Why is that game text awesome?

edited February 2011 in Story Games
The prose that makes up so many of our games is often ignored. Sometimes it goes simply unnoticed, sometimes it gets dismissed as bad writing without any indicator given of what makes it bad. Game fiction gets casually (habitually?) dismissed as tripe.

I think there's thoughtful work put into a lot of game writing that goes unappreciated or unsung. Am I wrong?

This isn't about the rules, it's about the language—from the language of rules to the voice of fiction—that you love in your favorite game books. Go as far back into your library as you like or tell us what's great about your current favorite game. Help me understand what it is that you like about the way this game was written or the way that game was voiced. Do you think more games should do things the same way or are you talking about a lightning strike?

Specific examples ("Cyberpunk 2020's text helped me find my character's voice in a nanosecond; it had me talking like that game for a year!") preferred, but general likes ("I prefer games to feel like artifacts from the world where they're set") are welcome, too.

Comments

  • Man, I love love love the way The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth is written. For the most part is is very energetic and straightforward, but Steve Jackson drops in these crazy bits of color that are pure gold. The sandbox world, Cidri, was built by these lunatic precursors who stole whole civilizations and replanted them, providing for a kitchen sink excuse for whatever you want to make of it. And then he'll throw in offhand stuff like this - in the description of Orcs, Jackson casually mentions that they are the descendants of Eoanthropus dawsoni - Piltdown Man.

    What?

    Awesome.
  • Both Dread and My Life With Master really helped me understand how a game could focus on an experience and to filter out things the game is not about. They both talk about the genre of stories they tell extensively and the mechanics are almost a set of footnotes in a scholarly work.

    Both Leverage and the D20 version of Call of Cthulhu were masterpieces in the GM advice section. The writing of both really help a GM to construct fun scenarios in those games.

    Paranoia and Apocalypse World were both brilliant in choosing an infectious tone that pervades throughout the writing of every sentence.
  • Tatters of the King. It's a Call of Cthulhu campaign with much good and much bad, but where it works for me, it works because the language shows the author just Gets whatever the heck it is about Hastur and Carcosa that I love.

    Anything by John Tynes, I think. Back when he did Call of Cthulhu scenarios, he had this uncanny knack of touching on something in just the right way to creepy me out. Puppetland and Power/Kill were both fascinating thought experiments.

    Anything by Greg Stolze.
  • You guys took mine: I was going to say TFT for it's clarity, sure it's basically a board game but after D&D where one book said a turn is ten minutes and another book said one minute it was blessed relief.

    And then Paranoia because I actually laughed out loud reading it. Secret societies are treason. You are in a secret society. Mutant powers are treason. You have a mutant power.

    But, these days:

    Fiasco for its extended example.

    Geiger Counter Beta - it's like an easy-to-follow cookbook for making a survival horror story.
  • edited February 2011
    Posted By: Lisa PadolAnything by Greg Stolze.
    Cool. But why is that? What is it that Stolze's doing across all his works that makes you love them all?
  • Fiasco is the clearest, least ambiguous game text I have ever read.

    As of 2009, Mythender's demo scenario actually scripted each player's first moves in the game, and I really liked how that got me rolling during the limited con slot timeframe.
  • Oh, and duh, can't believe I forgot Lady Blackbird.

    Baking the rules onto the character sheets is awesome. Knowledge exists in the world.

    And the absolute minimalism - it has just enough to let you rock it and not a sentence more.

    And the layout and typography.
  • Polaris has a prose style that perfectly evokes the setting of the game; it may not be for everyone, but it's clearly what it is. I first read it on a snowy night, staying up too late to read every word as the world turned white around me.

    That may have influenced my adoration of the writing.

  • Paranoia is a good choice. 1st Edition, 2nd Edition and Paranoia XP were all extraordinarily well-written.

    The most obvious thing to say is: it talked in the way you're meant to talk in the game. And that's true. But what I liked was that it was very, very funny. I remember laughing aloud on the Underground. How often do you actually laugh out loud when reading a RPG textbook? Wonderful.

