Monday, 22 June 2015

Innovative Reading Experiences

Astonishingly, there is a well-informed article in the Grauniad about role playing games. It makes some questionable arguments, but I like the last clause of the whole piece: "in these days of the mega-novel, innovative reading experiences are to be found in the mysterious worlds of the RPG."

I'd never really thought of it in those terms, but he's right. I have deep and abiding misgivings about writing in most modern RPG books, which I think often has this weird smarmy vibe about it that I find it hard to put my finger on but really dislike. (It's something I've discussed previously; I'm nothing if not repetitive.) But the best examples are just that: innovative reading experiences - often more readable than novels, more imaginative than the creatively-bankrupt fare that makes up the average fantasy series, and put together in interesting ways. My own particular pantheon of greats - the RPG canon, if you will - comprises Cyberpunk 2020, Amber Diceless, the Planescape stuff that Monte Cook wrote, the Mentzer BECMI sets, and probably Changeling: The Dreaming (which feels very teenage nowadays, but is still really nicely done). Possibly also MERP. And the 2nd edition AD&D Monstrous Manual, natch. I can still sit down and read those books and feel inspired, but I also think they are each, in their own way, masterpieces of what the article refers to as "ergodic literature". They take something ostensibly dry and unreadable (a load of rules and info-dump, which is what an RPG book is when boiled down to its essence) and turn it into something that is the precise opposite.

It's a bit of a shame there is no real discussion in RPG circles about how to write effectively and well. My feeling is that RPG writers tend to do one of three things: adopt an ill-advised over-conversational tone; become bombastic and po-faced, as if trying too hard to sell you the game or setting; or make too much of an effort to be literary. But that's a completely unfair criticism, because you could probably lay all of those flaws at the doorsteps of various items from the 'canon' I listed above if you happened not to like them. And yet it isn't very satisfying to just conclude that "some have it and some don't"; any skill can be taught, and anybody can improve a skill if they work at it. Maybe that is itself the issue - working too hard on rules and not hard enough on writing both effectively and inspirationally?

11 comments:

  1. Four things, add the dry adenoidal-voice-from-behind-the-screen "You see here a dais.On it a statue looms (9' tall) of a giant demon. It has red jewels for eyes worth 3000 gp each..."

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    1. I don't mind that, necessarily, because when well done it is at least efficient. It can be boring, but I prefer boring to irritating.

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  2. I'm not sure I've ever seen an RPG writer actually improve (though I've seen them write better rules than they used to)--so I kinda feel like the best way to do it is to point to good examples rather than go "Listen, kid, write like this"

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    1. Well, that sounds like a job for a blog entry...

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  3. I could be wrong, but I think most RPG writers are making naïve-art, just doing their thing. Some are great, some are terrible, and they sit at that point. Maybe being aware that writing is something they are definitely doing, and that they can improve, is the first step to doing it.

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    1. Yes, I think that's probably right.

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  4. Writing a good RPG book.

    Step 1: Don't try to write like Gary Gygax.

    I've never seen anything as incomprehensible and messily written as his rulebooks for AD&D.

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  5. --it isn't very satisfying to just conclude that "some have it and some don't"; any skill can be taught, and anybody can improve a skill if they work at it.

    That sounds plausible but in reality you are contradicting yourself. Skills can be learned and improved upon in proportion to the degree that "some have it".

    I am amazed at the rubbish you have selected as evidence of 'inspiring' 'masterpieces' of good writing. BECMI? You goofball. There is no one outside of Gygax, Jaquays, Phil Barker and Greg Stafford who wrote well.

    Gamers are not literary folks, to be honest they are lazy, impatient and dull witted. They want information simplified and they want it now. You only have to look at the average reading level, in terms of literature, 12 year olds?? There are objective standards for that going back more than a century.

    Why should a good writer waste his time on such an audience? Writing effectively for a given audience is hardly the same thing as writing well.

    All the best.

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    1. I'm not saying those RPG books are masterpieces of great literature, you goofball. I'm saying they are masterpieces of "ergodic literature". In other words, they are exceptionally good instruction books. Nobody should expect an RPG author to write like Proust, but they can certainly succeed or fail on their own merits in accordance with their own goals.

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    2. ok, I get you. Yeah I still remember as a kid burning through Mentzer Basic in a few days in bliss. I do think, at the other end even in gaming, if you are trying to convey very strange ideas to readers you need to be able to write very well and even have something of a personal style.

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  6. Could you expand on what you mean by making too much of an effort to be literary?

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