountain of paper.

  24. It's my belief that if my first contact with RPGs had been the Red Box rather than the Holmes edition, I would have given up on them right then. I picked up a copy of the Red Box from eBAy last year mainly to get the B1 module, but went through the rulebook out of interest. I was surprised by what an astoundingly dull read it was. Thank heavens for Dr Holmes and his "gonzo kitchen-sink charm," I say. Holmes opened the dungeon door, shouted "Adventure!" and kicked you through. The Red Box seems more inclined to stop you at the dungeon door and demand your paperwork.

    That said, authorial voices obviously aren't always a good thing. I never cared for Gygax's tone in the DMG, later to find full expression in his lengthy "I'm right and anybody who disagrees is an idiot" rants in "Role-Playing Mastery."

  25. Maybe the real question is “What does this game mean to you Mr. Game Designer?”. How do YOU use your shiny new game/setting/mechanic? As goofy as it may sound, maybe we’re asking for some autobiographical significance from a very personal piece of work. We all know that an author’s account of ACTUAL PLAY goes a long way to establishing theme and tone in his own game. That doesn’t mean I’m required to run things the same way, but it’s a great start to visualizing where the writer is “going” with his ideas. Barker’s Saturday Night Special “mini” dungeon descriptions were a gold-mine that got EPT “up-and-running” right away for me. Similarly, Chris Hogan’s gritty, black humor in SBVD was an effective way of quickly “painting the landscape” for the WHFRPG setting. Don’t just dump yet another rules-hack or subsystem out there, SHOW me what makes that game ROCK!