    It's also worth reading The Laundry. Although I haven't read much of it, it seems to be a natural heir to Paranoia (not a coincidence: Gareth Hanrahan links the two). Like Paranoia, it is a funny book, which both captures the mood perfectly and makes me laugh aloud.
  • Paranoia: [+1]. Hilarious books.

    I also found Poison'd rather funny (in an example, a player responds to the GM with a loving "Fuck you." More games should have that.) I think a kind of friendly, jovial tone works well for all kinds of games, even horror. It says, "hey, this is fun. let's enjoy ourselves."
  • I'm going to be Me Too Boy until I can think about this more.

    Love The Fantasy Trip and a lot of the Metagaming stuff that both preceded and supported it. I never got around to commenting on this thread, (I really should - I have a lot of thoughts on it), but check out the *world* that's birthed by that brief combat description from Melee/Wizard.

    Another +1 on Paranoia, both for humor and for text that gets players on board for a setting which has very few cultural touchstones relative to a lot of the other role-playing games we enjoy. I've purged my RPG collection three times and haven't dropped a single Paranoia book.

    I can echo Will's example of Cyberpunk 2020 and 2013, (whether or not he feels that way himself). Most of its supplements as well. Maybe there's a filter of nostalgia but those rulebooks influenced the way me and some of my closest friends talked to each other and thought about role-playing for almost *three years*. I attribute my shift from caring about a character's mechanical proficiency/effectiveness to their style/narrative potency almost entirely to those books and the way they were written.

    There are several people in this community who've disparaged rulebooks with lots of fiction. I mostly agree. But a little is totally fine with me. And flavor your rules descriptions with the essence of the world you're introducing to us? I'm yours, provided that world intrigues me. Sometimes it makes the book less useful as a rules reference, but it need not. Dry tomes that are perfect reference books are a significantly greater obstacle to me ever purchasing your game, much less getting it to the table than books with "too much fiction."
  • One of the few RPG texts that I remember really enjoying for its literary merit alone is John Harper's The Mustang. The text is packed with style and substance that is astonishingly cohesive (in my opinion). It's a great example of how to get the most out of every word.
  • I would add that Vx's conversational tone that pervades all his work has the delight of being entrenched the the genre, whether it be evangelistic pugilists, masked psychopaths intent on meat, or scurvy ridden paedophiles aboard a square-rigger. It all fits and immediatedly (for me anyway) immerses me the game, however uncomfortable that may seem.

    Luke Crane is another conversationalist, almost in a 'grandmaster of fantasy' sorta way. Like when your big brother showed you how to play D&D. (I was that big older brother!) His adventure burner specifically drums into you, almost like a pep talk, the tried and true ways of making your game sing. So listen up damnit!

    the original AD&D for Gygax's sheer enthusiasm for this badly edited game that mixed tactical miniature wargames and fantasy stories into this odd collection of mechanical miniuatea. I still really enjoy reading the introduction and preface to the players handbook. "this world is not complete, it needs organisers and adventurers to explore it. It needs YOU.' Awesome.

    Inspectres has a great immersive text too, along the lines of Fiasco, is well written and to the point, with great graphical overlay.

    I really liked the way Elfquest used excerpts from the comics to highlight the narrative situations that required implementation of the (runequest) rules. More rules should use comics, both as additional illustration for 'examples of play' (like in the Original Changeling) and to explain the rules too.
  • Posted By: Lisa PadolAnything by John Tynes, I think. Back when he did Call of Cthulhu scenarios, he had this uncanny knack of touching on something in just the right way to creepy me out. Puppetland and Power/Kill were both fascinating thought experiments.
    Amen. There is no text in all of gaming that packs so much evocative setting, and so much astounding innovation, into so few pages as "Puppetland". Every word supports the themes. Every illustration is note perfect. It is the ne plus ultra.

