The Reading -> Parsing -> Playing cycle

edited December 2008 in Story Games
Inspired by Andy's thread about parsing over here.

So, I buy a game and it grabs me through some combination of color and mechanics. Awesome.

I read it, fast and furious, just noting things as I go. Once I set up a time to play it, I give it another read, a more in depth read, sometimes taking notes or, if need be, posting any questions for the creator to answer.

Then we play. Yay! And if it is a first time playing or if something felt wrong, we'll talk about it so we can figure out if the mechanics need changing, if this isn't the game for us or if we just botched up some shit that we can correct next time through correct application of the rules.

So, my parse to play cycle is hopefully fast. Sometimes a game will sit on my shelf but once it is off, I re-read it with play in mind and then go to it. So, for me, parsing is at best a re-read of the text and at worst a re-read and then conversation with the creator (barring the creator via e-mail or their forum, someone who has played the game).

How about you?


  • It depends. Like, with the game I'm currently learning (Burning Empires), it's been on my shelf for ages. I've read lots about it on the net, I have friends who are BW fans, but I just haven't felt up to reading and understanding all those rules. Now we're going through the game, as a group, specializing on different areas. I've started a campaign with the explicit purpose of trying to learn and understand the game. It's a study group, sort of.

    Usually, though, I buy a game, and if it grabs me when it arrives - like, if it has ideas that I've wanted to explore, or does something weird I want to see how works - I call some friends or post a note on a forum, and set up a game as soon as possible, before I lose momentum. A day or two, a week.

    I read the game rules, check out some info on the internet, read some parts again, print out whatever I need. Skim through it on the train on the way to the game, think about how I want to run or explain it. Envision play situations that could arise ("what if I do this, but player X says such and such... hang on, there were some rules for that somewhere"). Try to find out what gray zones aren't covered by the game.

    Play is sometimes magic the first time, like with Lacuna. Sometimes it just crashes and burns totally. Usually it's somewhere in between, and we sit around talking about what was cool and how it could be played - or designed - better.

    If the game works, or I can make it work, I might come back to it. PTA, Shock: and Dogs, for example. But I'm a huge neophile, so a lot of good games don't even get played - let alone replayed.
  • Judd,

    For me, parsing is about more than actively engaging the text when it is in my hands.

    Dogs in the Vineyard spent a lot of time on the back of my mind. Why?
    Because when I first played it, I made this guy who was a fundamentalist who just flipped out and killed someone early on.
    I was pushing for tragedy and destruction.

    I lacked the expectation of emergent properties, maybe. I presumed I had to (actively) GET the story to that point, if I wanted the story to be there.

    I spent a lot of time passively contemplating the system (in the big sense of the word) and trying to wrap my head around the idea that things might emerge from play without guided, directed, goal-oriented pushes in a certain direction.

    Parts of Dogs mystified me. I parsed them on the bus. I parsed them when I noticed my friendships had taken different form without my actively trying to make them. I parsed it without reading.

    Sometimes I read AP and stuff Vincent had written.

    It took months before the key components of Dogs clicked for me (emergent properties, fruitful void, why "taking the blow" was a brilliant mechanic). There was lots of parsing going on while I wasn't reading the text or preparing to play.

    I'd say the same has happened for a few other games.
  • I am in two groups. One is more designer-y and games get passed around and read, and I can rely on my friends to help me master a new game, because we're all neophiles like Judd and into picking a new game apart. The result for me is that I don't stress rules mastery too much; there will be four of us ready to suss out any problems. So zam! The cycle is fast here.

    My other group isn't really excited about trying something new every third week, so on the rare occasions that someone brings something new for us to try, that person makes a point of having mastered it as best they can so that they can be a resource at the table. This usually takes the form of one-shots that then enter our repertoire if they are popular. We could definitely drop 3:16 or Zombie Cinema at any time now. This cycle is a little bit slower but not much.
  • I grab onto something either threw play (generally con play for demos and the like) or threw watching other people talk about games (not actual play reports which i find dreadfully boring and not helpful so nyah). Two of the most recent reading/parses/play have been for 3:16 and maids. 3:16 i got a copy of and have read a few times and made a few characters for but don't really have a hope in hell of finding a group for. Maids I got a copy and being slightly sold on that whole 15 mins til your playing thing, and gm as not gm thing I got parsed and tried to go from aquiring to play in about 15 mins. I had mixed results, the gm was a lot more trad than I was expecting based on what people where saying (oh arbitetor of favor and master of the fate) and we did have characters done in less than 15 mins which is something. The gameplay was something maid like , but we will be , older and wiser, playing in a bit.

    that's my experiance,

  • edited December 2008
    My typical cycle:

    0) I usually look at FAQ and heated rules threads prior to acquiring any game. I make note of any specific issues in play that seem to attract a lot of chatter. Some issues feel like deal breakers immediately.