    MLwM is close, though.
  • (Quick aside: We played Puppetland for almost a year. With handmade puppet props and all. It's a great text, yes, and great in play, too. Those hour-long sessions seem to last forever.)
  • A Penny For My Thoughts! It's the only text I've ever encountered where I could go in completely blind (i.e. having not read it very closely) and play a fulfilling game within the estimated time-frame.

    We went from having no idea how to play to an exhilarating finish in under three hours! Extremely usable text--the layout is amazing.
  • Unknown Armies, 2nd edition. To my eyes it's best damn old school RPG book ever. The game gives you vast freedom about what to do with it, but the text itself is evocative as hell, filled with bits and pieces of background to steal and make yours, ideas for scenarios, skills, motivations, character concepts, groups to play... You can open the game at random and if you don't get at leat ONE idea for a session or a character, you must have got an full art page. Also, one of the few RPGs that gives advices to the players, too. They really took a good but usual indie game and turned it into pure gaming gold.

    HeroQuest. Tthe examples of play are all part of a big replay, with really well fleshed-out players who each exemplify a generic type of players (the loony, the combat buff, the high-colour roleplayer, the GM girlfriend, the casual gamer...). They also have a lot of common with the Darth & Droids gaming group : they gradually make their game theirs, the GM rolling with it and letting go more and more narrative authority (especially concerning the worldbuilding), and they show the game being better for it. It's really a great read and really gets me psyched to play it every time.
  • This is really informative, y'all. Thanks very much. Please do keep it rolling if you're so inclined.
  • HeroQuest.Tthe examples of play are all part of a big replay, with really well fleshed-out players who each exemplify a generic type of players (the loony, the combat buff, the high-colour roleplayer, the GM girlfriend, the casual gamer...). They also have a lot of common with the Darth & Droids gaming group : they gradually make their game theirs, the GM rolling with it and letting go more and more narrative authority (especially concerning the worldbuilding), and they show the game beingbetterfor it. It's really a great read and really gets me psyched to play it every time.

    Laws' (I think) text models good GM practice. In the course of their adventures the band of oddballs forms a functional partnership, support each other in becoming significant members of communities, and unite to undergo a dangerous heroquest. It was as if he were giving a series of snapshots from a series of heroquest games run by Stafford himself. I thought it captured the pastiche/goofing/real creativity mix that are the part of most gaming tables.
  • My pick is D&D4e Essentials. First, the trade paperback format really works for me. But that's more about an artifact than the text. As for the text here's why it's awesome.

    1) Bullet point agendas for both What Players Do and What The GM Does.

    2) A principled "Most Important Rule" that isn't a hand-wavey platitude about "having fun" or "being fair."

    3) A clear paragraph that says while D&D can not be "won" or "lost" in a finite manner it is a game about winning (i.e. playing well) and losing (i.e. playing poorly).

    Jesse
  • Posted By: Will HindmarchGeneral likes ("I prefer games to feel like artifacts from the world where they're set") are welcome, too.
    This is why I loved the old World of Darkness books. I remember being confused every time someone complained that the books contradicted each other without realizing that each book was written from the perspective of the books subject. They had a cool little unreliable narrator thing going on that I loved to play with.

    I also have a special fondness for the books they published that were intended to be actual texts from the game world. That shit made metaplot WORK for me by tying together those plotlines and gamelines into an evocative mythology seemed REAL in its own context. It felt like the game world was alive, not like the game authors were telling me what to do. Particularly "Days of Fire." There's nothing like an apocalyptic prophecy written and published by Satan himself.
  • Rather than seconding so many of the good suggestions given so far, I'll add Nobilis. The book is infused with fictional bits and descriptions that really make you feel as if the rulebook is a "best of" excerpt from a parallel world. And this is entirely due to Borgstrom's (Moran's) writing style. I've never managed to get an actual game together to see how it runs in practice, but I can't read more than a random page or two without really, really wanting to.
  • Posted By: nemomemeI can echo Will's example of Cyberpunk 2020 and 2013, (whether or not he feels that way himself).
    I do. I started with 2020, but I go back to that book or the boxed set time and again to look at the ways that text infused the setting into itself.