    1) Give the book one quick read-through, front to back, to get a sense of the game's shape in its entirety.

    2) Go back and read specific system chapters. Work out the procedures solitaire-style if I'm fuzzy about how things lock together.

    3) Set up a "let's see what we think" session with players I think will like it. I've gotten fairly good at fitting people to games, and have enough players available that I have a nice variety.

    4) Look at the session afterward and pay special attention to the spots where we ground to a halt, or removed ourselves entirely from the play experience. This happens more with my designer crew because that's when we start trying to pull apart design intent. I think we assume that all games are fundamentally flawed in their text, and that by understanding intent we can see past what may be misleading text and find answers. It happens less with my non-designer players, but when it does it's usually in a "this sucks, I'm not having fun" kind of way.

    5) I go back and give the book its second cover-to-cover read-through. Inevitably I discover things that seemed small/ignorable the first time through are actually vital procedural instructions. Oh how I wish there was a way to alert designers in playtest to the THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT AND I DON'T THINK YOU REALIZE IT bits.

    6) I pull together a "serious" session, typically with the same players. I share my re-readthrough revelations and make sure everyone's on board with the current understanding of the rules. Since I've got the firmest grasp of the actual text, I very much facilitate with a teaching agenda: I'm the chess teacher playing a teaching game, typically walking the players through their choices and helping them make "good" decisions.

    7) I go back to the text after the first "serious" session and give specific rulesy sections very careful readings, with two sessions' worth of play under my belt. I usually figure one or two more important procedures that make sense only with some actual play context to explain them.

    8) We have our second "serious" session, starting with the "lookie what I found!" talk again. This time, the players are expected to have the rules internalized enough to make their own decisions and advocate on their own behalf.

    Spelling this out in atomic detail, what this tells me about myself:

    * Learning a game is very much a group process
    * Internalizing the system requires playing a few times in an uninvested way
    * Teaching the game is a great way to learn the game
    * Playing any game well requires everyone at the table have internalized the basic shape of the rules, if not the details and exceptions
    * I've never learned an RPG of any length or style with one reading
    * We've never gotten a group up to speed and ready to play in an invested way in one session

  • The play cycle for me is entirely determined by my group, it has zero to do with what I have read, when I read it, or whether I understand it. I can get as psyched about something as I want, but it's my group that determines when I get to play it.
  • For games I'm considering running, usually I skim it first; character creation info and the basic game rules, first and foremost, and then setting info. I try to skim the fluff, but usually just end up skipping it if it's more than a paragraph long. (Sorry, aspiring novelists, but you're just wasted pages to me.)

    If I like what I got out of skimming it and think I still might want to run the game at some point, I'll actually read the character creation and rules sections in more detail. If I liked the setting, I'll probably read that, too.

    If it still sounds good to me, then I'll dick around with the game mechanics by myself, trying to get a feel for how they work. When I think I'm about half dialed-in on that, I'll start writing up a cheat sheet for the mechanics -- a couple of pages summing up the most important mechanics or the ones that would be a hassle to look up later on.

    After I've done that, I'll pitch it to my group. If it's still sounding like a good idea, I'll finish and pass out the cheat sheets, we'll sit around and talk about the game, do character creation, etc., which is usually one full session right there, if not more. Then we'll actually play it. (Most recently, I've been thinking about adding another bit in between there for unfamiliar games, a sort of "tutorial session" where we demonstrate the rules in play through little disconnected vignettes outside the "real" game.)