    Likewise, I have a real soft spot for Castle Falkenstein's curious voice, which cleverly positioned itself as both an outsider and an insider. The fish-out-of-water scenario is so common in fiction, so full of great touchstones, and yet we don't see it that much in RPGs. Players are almost always fishes in their game worlds, playing characters who are indigenous, and Falkenstein found a way to represent both the status quo of the world, the voice of that world, while commenting on it and letting the casual non-historian not-yet-steampunk fan in on what was what. Good stuff.
  • Sorcerer & Sword: It's fairly dry and academic in tone, but every time I read it I get excited to play. Ron's love for the source material (pulp fantasy) shines through and reminds me why I love it, too.

    The companion text, The Dictionary of Mu, by Judd, is also brilliantly written. It oozes style more than almost any other game text I've read.

    I have to be careful when I read those books. If I read them back-to-back, I'll want to drop whatever games I'm in to play S&S immediately.
  • I only mention three and leave out a lot.

    Most of the stuff I leave in my gaming shelf/hard drive is well-written, but here I list three different titles that have given me the same sort of kicks that good literature does.

    The Black Drop for Trail of Cthulhu. Colorful, cultured, rich prose that is also at the same time effortless. Because of my mad scheduling at the last con I was in I read it several times within a few days, and I never got tired of anything in it. Not only a joy to read, it was educating as well and really gave me everything I needed to play a condescending geologist NPC (and I know *nothing* about the subject IRL).

    Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium. Brutal and effective. The fiction is really awesome, and I usually loathe gaming fiction. It's got that some heart-pounding rhythm as L.A. Confidential's initial firefight.

    Lacuna disturbs the hell out of me and gets my mind racing by suggesting a lot of stuff and leaving out more.

    v
  • My first thought on seeing the thread title was Robin Laws' HeroQuest 2e. He's very clearly an incredibly good technical writer, and he would make George Orwell proud (for any of you who haven't read his Politics and the English Language, I highly recommend it). Laws' has a very direct writing style, he says what needs to be said and no more. This makes it actually somewhat harder to read all the way through than other texts, but it also means that the lower page count has a lot more content than you would expect. His writing style isn't enjoyable to read, in the same fashion as David Pulver's Transhuman Space, Technomancer or Centauri Knights - all of which richly describe the setting and the history of the game world - but his purpose is clearly to convey technical information, and I think he does it better than anyone else.

    HeroQuest 2e stands out as much for the way in which it is written as it does for the quite innovative approach to character generation and narration.
  • I'll throw Misspent Youth into the ring as my current favourite. Unlike a lot of books with a "conversational" tone, MY's tone is genuinely conversational, not an affected voice that sticks out like a sore thumb. It swears a lot, but it swears in a natural, realistic manner (and Rob swears a lot in person ;). Likewise, when it shares advice, it genuinely sounds like a friend confiding a tip or two.

    It also duplicates all of the (very thorough and useful) chapter references in the back of the book, which is awesome. The game is easy enough to remember that I'm pretty sure I can run it from them most of the time, and this way I don't have to flip back and forth through the book (or print them all out) to use them.
  • I love how the shattered mind set of Lacuna spills into the rules and graphic design of the "manual." Before running it, I read it over and over until I could sustain a high functioning paranoid freak out state which I then projected into the game. There's almost a sense that there is a danger inherent in even playing the game, a J-Horror mind virus reconstituted from a hard drive someone had tried to destroy with a jackhammer.

    The presentation of the Shab-Al-Hiri Roach also comes to mind. A gradual escalation of whimsical dread pervades the book and directly informs the game.
  • Oh, I forgot Dogs in the Vineyard. The fact that "you" is always the player, "me" is always the gamemaster and "him/her/them" always the characters was a mind-blowing editing idea if I ever saw one.
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