    For games I might be playing in, I don't do a goddamn thing until I'm sure we're actually playing it. Then I usually rely on the pitch, pre-game discussion, and the GM's cheat sheet (oh, we all do a cheat sheet in our games, it's practically required now) to lay out what I absolutely need to know, and I'll only go rulebook-diving if something comes up in play that I think I need to understand better.
  • I buy a game. I read it lots of times, on the train. At some point, I move from reading to thinking: could I run this? What do need to know to run this? Then I check those specific points.

    Sometimes, I'll rehearse slightly. Let's say there was a fight, what would I do? I'd compare Profiles, then we'd roll Brinkmanship. Then whoever is losing gets the option to...wait, what happens on a tie? And then I go back and check.

    On our Wednesday night games, Steve will often have read the same game I have, which helps.

  • When I'm going to play or run a game, I submit it to a pretty rigorous breakdown. I sit down with the rules and make a diagram of the procedures, how they flow, and how they're related. This is essential for me to run a game, even if I've run it multiple times in the past. I can't parse the game quickly enough during play if I don't have my diagram.

    If I'm going to run it, I go looking for APs and good forum threads to find out the "secret wisdom" that's not in the text.
  • Posted By: JuddHow about you?
    I read books while flopped out or at the 'puter, relaxing and visualising possible play, with the book there for reference.

    If I get a thing-that-looks-good? I start sketching situations, ideas for actually playing that good thing, and ways to get it, using the book as my basics. Sometimes I can't see a way to get to that thing in my head with that book; if so, I hack it into existence, or just mentally reframe the book as grist for the mill.

    Sometimes I get the idea, see how to make it happen, and play, bang-bang-bang. That's pretty neat, when it happens.

    If that doesn't happen, I don't really sit around and parse. I feed the game to my internal mill, and keep moving; the bits come back out as needed, and sometimes pull me back to the game with an actual, play-this idea.
  • edited December 2008
    1. Read about it on the internets. Includes forum discussions, blog posts, actual play, homebrew material, whatever.
    2. Read the book, cover to cover. The first step already gave a good impression of the game, so this step is more focused around details.
    3. Read more discussions and material.
    4. Reread, this time noting what I missed in the previous readthrough and what needs to be memorised or (ugh) referenced in play.
    That's it. The second reading may include skimming of, say, spell lists or similar boring and repetitive parts.
  • Posted By: joepubJudd,

    For me, parsing is about more than actively engaging the text when it is in my hands.


    It was your post in the original parsing thread that inspired me to start this thread. You stated that you had been parsing Cold City for one year and Sorcerer for two. Part of me wanted to say, "You are done parsing! Play!"

    Could you talk about that kind of extended parsing a bit more?

  • My experience is very much like Thanuir's:

    I'm a slow reader.
    What little reading time I have is usually dominated by tech manuals, Japanese reading materials (screenplays, manga, etc) or hard SF. I just can't cut through an RPG manual like I used to, especially given the Slow Reader thing.

    On top of that, we've usually got a set order in my regular gaming groups. Frex, in my bi-weekly/most active group, we usually do a campaign for 4-12 sessions, then move on to the next game. We usually have a list of "what the next game is" (in our case, the next game will most likely be Matt G running Castle Falkenstein or a playtest, followed by me running Vampire), so I know about how far ahead I have to be prepared. There's off-scheduled fun as well, locally in this area a lot of us meet up on weekends and the like here and there for campaigns lasting a few sessions (or massive ongoing things, like Eric Provost's Shadowrun hack which we play on and off over a looooooong period of time).

    So given all that, what tends to happen is that inspiration strikes: I gave Hellas a skim and it set off fireworks, so I'm currently busting my schedule up so that I can run it a few times over the holidays. I played the VtM: Bloodlines PC game, and that made me really want to play a Vampire game again, so I'm currently reading through the material, determining how much is the very minimum needed to get players feeling the game (and from there, determining if I'll run it on the bi-weekly games, or set up weekend games, etc).

    When I actually do the reading, I tend to skip around a lot. I basically totally read the text out-of-order in order to strike upon some inspiration, then dive from there. I find it really hard to read from beginning to end like a normal book. Ex: In Vampire, I've been skipping around like a schoolgirl, basically diving only into areas that sparked an interest in me right at the start (The Daeva clan, the Invictus group, some of the Glossary terms, etc), and further skims fill out the world around that.

Sign In or Register to comment.